Energy Writer of the Year, 2018 – Nathaniel Rich

The American Energy Society selects Nathaniel Rich as the Energy Writer of the Year, 2018, for his article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” (New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018). The 31,000-word piece weaves together a narrative about the years 1979 to 1989, a critical ten-year period when there was a great awakening in science, politics and industry that rising greenhouse gases posed an existential threat, and the disturbing realization that the awakening didn’t turn into action. Accompanying aerial photographs and videos by George Steinmetz offer a vivid documentation of the long-term outcomes from this inaction. Tucked into a prodigious amount of material is the story of the key figures who turned climate change into a major political issue. In the late 1970s, few Washington officials knew much of anything about global warming; by the end of the ‘80s, President George H.W. Bush almost signed a United Nations treaty to address it. Mr. Rich writes with gripping, novelistic detail, and he captures both the comedy and tragedy of scientists struggling—and failing—to shape the political sphere.

According to Eric Vettel, President of American Energy Society, “The topic of energy in 2018 captured the attention of many talented writers and the AES editorial board had to consider a number of worthy candidates. What sets Mr. Rich’s work apart and makes him the clear choice for “Energy Writer of the Year, 2018” is his balanced, contextual treatment of a highly controversial issue.”

In recognizing Mr. Rich, the AES Editorial Board recognizes the necessity of addressing some of the criticism directed at Losing Earth: “This powerful essay should have earned equally thoughtful criticism, but instead, tired arguments, particularly from the center-left, fixated on the absence of an identifiable antihero. For instance, The Atlantic Monthly, founded by legendary existentialists who were not afraid to look inward, piled criticism on Mr. Rich by pointing out a list of villains they think are to blame for the changing climate, apparently unaware that their own periodical was founded as a counter to such overly simplistic thinking.”

Responding to the criticism, Mr. Rich has to choose his words carefully: “The story received an “enormous” … [pause] … reaction. I haven’t seen anything … [pause] … the brunt of the criticism seems to be, ‘why didn’t you write about the …[pause] … cartoonish level of villainy,’ … [pause] … but that wasn’t what was going on during this period. It’s a lot harder to generalize about this period than it is today – it’s important to not fall into these patterns.”

Many critics of Losing Earth miss the point of the essay entirely: the thesis is uncomfortable. Human-kind has been destroying the environment since the dawn of history. The more recent problem is scale: big organizations, big markets, big impact. To say that Mr. Rich should have narrowed his focus on specific antagonists, or a political party, misses the point of the essay, and the overarching problem. Mr. Rich’s unique contribution is the nuanced way that he grapples with the deeply disturbing idea that we are all to blame, that humanity itself is complicit in the earth’s destruction. We cannot let ourselves off the hook by blaming climate deniers, capitalism, Big Oil, the Republican party, or some other popular bugaboo.

There are many ways to summarize the problem that Mr. Rich effectively captures in his thought-provoking essay. Mr. Rich himself has noted that “the level of political will required to initiate action in a substantial way is really lacking, and I guess in that sense, political will is human will. We will have to get there eventually because of the level of devastation that is coming….  If we understand the nature of the problems and our own limitations – personal, social, political – we will then be able to grapple this in a serious way at the level required to initiate major transformation, because transformation is coming, one way or the other.  The only question is how involved are we going to be.”

Perhaps it is most apt to compare the present existential crisis to Thomas Jefferson’s equally upsetting remark about slavery – one of humanity’s first great crimes: “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”  Mr. Rich is telling us not so much of what to let go, but that perhaps it is time to start thinking about the prospect of letting go.

 

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

by Nathaniel Rich

New York Times Magazine

August 1, 2018

 

About Nathaniel RichAn alumnus of Yale University, where he studied literature, Mr. Rich is the author of many essays for Vanity Fair, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Slate, as well as novels such as Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) and non-fiction books like San Francisco Noir, which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of 2005.

About George Steinmetz:   Born in Los Angeles, Steinmetz graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Geophysics in 1979. His current work focuses on photographing the world’s deserts while piloting a motorized paraglider. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Smithsonian, TIME, and National Geographic magazine. He is also the author of four books, including African Air, which feature portfolios of his work in the African deserts.

Previous winners:

 

– 2017:  Meaghan O’Sullivan, Windfall:  How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power.  Meghan O’Sullivan is the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

 

 

– 2016:  Mark Mills:  Shale 2.0.  Mark Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and faculty fellow at Northwestern’s McCormick School.

 

 

 

– 2015:  Coral Davenport, The New York Times.  Coral Davenport is an energy and environment correspondent and a fellow with the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting.

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