Climate Tipping Points and Reckoning

We are close to the climate tipping point. Lots of people are talking about it. Others are ignoring the shit out of it. Do we hit it at 1.5C, and are we going to be there in 5 years, as the headline told me this morning? It sure does feel like it, with this ongoing wildfire smoke inhalation sore throat and my homeland of New England being devastated by flash flooding and everything else.

What is the tipping point, how irrevocable is it, and what’s the bottom of that curve? Not the end of all life on earth. That’s not on the table. Humans aren’t that important. We are the sixth mass extinction, not the last, and it’s hubris to think otherwise. The end of human life? I really doubt that’s on the table, either. But I begin to see a lot of treatments of those ideas, in Reckoning submissions and elsewhere. And the prospect of it is so horrific to me—the prospect of people contemplating it, even more than the actual prospect of the end of all life on earth, honestly, because the one is immediate and has immediate consequences for people and life on earth right now, whereas the other is a concept, abstract—that it begins to present something of a problem for me as publisher and nominal helmsperson aboard the ship Reckoning. What we do after the tipping point doesn’t interest me nearly as much as what we do now.

What does Reckoning do after the tipping point? Become a horror mag? That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as far as the work of bringing new literature into the world is concerned. But the potential looms large for a Reckoning in such a world to become something I can no longer commit to, and which therefore must either leave my hands, become something different, or go the way of extinction. I don’t want to be a publisher of climate fatalism. I don’t want to speculate about burning this planet to the ground and abandoning it. I want to speculate about fucking saving it.

I can and do ask people—all the time—not to submit writing that subscribes to the idea of giving up. And we sure do reject a lot of it—more, lately? We also publish plenty of work that does engage with the idea that there could be a point of no return, and the emotions that proceed from it. It’s a fine line, and we will continue, as long as we’re able, to try to refine that line, to recognize and elucidate the ways human beings need to percieve and engage with the concept of our end in fire and flood and drought and pestilence because of the actions of an entrenched, omnicidal few, in order to go on struggling forward against them and in conjunction with all other life.

But it sure is hard, sometimes. And getting harder.

Satan’s Kingdom Revisited

Powisett Peak on a November noon, looking west towards Worcester and Mt. Wachusett

My process of decolonization is ongoing. I’ll never get to the bottom. Every time I come home there’s something new.

The thing I didn’t acknowledge or accept about the nature where I grew up, until this time, this Thanksgiving visit, until I went away, missed it and kept coming back, seeing the contrasts in more and more nuance: it’s a barren. Pine and oak barrens scraping out a living on top of a bedrock desert. The ecosystem anything but diverse. Red oak, white pine, lichens, blueberries, some native shrubs, and introduced species everywhere. The land I thought of as the forest primeval, the source of all nonhuman life and of my personal pseudopagan spiritual practice, the landscape that taught me to be in awe of nature: no colonizers wanted to farm it or live on it, no colonizers could farm it. It was swamps, thorns, boulders big as houses. They tried, while they were terraforming the rest of New England to look like old England, but they failed completely here, were appropriately embarrassed at themselves, and left and didn’t come back until their children’s children’s children started using the waterways to power cottage manufacturing in the early 19th century. I don’t know, but I imagine the poor Puritanical homesteaders taking possession of land they’d been assigned to work in God’s name, quickly realizing they’d been had. And they called it Satan’s Kingdom.

Eventually, industrialized progress enabled them, us, to drain and dam swamps, blast boulders, build quaint Cape Cod colonials with English lawns right in among them, according to an aesthetic based on an entirely other and irrelevant climate, from which to accumulate wealth and go on expanding that same aesthetic on a scale amounting to terraforming from that day to this. I showed up on the scene in the middle of that, and growing up, I watched the woods I’d imprinted on get smashed and replaced with mcmansions, I’m still watching it, there is no end to this process. And I thought myself oppressed, I thought, why are they doing this to me, shattering my world. It wasn’t my world.

The awful thing to contemplate is, when you do it with enough money, centuries old money, it’s beautiful. I drive from my mom’s house to my sisters’ and am boggled at the quaint picturesqueness, the timelessness, the occasional retired horse, the dam waterfall, the farm stand where fruit costs an arm and a leg, the insurmountable wall of wealth that constitutes the lifestyle rolling by. And it is this wealth, in combination with all those forbidding boulders, that makes it possible for land like the desert of crags recently rechristened Sen Ki, “Land of Stone” in Wampanoag, to remain unbulldozed, unterraformed.

SE Michigan, where I live now—the place that enables me to see the contrast—is an unrelenting grid of concrete disregard for anything inhuman. Soft, flat, fertile soil, nothing to be bulldozed to make way for low-rent human habitation and enterprise but trees, which can be sold. And by the time that was happening, the East Coast old money was already established, could not be challenged or dethroned. The flabbergasting art deco opulence of the wealth of Old Detroit is a reaction to that. There was no natural beauty left unpaved, so they–auto barons, rail barons, lumber barons–reinvented it, in an aesthetic that was a shadow of a shadow of the old world idyll.

And that aesthetic, and that ethic, is what we’ve got now, what we’ve got left. Solarpunk descends from art deco. Let’s remake beauty and functioning nature out of the shit left over from destroying it. But let’s see it clearly.

The concrete grid of southeast Michigan is ugly as shit compared to the granite-impregnated old money fake pastures of suburban Boston, but it has ten times the diversity of tree species alone.

November sunrise over Twin Pine Hill. Spoiler, there are more than two pines. Wish I knew or were qualified to assign an Indigenous name

Publisher vs Editor-in-Chief

I am the publisher of Reckoning, not the editor-in-chief. A couple things happened recently to make me want to emphasize that distinction and talk about why it’s important.

I used to be the editor! I’m really proud of those first two issues where I got to do that work. I found it incredibly rewarding. It’s such a different, richer, more creative and collaborative experience than merely reading submissions, which I’d done for a couple of other magazines beforehand. For writers who’ve established themselves a little, if you’re at all interested, I recommend it. It crystallized what I wanted out of my own writing. It showed me how to talk about writing with writers in ways no amount of workshopping had.

But it takes up a lot of writing time. And you burn out, or at least I did.

So I pulled back from that role, both to give myself a break and to give others the chance. Reckoning has been about community-building from the start, and working closely, creatively, with others is the best and most rewarding way I’ve found to do that. I’ve learned so much, individually, from editors Danika Dinsmore, Arkady Martine, Leah Bobet, Cécile Cristofari, Aïcha Martine Thiam, Gabriele Santiago, Priya Chand, Octavia Cade, and Tim Fab-Eme, as well as long-time staff and (I hope) future editors Giselle Leeb, Johannes Punkt, Catherine Rockwood and Andrew Kozma, and all our staff. They are each, individually, brilliant. I’ve gotten to know them as people, I’ve gotten to know their work, how they work, what they love in a piece of writing, what they love in the world. Through them, I’ve expanded my understanding of what environmental justice and climate writing can be, what activism looks like, how humans can be interconnected with the rest of the natural world, who gets to be responsible for bringing about all of the above, and why. (The essay I’ve got out in Solarpunk Magazine right now has a bit more about this.)

This was part of the original idea: learning, getting shown where I’ve been wrong. And there was one other thing: I wanted Reckoning taken out of my hands.

I didn’t even know what environmental justice was not so long before I started. Quickly, though, it became obvious: the voices we need to hear aren’t mine. Everybody’s heard plenty from people who look like me, from Thoreau and John Muir down to David Attenborough. The trouble is, practically every single person directly responsible for the world’s environmental injustice looks like me, too. It kind of undermines one’s credibility.

Back in 2015 I consulted a couple of indie publishers I trusted, asking for advice. They were all white men. One said to me, if you’re going to invite a bunch of strangers to take editorial control of something you created, you have to accept the possibility that they’ll take it away from you completely, make it into something you couldn’t have foreseen, didn’t intend, something you might not even like. And I thought, not without a little trepidation: that sounds amazing. That is exactly what I want. I’ve been trying to figure out how something like that would be possible ever since.

So why didn’t I seek marginalized folks to take on Reckoning right away, instead of waiting two whole issues? I did, actually, though not terribly exhaustively. She said no. She was way ahead of me, too busy completely altering her career path to teach environmental justice thought and writing at a university level. But when she turned me down, it made me realize I wasn’t ready to go asking other folks for help. I wasn’t exactly a nobody, I’d guest-edited one environmental issue of LCRW—but out from under the auspices of Small Beer, I didn’t have a track record. There was no reason for anyone to trust that I wasn’t out to exploit them, use their identity and their work as a mask for my lazy entitlement. And I didn’t have nearly enough money to offer anyone to make that worth their while.

This is why I ended up seeking editorial staff from the pool of people I’d published. They already had my money, they’d seen the product, they knew I was serious.

Reckoning’s first editorial staff came together, and they gelled. It was amazing to see: they were joking together, caring about each other, stepping up to support each other, and arguing fiercely about what the work should be.

Once it became obvious that it had worked, that these wonderful people—wiser, more talented, different from me, with things to say that the world needed to hear—had invested in the idea of Reckoning, in evolving and improving it and learning together, I saw how I could begin to pivot away from making creative decisions towards supporting them, helping to find more people like them. We’re still in that process. It’ll be awhile, yet. I’m still the voice of the editorial “we” on twitter, for example, though I’d love that to change. I’m still doing everything I can behind the scenes, up to and including a little editing as needed, and I’ll keep doing it as long as that’s needed. “I am where the buck stops,” I keep telling everybody who wants to join us, until it begins to feel like it’s losing it’s meaning.

It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say! All my own writing has been about this for years now: trying to figure out what I can add to the conversation, to the cause, without stepping in front of the people my kind have been stepping in front of since Columbus, to the massive detriment of every life on this planet except a tiny subset of our own. But I would in no way be able to undertake that effort in good faith if I didn’t have the Reckoning community, its editors, staff, contributors and readers, to teach me. And I want to give them credit. And all the room they need to do that.

Giving Julie C. Day’s series of charity anthologies its own imprint, Essential Dreams Press, of which Julie can be both publisher and editor-in-chief, is a step in this process. The Dreams series has been entirely Julie’s idea and her work from the start—it just happened to fit in with Reckoning’s mission well enough we saw a way we could support her in it, and she was kind and appreciative enough to want to give us credit for that support. But the credit really ought to be hers.

So I’m the publisher of Reckoning Press, not the editor-in-chief. Reckoning’s budget is still mostly my money. Maybe that’ll change? I hope so. I hope I’ll keep fading further into the background. Maybe, hopefully, others will take over the twitter, the layouts, the contracts, the budget. But I’m not trying to push those things off on anyone, because I think of them as the boring part, the work that isn’t fun or creative or transformative. I don’t mind doing those things as long as it’s needed, as long as we, Reckoning, can keep putting out beautiful, diverse, surprising, aggressively heterogeneous, mind-expanding, consensus-building creative writing and art on environmental justice.

The part I do want to keep doing—and I hope I can without getting in the way of the rest of it—is being part of the community.