On the latest episode of Crossroads Cafe, I spoke with Amanda Quaid, a writer, actor, voice artist, and environmental activist whose work explores the joys and challenges of living in the modern world.
Our interview happened on November 7, the day Joe Biden was officially confirmed as the winner of the 2020 election. All around NYC there was a sense of buoyancy, and you might hear people screaming with glee in the background of the recording.
Biden ran, in part, on a campaign that stood in stark contrast to his predecessor’s: He promised to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves.
He also promised to prioritize the people who are most often harmed by climate change, which include poor communities and communities of color who are most often subject to environmental racism that takes the form of power plants, pollution, natural disasters, and an inability to flee crisis zones.
Activists are skeptical, knowing that facing the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves will require extreme action at a scale not seen since World War II. But on the other hand, the climate movement has gained massive grounds over the past few years, as it’s connected with other movements and a collective vision for social change that’s taken hold of people across the globe.
As an activist with Extinction Rebellion and a writer whose work explores climate change, Quaid is part of those movements. She is, among many things, the writer of the libretto for The Extinctionist, an opera that tells the story of a woman considering the morality of whether to have children in a world where devastating climate change is a reality.
Writing about climate change—an immense and complicated topic that often feels far-removed from daily life—is a challenge, but it may be more important than ever. When asked about the intersections between storytelling and climate, Quaid referenced Paul Klingsworth’s idea that we need new stories (or perhaps very old ones) in order to reimagine and heal our relationship with the land and ourselves.
Klingsworth, like many of the writers we referenced in this podcast, is a harsh critic of what he calls the “myth of progress.”
“Probably the central story of our culture — which I think has replaced a lot of the religious stories that used to be at the heart of our culture — is the story of progress,” Klingsworth said in an interview with Emergence Magazine.
“One of the dangerous things about the story of progress is that we don’t think it’s a story. We think it’s the truth,” he said. But to continue to progress, we’ve been sapping our planet’s resources without giving anything back. Now, we’re seeing the fallout in the form of natural disasters and a lack of natural resources that will only worsen exponentially if climate change continues unchecked.
“We need new kinds of myths as a culture,” Quaid said, “because the ones that we’ve had, that I grew up with, that there was endless progress and that had to do with technology, and that we were separate from nature — All of that is a story that we tell ourselves,” she said. But she believes storytellers can be part of the change.
Storytellers determine “the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world,” she said, and stories shape “the kind of stories that we tell ourselves about what progress looks like.” And of course, storytellers “[shape] people’s imaginations in a way, because if you can’t really imagine it, you can’t work towards it.”
When asked what some of these new stories and myths might look like, Quaid mentioned a change in the way we think about the place and purpose and humanity itself, a shift towards seeing ourselves as part of nature rather than separate from it. In a world where many of us are taught that we’re above animals and nature, and that we must constantly make progress while extracting and accumulating as much as we can, that’s an extreme shift — one that will take new languages and new narratives to actualize.
Some of the answers lie in looking outside of ourselves and our human ideas of what constitutes progress and looking to nature (and by proxy, deeper into ourselves). “Working to change the way we talk about the more-than-human world…It’s difficult when we don’t have the language and all of our structures are built against it,” says Quaid.
But in the era of COVID-19, which has sparked radical shifts and doubts about the way our world is currently run, perhaps we have an opportunity to “wake up to the fact that we are all so interconnected and interdependent on each other,” she said. “It’s not a new idea, but it’s something that’s viscerally come to the surface for me.”
Now that we can see how “our systems really aren’t built to sustain or support that…not yet,” as Quaid said, perhaps we can start working towards building a world that can actually sustain all of us.
Writing about climate change is, of course, no easy feat, but it can be immensely powerful. In another essay, Klingsworth describes writing as a form of magic or alchemy, which, in turn, is an almost religious path.
“Words can burn their readers through transformation into some strange new vision. They can cast a spell. They can summon things: ideas, notions, images, other worlds. Other beings,” he says. “In times like these, we are all in the process of transformation, and so is the world around us. The Great Work, the magnum opus, is the work we are all engaged in, whether we know it or not.”
In my interview with Quaid, we spoke about many of the people who we feel are telling the stories we need — Joanna Macy and her Work that Reconnects, the novel The Overstory, and the Indigenous peoples who have long practiced this wisdom and who are leading the way in the fight for our future.
With her plays about talking clams, her librettos about the morality of life itself, and her deep sensitivity to the nuances of living, Amanda Quaid is certainly doing her part to contribute to the Great Work of our lives and the new stories that will shape the collective futures of all life on Earth. This conversation is a window into her process.
Listen to the full conversation below: