Daniel Sherrell’s epistolary climate memoir, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World, begins with an act of self-immolation. We learn that in 2018 a man named David Buckel set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, stating in his suicide letter that his was “an early death by fossil fuel.” In relaying this shocking event, Sherrell sets forth a question: How can we grasp the immensity of our collective crisis (“the Problem,” he calls it) without falling into despair or denial—or both—in the process?
The answer, not surprisingly, is anything but simple. To try, Sherrell writes to a hypothetical child, his chosen vehicle for future focus, for responsibility, and for hope. A climate activist, he tells his story of recent climate-related events: of Hurricane Sandy pummeling his grandmother’s Far Rockaway apartment complex in 2012, of organizing a sit-in at New York’s Albany capitol as part of a coalition called NY Renews (where “one or two of us tear up and the tears are real, embarrassing though we will them not to be. But it still feels like we are staging a play”), of the promise and subsequent disappointment of the United States’ involvement in the Paris Climate Accords.
At one point, Sherrell explores queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory on the gap between knowledge and reality, how “it is possible to know something for months or eons and never realize it.” Such, Sherrell argues, is the crux of the Problem: Most of us know it, but do we realize it? Do we feel it? This isn’t a matter of semantics, because writing from within the Problem—a hyperobject, he proposes—is different from imagining you could somehow observe it from the outside, which is how so much climate discourse has been conducted to date. And wrestling meaningfully with this gap is, in the end, what Warmth both attempts and achieves.
Sherrell borrows rather heavily—both in form and in metaphor—from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me. Invoking Coates’s notion of Dreamers (in Coates’s text, white people who can’t or won’t recognize how prosperity for one might be built on the oppression of another; in Sherrell’s, those who deny or fail to address the Problem), Sherrell drives home that our fates are intertwined, that there is no checking out, no escaping to Thoreau’s Walden. To pretend otherwise, he claims, is to hide within the Dream.
Sherrell acknowledges that the Problem is not proportionate, although it someday might be. There are the Dreamers in Coates’s original sense—mostly white, mostly affluent people who have not yet been displaced by increasingly inhospitable weather cycles and rising sea levels, who are not the ones currently paying the bulk of the Problem’s impossible price. Sherrell relays the desperation of small island nations in the Global South who plead with the rest of the world to remember that they exist, and he revisits the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where nearly two thousand people died in New Orleans, many of them Black and waiting for rescue that was far too little, and far too late.
There is also hypocrisy, of course, and this is something Sherrell readily acknowledges. At one point, he describes flying to Australia to participate in a Dreaming walk with the Goolarabooloo, an Aboriginal clan that attempts to stop the development of a gas plant on their land. To get there, he “would now need to take two carbon-spewing flights across the Pacific, exacerbating the Problem I’d intended to address.” Yet, this same trip helps Sherrell dismantle the notion that we should look to indigenous communities to save the rest of us, to assume that they are “forever static and pristine,” and it helps him to give us Warmth. And then there is the familiar hypocrisy in considering bringing a child into a possibly dying world.
In some ways, the task Sherrell sets before himself is undoable, not the least of which is because the child he writes to does not, as of his writing, exist. He is, to his own frustration at times, bound by words, and the act of describing something forces an inherent outside-ness that runs contrary to fully living it. The Problem is everywhere—a hyperobject—but everything-ness can be discussed only in terms of something within. A Problem we all own and that implicates so many of us becomes embodied in the harmful policies and shortsighted profiteering of people like Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump. Language as insufficient container is hardly a new conundrum—ask anyone who’s tried to distill religion, the scope of the cosmos—but it is especially fraught here, where the Problem is as ubiquitous as the warming air around us.
Ultimately, what Sherrell offers is not a directive to hope or to despair; Warmth is simultaneously more humble and more ambitious than that. Instead, this is a blueprint for realizing, for learning how a person might gain clarity on a phenomenon that is so ever-present that it is almost invisible until the waves are at your door. To that end, Sherrell goes light on statistics—this isn’t An Inconvenient Truth, and it’s less persuasion than it is a reckoning. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Sherrell struggles to reach his grandmother in Far Rockaway, whose phone lines were severed in the storm. He writes:
I remember feeling a sense of muted shock: Something long-anticipated was finally happening. Not just happening, but happening to us. The Problem had jumped out of the screen and into my grandmother’s living room. . . . Even still, it was hard to make myself believe it.
This, ultimately, is how Warmth addresses its own question, not with a pat answer, and not with more arguments aiming at convincing the not-yet-convinced. A great number of us, after all, are plenty convinced already. Instead, Sherrell leaps into Sedgwick’s gap (a chasm, really) with all the vulnerability and complexity that implies, laying out the hypocrisy and the numbness and the despair and the hope and the uncertainty and the culpability—all the mess of trying to live simultaneously within and outside of the Problem—and asking an altogether new question: What now? Warmth is delicate at times, brutal at others, but it is always thoughtfully rendered, and often beautifully so. Giving up, Sherrell posits, is cousin to denial, but perhaps it’s possible to reframe the conversation for the sake of our collective future, to look more closely around and within. We’ve tried knowing; it’s now past time to realize.
About the Reviewer
Nicole VanderLinden’s fiction appears in Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Epiphany, Shenandoah, and elsewhere, and in 2020, Lauren Groff selected her story as the winner of the New Ohio Review Fiction Prize. She serves as the fiction/nonfiction book review editor for Colorado Review, is a reader for Ploughshares, and was recently awarded a Tennessee Williams fiction scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in Iowa City and is finishing her first novel.