What's Tony Thinking

At Home On An Unruly Planet


Our book group reconvened last Sunday evening, continuing our current series on Climate Change. This month’s book was At Home On An Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on A Changed Earth by the science journalist, Madeline Ostrander.

What happens after a climate change related disaster vanishes from the headlines? How do people recover, pick themselves up and make home again, or do they? Ostrander focuses on four stories of people and communities doing that.

One is the Washington State communities effected by the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014. Another is the Alaskan village of Newtok, which was forced to move because of rising sea levels. The third is the California Bay Area city of Richmond, which has long been dominated by the huge Chevron refinery there. The final story is the historic towns of St. Augustine Florida and Annapolis, Maryland — both threatened by hurricanes and storm water.

How have people in these communities adapted and responded to the the threat of fire, rising sea levels, floods and fossil fuel generated pollution of the air and soil? As a journalist Ostrander dives deep into each community, getting to know key players, who are not usually elected officials, but citizens who want to rebuild not just their homes, but home in a deeper sense as a place of belonging, memory and community.

That points to the other aspect of Ostrander’s fine book, its philosophical side. Spliced into the four case studies are more reflective chapters exploring the questions, “what is home? What makes a place home? Why do some people stick with their home even when it is threatened or severely damaged.” I liked the combination of journalism and philosophy that Ostrander weaves.

In this vein, Ostrander explores the difference between “the home of possession,” which values home in mostly economic terms. This is a home as an investment, a nest egg, your home’s value on Redfin or Zillow. But there’s also “the home of meaning,” which cherishes place, belonging and togetherness.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but by and large the people who rebuild and transform threatened communities understand “home” in larger than economic terms alone. It is their sense of the deeper meaning of home that drives their efforts to recover in the face of the unruly planet.

Ostrander was able to join us, via Zoom, from the Boston area where she is on a fellowship at MIT. She made the observation that we are a culture that is accustomed to control, but that we are entering a time “when things are uncontrollable.” Some may believe they can insulate themselves from the planet’s unruliness with wealth and walls, but that, suggests Ostrander, may prove an illusion.

One of the things I liked best about her book is her capacity to see how complex all these things are. On the ground in places like central Washington and Richmond, California, it is complex. The local heroes are people who persist in rebuilding and adapting in the face of complexity. In the end, these are people driven by love. Love of the land, communities and people that are “home.”

For those who are looking for hope amidst the the challenges of climate change, Ostrander’s book is a good place to look. No rose-colored glasses here, but she does offer stories of resilience, and of how people in challenging circumstances are coping. In some cases, they are coming up with solutions and innovations that make home not only  more safe and more humane.

Moreover, rather than disasters resulting in an “every man for himself and devil take the hindmost,” Ostrander chronicles stories of disaster bringing people together building, and rebuilding, community. That does not mean, of course, wishing disaster on anyone or place, but it does suggest that we humans aren’t quite so selfish or isolating as one might sometimes think and fear.


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