Madeline Ostrander on how your home will change with the climate

The Seattle author's new book 'At Home on an Unruly Planet' highlights how communities on the front lines of floods, fire and other disasters are finding resilience.

a person wearing a pink shirt looks at the camera. there is a body of water behind them.

Madeline Ostrander, author of the book At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earthwhich explores how climate change is changing our relationships with what ‘home’ means, as the places we feel safe deteriorate, photographed near Alki Point, July 28, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Our homes offer a sense of safety, of belonging, of meaning. But as the climate crisis bears down, the places we call home are changing, leading to an existential crisis many of us have not fully acknowledged. Whether we acknowledge these changes or not, the pace of climate change will soon force us to. 

Seattle-based journalist Madeline Ostrander has spent years examining this reckoning, spending time with communities on the front lines of climate-related disasters like floods, rising seas, wildfires, oil refinery explosions and more. She’s discovered that the ways we usually talk about climate change — carbon footprints, international policy, polar ice caps — don’t always spur us to action. 

“All of us can relate to the idea of home, and a lot of us are feeling alarmed about how climate change might affect us at home,” Ostrander says. But many people feel overwhelmed and unclear about what actions they can or should take. 

They might find direction in Ostrander’s new book, At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth. The book, published Aug. 2, is a bible of sorts for the alarmed. In narratives that span the entirety of human history, Ostrander weaves a collection of stories about people who’ve already felt and responded to the effects of climate change at home. She intersperses those stories with reflections on the definition and purpose of home — and how recognizing what we look for in a home can help us stay resilient as “home” fundamentally shifts. 

“I wanted to give that audience a sense of power that they could act on, in the place where they live, and [know] that they can make an actual difference,” she says.

Ostrander spoke with Crosscut about what she learned from her reporting, and how it’s affected her own relationship with home in Seattle. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you began reporting out this book, what did home mean to you? 

It's a little bit complicated for me, because I've moved a lot. I think that's true of a lot of people. And maybe that's part of my interest in the subject: I feel like I've searched for, or longed for, that sense of rootedness, and I feel like it's been a little elusive. But I think that I have built it here in Seattle, and I think it comes with time to some degree. 

And I think it also comes with building a relationship with your community, and also with a place around you. I mean, I think people in a lot of places, maybe not Seattle, underestimate how significant the relationship with the landscape that you live in is. And that really is super important to your sense of who you are and where you're coming from.

You start this work in the first person, from a place of emotion, detailing your own experiences with home and what climate change already means for it — and you highlight your sources’ emotions, too. How did you arrive at this kind of delivery?

I've been writing about climate change for a long time, and when I started working at Yes! Magazine in 2008, it already felt very visceral to me. I actually would have moments when I was riding the bus around Seattle, when I would think in a very visual way, like, what will this place look like decades from now? Where will the water level be? What will happen when it's hotter and drier? And what will that mean? And it was kind of a strange, eerie feeling, especially because I didn't get the sense at the time that very many other people were feeling that way. 

And I guess I felt fundamentally like people [who aren’t on the front lines] were missing what climate change was about. We were having all these abstract conversations about climate change as a thing of data, as a thing of melting ice or as a thing about policy where we needed to reduce our emissions for future generations or something. And we weren't getting to it as a question about how do we protect the things we care about? How do we protect the places we live in, the communities that we care about? 

We don't give people an opportunity to feel all those feelings and really prepare themselves, and to find that kind of motivation and internal fire to take charge of something they personally care about and want to do something about.

How much have people’s perceptions changed since then? 

I've had more conversations with people who I don't normally engage in a conversation about climate change with, like, my dental hygienist or a person who's adjusting my glasses at the optometry store. Because I mentioned that I've written a book, and then it turns into this conversation about climate change. And I noticed that people will be really interested. 

People really want to talk about climate change right now. But they're also fascinated by the idea that we can talk about it in a way that is relevant to them, that it's not just some future concern. For some people, that's still a revelation that these impacts that we're seeing now are part of this, you know, big global issue, and we can do something about it.

Being able to imagine a different future is a big theme in your book. How did you home in on imagination as being this make-or-break thing for whether communities are able to survive, if not always thrive, during change?

Consider Richmond, California. It’s at the edge of the Bay Area, and has a significant proportion of BIPOC residents — a historic Black community, especially – and a lot of immigrants. And it's also situated around a 100-year-old refinery that actually predates the existence of the city. Richmond went through this experience of having an industrial boom in the 20th century, like so much of the United States, and then a kind of crash in the mid-20th century, and a period of a lot of poverty, white flight, a lot of neglect and a real sense of disempowerment. 

And with that came a loss of community cohesion, and I think the ability to imagine that the place could be something else — a place where people could be healthy, could feel safe. And the person whose story I followed there, throughout the book, is a woman named Doria Robinson, who led this urban gardening organization [Urban Tilth]. She began to realize that bringing people together and reimagining what a community could be was really powerful. And that as you did that, more people would start to speak up, would come together and find each other and would start proposing solutions. And eventually, people were asking the question, why do we have this huge refinery in this community? 

And once they started asking that question, you know, that led to a lot more protests and a lot more demonstrations. And then they had a massive refinery accident in 2012, which produced a big fire and a lot of pollution. And the community was, you know, united enough to really come together and say, something needs to be done about this. And can we really reimagine what this community would look like beyond oil. 

And I think it's stories like that, which have felt really vivid to me. 

You point out a lot of ways that traits common to Americans, like individualism and some of the home ownership and capitalist sensibilities that come with it, can grate against certain solutions that climate-resilient communities practice, and some of the more resilient perspectives on “home.” What is it about these traits that leads to this? 

I think we have a lot of ideologies around capitalism, around consumerism, and around the ways that we imagine people behave, that are super individualistic. And I think that defeats, in a lot of ways, our ability to act on climate change. 

We often talk about wanting people to think about minding their own little carbon footprints. And I'm not going to say that there's no value to that. But I think that’s not a terribly empowering thing to do. From a collective standpoint, if you want to make people healthier, or if you want to make them do something about climate change, we really have to think about this as a community-wide thing.

I don't necessarily want to judge people who worry about their property values … but I think that when we focus purely on real estate, I think that that leaves out a lot of dimensions about what's really valuable about a community. 

You spent some time reporting out this book in Indigenous communities that are not only vulnerable to climate impacts, but that have cultural knowledge of ways to live in balance with the environment. What has your reporting taught you about other ways to live with nature?

I think one of the fundamental lessons of the book that I really wanted to drive home is that having a home is also about having a relationship with an ecosystem that you live in and with a place that you live in, which, again, is another flaw about the real estate idea. 

On the Colville Reservation in Central Washington, I spent a lot of time with Cody Desautel who's the natural resources director there. And I also spent time interviewing some survivors of wildfire. 

One of the practices, of course, that Colville uses very extensively and that is also used by a lot of Indigenous communities going back many, many generations and thousands of years, is prescribed fire — bringing fire back onto the landscape, and really tending the landscape in the way that you might tend your backyard. It’s part of an idea that is really fundamental to a lot of Indigenous communities: that we need to tend to the places that we live in and think about that in a broader sense than just our immediate space that we live in, but the actual community in the place and landscape that we live in.

What is it about relinquishing control of nature in American society, to instead tend to it, that is so key to learning to live well? 

I think some of it is about understanding that there are limits to our desires. I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said by this moment, but we have treated the world as if we could endlessly produce energy and make convenient products that we could buy. The idea that you can have everything you want suggests that you could control the outcome of everything. And clearly, that's not the case. Climate change, in a sense, is a result of our inability to perceive that we can't control everything. 

I would also say that we are entering a period of more and more instability, and we're all feeling it. Of course, you know, COVID is not necessarily an outgrowth of climate change, but climate change may put us in touch with new kinds of pathogens or disease vectors. We're going to see other kinds of threats to deal with and I've noticed how often people are not equipped to think about the unexpected, and to realize that they can't easily deal with an emergency or that they have to be willing to adjust to that emergency. 

A lot of the communities in your book feel deep cultural ties to places and seasonal cycles that are changing in concerning ways. What did you learn about how accepting losses, or some degree of loss, affects people’s ability to cope? 

I think that if you don't recognize loss, it probably goes into some subconscious terrain that eats away at you in a very uneasy way. 

Glenn Albrecht, who's an Australian scholar and philosopher, coined this term “solastalgia” to talk about this sort of loss, or homesickness, that we feel when the place that's familiar to us starts to feel less familiar or damaged because of climate impacts or other kinds of impacts. 

He originally coined the term to refer to the impact of coal mining, but, when we do acknowledge loss, and we start naming it, you start finding other people who are also experiencing those kinds of feelings — grief, anger, anxiety to some degree, concern and frustration can be connected. And I think that those feelings can, you know, really ignite us and bring people together to take action. 

How did it affect you as a reporter to learn and write the stories of people working to stop, or adapt to, climate impacts in their communities? 

I would say that those stories make me more hopeful. I sought out and wrote about those people who were doing really powerful things where we live. And I think that anyone can do those things. And I think that that may be how we have to tackle this crisis is that we have to start from the ground and build upward. I'm not going to say that communities can do it all by themselves, but I think we have a lot of power in the community.

Has seeing the way that so many communities are responding to climate change given you new eyes on how your current home of Seattle or more broadly, Puget Sound, seems to be reacting to or preparing for climate change? 

I wouldn't want to claim that Seattle is perfect or has it all figured out. But I would say that I think, overall, the city has done quite well with having a conversation about climate change. We've made some real commitments to emissions reductions, to go carbon zero by 2050. 

The city is actually actively planning for things to do with adaptation, with sea level rise, with how to help residents that are most vulnerable. I do think that it could be a challenge, perhaps for the community to continue to get buy-in from people and to continue to articulate why we should want these measures. 

And I think you've also written about this, but like people, for instance, get especially defensive about things that affect cars, and parking. And, you know, of course, one of the things that the city needs to do is encourage more transit and lower the footprint of our collective transportation. I think that it could be effective here locally to continue to remind people that we're doing these things because we care about Seattle and we care about Puget Sound.

What are the biggest lessons you hope to get across in this book? 

I don't come out and put them in bullet points, but one is: Having a home is also about taking care of it, taking care of the ecosystem that we live in. And if we're going to make it through this period of increasing instability, that's a lesson that we all need to hang onto. 

Another is that having a home is partly collective. The thing that will really keep us safer and more secure is to have a connection to the community and to be able to organize responses to crises in those communities. 

I think a third lesson is that we just need to be ready for this period when things are more unpredictable, and what that means for us personally, and that's hard. 

I think the fourth thing is that we have real power in building community, and that we don't necessarily have to wait for a federal grant to do something about climate change. And that may be the most important lesson of the book, really.

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