How will humans live through ecological collapse?
In ‘Believers,’ Lisa Wells profiles ordinary people who want to lead less destructive lives.
“The end of the world” is a slippery concept; writing the phrase, I feel the need for quotes to avoid giving the impression that I can define it. It makes sense, then, that the ways we deal with the prospect of doomsday would vary. In Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World — the nonfiction debut of Lisa Wells, a poet and essayist living in Seattle — the author writes, “If we imagine that our civilization is already in collapse, the question we are faced with is this: How, then, shall we live?” Her book is a direct response to major ecological issues — increasing carbon emissions, declining biodiversity, thawing permafrost — but collapse is not really the focus; rather, it is “the backdrop, the central prophecy.”
Prolonged thinking about the apocalypse can inspire hefty, extensively researched books on how the crisis will affect our species and others (The Sixth Extinction and The Uninhabitable Earth among them). It can also plunge a writer into fatalism. But Wells merely edges up to the cliff, using her eco-anxiety and grief as a starting point to examine how different people reckon with planetary catastrophe.
And yet, there are no survival bunkers or billionaire isolationists in this book. Instead, the Believers’ eight chapters introduce us to “relatively ordinary people” with a shared belief “that their inherited way of life was destructive.” Most of them are based in the Western United States. Wells spends time with Finisia Medrano, an itinerant transgender woman who traveled the Western backcountry by foot and horse for decades, living off the land and planting as she went. In the woods of northwest Oregon, Wells studies with a wildly impressive tracker named Fernando Moreira, whose attention to detail leads her to consider our habitual disconnection from the natural world. In New Mexico, she meets with a group of Mennonite rewilders. In Paradise, California, she discusses devastating wildfires and the role of humans in ecosystem restoration.
Believers is digressive and its scope broad, the book’s many threads tied by Wells’ appraisal of environmental damage and repair. She’s largely successful in this intertwining, although some storylines are better executed than others. A chapter that fluctuates between a reconciliation ceremony in Taos, New Mexico, and a mental breakdown on a trip to Philadelphia feels off-kilter. (Sometimes, the language itself feels circular; while reading, I underlined a sentence that struck me. When the same sentence appeared 10 pages later, its repetition felt more accidental than intentional.) Still, Wells’ prose, rooted in her poetry, gives her a unique advantage when writing about living through this unstable moment in history, “feeling the tenuousness of all we take for granted.”
Read the rest of our book review at: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.7/ideas-books-how-will-humans-live-through-ecological-collapse