Sustainability: A Love Story

By Amy Brunvand

Who could resist a love story about sustainability? Walker’s previous book of personal essays, Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013) is about watersheds and growing up in Salt Lake City with an alcoholic father. Her new book is about family and living with the existential threat of climate change. It opens with the author sipping wine on her porch in Flagstaff, Arizona fretting about drought and the probability that wildfire might consume her house. “We have to move,” she tells her husband in a panic and he responds, “What are we going to do? Spend our lives chasing water? What will we do for jobs?” “I know. I know,” Walker writes, “But isn’t staying some kind of suicide?”

It smacks of privilege to imagine being able to outrun climate change, but nonetheless it’s something many of us have lurking in the back of our minds. How bad is it really going to get? Will I be able to keep my family safe? Can I sell before climate change undermines real estate values? And if I’m really so worried, why am too paralyzed to do anything about it?

In any case, Walker knows how shallow she sounds. “It’s hard to make an impact,” she writes. “No one wants to listen to a short blond woman who is mostly a hypocrite anyway, who eats cows, drives a gasoline-powered car, who owns no solar panels tsk tsking them.”  Nonetheless, as far as sustainability goes, she’s trying as hard as any of us. She has a rain barrel and an extra bin to recycle glass. She plants milkweed for monarch butterflies, worries about the welfare of farm animals and nags her co-workers to turn off the lights. She calls herself “Judgy McJudgerson” for giving the stink-eye to a man idling his Cadillac Escalade in the school parking lot. At Sam’s Club she quarrels with her husband for buying paper towels, shouting, “The planet’s going to hell and you don’t care if it’s scorched and burned for your kids. Sorry, kids, get another planet.”

Walker says her book is about “how one person’s sustainability is another person’s suicide…. our comfort trumps our knowledge.” She writes, “Sustainability has a ring of lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed about it. Let’s sustain what we have now. No one wants to make that many changes.” By “no one,” of course, she means no one who is comfortably middle class.  “In America, white people usually get what they want,” she acknowledges. “You want paper towels to wipe down the counters? Here’s a tree.”  When she gripes to her husband about the wastefulness of bottled water, he points out, “People on the rez don’t have taps.”

Though she visits some dark emotional places, Walker’s voice is human and funny. She imagines a fantasy Portland, Oregon as an unattainable utopia of watery, sustainable perfection. Of Utah she writes, “It’s harder in the desert. The lovables are farther and fewer between. Scarcity makes every living thing, even living dirt, lovable. Living dirt, the kind where the cryptobiotics knit the soil into the earth, does not turn to a sandstorm. It does a lovable and good job of staying on the ground.” This kind of wry insight makes me want to read more. For one thing, Walker’s interior dialog sounds a lot like what goes on in my own head. For another, as a fellow Utahn I do in fact find cryptobiotic soil lovable.

Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker

(Ohio State University Press, 2018, 284 pp. )


—Amy Brunvand

This article was originally published on April 1, 2019.