Peter Friederici has a history in these pages. In 1987, the Chicago native—then a recent Northwestern University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and no clear path to a career—got hired as a Reader editorial assistant. He spent two years in that job, working under editors Michael Lenehan and Alison True. Now an established environmental author and a professor at Northern Arizona University, he credits those two years with teaching him how to be a journalist.
“Chicago was an endless source of stories, and proofreading every week was a great way to learn to write and edit. You see what everybody’s doing—it’s a little bit like seeing everybody’s dirty laundry—and you see how things can be improved,” Friederici recalls. “It gave me a potential outlet, and the Reader had that wonderful freedom—you could write about something that most people would view as obscure.”
A hefty piece on the demise of prairie chickens and another about a walk through the Volo Bog are representative of numerous stories he contributed to the Reader during those years, and subsequently as a freelancer. Concern for the natural world has been a through line in his writing, some of it done during a seven-year stint as a field biologist; at NAU he teaches rookie scientists how to better communicate about their work. His latest book, Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope, published this fall by MIT Press, is a sweeping and often eloquent 143-page essay on our biggest and most neglected problem: this overheating planet, “our own Frankenstein.”
In brief, the greenhouse gases that industrialization has released into the atmosphere are destroying the stable climate that’s made human existence possible. We’ve known this since at least the 1980s but have failed to do anything significant to halt it. “[W]hat is the matter with a society that would willingly destroy its own future in this way?” is the question Friederici addresses.
His answer is unexpectedly literary and deeply political. We need to change the story around it, he says, starting with the nomenclature (“breakdown” rather than climate “change”) and extending to the highly individualistic Western cultural narrative that shapes the way we think about our country, our government, and ourselves. This is not an issue any one person is going to be able to fix, no matter how dutifully we recycle or how often we bike instead of driving—though we need to keep doing those things too. Climate breakdown is a problem that requires collective action at the federal and international levels, and, Friederici says, that’s going to mean shedding our entrenched myths of heroic individualism.
Arguing that individualistic narratives are inherently tragic and that tragedy entails foregone conclusions, he says we need to “step out of the yoke of the narratives whose comfortable weight we have allowed to settle on us over centuries,” including the extreme free-market ideals that grew out of the postwar period, and find more open-ended, “regenerative stories” that link us to something even older: the closer connection with nature (and each other) characteristic of many Indigenous cultures.
“Just providing more facts to people seldom makes much of a difference,” Friederici says by phone from Flagstaff. “Especially when we start talking about challenging topics like climate change—or vaccination. We’ve all seen that play out in recent years. However much good information is out there, it’s really hard to change minds and practices.
“The 2015 Paris Agreement set a limit on warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius [above the base level set in 1880]. Beyond that, things are going to get exponentially worse. We’re already more than two-thirds of the way there, and our greenhouse gas emissions have not slowed down. It doesn’t look promising.”
He concludes the book with a few reasons for hope, including technological innovation, the pursuit of legal liability for fossil fuel companies (which have profited by degrading the environment while promoting climate-change denial), and “the rapidly growing engagement of today’s youth.”
But, he says, “So much damage has been done already. We can have a climate breakdown future that’s really bad, or we can have a climate breakdown future that’s less bad. Where we have the choice is how bad do we let it get, and how creative do we get about solutions.”
“We stand on a knife edge of history,” he writes, “still able to choose a path better than that of inertia . . . ”