Laura Kiesel is a published journalist, essayist and poet. As a journalist, she frequently covers the topics of climate, energy and the environment and has written for The Street, Al-Jazeera America, BioScience, Salon, Orion, E Magazine, Science, Earth Island Journal and InsideClimateNews.com. She holds a Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental policy from the University of Vermont and a Bachelor’s in English and journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
How do you see poetry and journalism as similar? How are they different? Does your work in one genre inform your work in the other?
Both are ways to tell a story.
Poetry is a more artistic outlet and form of writing than journalism. Whereas with journalism you are usually exploring the hard facts of a topic––the who, what, where, when and how––poetry goes deeper into the emotional and even spiritual implications of whatever themes or topics it is exploring. And while there exists more literary or narrative journalism that can implement poetic devices, I unfortunately haven’t had much opportunity to write that kind of journalism.Sometimes my work in one genre will inform or complement my work in another, mostly in that both contain an inherent sense of the importance of justice and both can wax polemic at times.
How does your background in biology inform the way that you approach the world?
Having an educational background in biology has offered me a keen awareness of how closely connected everything is and how delicate that connection can be. Since I know erasing a species from this planet can set off a domino effect and cause entire ecosystems to become unstable or unravel (whether from the top down or the bottom up), or that there is no “away” when disposing of items, I have tried to live as low impact life as I can for an individual living in an urban area of the United States. Many of my life choices, from becoming a vegetarian to abstaining from using certain products/chemicals and trying not to purchase new electronics or clothing is inspired by what I learned about biology either through my schooling or independently.
Do you have a story about water or climate change that you would like to share?
A few years back I went to the annual conference for the Society of Environmental Journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and the keynote speech was on water scarcity in the coming decades. There must have been at least 50 tables with five or six places at each table. At each place was a pre-poured glass of water. Only about half the chairs were taken, which meant that all of that water was dumped right out afterwards and went to waste. It seemed the height of hypocrisy and drove home to me how we still don’t quite get how deeply we have to change and start walking the talk.
On a larger level, here in the United States our carbon emissions have been going down, but this is mostly because we have had a natural gas boom and NG has a lower carbon footprint than coal or oil (at least at the stacks). Yet, most natural gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses enormous amounts of water in the process. So, the argument of natural gas is the more sustainable choice is a myth as it is hugely resource (specifically, water) intensive while also being very polluting to groundwater resources. Our dirty energy choices combined with climate change are seriously threatening our water security in the near future. I’ve been so inspired by the threat climate change and our energy drive has on water, I am currently at work on a young adult dystopian novel about a world where water is rare and is rationed called “Thirst.”
What is the role of writing and storytelling in the push for meaningful measures to address climate change?
People do not usually react to an issue in a meaningful way unless it is made personal for them. Writing about climate change and putting a human (or in other cases, animal) face can help people relate and understand the topic not as something abstract but something that impacts them personally and emotionally. Otherwise, climate or our environment is perceived as an “other” — something separate from us rather than what we are part of.
You might find this blogpost of mine relevant to this question: http://survivalwriter.blogspot.com/2010/09/lessons-from-literature.html
Do you believe that the solution to this problem lies inside or outside of the political system?
Yes and no. On one hand, I think that like any major movement that has occurred in history and required a huge paradigm shift (civil rights, women’s rights), there will need to be a strong social uprising in order to confront climate change on the level we would need to to make a dent in averting its worst impacts. This would take nothing less than a large-scale and cohesive grassroots movement that occurs from the bottom-up. And like with civil rights, this movement will need to push a very reluctant political system to pass strong legislation to enable action on climate change, because individual changes (even in the aggregate) will not be enough to address it since we need to restructure our entire society and the way it does business. I think we’ll need to get a lot of the money out of politics before we can achieve this, as the system is too entrenched in the interests of the fossil fuel and agribusiness lobbies. Also, I just don’t think our current capitalistic economy is compatible with creating or maintaining a sustainable society. An economy based on unlimited growth and inflation does not make sense in a planet with finite resources and a carrying capacity (of which have already far exceeded ours by pushing countless other species into extinction while we crowd them out, hunt them to extinction or build over/pollute their habitats). I believe we would need a steady state economy to achieve climate stability. We need to learn to truly live within our means, and that might mean giving up things we don’t want to like cars and plane trips to other parts of the world or eating hamburgers on a regular basis.
How do you respond to people who don’t believe that climate change is an issue?
It depends on the situation and the context. As an online journalist/columnist who frequently reports on climate/energy issues, I am often the target of climate deniers in the comments section. Initially I tried to engage some of these commentators in a meaningful discourse, but that seemed futile. I sometimes have used humor and other times have tried to appeal to reason and other times to one’s conscience or morality. Overall, it can be very frustrating to deal with die-hard climate skeptics. But also, I have had dialogue with those who just don’t understand the topic very well and are open to learning about it and through discussion can come to understand it more and care about it.
What do you hope for the future? Is fear a part of that vision?
Fear is a major part of my vision. My hope is that we will get our act together on time to avert the worst impacts of climate change and salvage our species. Unfortunately, though, I think history has taught me that we usually don’t get it until it’s too late, or almost too late. So, my somewhat more positive hope is that it will be the latter of those two scenarios and we can make changes on time to not totally lay waste to this world as it exists now. We’ve already inevitably bought ourselves a decent amount of warming over the course of this century that will lead to greater frequency in floods and droughts and that will compromise the future security of some staple crops. We really need to start focusing on adaptation and creating some local and regional economies that are growing their own food when/where possible and that we no longer have such a staunch car culture. For me, I’ve decided not to have children because I worry what the future will be with climate change, which will become more apparent mid-century at the same time our overpopulation will be reaching record numbers and our resources will be more strained than ever.
Outside of writing, what do you love?
Being a writer, I love to read and tend to do it voraciously, as well as consume other forms of art, whether it be film, museums, and music. I love music: Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elvis Perkins, Bob Dylan, the Shins, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
I also love being outside, whether hiking, biking, cross country skiing, swimming or just sitting in and being surrounded by nature.
What are you reading right now?
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
What is your favorite word?
Melancholy. What a beautiful word for such a sad state of mind.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am writing a collection of personal essays about my life as well as working on two novels (including the aforementioned YA novel, though that’s on the backburner). I am a weekly contributing writer for MainStreet.com and am working on a series of articles about women in today’s workforce.