A Memoir That Sees Only the Tip of the Melting Iceberg
Along the Way to All That Is
By Gretel Ehrlich
When we think of migratory peoples, the images that most likely come to mind are of pastoralists clinging to dwindling herds, their cultures threatened by climate change and the cruel expansion of modern ways. But there exists another class of semi-nomadic people, an exceedingly small one, who are still able to migrate freely as the weather moves them. They pride themselves on their grit and independence and tend not to mention the key resources — money and petroleum — that make their lifestyle possible.
Gretel Ehrlich is an exemplary member of this tribe. “Unsolaced,” her latest book, opens “in an off-grid cabin set on a glacial moraine” in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. She has another house in Hawaii — “on the Big Island, where I live four months of the year” — and another on 100 acres of untrammeled California coastland. (James Cameron is a neighbor.) “Some internal churning, a chronic restlessness,” she writes, pushes her to travel to the Arctic and to Africa and to wherever fate takes her. A trauma surgeon she meets in an airport tells her about the village in Kosovo where he grew up and his mission “to save the forgotten people of the world.” Ehrlich weeps. “I’ve spent a lot of time living in subsistence villages,” she tells him. “I understand.” Soon she’s on a plane to Pristina.
Born into wealth in Santa Barbara — her mother “dabbled in the fashion world” and her father always had a plane — Ehrlich threw off the “bon vivant life” and spent years toiling on cattle ranches, “cowboying” with the last of the breed. “I needed to strip away anything that impeded the feel of the earth,” Ehrlich writes, “anything that obscured direct access” to the raw pulse of terrestrial existence. Her courage is impressive, her experiences no less than extraordinary.
High in the Arctic, she listens to the drip of a melting glacier, “summer’s fast clock in a slow, geological world.” She hears the “gulping, sloshing, gurgling” of walruses breathing through a hole in the ice. She treks through Greenland’s far north, hallucinating with hunger and sensory derangement. “Sprays of light shot out from the ends of my fingers. … The earth was an instrument, and my walking on it made music that only I could hear.” She is even hit by lightning.
At their best, Ehrlich’s reminiscences carve a melancholy track, depicting the disastrous losses, human and otherwise, that accompany global warming. At its worst, though, “Unsolaced” can feel like climate crisis tourism. (“Later I helped feed Allan’s adopted baby elephant. …”) Ehrlich hops around too much to truly register the emotional weight of the catastrophes she describes. The hand-wringing feels gratuitous. “It’s getting smaller, isn’t it,” she says to her friend Nita, whose family owns an island. “All the places we can go to find solace.”
More galling is Ehrlich’s silence on the actual forces propelling the crisis. “The two root causes of climate change,” she repeatedly insists, are “the loss of albedo” — i.e., the reflective power of polar ice — and desertification “caused by ineffectual rainfall.” But ice loss and drought are symptoms. Their actual root cause — atmospheric carbon emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels — should no longer be controversial. Ehrlich, though, uses the phrase “fossil fuel” only once and barely mentions oil that doesn’t come from narwhals.
All blame here gets laid on “we humans,” a “failed species,” although the actual humans Ehrlich meets in Zimbabwe and Greenland contributed next to nothing to this catastrophe. The fact that the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries on the planet bear the overwhelming share of the responsibility for the climate crisis is perhaps a cause of discomfort for her. It certainly should be. The truest sentence in “Unsolaced” may be its last one: “What I have written is an odd kind of memoir, notable — if at all — for what has been left out.”