Mary Annaïse Heglar writes beautiful, urgent essays about climate change—essays that acknowledge the emotional complexities of the crisis and often make clear its links to racism and colonialism. And she does it all in her spare time. Nine to five, she is the publications director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she edits and oversees technical reports about environmental research and policy.
I first heard Heglar’s name in June when my Twitter feed erupted with retweets of “I Work in the Environmental Movement. I Don’t Care If You Recycle,” an essay she wrote for Vox that urged people to stop “obsessing over your environmental ‘sins’” and “fight the oil and gas industry instead.” In the piece, she makes a vital point: Shame over our own emissions is misplaced and counterproductive. The system is rigged to make us all dependent on fossil fuels. The real enemy isn’t the person driving to work, it is the companies and politicians that prop up the automobile industry, fight fuel efficiency standards, and refuse to fund public transit.
“All too often, our culture broadly equates ‘environmentalism’ with personal consumerism,” Heglar writes. “To be ‘good,’ we must convert to 100 percent solar energy, ride an upcycled bike everywhere, stop flying, eat vegan.… And all this raises the price of admission to the climate movement to an exorbitant level, often pricing out people of color and other marginalized groups.”
Soon, I was clicking around reading Heglar’s other work, essays on climate rage and love of place, about why climate change isn’t the first existential threat black people have faced, and more. It didn’t take long for me to become a committed and enthusiastic Heglar fan. And I wasn’t alone. In the last year, she has gone from behind-the-scenes wonk and wordsmith to an indispensable, exciting new voice on climate issues. She even has a manifesto! (Heglar is in such demand these days that she’s got more offers than she can handle, so she’s compiled a fantastic Twitter list of “Green Voices of Color.” Commissioning editors, take note.) The sudden attention has been unexpected and not entirely welcome. Yet she has no plans to quit writing.
In her new manifesto, she explains why: “Words can heal as much as they can wound. Crafted and banded together, they can form an army. They can rise and retreat like waves on the sea. To have the words to name your crisis, to indict your oppressor, is power. It’s exactly what we need if we are to have any hope of winning.”
I was thrilled to chat with Heglar about her process, her thoughts on the role of emotion in climate communication, and her sudden rise. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Do you see yourself as a journalist?
I definitely don’t see myself as a journalist. When I graduated from college. I kind of thought maybe I would go into journalism. But I graduated from college in 2006, and what everybody was saying about the journalism industry then was that it was dying. I mean, it was very, very hard to get a job. And I definitely didn’t want to go further into debt and go to journalism school, and didn’t really have a way to support myself through that. And I didn’t want to be a journalist because journalists are supposed to be objective. And no part of me wants to be objective.
I came to New York because I wanted to be in publishing. I had read this autobiography of Langston Hughes and realized that he almost starved to death in pursuit of being a writer. And I was like, “well, if he almost starved to death, I probably will. So maybe I should get a backup.” So I decided publishing, right? Because I wanted to be close to books; I wanted to be close to storytelling. I quickly found out that publishing does not pay a living wage. And so I went into nonprofit communication. And that’s pretty much where I’ve been ever since. I really, really, really love what I do. And so I kind of thought, over the years, that I had killed the writer in me and the editor had completely taken over, and I was perfectly fine with that. I was fine with being behind the curtain.
But you had some things you needed to say.
I was just kind of like, well, I’ll start a little blog on Medium. Nobody will ever read it. And I’ll just be able to work through these sort of thoughts. And that’ll be fun.
And then Vox started republishing you.
So the first piece I did with Vox was in October 2018 in the immediate aftermath of the IPCC report. And then they reached back out to me after I published another piece on Medium called “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat.”
And that’s when you started working on “I Don’t Care If You Recycle.”
It sort of kept coming up in different panels and different places. People would be like, “I’m such a terrible person, climate change is my fault.” And then an immediate pendulum swing to “Yeah, there’s nothing I could do anyway.” I mean, there’s so much room in the middle! I wanted to redefine what individual action is. So often we define it as what we do as consumers. Individual action can be donating to an organization or joining an organization; it can be showing up to a march. You are more than a consumer. You’re a citizen.
Tell me about the process of writing it. Did it all come tumbling out?
When Karen Turner at Vox reached out to me, I was like, well, this is an idea that I’ve kind of been wrestling with that I would like an editor’s support on. And no, it didn’t come tumbling out. It was really hard to actually write it. The first Vox piece, that did come tumbling out. I wrote that in about an hour.
Is it hard to let the words pour out after so many years of editing?
I think I’ve gotten better at it. The editor has learned over the past year to trust the writer more. And so I sort of tell the editor in my head: Wait, you’ll have your turn. Just get the draft out: It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be sequential. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Then I’ll try to go do something physical, go to an exercise class or something. And while I’m there, usually I’ll think about it and the wheels will start to turn, and then I come back and edit or rewrite. But the scariest thing in the world is the blank page.
What was the response to the piece about moving beyond climate shame? What happened after Vox hit publish?
“I very much made a very conscious decision I wanted to write from an emotional standpoint.”
I did not sleep for a while! There was a massive, massive response. I didn’t think it was going to have that big of an impact, especially because it is such a nuanced piece. I was never really sure if I was making sense. And even though I was working with an editor, and even though she was telling me that it was in great shape, and that she was so excited, I was kind of like, “I’m just going to put this out there, that’ll be the end of it.” And the response was just so massive, like my Twitter went off the rails. And I had so many requests for interviews and, you know, it was uncomfortable. I am decidedly not comfortable being a public person. It’s a very surreal experience. Like I’m quite nervous right now knowing someone’s writing about me.
Are you tempted to stop writing publicly and slip back into obscurity?
No. It’s sort of like you have this, this microphone to talk about this most important thing—right?—and you can’t really shun that, whether you’re comfortable with attention or uncomfortable with attention. Like, it’s not about my comfort anymore. It feels like shutting it down now would be almost a dereliction of duty.
Thanks to your day job, you know a lot about climate science and policy. You probably are among the world’s top experts. And yet in your essays, there’s less data and more emotion.
When I decided to write I very much made a very conscious decision I wanted to write from an emotional standpoint. I didn’t want to write the really data-heavy pieces, like, “this is what San Francisco is going to look like in 2050.” I felt like that was out there. I felt like climate communications had been all head and no heart for a really long time. And this is a very heartfelt moment. I don’t think people act based on what they think. I think people act based on what they feel and what they believe. I just don’t think that you unlock people’s passion through their brain; I think it goes through their heart. I think being a science communicator is more of what I do at my day job.
Do you think that writing your essays helps you cope with the enormity of climate change yourself? Is it a kind of a therapy?
One thousand percent. That is exactly why I do it.
What advice would you give to people who want to write essays as persuasive and gripping as yours?
“When I write, I think about the effect I want to have on my reader…. I want their spine to tingle. I want them to have goose bumps. I want them to be arrested.”
The best way to go at it is empathetically. You need to give them someone or something to empathize with. Going back to climate communications being all head and no heart, you can’t empathize with a molecule of carbon or gigaton of carbon. But you can empathize with a human being, right? Like, you can empathize with this guy at this dinner party I write about in “I Don’t Care If You Recycle” if you’re someone from outside of the environmental moment. And you can empathize with me as someone in the environmental movement, if that’s where you are.
When I write, I think about the effect I want to have on my reader. I want their knees to buckle. I want them to think that they can read my writing standing up and then have to sit down. I want their spine to tingle. I want them to have goose bumps. I want them to be arrested. To have that effect on my on my reader, I want to force some vulnerability. And if I want to force my reader into this vulnerable position in which I believe their mind can be changed, and their heart can be opened, I need to do that to myself. I need to be very vulnerable myself. So you know, the essays I’ve written that people have told me have brought them to tears: They don’t know how many times I cried while writing.
When I’m writing, I know that I’m onto something when I feel my own heart unlock, when I feel my own rapt attention. And when I’m done, it sort of feels like a weight lifts off my shoulders, like I’m free of something. And I just feel so much lighter. Because what I’m always trying to do in my writing is to describe something that hasn’t been described before, something that has just sort of sat around as this nebulous, heavy cloud. And I want to lift that fog and name what hasn’t been named.
So I take my cues from the writer that I think did this the best: James Baldwin. He articulated things that you felt but didn’t know how to say. And that is the kind of approach that I’m trying to bring to the climate conversation.
What are you reading now?
I just bought Toni Morrison’s essay collection and I’m reading that. And I go back and read James Baldwin’s essays regularly. And same with Arundhati Roy. I tend to be drawn to writers who wrote both fiction and nonfiction.
Oh, interesting. Do you write fiction yourself?
Yeah, I haven’t published any of it. But I do.
Well, I look forward to that!
One of these days.
Emma Marris is an environmental writer and an institute fellow at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She lives with her husband and two children in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @Emma_Marris.