Madeline Ostrander believes that many of the most impactful climate solutions are right next door — quite literally. Formerly a senior editor of YES! Magazine, Ostrander has spent years traveling across the United States documenting how the changing climate is reshaping small communities. She’s found that when individuals who care deeply about the place where they are rooted work in tandem, they can build each other a longer-lasting home.
Published in 2022, Ostrander’s first book, “At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth,” challenges the complacency of climate defeatism. For the book, she reported the stories of communities in Richmond, California, who are transforming local agriculture while reckoning with the presence of a major oil refinery; she spoke with the residents of Pateros, Washington, who are restoring their landscape after devastating wildfires; she spent time with residents of St. Augustine, Florida, who are preserving their history in the face of an ever-encroaching ocean; and she recounted the relocation of families in Newtok, Alaska, who are rebuilding their homes from the ground up to outrun the eroding tundra.
Last September, Ostrander, who was then beginning a year-long stay at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, spoke with me about the importance of small-scale climate response and her reporting process for “At Home on an Unruly Planet.” (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Sophie Hartley: How did your past work as a freelancer and as an editor at YES! magazine influence the development of “At Home on an Unruly Planet”?
Madeline Ostrander: It started in part when I did an issue at YES! Magazine about resilience. In a lot of ways, that issue was about adaptation. We didn’t call it that. But that’s really what we were talking about. I think that was in 2010. In trying to find content for the issue, I went to the Bay Area, where I met with Movement Generation, an activist group that was bringing together a bunch of community organizations to talk about climate solutions.
The way these groups talked about climate change was so much more tangible and localized than I was used to scientists talking about it. They were thinking about what it meant for their communities and how policies were tangibly affecting them.
Out of that emerged a story about Richmond, California, where urban farmers were growing food in remediated soil in an oil refinery town—and that became a starting point for reimagining how both the landscape could be greener and the local economy might someday become fossil-fuel-free. The whole picture of it was so fascinating to me.
At the time, it felt like people thought climate change was this faraway thing with, you know, hockey stick graphs and melting ice. The story of Richmond led me to question if we could talk about climate change in a more personal, grounded way, which is what this book is about.
SH: Seeing how people are dealing with the climate crisis locally, on their own turf, is such a meaningful pursuit — but it’s challenging to capture that perspective in reporting when you aren’t from these communities. How were you approaching the task of writing intimately about communities you are not a part of?
MO: I think a lot about my presence as a reporter coming into a community where I don’t belong. Especially as a white reporter who’s done reporting in Indigenous communities, I don’t know the cultural baggage that precedes me as I’m coming in, as far as other journalists or scientists who preceded me. In response to this, I think about slowing down.
SH: Can we zoom into what the reporting process in Newtok was like for you?
MO: It’s a very different situation when you’re coming into an Indigenous Alaskan village. You need the community’s permission to show up or even have a place to stay. It’s a crucial step because you need to know that the community wants to have its story told.
I heard about different “adaptable housing” projects across Alaska – like hyper-insulated, super-energy efficient houses that, in some cases, could be relocated when extreme erosion made it necessary to pick the place up and move it. They were building a prototype of these in Newtok and invited me to come.
I ultimately had to do this whirlwind reporting because storms on the tundra delayed my trip. I interviewed several village residents while we were stuck for days in a rural airport. But I was only able to make it to Newtok for three days. I also spent many months before and afterward reporting remotely with sources who were working with and in the village and who were knowledgeable about the region’s cultural history, and I kept in touch with the people who were leading the relocation. That was in 2015 and 2016. Then, I returned in 2019 for a different story because I heard some families were finally able to move to homes at the new village site. I went for nearly two weeks and was able to absorb so much more.
By that time, the landscape of the old village was eroding even more rapidly. If you search it on Google Maps, it’ll show land that doesn’t exist anymore.
For the next year and half, through the pandemic, I kept in close contact with people living at both village sites and government agencies that were helping them so that I could write about how the relocation process was unfolding in my book. I still keep in touch with residents there.
SH: Pivoting to your current reporting projects, what has been on your mind as you develop your project for the Knight Science Journalism fellowship?
MO: To some degree, what I’m thinking about now also comes from the Richmond, California story I’ve been telling you about. Richmond is built around a 120-year-old refinery, and they’ve been discussing what will happen when the refinery is decommissioned. Presumably, it will be decommissioned if California wants to meet its climate goals. There are other stories like this – in Philadelphia, for example, there is a community dealing with what it means to remediate an old oil site.
These situations have made me think about what happens when we want to clean up a very damaged landscape. We are going to have a lot of those. If we are going to make this enormous economic transition away from oil and gas, we are going to have all these left-behind places that are contaminated. How do we put these places back together or, at the very least, keep them from polluting something else?
Sophie Hartley is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.