I’m delighted to share this interview with Devi Lockwood, author of 1001 Voices on Climate Change. This is part of the Align Your Story Interview Series where I talk to writers, activists, visionaries, change-makers, who help us come into a more aligned story, people who both tell the truth and light the way forward with compassion, courage, and appreciation.
**If you prefer to watch the unedited interview on video, go to the end of this post.**
Nadia Colburn: Hello, I’m here today with Devi Lockwood, and I’m really happy to be interviewing her. Devi is the author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change published by Simon & Schuster in August of 2021. She is currently the Commentary and Ideas editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Opinion Section and as the ideas editor at Rest of World. Devi spent five years traveling in 20 countries on six continents to document 1,001 stories on water and climate change, which, of course, is where the book comes from. She’s a graduate of Harvard and the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, and her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, The Washington Post, Bicycling Magazine, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere.
So welcome, Devi; it’s fun to be here with you.
Devi Lockwood: Thanks so much for having me.
Nadia Colburn: When I first came upon your work, you were, I think, just starting your travels. You’d put out a call in a writer’s forum saying, “Hey, I’m traveling around the world collecting these stories about water and climate.” At the time I was editing Anchor Magazine and I thought, “Hey, that would be a cool story.” So you wrote a story for us, and now this book is here!
I’m interested in your project on a lot of different levels, because, obviously, I’m very interested in climate and environmental issues and what we can do. I’m also very interested in stories and the power of stories and how they can affect change on the inside and the outside. So your book is doing all of these things. Can you just give us a little bit of background: How did it come to be that you were traveling and came up with this project?
Devi Lockwood: Part of the inspiration for that came through the Boston Marathon bombings. I was living in Boston at the time and we were on lockdown for a couple of days, and the first thing that I wanted to do once that lockdown lifted was to connect and have face-to-face conversations with strangers and to remind myself that not everyone was murderous. So I walked around the city with a sign that just invited people to tell me stories about whatever was on their minds. Something about that felt really special, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
That summer I did a bike trip down part of the Mississippi River. I had that same cardboard sign around my neck inviting people to tell me stories whenever I wasn’t on the bicycle. The farther down the river I was riding my bike, the more stories I was hearing about water and climate change, specifically saltwater encroachment on the land or people making the decision to leave a place that they’ve called home for generations in the aftermath of the big storm. And I wondered what it might mean to put those local stories of water and climate change in dialogue with stories about water and climate change from other parts of the world.
I got a grant for a year of purposeful wandering after graduation and then after one year I just kind of kept on going. So it turned into this thing that kind of had a life of its own and got a lot bigger.
Nadia Colburn: That’s inspiring on a lot of different levels because I think so often, especially here in Boston, people aren’t comfortable just talking to strangers. So what was that like, even just to be out there with a sign around our neck saying, “Tell me a story about X, Y, or Z,” to have people approach you and to look different and to stand out in that way?
Devi Lockwood: Yeah, at first, it was pretty uncomfortable. Then I got used to it, and then I felt uncomfortable when I didn’t have the sign on. I think that there was a way in which that piece of cardboard was a good conversation starter and it broke down that frostiness or that ice that exists between people when you’re not quite sure how to engage. I found that it was a great tool for having all sorts of conversations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Nadia Colburn: That’s a beautiful practice and lesson, just in and of itself, to just talk to strangers and to listen to all their stories and to be open.
Devi Lockwood: Yeah, it was hard. Really hard.
Nadia Colburn: Kind of generous, also, for people to offer their stories.
Devi Lockwood: I definitely came to see every story as a gift. Another gift was that practice of doing this made me a much better listener over time. I used to interrupt or be focused more on asking questions and not just being present with someone. I learned how to slow down and listen better throughout the course of this journey.
Nadia Colburn: You talk about that in the book itself, the process of deep listening and how it developed. A lot of people I work with are writers and sometimes we might ask, What does my story do? Your book is an example of all these people whose stories really are important. I very much appreciate the fact that while you talk to some experts, you mostly talk to the people who just happen to come up to you and share their stories with you, which I think is such a refreshing way to talk about something—and especially something like climate change, which affects us all. Water, which affects us all, which is part of all of us. Not to go to the experts to get the stories, but to go to normal people. What are your thoughts about that?
Devi Lockwood: One of the main things I was trying to do in the interviews and the book was to complicate the idea of expertise and to argue that lived experience is a form of expertise that is as valid as study in a school or any other form of knowledge. Our understanding will only be strengthened when we put the “traditional experts” in dialogue with people who are experts in their own lived experience of change as they see it in the places where they live. For me, that was very important.
Nadia Colburn: There’s so much there. Our lives are lived through our physical human bodies. Even if we’re an expert in one thing that we maybe have a degree in, we’re also experts in our own life in a way that no one else can be. So this idea of expertise asks us to question who’s an expert in what; we’re all both experts and not experts, and I think that’s something as humans and as writers, we’re always kind of blending that together, right?
Devi Lockwood: Definitely. I also think that as a reader or a listener or just a consumer of climate coverage in general, the information can often be really abstract and numerical and that those discussions can feel inaccessible to a lot of people. So my hope was to give more of a rounded story and multiplicity of voices to this topic that’s perhaps easier to engage with than just the numbers alone.
We could talk about a millimeter of sea-level rise, but then it’s stickier to think about the story of one specific mother on one specific island nation in the South Pacific who’s impacted by this and having to make tough decisions in terms of water allocation for her family.
Nadia Colburn: Reading the book, the issues come alive in a different way from the way I’ve felt them before, because you do talk to so many people in so many places, and it’s almost reminding us to trust our own expertise, our own experience. I think at this point, we’ve probably all now experienced in our own lives the effects of climate change. Even last night, the wind here was just not the way I used to remember it being. Everything is a little more intense and you kind of realize it’s a pretty powerful force out there. I didn’t know how I was gonna make it through the night because it was like the story of the three little pigs. You think we’re all secure and then some wind, or some water, or some fire just comes and knocks it down, and we can’t wait around for other people to tell us, oh, this is an issue. We already know this is an issue, and to have that kind of chorus of voices from all around the world saying, I’m seeing this, I’m feeling this, I’m knowing this with my own eyes in my own body, I think is really, really powerful.
One of the main things I was trying to do in the interviews and the book was to complicate the idea of expertise and to argue that lived experience is a form of expertise that is as valid as study in a school or any other form of knowledge. Our understanding will only be strengthened when we put the “traditional experts” in dialogue with people who are experts in their own lived experience of change as they see it in the places where they live.
Devi Lockwood: I’m glad.
Nadia Colburn: Also, it’s interesting because you work in media, and one of the things that’s frustrating is the insufficient coverage of what’s happening with climate change and its effects on people. This is a human issue. This is not just about polar bears. It absolutely affects people. Those human stories aren’t usually front and center. So, what’s it like for you to have these different kinds of ways of sharing stories?
Devi Lockwood: The people-first mentality is something that I try to keep front and center of all of the work that I do; these stories activate those empathy muscles. It makes it easier to understand an issue when it’s more tactile and present in the form of storytelling. As you said, it’s becoming harder to ignore that the issues related to climate and water are closer to home with every passing year. So I think that it’s ever more important to find new ways of discussing these stories so that we’re not falling into the same polar bear tropes or just looking for new and innovative ways to tell the stories so that it doesn’t feel overdone or unimportant or, at worst, it would just be easy to ignore, right?
Nadia Colburn: Well, it’s both, feels overdone, but also underdone. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories about COVID, which of course is furiously disruptive of our lives, but the climate crisis and the environmental crisis are of a magnitude that’s in some ways so much bigger. It has the potential to have change that’s so much enormously bigger, and yet climate coverage is such a tiny, tiny fraction of the stories that we read about in the news.
Devi Lockwood: Sure. I think another thing that’s difficult about climate and just telling the story of it is that it can be a thing that moves both fast and slow. 2050 is not actually that far from now, but it feels like a long time away.
Nadia Colburn: Yeah. But again, as an illness, when you go to the doctor and they’re like, “I hate to tell you you’re feeling really good, but you have a cancerous growth,” You’re not like, “Oh, you know what? That’s in the future. I’m feeling fine now.” It’s the present. I think your stories bring that home, the magnitude of it.
Did your ideas about writing the book change over the five years? Did your perceptions change about the magnitude of the crisis or the kinds of stories you were being told? And how did you change?
Devi Lockwood: I didn’t have the idea to write a book when I started out. I originally wanted it to be an audio map online where you could click on a point and listen to a story from that place. There is kind of a beta version of that, but it’s not ultimately what the project turned into.
I learned there’s not one place I went to where people didn’t have a story about climate, and so it is such a global phenomenon, and I feel one of the defining issues of my generation.
But more than that, in addition to the problems being felt everywhere, I was heartened to learn about some of these hyper-local solutions that people are working on. Some of the ones that moved me the most were looking at multiple issues at once. So for example, there’s this one woman named Tanea Tangaroa who I met in New Zealand in a town called Whanganui, which is on the banks of the Whanganui River, and there’s a wetland there that was used as a landfill for multiple decades.
Even though it’s been decommissioned and capped, there’’ all of this pollution in the soil and in the water surrounding the landfill. So Tanea spent 20 years restoring that wetland and finding different ways to coax native plants and animals to return, and the wetland is thriving in a way that it once wasn’t. Now she’s using this place as a site for environmental education for kids in her community.
What’s fun about having done this for multiple years and on multiple continents is that there’s a similar initiative, also led by an Indigenous group, in a town called Paoyhan on the banks of the Ucayali River. I was fortunate to spend some time with them in Peru, and they’re making a living library of medicinal plants where they’ve set aside a certain number of hectares to ensure that it won’t be logged in the future. They’re going through and cataloging medicinalplants that have different uses, working with elders in the community to preserve that knowledge and write it down, and try to teach kids who have been educated primarily in Spanish, not in the Shipibo language, so that they have different ways of accessing that knowledge in the future.
It’s interesting to have those conversations because not only does it become clear how people are really invested in problems locally and finding solutions, but also because some of these hyper-local solutions can speak to each other and be a dialogue across space and time.
Nadia Colburn: Yes. So cool how those stories can speak to one another. I’m sure you’ve gotten asked this question before, so what do we do when we read your book? What effect do you want your book to have? I think that’s a question about your book in particular, but also a question in general for us as writers: What effect do our words have? What are your dreams? Have you seen any kind of cause and effect from your book?
Devi Lockwood: I wrote this book for people who know a little bit about climate change but don’t feel like they have a big grasp on all of the impacts globally, or for people who feel overwhelmed by climate change or feel that it’s too much to even think about and take on. My hope is that this gives people a different way of accessing and understanding the impacts of climate change that are being felt right now in different parts of the world.
I think in the far-off future, my hope is that this can be an archive for someone to unearth and understand how we were talking about these issues at this exact point in time. For the here and now, my hope is that this book is an intervention into climate silence. It can be so hard to have conversations about climate change. This text is meant as a conversation starter, as a way of breaking that ice, as a way of finding new ways of telling a story about climate, and also just getting people to reflect on the ways that their own lives are being impacted by climate change right now. Hopefully, it will inspire people to be more open and not only listen to other people’s stories about these issues, but to also share their own.
Nadia Colburn: That’s really beautiful. I’m struck by your saying, to break the silence. A lot of the work that writers do across fields is to silence and the cultural weight of silence. So if you break silence in one place, it will kind of shatter the ice and break it in other places as well.
Any silence that we break will help break that heavy concrete and allow the voices to speak out against all different kinds of silences. There’s not just one climate silence and one sexual violence silence and one racial silence or whatever it is.
In your book, you have a moment of needing to deal with a traumatic experience, going back home for a while, healing, coming back into the world, and it feels like a moment when all of the different kinds of levels of stories, of silence, of speaking, are interacting. I’m sure when you set out to write, you didn’t know that you were going to have that experience as well.
Devi Lockwood: Yeah, it just kind of happened.
Nadia Colburn: But I love that you wove it into the book and so that the book itself, the structure of the book also has a healing structure in there. How did you weave that in? How did that work for you?
Devi Lockwood: I went back and forth on whether or not to include it and ultimately decided to because I thought maybe it could help someone else if they go through a similar experience.
Nadia Colburn: Just for people who haven’t read the book, you had a bad interaction with a man in a van; he was very threatening and that experience of having your boundaries threatened was also triggering for you. This happened in Cambodia, is that right?
Devi Lockwood: On the border between Laos and Cambodia.
Nadia Colburn: It struck me as interesting that it happened in that place. Cambodia is a place where there was just such trauma. Just in the landscape, and I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard different stories about it. So it’s like there are these different levels of traumatic history that get replayed. Perhaps things like that could happen anywhere. Certainly, it can happen in the United States. But even when it happens in the United States, it’s often replaying older cultural trauma, right?
Devi Lockwood: Yeah
My hope is that this book is an intervention into climate silence. It can be so hard to have conversations about climate change. This text is meant as a conversation starter, as a way of breaking that ice.
Nadia Colburn: There are these different levels of personal trauma, historic trauma, environmental trauma that are interacting and kind of get woven into the story of all of our lives.
Devi Lockwood: For sure. That’s a good way of saying it.
Nadia Colburn: I love many parts of the book, but I was especially struck by the stories about the ex-Soviet Union. The ways in which the massive state planning created massive environmental destruction, and just the ways in which, again, any one story has multiple layers. Here we’re often thinking about capitalism and the climate crisis and environmental destruction, and there’s a direct link, but also communism and environmental destruction. Could you tell us a little bit about your time in that part of the world and share some of those stories?
Devi Lockwood: I was invited by the U.S. Consulate General in Kazakhstan to go and spend a couple of weeks in Almaty and present at a festival called GoViralI traveled around in a different part of the country and then also across the border to Kyrgyzstan. It was an incredible experience. It was the first time that I was working directly with a videographer and a translator, and they had someone who was also helping to drive us around. So I wasn’t on the bike at that point, but it was super interesting.
You alluded earlier to the story about the Aral Sea. I met a physician, who was telling me about how centralized planning for growing cotton in an area where probably cotton shouldn’t have been grown led to the depletion of water such that the Aral Sea, which used to be a vibrant fishing community for many towns surrounding this massive inland sea, just became completely dried out.
Some people still live there, but it’s difficult for them to get by. Not only was it a water-intensive crop growing in an area with very dry soil, but there were also canals that were created to transport the water from the source to the fields. There was a huge amount of evaporation along the way.
It was a story that I hadn’t heard before I was there, but an example of how that planning and design can go awry and then have very long-lasting effects.
Nadia Colburn: That story really struck me. Then I think the physician you were talking to said that he had known one of the men who was responsible for designing the system, and he knew all along that he didn’t know what he was doing, but because of the Communist regime, he couldn’t speak out and had to just go along with it. It made me think about the different roles people are forced into and the bigger stories that we’re living under.
We have these individual voices but we’re also living under bigger stories, maybe the idea: “Oh, I let’s move the sea and build these canals,” or, I don’t know, here in the States, often this story that we should just build, build, build, and never stop building because that’s what growth is.
Devi Lockwood: Yes. Focusing on infrastructure but not taking other factors into account, especially the environment, can have these effects.
Nadia Colburn: Yes. Anyway, I really enjoyed your book. I also wanted to say it’s a very enjoyable read. It felt kind of like, “Oh, I get to go on this trip. It’s a travel book. I get to meet people and go to beautiful places, go to difficult places.” I loved your descriptions of being on the boat—it made me feel seasick, but also it felt expensive.
Devi Lockwood: I’m glad.
Nadia Colburn: Even though the topic is a big and difficult one, the book also felt actually quite affirming. It didn’t feel overwhelming, it felt like: look, here are all these amazing people all around the world who are sensible. You kind of made me feel a bit more faith in humanity. Whatever we’re doing, around the world, people are generally kind, thoughtful, and caring.
Devi Lockwood: Thank you. That’s really great to hear.
Nadia Colburn: What are you working on now?
Devi Lockwood: I work during the day as the Commentary and Ideas editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer Opinion section, where I commission and edit opinion essays of consequence to the region. In addition to my day job,I’ve been noodling around with a fiction manuscript at night. What I like most about it is learning how to write in a completely different form in that sort of beginner mindset where I don’t really know what I’m doing, but trying to apply some lessons from this past book into the next one. Who knows if it’ll ever see the light of another reader’s eyes, but that’s been fun.
Nadia Colburn: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today.
Devi Lockwood: Thanks for having me.
Nadia Colburn: I’d like to end with three questions, so just recommendations to share the love with people. But before we go to that, is there a short section of your book that you might want to read aloud so people can hear you reading it?
Devi Lockwood: Oh, sure. Yeah. Do you have any particular requests?
Nadia Colburn: Maybe something from Tuvalu, that was powerful.
Devi Lockwood: Sure. Just trying to choose a section that I don’t always read. Okay.
Nadia Colburn: Or you can read a section that you always read. If you have a favorite section that you love to read, go ahead and read that because probably most people here won’t have heard it.
Devi Lockwood: No, it’s good. I’ll just read a brief kind of, to give more of a people sense, but it’s this little section in Tuvalu, the chapter’s called Family.
I met Alofanga while buying a scratch-off internet card to connect with home. She was working at the telecom stand selling plastic cards of data plans. I asked her if she knew of anyone who might have extra room for a stranger.
“Let me ask around at lunch,” she said, “Come back in the afternoon.”
I walked out to a dock on the lagoon side of the island where pieces of coral nestled like moles among the sand. Big white cumulus clouds lavished their rain elsewhere. I watched them drift close to the island and then pass, their under-bellies dark with water. Rains in Tuvalu come heavy in all-encompassing single cloud storms that are completely unlike the all-day, gray sky rains I’m used to in New England. Here, I learned rain is a gift.
In the afternoon, I walked back up to the internet stand. Alofanga stood behind it, staring out into the street, empty except for a passing moped. “You can stay with us,” she said, “Bring your stuff and we’ll go.”
I followed her out the back door and through tangled houses nestled close together, past outdoor kitchens under awnings and clothes strung out to dry beneath the roofs. Alofanga introduced me to her grandmother, her aunts, and her cousins. A stand-up fan ruffled the edges of family photographs taped to the walls. I put my bags down. For a few weeks, this was home. Every morning I woke up at dawn to Alofanga’s grandmother singing in Tuvaluan. One word I understand is “Jesus.”
“In Tuvalu, we have this saying, ‘You cannot lift a cup with one finger.’ In other words, we need our family to survive,” Alofanga told me.
Of the 11,000 people who live on Tuvalu’s 10 square miles of land, about 6,000 live in Funafuti in densely populated homes. The islands are a culture of extended family. Most nights 10 to 12 siblings, aunts, grandparents, and cousins crashed out on woven mats on the floor competing for space closest to the fan, which pushed a spiral of hot air towards us as we slept. Everyone shares rice and fish and fruit.
Alofanga introduced me to her cousin, Losite, who is two years younger than I am. I asked Losite if she could take me out to see the now-defunct wells.
“Sure,” she shrugged. “But there’s not much to see.” We walked out behind the stand-up houses shaded by coconut trees. A pile of stones stood at the center of a circular rock, no taller than my shins. We peered in. At the bottom some 10 feet down was a muddy puddle. I caught a glimpse of coconut husks and potato chip packets.
“It’s all garbage,” Losite said. “No water here.”
While living with Losite and her family, I learned how to conserve water. Every drop from the rain was precious and to be treated as such. Between rains, there was always the question: Will there be enough water in the tank to get through the day? If not, how can we cut back?
Alofanga taught me to turn off the tap while I lathered up my body and untangled my mess of curls. We snuck into the bathrooms at her workplace after hours to bathe. She had keys and no one else was using the water in those big tanks, she told me. The bigger the roof, the more water that funnels into the water tanks. The Tuvalu telecom building, a two-minute walk from her home, had one of the largest roofs in Funafuti. The whole ordeal had an air of secrecy about it. We went at dusk and always entered through the back door because we never knew who might be watching. The island, a small community, has many eyes.
Under the telecom showers, I began to relax. Cool water dripped down my back, washing away days of caked-on sweat.
The other solution to not showering is to dance. In Tuvalu, community members gathered after dark in open-air halls. Everyone in the audience brought a bottle of perfume, imported of course, and we sat on the perimeter of the hall, large and open to the breeze. People stood up to dance in groups of two or three. If someone likes the dancers, they walk up to them and douse them in perfume as they continue to move to the beat, drawing an X in the space around their bodies in motion. People cheered. The speakers were loud, stacked two or three high, the base rumbling near maximum volume. The music carried us through. So kind of just to give a sense of some of the life in Tuvalu, but also ways that people cope with water shortages. Earlier on in that chapter, I talk about how there used to be a freshwater lens under the island, but it became both salty and contaminated mostly due to sea-level rise.
Nadia Colburn: That’s a beautiful chapter and just beautiful writing.
Devi Lockwood: Thank you.
Nadia Colburn: I feel like I took an adventure with you. The dancing with the perfume is such a…
Devi Lockwood: It’s a fun detail.
Nadia Colburn: Yeah. But also just that reminder to every drop of water is precious in a place that’s really, really limited. So thank you so much. So now my final three questions: Is there a book or a piece of music or something that you enjoy that you want to share with the audience?
Devi Lockwood: So book-wise, I’ve really been enjoying this book by Andri Snaer Magnason, an Icelandic writer. It’s called On Time and Water. He’s dealing with a lot of similar themes to what I was dealing with in the book, but centered in one place and trying to understand what 2050 and 2100 might be like through looking at Iceland’s past and thinking about both the past and the future of his family and I find that way of storytelling and imagination affirming and moving; it’s just a gorgeous book.
Nadia Colburn: That’s great. Thank you. My other question is: Is there a practice that you do to stay centered and grounded? People can get overwhelmed by the climate crisis; I think your whole book is, as I said, life-affirming, but are there practices that you do aside from bicycling to stay centered?
Devi Lockwood: Yeah. I was gonna say while actually recording the stories, I found the time on my bike to be really restorative and necessary and I was able to keep going because I had that time to think and re-center. I guess I sort of recreated some of that same motion during the writing process. I wrote most of the book during the pandemic, so it wasn’t super possible to go out and do things with other people, but I could go out and go hiking. I was based close to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There are 48 peaks in New Hampshire that are higher than 4,000 feet. So I went about ticking off all the hikes on that list and just finished a couple of weekends ago. It was really fun to have a goal that was adjacent to the writing and had nothing to do with it.
I recommend getting outside and moving as a way of getting unstuck from all sorts of things. It’s hard to feel inertia when I’m moving through a really beautiful landscape and getting to see some gorgeous views in all seasons.
Nadia Colburn: Yeah. Lovely. Then my final question: Is there some way that you take action outside of your writing, maybe on a larger systemic level or a political level or it could be some other level that you just want to tell people about and recommend or show?
Devi Lockwood: I’m kind of limited just because of my profession and what I can do because in journalism there are sharp divides about not being an activist or being an advocate. Because I so desperately want to write about these issues and I see that as the strongest intervention that I can do, it means that I don’t go to a protest unless I’m covering it
I think for folks who are interested in getting involved with these issues, the best way to start is internally, by understanding your own strengths and having a great conversation with yourself about what your strengths are and what brings you joy and then plugging in with organizations who are doing that kind of work locally, whether that’s 350 or The Sierra Club or The League of Conservation Voters or any other organization.
There are all sorts of groups that are in need of help and that they can help plug people in with causes that are even more local and specific. It’s impossible as one person to take on all of climate change or all of the environmental issues that have to do with water, for example. But there are really specific small slices of things that have local impacts that are easier to tap into as an individual.
Nadia Colburn: That’s beautiful and a kind of full circle back to the reminder that the personal is local and global at the same time. And that, in itself, is a practice to remember. We’re in our bodies; we’re in our individual lives; we can do what we can do in our bodies. We can go climb the mountains, we can take action in the ways that bring us joy and connection, locally and globally also. It’s all connected.
Devi Lockwood: Absolutely.
Nadia Colburn: Thank you so much.
Devi Lockwood: Thank you. It was great to chat with you.
Nadia Colburn: Be really well.
Devi Lockwood: You too.