‘Unruly Planet’ Examines Communities at the ‘Edge of Promise and Peril’

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Detail from cover art of ‘At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth.”

Author Madeline Ostrander avoids contrived conclusions in her examination of several U.S. communities organizing within our dangerously destabilized climate. That means no final victories—and no ultimate defeats—in this continuing project, reviewer Osha Gray Davidson writes.

At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth,” by Madeline Ostrander (Henry Holt)

Osha Gray Davidson

“This is a book about home,” science journalist Madeline Ostrander writes in the prologue of At Home on an Unruly Planet, laying out her literary ambition. “I want to consider how we settle in.”

This may sound simple, but it’s an enormously complex undertaking. Ostrander uses plain words and spare prose like a poet to engage with thorny and deeply emotional issues that are at once both pragmatic and philosophical. It’s not wrong to say that her subject is the climate crisis, but that’s not the full story either.

Yes, the “Unruly Planet” of the title is our present day earth, its intricately-braided natural systems scrambled by the CO2 emitted by industrialized nations (primarily the United States) since the 1860s. But what appears to interest Ostrander most is how people respond to these calamitous realities collectively to preserve their communities, or sometimes, to recover from devastation and recreate or even re-imagine their home places.

The book centers on four communities, each threatened with a different existential threat produced by our addiction to fossil fuels. There’s St. Augustine, Florida (sea-level rise); Pateros, Washington (wildfires); Richmond, California (where the air itself is often toxic from chemicals released by a massive Chevron oil refinery); and Newtok, Alaska, where rising summer temperatures are radically reshaping the tundra.

Ostrander is a wonderful storyteller. She takes us into the communities teetering on the front lines of the climate crisis and closely observes residents as they attempt to navigate disasters that undermine their home places. Sometimes the undermining is both figurative and literal, as in the case of Newtok, the Alaska Native village, where houses built on permafrost that is now thawing are being swallowed up, one by one, by the same river that for generations had been their lifeline to fishing grounds on the Bering Sea. The people of Newtok have been called America’s first climate refugees for their decades-long battle to obtain government funding to move to a more stable site being built a few miles away on the other side of the river. (As of this writing, half the population is in the new community and the other half is still seeking the funds needed to get there.)

One reason the book is so compelling is that Ostrander is no “parachute journalist,” jumping into a place she doesn’t understand, staying just long enough to gather material, crank out a sensationalized story, and then leave.

The author spent years traveling between these besieged communities. Her dogged commitment allows readers to witness events as they unfold. We see progress, setbacks, often followed by despair, and just as often, followed by redoubled efforts.

The result is that none of the stories have contrived conclusions. There are no final victories to celebrate or defeats to mourn. 

Ostrander knows that people and communities, like the climate itself, are mostly unpredictable and constantly changing. She describes one community as standing “at the edge of promise and peril,” which, of course, is where we all exist today — or soon will.

And that’s the best reason to read Ostrander’s beautifully written and profound chronicle: to take heart from the battles of others so that we can better fight for our own homes wherever they are on this unruly planet.


Osha Gray Davidson is a freelance writer, author, and screenwriter. Deceleration recommends his work on the need for reparations for slavery and its legacy in his excellent American Project podcast and his work on a racial reckoning in The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, recently made into a film. Starting in early 2023, Davidson will be a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, reporting on the effects of and responses to climate change in the Southwestern United States.

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