The Space Between

In BEWILDERMENT, the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning

novel THE OVERSTORY, Richard Powers turns his

attention to the universe within and without.

Here, he speaks with Atmos about the shift from

alienation to interbeing, the question vexing astrobiologists,

and what it means to live where you live.

In BEWILDERMENT, the follow-up

to his Pulitzer Prize-winning

novel THE OVERSTORY, Richard

Powers turns his

attention to the universe

within and without.

Here, he speaks with

Atmos about the shift from

alienation to interbeing, the

question vexing astrobiologists,

and what it means to

live where you live.

The Space Between

Interview WILLOW DEFEBAUGH   Photographs MICHAEL HAUPTMAN

WILLOW One of the central themes that’s explored in your new novel Bewilderment is the relationship between mental well-being and climate well-being, which could not be more relevant. Google recently revealed that searches for climate anxiety have soared by 565% in the last year alone. Bewilderment follows Robin, a child who’s seen by others as being neurodivergent for not being able to process the ecological destruction and species loss that we’re witnessing. Meanwhile, those who are able to carry on with life alongside ecocide are considered “healthy.” How are you defining mental well-being these days?

RICHARD What you just put so cogently is really at the heart of the book. You mentioned the staggering statistic from Google. We have seen so many staggering statistics about the pervasive degrees of eco-trauma among everyone, but especially among the young. The ambiguity that you identified about Robin’s non-normativity—whether it is an aberrance that needs curing or whether it is indeed more emblematic of a true and healthy outlook on the world, and it’s the rest of societal norms that are aberrant and need curing—I think is very much at the heart of this fable.

What constitutes well-being? I love that in this question, you have linked the personal answer and the collective answer. We tend to think about this question almost exclusively as a personal one, which I believe is symptomatic of a lack of well-being at the social level. That is to say, we are so colonized by a culture that insists that individual aspiration, appetite, and satisfaction are the hallmarks of well-being. We are so colonized by that idea that it has produced a culture that is itself not well.

“We are so colonized by a culture that insists that individual aspiration, appetite, and satisfaction are the hallmarks of well-being. We are so colonized by that idea that it has produced a culture that is itself not well.”

The way that I have tried in these last two books to step back from that and to unravel and interpret the lack of cultural well-being is to, first of all, explore the idea of human exceptionalism as itself a kind of pathological state. We—I mean, this Western, commodity-mediated, individualist, neoliberal formation that has taken dominance over the entire world and produced a global culture of accumulation—we have, over the last two centuries, become alienated from all of the rest of the nonliving world. We do not think of where we live as especially significant with regard to our own daily sense of accountability. We have reached a point where, instead of thinking about where we are, either locally or globally, as a living, interconnected, and interdependent system, we think of it rather as a stockpile of resources for feeding our own repetitive scenarios of growth and dominance.

I think, if you are that alienated from where you live and who you live among, if you are so completely persuaded by this idea that growth is the same thing as accumulation and vice versa, then you will never be well. We have placed our stakes on a sense of meaning that we believe is entirely created by and for our private selves. And yet, at the same time, because meaning is entirely contingent upon building up our sense of accumulation, our sense of self-power, we are completely terrified of death. I think those two things come together as the great enablers of the social malaise, the cultural malaise, that has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe and has launched this new mass-extinction event.

What would health look like? Health would move this idea of meaning and purpose from an entirely self-defined paradigm of accumulation, and possession, and dominion, and mastery out into the living world. Meaning and purpose would be defined by our commitment to rehabilitate and reintegrate ourselves into the living community that we inhabit. Other cultures have been healthy. There have been many cultures, over the history and geography of the world, that have known that meaning lies out there and is dependent upon taking our place as one of many nodes in a huge interwoven network of interbeing. There are still cultures that are holding out against the culture of ill-health and alienation.

“If you are that alienated from where you live and who you live among, if you are so completely persuaded by this idea that growth is the same thing as accumulation and vice versa, then you will never be well.“

WILLOW In some sense, it’s so simple. When we think about the word “well-being,” a synonym for that could really be wholeness. And so, individualism and alienation are really opposed to that.

RICHARD Absolutely. We have a limited ability to see that no one can be well by themselves. We know that intellectually inside the human community. Why should it be any different in the larger community of living things? The only well-being is interbeing.

WILLOW I’m so happy you also brought up the word “alienation,” because that was my next question. When I finished the book, that was the word that struck me in how much it speaks to all of the different themes in the story. Here we have a father, an astrobiologist who’s searching for alien life in distant worlds. We have this child who is treated like some kind of alien by his own species. In so many ways, what you’re speaking to is: how can we not understand this ecological crisis as a crisis of alienation?

RICHARD Yeah, absolutely. The story works its way narratively toward a kind of understanding that what seems alien to us is in fact kin. If we can turn our fear of the alien into a love of kinship, we can be well again. I think of this book as a triple love story. It’s the love story of a father for an intense and unusual son who’s in trouble with the human world, a father who would do anything in his power to protect that son from the vicissitudes and the blows of the human world. It’s the love story of Robin for his mother, who’s disappearing into memory, who he can no longer hold onto, and who he is desperate to reconnect with.

But it’s also the love of those two lost, alienated boys for the world around them. They travel across the galaxy to see what life might be able to do elsewhere in very, very different conditions. But the purpose of all that traveling is to return to the place where they began and to see that it is absolutely full of agency, possibility, richness, and community. To find love in that broader community of kin is the only possible place that we humans can put our hope now.

“The only well-being is interbeing.”

“What seems alien to us is in fact kin.

If we can turn our

fear of the alien into a love or kinship,

we can be well again.”

WILLOW Through the use of this neurofeedback machine that allows Robbie to experience the emotions of his deceased mother—specifically ecstasy—he goes from this place of perpetual agony over the state of the world to this place of continuous awe at how interconnected and extraordinary everything is. What really struck me about that dichotomy is that to anyone who is awake to how extraordinary this planet is and the gravity of what is happening to it, it often can feel like oscillating between those two extremes. I’m curious if that’s something you yourself experience?

RICHARD It’s really interesting to be alive now. To move toward that broader consciousness where meaning is out there in a connected community is to be on a rollercoaster of extremes. Because anyone who’s paying attention knows how devastating the cataclysms and catastrophes that we’ve unleashed on the world are going to be. There’s no getting around that darkness. There is going to be so much lost, certainly so much in the human world. Immense prices to pay in lives and in suffering.

Part of us is deeply traumatized, knowing that the way of life that is familiar, seemingly stable, though mostly inefficient, is going to be torn apart. That’s a terrifying thing. It’s certainly terrifying for children. But for adults who are doubly invested in the status quo, what bigger fear can there be than the unanswerable uncertainty about how we are going to get from today through the cataclysms of tomorrow?

That will produce a kind of despair that itself results in paralysis, lassitude, and capitulation. Surrounding all of the calls for environmental engagement is this realization that we have known about this unfolding catastrophe for over half a century. And yet, we’re paralyzed, because we can’t let go of the familiar, and the comforting, and the seductive, and all of the power and promise of this capitalist formation that has laid all these golden eggs for us for so long.

There is despair in feeling the loss of that world. There is despair in knowing that we have unleashed this extinction event that can’t be undone now. There is also, I think, a growing sense in the public at large that, once we can come to terms with the volatility, and the loss, and the grief, and the mourning, the worst parts of how we live now will no longer be viable and tenable. It will free us for new cultural formations that will engage the world more productively.

That’s where hope comes in. If you define hope as a commitment to engage the future as having purpose and meaning, then of course the future has meaning and hope. If you define hope that way, then of course we will still have hope. Because we know that life force will survive us. It has survived all these mass extinctions in the past. It has survived cataclysmic upheavals that go beyond the one that we set in motion. We are less sure that we’ll be around in any capacity to be a part of that story. But I feel for the short- and the near-term, for certain, that we will.

Will that world, in all its diminishment and its pain, provide possible places for engagement and a recovery of meaning and purpose? Yes. I mean, it is precisely the formation of that new consciousness—first one-by-one as individuals and then in the aggregate—that will make the world of the future possibly more meaningful than the world of the present.

There is something inherently unmeaningful about accumulation. You know the famous line of Andrew Carnegie when he was asked how much is enough, and he answered, “Just a little bit more”? When you place meaning on a relative scale, there will always be people with more than you, and there will always be more for you to get in this pursuit of scratching an itch that tends to get itchier as you scratch it. There is no arrival point. You can never say, “I now have enough. I now feel good.” Those of us who have prospered inside this system are wealthy and powerful in ways that the richest and most powerful people in previous generations could not even have conceived of. And yet, we’re miserable.

If we can leap into this other form of consciousness, if we can find hope in a meaningful engagement with the future, there are prospects for durable happiness and well-being that are hard for the people of the present even to imagine. If we can recover the sense of the Earth as a living thing, and if we can attune our consciousness to rejoining that, then there is an endless amount of natural capital that then belongs to us in a spiritual way.

WILLOW I love that framing of hope in an almost practical way. It struck me that in this story, of all the emotions that help Robin, it’s ecstasy that helps the most. When people ask me, “What can I do?” I always come back to reenchantment: doing everything that you can to remind yourself how incredible this planet is. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass about remembering that we’re in love with the Earth and that the Earth loves us back—and how much joy there is in that reciprocal relationship. I’m wondering if there were any other reasons why you chose ecstasy.

RICHARD No, you really put your finger on it. I have to say that Braiding Sweetgrass was a deep, deep inspiration for me—not just for The Overstory but for this book. I have not told Robin Wall Kimmerer this (she’s become a pen pal since The Overstory was published), but my Robin is named after her. It took me my whole life to find that ecstasy begins in being ecstatic about where you are and living where you live. I was in my late 50s before I realized that there was an urgency to the place that I lived in. It was filled with purposeful creatures, both plants and animals. And that I was a part of that purpose.

I was so indoctrinated into this exceptionalist self-making that we’re so good at, that I felt portable. I felt like my real hopes, fears, and concerns were all about what we human beings like to call the “real world.” In other words, the invented world, the one that we made. I could live anywhere. I could write anywhere. It didn’t really matter what was happening outside my window, because I was working, and I was self-fashioning, and I was accumulating.

What I wasn’t doing was living. I certainly wasn’t living where I lived. How many people, how many of us can name even a dozen indigenous species to the place that we live? I don’t think that’s a huge exaggeration. How many are, as Thoreau says, “living in each season as it passes”? And how many can say, on a given day, at a given hour, what the plants, and the trees, and the flowers, and the animals around them are doing and needing? To know those things and to see them most of all—to smell them, and to touch them, and to experience them through your eyes—is an endless joy.

That’s what I say when people ask me, “What can I do?” I say, “Start by living where you live and finding the joy in that, and your joy will be contagious.” We can’t save the world that we built. And I’m not sure we would want to, because it’s a pyramid scheme. It’s based on phony bookkeeping. It’s terrifying, but we cannot save that world. And so, once you realize that, a little bit of the malaise and defeatism of environmental engagement goes away. If you realize that being joyful in the living world is itself an environmental activist pursuit, that’s hugely liberating, and that produces more energy than it consumes.

“It took me my whole life to find that ecstasy begins in being ecstatic about where you are and living where you live. I was in my late 50s before I realized that there was an urgency to the place that I lived in. It was filled with purposeful creatures, both plants and animals. And that I was a part of that purpose.”

WILLOW That notion of living where you live is such a powerful one. I think it gets at this interesting tension that’s in the book: you have the astrobiologist who’s looking for life everywhere else, while the son is just completely immersed in all of the life that is around him. It’s a dichotomy that’s embedded in the story of finding meaning beyond but also within us.

RICHARD Yeah. That’s where the book comes home. Not to give anything away to readers of the piece who haven’t read the book yet, but in the final pages of the book, Robin brings Theo to the realization of where he is. All these trips to other planets set up a landing back on Earth.

WILLOW In many ways, that’s the great false binary: the idea that without is different from within.

RICHARD Yes, yes, that’s right.

WILLOW This novel centers around a search for knowledge and search for answers alongside the processing of grief, which is in many ways unknowable. We can only feel it. So as much as this is a love story, it’s also about coping with loss, coping with familial loss. Theo mourning his wife, Robbie mourning his mother, as well as our nonhuman kin. We were talking about the desire to evade the despair of what’s happening. And it feels like this great trap that our species falls into: in avoiding suffering, we just make it so much worse.

RICHARD When you put all your stakes in a culture that says, “Let’s go for it. Let’s use all our technology to control time and space, to escape the cycles of life, to gain mastery and dominion over this place,” there is, at the bottom, this ultimate fantasy about evading mortality.

I taught at Stanford, and that’s where I got the idea for writing The Overstory. In the heart of Silicon Valley, it was hard to avoid this culture of transhumanism and technological triumphalism. I would frequently run into people who were associated with all these businesses that are transforming the world, and they had this idea: just hold on a little bit longer, because very soon, we’re going to have the technological ability to correct this awful design flaw called death. We’re going to be able to have it our way. That’s a hugely seductive fantasy, and it is, in some weird way, shared by almost all of us who have completely assimilated the culture that I’m talking about, the immune, exceptionalist culture.

The way that people live is almost like that Philip Larkin poem “Myxomatosis”: if I just keep still and wait, and be good, and prosper, and do the right things, maybe something will happen that will save me from the annihilator of all meaning. Because when meaning is private and depends upon self-accumulation, death wipes all that out. Death is the absolute enemy of meaning inside this culture. We live in constant terror of it. We can’t even talk about it out loud without creating the biggest faux pas there is.

In this transformed consciousness, in the consciousness of interbeing, in this consciousness of reciprocity that Kimmerer talked about, death is not only a necessary and acceptable part of the change and the seasonal migration of life, it actually is the best technology that life ever came up with. Because it is the engine of birth. It enables evolution. A dying organism makes room for and provides the means of more transformation. The differential inheritance of dying creatures is what drives the possibility of adaptation and the possibility of transformation.

I believe that what Robin knows, when he’s at his best in the story, is that there is nothing to fear about death once you perceive yourself as being part of this large experiment in kinship and interdependence.

“There is nothing to fear about death once you perceive yourself as being part of this large experiment in kinship and interdependence.”

WILLOW It’s that, as he says, everyone is inside of everyone. As soon as he understands that, that takes away the terror. Because what is there really to fear?

RICHARD That’s right. My individual death would only be annihilating if I thought that meaning resided in an individual. Once I see myself and my destiny in other living things, my death permits new configurations in that shared destiny. And everything that I am goes on in other combinations. And that’s the whole point. In the broader sense, once you make allies with the life principle as a whole, once you locate your meaning there, death has no dominion.

WILLOW We’ve chosen this culture in which death is the annihilator. And yet, outside of this culture, death is everything but. It doesn’t take away meaning; it gives everything meaning.

RICHARD That’s exactly right.

WILLOW I think we are watching a beautiful moment in Western culture in which we’re starting to bridge this divide or separation that was created so starkly between science and spirituality, which many Indigenous cultures have understood to be one and the same. Spirituality is woven into Bewilderment in a number of different ways. You have Aly, Robbie’s mother, whose prayer is one of the four Buddhist immeasurables: “may all sentient beings be free from suffering.” Then you also have this crushing moment when the space-mapping project is shut down partly because of the suspicion of religious conservatives and the idea that if we find life out there, then we may no longer be special in our relationship to God or creation.

So on one hand, we have this example of spirituality connecting us, or connecting these characters to the rest of the world, in such a deep way through this prayer of empathy. And then, on the other, we have it being used to totally cut us off—as we’ve seen religion do historically in many ways. Can you speak a little bit to the role that spirituality plays in changing human behavior or even just in your life?

RICHARD This division between science and spirituality begins to seem more tenuous once you turn that corner and start to realize how deeply embedded living things are with all other living things, in a biological sense first and then in a spiritual sense. So all the Buddhism in the book is also driven by a new appreciation for interbeing at the scientific level.

You are absolutely right in pointing out that the book is concerned with ways in which the so-called spiritual is turned to other paradigms of opposition and domination. We use religion, now, as a shibboleth for group allegiance. We use it to reduce interdependence and diversity. We use it to separate “us” from “them.” Yet at the heart of the word “religion”—the etymology of the word—the Latin base is religio, to tie back together. The world’s great religions, if you look at the texts, all of them are about tying us back together, to each other, to creation, to the creator, in those forms that are theistic. We use those texts, you see, we co-opt them. Because they are probably the most powerful incentives to give up our ego and to give up our sense of exceptionalism and separation. We recognize how threatening they are to all those other sources of security, power, and dominance. We pervert them. We spin them on their heads. And now, they become instruments of opposition.

WILLOW Something that also comes up for me is the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising. It’s so hard to deny what feels like this mass shift in consciousness that’s happening in so many different sectors. It’s so satisfying to know that people are having similar awakenings or starting to see the world through a lens of interbeing. There was this brief moment in the book talking about the Great Filter. Robin is posing the question of whether or not there might be a bottleneck of consciousness in terms of the question of why we haven’t seen “conscious life” elsewhere in the universe. I was just thinking about this parallel of how it almost feels like there’s this explosion of change in consciousness happening right now. I was wondering if you can explain that idea of the filter.

“We use religion, now, as a shibboleth for group allegiance. We use it to reduce interdependence and diversity. We use it to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. Yet at the heart of the word ‘religion’—the etymology of the word—the Latin base is religio, to tie back together. The world’s great religions, if you look at the texts, all of them are about tying us back together, to each other, to creation, to the creator, in those forms that are theistic.”

RICHARD The Fermi paradox is a kind of statistical reckoning of the obvious, which is: if space is three times older than the Earth, if the universe is three times older than the Earth, and if there are hundreds of billions of galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars in each one, and each of those stars has multiple planets, as we now believe, where is everybody? Why have we seen no sign of life outside of this one case that we have? That’s a scary question.

That’s where this idea of the filters comes in. Maybe it’s extremely hard for life to get started anywhere. There might be another filter like the kind of thing that we saw on Earth with endosymbiosis and the creation of complex cells—maybe that is a filter. On Earth, it took over a billion years for complex cells to happen. Early life was a simple cell for over a billion years.

What Robin says is what a lot of people who look at the Fermi paradox say: maybe the filter is consciousness itself. Once you introduce consciousness, it’s so unstable in its power that no conscious civilization is ever going to exist for very long. E. O. Wilson has this formulation that we have Space Age technology, but we only have medieval institutions and paleolithic hardware, namely our brain. That’s a very volatile combination. Robin is evoking the possibility that any creature that evolves the capacity of consciousness is introducing such volatility that they’re likely to do themselves in before long. And so, the window for catching any of these civilizations is going to be so short that you’re never going to catch them.

I think the interesting question with regard to Theo’s astrobiology is: what discoveries out there, if any, would have an effect on changing our consciousness? We were talking about one earlier. You had said it would be tremendously threatening to this parochial idea of religion, which is that God made us singular and unique, absolute, chosen, exceptional creatures. The idea that we now suddenly see signatures of life everywhere in the universe would be very threatening to that sense of uniqueness. To me, that’s a sanguine possibility. If the astrobiologists were to report tomorrow, yes, life is everywhere, and we now have the empirical evidence for it. Like, wow, we’re not this God-given singular creature. We’re just part of this huge thing—let’s belong. Let’s relax and take part in this magnificent fact that the universe is inclined toward biology. That could possibly be a great source of well-being, to go back to your first question.

Now, the other one is also interesting, which is: we look, and we look, and we look, and it goes on decade, after decade, after decade—and there’s nothing. And then, the reality starts to dawn on us that this is the only place the experiment is happening. Holy crow, it’s up to us to take care of this one-off experiment. It’s possible that science, if it goes on long enough, in the face of the overwhelming search, could also be sobering. It could also help the maturation of the human species.

WILLOW I loved the part in the book when, grappling with this question of whether the universe is full of life or whether we are some rare exception, Robin wonders which would be more amazing.

RICHARD Yeah. There’s another question that Theo and Robin play with, which is: which is bigger, inner space or outer space? The paradoxical answer that Robin comes up with is: well, if inner space can conceive of outer space and can go out there looking, then inner space must be bigger. It’s almost like that Emily Dickinson poem, “The brain is wider than the sky, for put them side by side, the one the other will contain with ease and you beside.” What we, what I and you, have to live with every day is this astonishing fact that however big you and I are, the real beauty is that there’s room in there for speculating about everything else that there is.

WILLOW There’s room for the unknown.

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