State of Nature: In “Windfall,” Journalist McKenzie Funk Recasts the Conversation About Climate Change

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Journalist McKenzie Funk is an adventurer, as much in his intellectual pursuits as in his taste for sport. He would rather climb a 26,000-foot mountain than hang with the press corps. So it is with his new book, “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming,” which recounts myriad efforts to cash in on climate change.

An absurd display of Canadian militarism first piqued Funk’s interest in the topic. In 2006, he found himself aboard the Canadian frigate HMCS Montréal as it surged toward the Northwest Passage. Harper’s Magazine had sent Funk up north to cover a Canadian military mission intended to demonstrate sovereignty over the disputed Arctic waters. The accelerating thaw of the long-obstructed passage promised to create a coveted shortcut between Europe and Asia. Although Canada claims ownership over the waters, the United States and European Union consider them to be international.

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Photo courtesy of Mckenzie Funk

A Canadian soldier stands guard at the edge of the Northwest Passage, an emerging shipping lane as the Arctic melts.

Until he boarded the Montréal, Funk admits, he found climate change a dull topic. “The way we talk and write about it is preachy, and abstract, and far from people, except in the ‘You’re being bad’ kind of way.” For Funk, the operation transformed climate change from an abstract issue into a geopolitical pissing contest: something visible, tangible and, he suggests, revealing about human nature. “We are confronting a crisis,” he says, “but we haven’t done too much from the prophylactic side. Now you see people asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ both at national and individual levels.” In all, Funk traveled to 23 countries, spanning five continents, to investigate diverse preparations to get rich off climate change.

McKenzie Funk

Credit: Aaron Huey

McKenzie Funk

Funk is an expert traveler. He was conceived on the bed of Oregon’s McKenzie River, his namesake. In turn, the river was named for Donald MacKenzie, a 19th-century Scottish-Canadian fur trader and famed explorer of the Pacific Northwest. The name fits Funk, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies his appetite for adventure. In 2007, he hitchhiked the Trans-Siberian Highway, arguably the longest highway in the world. He speaks five languages, majored in philosophy and professes an interest in justice. His least favorite foods are dog and narwhal.

When he was a kid, Funk’s father organized winter trips through the backcountry. Funk’s mother preferred international travel. A drive through the Alps one summer ignited in Funk an enduring fascination with mountains.

In 2003, this fascination moved Funk and his friend Lars Jan to trek in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, in what would become a turning point in his writing career.

“At that time, the insurgency was winding down,” Funk explains. “A jeep dropped us off with an old Soviet map, and we followed the line to the ridge. People warned us not to go into the valley, because that’s where people from the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] used to hide out.”

One day, as the two friends descended a slope, a grapefruit-sized rock tumbled 100 feet and landed on Jan’s leg. “He wasn’t bleeding too much, but we couldn’t tell if it was broken.” Without cellphones or any discernable signs of human life, Funk and Jan set up camp. “Lars, the bastard, immediately ate all of our Snickers bars.”

After they spent three days living on those Snickers bars and a plastic water bottle filled with honey, Jan regained enough strength to carry on. In search of a doctor, they entered the reputedly dangerous valley, only to find hospitable Tajiks, excited by their first glimpse of Westerners in more than a decade. There were neither doctors nor insurgents in the small village of Sangvor, leading Funk to conclude that “much of the supposed intelligence we receive is wrong.”

The experience solidified Funk’s preference for unearthing untold stories, and for writing about the experiences of others as opposed to his own. Funk’s “professional bumming around” has served him well in this regard, enabling him to navigate unfamiliar places and situations. In 2005, for instance, he accompanied ski mountaineer Mark Newcomb up the better part of Tibet’s 26,286-foot Himalayan mountain Shishapangma, which has the world’s 14th highest peak.

Mark Newcomb on Shishapangma in the Himalayas.

Photo courtesy of McKenzie Funk

Mark Newcomb on Shishapangma in the Himalayas.

Funk came up in the world of journalism through traditional, but now shrinking, channels. He applied to journalism schools after graduating from Swarthmore College, but didn’t get in for lack of experience. Soon after, he scored an internship with National Geographic Traveler magazine. A year later, in 2000, he moved to New York City to work as a fact checker and assistant editor at National Geographic Adventure. Fact checking was excellent training, Funk says, because retracing the reporter’s steps demystifies the writing process. By 2001, Funk was freelancing. Five years later he boarded the Montréal.

Since then, Funk has traveled everywhere, from Sudan to Greenland, to catch up with entrepreneurs who see dollar signs in melt, drought and deluge: Greenland secessionists who imagine independence in vast oil deposits lying beneath fast-melting ice; a CIA analyst turned hedge funder buying up bits and pieces of the Colorado River system; and buoyant Dutch architects with big plans for a New York City seawall.

The result is at once refreshing, fascinating and deeply unsettling. While the mainstream media continue to rehash the stale debate about the scientific validity of climate change, Funk shifts the frame to those who are already taking action in response to climate change, particularly those who stand to gain from a warmer reality. “The most important thing about the book is that people approach climate change sort of like everything else. It will magnify imbalances between North and South, rich and poor. NYC will get a seawall, but Bangladesh will drown.”

Funk is quick to point out that he’s not an activist. He does not want to cast aspersions. The book’s actors are “often behaving badly but rarely being bad people themselves. His intent is to showcase the ideological underpinnings of such behavior: expansionism, market fundamentalism and technological optimism. Never mind polar bears and solar panels.

“Windfall” is fundamentally a book about greed. Whether Funk sees greed as a function of ideology or human nature remains murky. Human nature implies immutability. Ideology introduces the possibility of awakening to the fact that addressing this complex problem will require more than shortsighted self-interest. Ultimately, Funk seems to be pointing to some well-worn paths, wondering if we can’t find a better way.

On an expedition in Bolivia.

Photo courtesy of Paolo Marchesi

On an expedition in Bolivia. Funk on right.

McKenzie Funk’s work has appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, GQ, Outside and The New York Times. A National Magazine and Livingston Award finalist and the winner of the Oakes Prize for Environmental Journalism, he was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. He resides in Seattle with his wife and son.

2 thoughts on “State of Nature: In “Windfall,” Journalist McKenzie Funk Recasts the Conversation About Climate Change

  1. Deny this; you remaining climate blame “believers” are exaggerating science’s 32 year old consensus of 95% certainty and nothing beyond “could be” so don’t tell children that science “believes” as much as you “believers” do. The real crime wasn’t just exaggerating a consensus of nothing, it was the very act of trying so hard to believe in this misery for billions of innocent children. Real planet lovers are happy a crisis for the planet was thankfully a tragic exaggeration, all be it committed by you “believers”.
    Former “believers” are better planet lovers. We don’t issue CO2 death threats just to make sure the kids turn the lights out more often.

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