Barbara Kingsolver has been weaving her concern about the environment into her books ever since she started writing novels in 1988. Her 2012 novel Flight Behavior explored how climate change might affect the monarch butterfly, and the 2007 nonfiction work Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recounted her family’s experiment eating only food grown near their home in Virginia.

She recently applied this skill to a new, much shorter genre: pledge-writing. The coordinators of the American Climate Corps — President Joe Biden’s signature green jobs program — invited Kingsolver to pen the promise new members would recite when sworn in. “I told them, ‘This will be the first vow or pledge I’ve written since my wedding vows,’” Kingsolver said. Last month, the first 9,000 members of the Climate Corps committed to Kingsolver’s oath:

I pledge to bring my skills, respect, and compassion to work every day, supporting environmental justice in all our communities.

I will honor nature’s beauty and abundance, on which we all depend, and commit to its protection from the climate crisis.

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I will build a more resilient future, where every person can thrive.

I will take my place in history, working with shared purpose in the American Climate Corps on behalf of our nation and planet, its people, and all its species, for the better future we hold within our sight.

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The inaugurated members have spread across the country to install clean energy, restore habitats, and build trails. The Biden White House expects to employ 20,000 young people over the first year of the program, inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched in the 1930s to help the country recover from the Great Depression. 

Kingsolver believes that the reimagined version will make history, too, calling it “one of the most exciting things that’s happening in the country right now.” In a call with Grist, she discussed her vision for the American Climate Corps and how it connects to the themes in her novels: nature, empathy, and class. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. What was the thinking behind the language you used in the pledge?

A. In less than 100 words, I tried to bring in the most important parts of this initiative — that it’s about respecting and bringing justice to communities, it’s about respecting and honoring the environment and our connection with it, and it’s about taking a part in history. I read it aloud to myself as I worked, because a pledge is more like poetry than anything else. It has to sound right spoken aloud, and it has to sound like you mean it. Like a wedding vow!

Q. You’ve said that you believe writing can promote social change. Is that part of why you wrote this? 

A. Words are what I have to offer. That’s my way of giving blood. I think that advocacy and literature are two very different things, and this was a chance to really jump on advocacy, which I’m delighted to do. I feel this rising sense of worry and paralysis among younger generations as they look at the world they’re inheriting. And I’ve always thought that worry can be a paralyzer or an engine that puts you to work, and that you’ll go farther and feel better if you put your worry to work.

Q. I know you’ve been writing about climate change in your novels for a long time. What have you learned about how to communicate about it in an approachable way?

A. I think the most important thing to remember, no matter who you are, whether you’re a policymaker, or a novelist, or just a friend or a relative entering a conversation, is that nobody likes to feel judged. People take information from sources that they trust, and trust involves respect. So if you open a conversation with the words “you idiot,” that conversation is already over. 

I write with the assumption that my readers are all at least as smart as I am. I never talk down because there’s no reason I should. I might have some fact that other people don’t have, or some skills that other people don’t have, and likewise, they have facts and skills I don’t have. So I go into this as an equal exchange. I think that if more people remembered that on social media, the world would be a happier place.

Q. In Demon Copperhead, your most recent novel, a through line that surfaces is how coal companies have exploited Appalachian communities. Can you talk about what inspired you to write about climate change, and if the history of the region had anything to do with that?

A. Well, I’m a rural person. I grew up playing in the woods as a largely unsupervised child. So, the woods, the fields, the water, the river — this is always going to be part of my world. I don’t think of the world as a place of only human interest and occupation. I think of myself as a species among the species. I studied biology, so I have this awareness that every breath I take, the oxygen that I breathe, was manufactured by trees. So, it’s going to be part of my writing, always. It’s part of my thinking, always. 

Q. Poverty and class are often central themes in your books. Thinking about the Climate Corps, part of its purpose is to revitalize areas of the country that have long been neglected. What role do you hope it will play?

A. I think this is a really class-conscious endeavor, encouraging kids from everywhere, from every class, in every geographic part of the U.S., rural or urban, to have opportunities to engage with conservation, to engage with the future in this way, and to be really clear that enjoying the environment is not a privilege of the elite.