Climate Anxiety Counseling: Reflections on Week 2

Part 1: I Am Becoming Very Strange

“Mitigation”, from people involved in climate change activism and response, refers to efforts to stop worsening the problem– legislation that limits greenhouse gas emissions, for example. “Adaptation” refers to efforts to help people, ecosystems and structures / infrastructures endure the results of the changing climate. One of my interlocutors, who speaks to state agencies and groups of professionals about adaptation, talked to me about the “look of fear” they often give her at the end of presentations. “The issues seem so huge,” she said. “So if we can bring it to a to a local level, an individual and neighborhood approach, people will feel less — alone.”

She backed off the notion of feeling alone, but because it was one of my reasons for beginning this project, I want to return to it. I hoped that through talking about the climate and the ecosystem, their changes and my fears, I could contribute to a public discussion of urgency–mitigation–but also of loss–adaptation. American culture at large is bad at loss. Our language for it is impoverished, sparse, invariant. I hope, and still hope, to enrich that language as a gift to myself; I hoped, and still hope, that the people who talk with me, and who read this blog, will also receive it as a gift. At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra: you can’t feel less alone all by yourself. You need company.

But another and possibly contradictory hope is that people who haven’t thought about the changing climate very much, or who push it to the backs of their minds in the ways that several of my interlocutors have described, will say to themselves, “Wow, this must be a big deal, because this person is willing to do something very strange about it, and to make herself seem very strange.”

I was kind of strange to start with, in the sense of “odd” (she wrote, chewing the handful of greens she stuffed in her mouth straight out of the fridge) and in the sense of uncommon: for many of the people who speak with me, the amount of time devoted to this project–never mind what I’m doing with that time–is taken up with labor, paid or unpaid, or absorbed by other tasks of survival. While I tried to keep expectations low when I started the project, I did have some, and one was that someone would tell me to get a job. That hasn’t happened.  (Future passersby, in person or online, please don’t feel you have to fill that gap. I have a job; this isn’t it.)

But how strange am I willing to get? Which is another way of asking: what changes am I willing to choose? When I sit at the booth on a rainy day, my arm crooked around the umbrella to keep it from blowing away, I feel more dedicated, more committed, more serious. “People aren’t willing to go out of their way,” a few people have declared, looking me in the face as I sit at the booth, more in their way than mine.


Part 2: Adaptation

As I noted on Day 8, I’ve adapted, and adapted to, this project. I know which sloped curbs collect deep puddles when it rains, and where the nearest detours are; the muscles in my calves and lower back are gaining power from pushing the handtruck up the hill. The “CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELING 5 cents” sign, which in Lucy’s booth is above her head, now has its bottom edge flush with the tabletop because the wind kept blowing it around and even breaking it off. Not only do I hug the umbrella, I bungee the handtruck to the park fence.  I’ve repainted the lettering with waterproof paint, after a rainstorm turned both my signs into a suffusion of yellow. After a few shivering end-of-shift hours in this cold spring, I’ve finally figured out how many layers to wear. My booth-unpacking and booth-repacking time has shrunk. I’ve started bringing sidewalk chalk for younger visitors.

I’ve also made mistakes in engagement–arguing even though I promised myself I wouldn’t, losing a potential conversation because I was replying to a text — and been scathed. I replay those interactions, imagining a more genuine and less strategic response, a better redirect, an opening rather than a shutting down, or a quicker insistence on boundaries. What could I have said? I think. What should I have said? What will I say next time? For most interactions, there is no “next time”; I can try to adapt to what that last encounter required of me, but the next encounter may require something different.

If you’ve been following the daily posts, you also know that a few questions (in italics) recur: What do you think of when you imagine this hard future? is one that I ask often. And when people come up and ask, “What is this?”, I answer them more or less the same way, at least to start. But then I’m on my own–or rather, I’m there with them. Being more or less scriptless means that if I don’t pay attention, I can screw up any chance of actual communication, and miss what someone has to offer me. It means, too, that some people ramble, a few bloviate, and none are compelled to tell me if they fear what I fear. It also means I have a chance to see their particularity, whatever about them is irreducible and urgent. It gives me the chance to transform myself into the listener they want–to adapt myself to their story.

Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote once about the Lamarckian idea of inheritance: that organisms respond to “felt needs” in their environments (growing a thicker coat to survive a colder climate) and pass those traits on to their offspring. Gould’s point was that while biological evolution doesn’t work that way, cultural development does. Based on what we think we know, what the people around us have known, and what the world around us seems to be demanding from us–and the complex ways these interact–we change ourselves, and we change each other.


Part 3: Nothing But Feelings

The relationship between feeling and action is also complex. A feeling isn’t an action. Feeling something isn’t doing something, it isn’t the same thing or kind of thing. A feeling can motivate action, or inhibit it, or make it seem like a good or bad idea. That’s the relationship. And the feeling in another person can only spur you if they allow it to inform their actions (which could include telling you about it). A feeling is like a gene–you can’t see it, you can only see its expression, and usually what you’re seeing is the expression of many genes or feelings working together, some more obvious or visible than others, some jerry-rigged with historical parts of distant origins.

Like all analogies, this one breaks down if you push it far enough. But it’s helpful for me to think about because if I (or anybody) expect what we feel about climate change–its causes, its effects–to do direct work, that’s like expecting magic. But feelings are real the way genes are real: they lead or they withhold. What can our climate anxieties lead us to do? What will they cut us off from? What mutual gravities will they exert with other factors–innate and environmental, the changes we choose and the changes written in other people’s choices, out of our reach in the past? How can what we feel guide what we do with what we know? Those questions will hover over me as I move into Week 3.

Money raised to date for the Environmental Justice League of RI: $46.55

Rhode Island sites for which people have expressed concern, either in conversation or on the map:

Whatever they’re spraying along the East Bay Bike Path

[I’ll add more to these tomorrow: the map is out in the garage]



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