Over the past two weeks (I only spent one day at the booth last week), I had two climate anxiety counseling sessions that I didn’t post to the blog. Both laid out, in some detail with some missing parts, worlds fairly different than “the world,” the one we think we share. Both raised some questions for me about surveillance, risk, perception, planning.
There are more police around the park and bus station this year than there were last year, at nearly the same time, when I first held climate anxiety counseling sessions. At most times I can look up and see a police car or SUV, or a uniformed officer on a bike or on foot. One passerby responded angrily and suspiciously when I told her that Dorinda was recording my conversation with another person, even though we had that person’s permission; another passerby said that people in the park might think I was an undercover cop.
And another, the person I’m thinking of now, asked if I was a government drug dealer. I said that I am not a drug dealer and I don’t work for the government. They said, “You don’t need to work for the government to be a government drug dealer,” and proceeded to tell me about the drugs that were in everything–the food, the water, coating the seats of their truck and giving their cat seizures. They described a car chase in which the car behind them slowed down when they slowed down and sped up when they sped up. They showed me their arm, which had no marks on it, and a rash on their knees. Everything they offered as evidence had another and more likely explanation. “If this is true, and if it’s as pervasive as you say it is,” I asked. “what do you think our responsibility is–just ordinary people?”
“I was hoping you could tell me that,” they said.
I wish I’d asked them what they wanted me, specifically, to do–why they had chosen to speak to me–although that’s not usually a question I ask interlocutors at the booth. This person saw everything through the lens of their fear of a malevolent force of which they were aware and from which everyone suffered. They felt infinitely threatened and, in a way, they’re right.
The second person who came to me with a deeply developed vision was thinking not of the present but of a path to a potential future. “The government is a co-op, we pay taxes,” they said, “and it could be hard to tax ourselves again, but we’d directly address the needs of specific places … So one day, everybody takes a little bit of money, like instead of a six-pack or a t-shirt, and throw it together in a co-op till you have enough money to buy a portion of land to grow a massive amount of food … The people own it, everybody pays into it, everybody who pays into there gets to eat off it.” They described a supermarket stocked with this food, serving the people of the neighborhood, making political and ethical decisions about what they wouldn’t carry, as a pathway to “poor people joining together and taking control, writing our own bylaws, making our own rules … That building over there, it’s boarded up, why not petition the city to turn it into vertical farms?”
I want to describe this person, because some of the things about them go to make them extra vulnerable; I want to include more elements of their ideas, because I think they’re good ideas. but But I don’t want to describe them or include those elements, because I don’t want to put them or their ideas at risk. The risk is real, but could I really be its conduit? Am I seeing ghosts?
In writing the alternate histories, I’ve tried to envision versions of our work with some radical displacements and emplacements–some deep heaves in who serves, who cares for, who works for whom and what. I’ve tried to make those versions coherent, because the dream must be vivid and continuous, as vivid and as continuous as the world we know. The dream of drugs that make you anxious and depressed, coating every surface you touch, entering your body at every point, is a vivid and continuous dream from which the person who shared it with me has no desire to escape because he doesn’t think it’s a dream. The dream of shared resources and vertical farms is a dream that the person who shared it with me seems eager to commit to. What about the dream of this world, the one we reinforce every time we say, “It is what it is?” I don’t mean to say that we can “change the world” by changing our minds, but I believe that changing our minds is a necessary component; I think we should face and also question both the beatific and the miserific visions.
Both of these versions of the world are useful and important to listen to, but in different ways. The miserific vision is useful as a metaphor: there really are systems which many people serve unwillingly or unknowingly and which some people prosecute with gusto, which do pervasive harm to the people and other living beings of the world. My interlocutor made the nightmare literal, which can help us see it. My other interlocutor showed how the beatific vision is useful as a goad, a lever: something to help us upheave certain foundations. “As soon as we give it a name and a face, people will chip away at it,” they pointed out, “but like a snowball rolling downhill, we can start.”