Climate Anxiety Counseling at the Sankofa World Market: Reflections

During my third stint at the Sankofa World Market, a woman around my age came up to the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth and spoke about the stresses of her present living situation: her sister with five children had moved into a house originally intended to hold the speaker, her mom and her brother; they were short on space and long on noise, and there were other circumstances within the family that made it harder for everyone to live together. As I listened and asked occasional questions, it seemed to me that I’d seen her before, but I wasn’t sure and I hate to be wrong about that. When we reached what seemed like the end of the conversation, she asked my name.

“Kate,” I said, and her face changed and I said the name I thought was hers, as a question. Then we shrieked, and I came around the booth to hug her.

She and I met when she was working in a social work or counseling capacity at a charter school, where a girl I was mentoring* was a first-year student; the three of us met together a few times, eleven years ago. This time it’s only two weeks before we see each other again. She tells me things are going better at the house, presses a variety of snacks upon me, gives me her card and flyers for the CSEA, where she works, and makes sad sounds when I say it’s my last day. We like each other.

The CSEA of Rhode Island holds literacy and citizenship and ESL classes, offers assistance to women and girls suffering from domestic violence, helps people with their taxes, provides interpreting services, works for voter registration. They do this for Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong and Vietnamese Rhode Islanders; that’s who they serve, though they do some of it with the help of organizations that also serve other people.

I was thinking about this and also about July 22nd, when I had three separate booth conversations about religious faith and practice. I have neither of those, but even I know that the fact that they provide a reason other than affection to look out for people is a fringe benefit, not their purpose. I’ve been thinking more and more about that benefit because, like the CSEA’s mission and practices, it leads me in the direction of relations within and between structures, as well as between people, that are or have the potential to be sustaining rather than exploitative. Love and liking are powerful, but they can’t be the only ways for a person to get what they need–what they actually need–any more than money can be. Cleaning a person’s house because they share your faith, or helping them successfully escape a violent situation because they share your history, is an alternative to doing so because they are paying you, and doesn’t depend on you liking them. And alternatives are what we are looking for.

These things are obvious, but I mention them because a good way to be sure something happens is to have a redundancy of systems set up to do it, and to achieve that redundancy, a lot of beings have to be part of making it happen–they have to agree or “agree.” That is, it must be built into their they, their we, whether or not that agreement is what humans call conscious. In the present, our human we is limited and impaired, perilously close to I, so it’s hard to get to the simplest answer of all: we’ll do this because you need it, or rather, some of us will do this because some of us need it. In the expanded, ecological sense of “we,” it’s even harder: proportionally few humans now know, or are even equipped to listen for, the alpine or arboreal complement or parallel to a “need” or a “decision,”** to recognize it, and to act in accordance with it. It’s become almost a truism, a sourly regurgitated tidbit, that as we live within extractive*** capitalism, we serve it by default; that our easiest actions are most destructive to ourselves and others. Yet surely this is true mainly of humans at the moment, more than it is of other living beings. By continuing to grow, to root, to bloom, to allow itself to be fed and to be digested, is the purslane resisting?

Another interlocutor at the market spoke bitterly about “actions” like changing light bulbs from incandescents to fluorescents–“distractions,” she said. We talked about arguments we’d heard for and against the fossil fuel divestment path boosted by and others. “If someone would say to me, ‘This is definitely what you and a lot of other people should do,'” I said, “I’d do it.” This puts me almost exactly where I was more than a year ago, and realizing that–that I still have no clear sense of a path to truly collective action and, more importantly, being–spurs my frustration and anger and sadness. One small side effect of that impaired “we” I mentioned above is that I turn those feelings back on myself. **** These reflections are fumbling, hampered, and slow. I’m sorry. Like you, I live in the world.

The second, related truism that sticks in my craw is exemplified by this quotation from Naomi Klein:

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.

She at least makes the distinction of atomization–the “I”, the impaired “we.” But my point is that unless we follow this up with what each “I” must do in unison with a bunch of other “I”s, to make a less impaired “we”–what it is that “we” all must do together, or what some of us need to do while others of us do other things–that atomization will remain and we will be where we were before, which is where I am now. That’s why I’m looking at articles of faith, at organizations that turn externally imposed affiliations (“Southeast Asian”, for example) into sources of internal mutuality–the different “we”s that people are using, that might teach us how to say it better and for more reasons. I believe this will also be more helpful, not less, in making us responsive to the differences within the “we” (a carrot does not need what an oak tree needs, and it may be equally resistive for a person with one history to embrace what a person with another history eschews).

The Climate Anxiety Counseling booth is, in one sense, a one-woman show. (Someone recently rejected my suggestion that I “train” and send someone else to do it at an event I couldn’t attend myself.) There are reasons, detailed here, why it’s possible for me in a way that it might not be for other people. If it has the potential to be more than that, I haven’t yet successfully accessed that potential in what I’m doing or inviting others to do. This is a confession of frustration, but not of resignation. I will continue to try. I will continue to listen and ask questions.

* People who know me know about this person, who is a grownup now. I’m not going to say anything else about her here except that she is a terrific human being whom I love and admire.

**Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” describes learning to listen in this way. Expect me to refer to this work again: it’s important.

**Thanks to Gene Bernat of Living Systems Laboratory for this word, which possibly everyone else has already been using but which is the perfect name for what it is.

****For more about why this has a social or exterior valence as well as an interior or chemical one, Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling is a good resource.

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