How long will we be able to start a story, one that we tell or write, with, “I was having a drink with a friend when …”? How long will we be able to say, “It was fall,” and have the person we’re talking to share more than a meaning, a physical consciousness, a follicular and olfactory consensus? In this November in New England, the wind is warm, and some of the trees still have not only leaves, but green leaves. The Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland streamed with water all summer. “Before it’s too late,” the articles say, but they don’t say too late for what, and they’ve been saying something similar for what feels like years.
It was fall, and it felt like fall, what fall feels like; I was having a drink with my friend in a bar near both our houses. We were talking about the ways in which, on most days, this fall hadn’t felt like fall–the feeling of going outside at the end of the working day, into a dark evening, and feeling the air caress instead of bite. Seasons are not an aesthetic luxury: they are a human bodymind necessity as well as a necessity for the other parts of the ecosystem who live and die according to whether it’s cold or warm, rainy or dry. For city-dwellers in particular, seasons are one of the ways the world gives us information about itself that we can hear, smell, feel whatever else is happening, however many or few plants or animals we see during a given day, however cut off our view of the sky. Receiving unexpected signals, I feel rudderless, unsettled.
“I wonder about the people growing up now,” my friend said. “I feel like a sense of the seasons, what each season is, was such a huge part of my sense of the world growing up, and people who are being born now might not ever have a chance to experience that. Or people who are like–eight to twelve–now, they’re old enough to recognize when something is different than before, and they know that they’re different than before, but they don’t have a way to understand what that means–especially people growing up in context where it’s not possible to talk about this.”
One thing people often say to me at the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth is how frustrated they get, talking with people in their own families who won’t acknowledge that global climate change is human-caused. “This project would have to be really different if you did it in Nebraska, where my in-laws are from,” said another friend, also a writer. “Every time I try to bring it up with them, the conversation turns very quickly to God’s plan–how God would not allow anything to happen that humans couldn’t survive.”
In Texas, one of three states with the largest influence on the textbook industry throughout the U.S., an organization called the Truth in Texas Textbooks Coalition was as recently as February 2015 negatively reviewing textbooks that describe climate change as human-caused and threatening. They hoped by this to influence textbook sales, and thus contents, throughout the country. Two researchers examining four middle-school science textbooks from California (another of the three) found that the textbooks made the link between human activity and global climate change tenuous or invisible, and used language that cast doubt on scientists’ consensus that climate change is real, human-made, and dangerous to the web of life on earth.
Textbooks have never been a great teaching tool. Every kid hates them, and they are at best one-sided and dishonest depictions of the world and at worst tools of continued domination; they attempt to describe a fixed world, to fix the world, to pin it down. This is particularly stupid and terrifying now that last year’s polar ice cap may be this year’s pool of cold water, when the permafrost opens to reveal huge caverns in the earth and release huge wafts of heat-trapping methane, when next year we may no longer be able to say when monarch butterflies begin their migration because there are no more monarch butterflies. And these are the big things, the things that involve giant currents of air and water moving far above and below us. In our presence, in our sensory experience, we know that it’s just too warm, that as yet another friend wrote, “the wrong things are living, the wrong things are dying.” Will our children know that green leaves still on trees are all wrong for early November, that mid-November is too late for the first hard frost? How can what’s happening be so wrong? How can it be allowed to happen?
I say, “Our children,” like I’m directly responsible for any (I’m not), or like all children are all of ours (they are). I’ve written before about the temptation to talk about climate change in terms of “the future,” “our children,” “the next generation,” kicking the can of suffering from it–and, in some cases, of adapting to it or “solving” it–a generation down the road. (I’ve also written into why “generation” may not be the best or only way of thinking about these things.) Many people who’ve spoken to me at the booth have done so in terms of their children, one or two while actually standing next to the child or holding them in their arms. It’s not wrong to ask what our present conditions of living may be preparing for our children, especially if we already have some, but we are wrong, factually wrong, if we mentally and emotionally place climate change in the future.
When will it be too late? Too late for what? To put it another way, will this be the year we remember as the last sweet year, in spite of the sick weather–the last year we could have a drink with a friend at a bar (whiskey, lighting, refrigeration, time, freedom of movement, food security), the last year the vine made grapes, the last year that James and I stayed in bed all morning and had sex and made breakfast and cleaned up the rotten grapes from the backyard and worked on the computer and ate cake and then watched a show about people who make cake? Whatever opinions you have about that list, substitute your own pleasure, something neither innocuous nor actively cruel, something fragile to systems of money and supply and status, systems of air and earth and water, as we all are fragile.
My mom sometimes suggests that I not tax myself with forethought of grief. My mom likes to quote Pema Chodron. My mom wants to know how to live, and sometimes I want to know how to live, and sometimes I want a microchip that sends me messages from the sea ice as it breaks. We are really something.
I check the forecast obsessively and forget it instantly: the near, near future, where I’ll be soon enough. I whisper to the air, “Be cold.” On days and nights of seasonable weather, I give extravagant thanks, but to whom I don’t know.