Alternate Histories: 4/22, 4/29

(If you’re a new visitor to the blog, you can read this explanation of alternate histories.)


Tipping points. Deforestation tipping points. Tipping points of rising seas, tipping points with ice melt.



The next day, C went to the library to return one book of dire predictions and take out another. On her way, she stopped the car by the salt inlet and looked out over the eelgrass and mudflats, the ways the water and soil and roots and dead matter and sand meshed with and ate at one another. She thought about the delicacy of their arrangements, the ways in which they were never still, growing and dying, eating and rotting, silting up and subsiding—the small changes that couldn’t survive a big change. She thought of the inlets swamped and choked by rising water and never coming back. Her mind didn’t even get as far as the wider world. She leaned against the warm hood of her car and sobbed.

C wasn’t afraid of loss or change in human civilization, or human culture. She was afraid of human disappearance; she knew that for that to happen, land, water and air would have to alter so drastically that they’d take hundreds, thousands, of other creatures and relationships with them. She knew that to prevent these alterations, other things would have to alter drastically instead: systems of production and exploitation, the supply chain of her wine and bread and salad greens, people’s imaginations of one another and of other living creatures. She wanted to support the second kind of alterations; hence the books, hence the conversations she tried to navigate, hence some of the small choices she knew didn’t do much but helped her feel connected to efforts of change.

What she feared, what she was crying for by the side of the road, was that no support she could give mattered—not just that she couldn’t do anything to hold off the deadly changes, but that no one could, that even the second kind of alterations would not replace the first. That the future was not a delicate and changing saltmarsh but a static, settling graveyard.

Why work toward changes that don’t matter, that won’t save anything you love, C thought? Why not just wait for the dead water to cover everything?

What is it too late for? To save ourselves. To keep ourselves going forever.

What is it not too late for?

In the weeks and the years that followed, C behaved like a person with an illness that they know will kill them soon, and so did many other people. They didn’t hoard much; rather, they gave things away. They made various kinds of amends, not just to human people, but to trees and insects, birds and waterways. They were kind. They sat down in strange places—in front of tanker trains, on the hoods of police cars, in front of the houses of lawmakers. They drank what was left of the wine, and didn’t ask for any more.

And the trains slowed and stopped, because the drivers didn’t know if they would live to collect their pensions. The cop cars rusted out, because there were so few years of human life left total; who’d risk their own, or take another’s? The lawmakers didn’t bother consolidating their power for their next term; they might not get to have one. They worked to make amends, to heal beyond damage, to nourish the present, while they waited for the dead water to cover everything.

Philly Climate Story

Through my friend Christina at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, I just found out about Philly Climate Story: they’re collecting people’s stories of climate change, in part to demonstrate to Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania (who has not acknowledged that climate change is human-caused) that Philadelphians are aware of and worried about climate change.

Philadelphians can share their stories, and anyone else can read them.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation

Weather: Warm and sunny, but I was inside, in a warm airless fluorescent-lit room.

Number of people: 4 stoppers, probably 9 or 10 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 1, kind of? Does “Of course you’re a trained professional…You get what you pay for” count?

Pages of notes: 10

Conversations between people previously unknown to one another: 1

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1

Picture-takers with permission: 4

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $1.05



This was a conference, with speakers, so most of the time I was set up people were sitting and listening to someone else. People could only really talk to me in between things. I took notes on the speeches, but I’m not going to post any of them here. I also noticed that the conference setup seems to bring out a lot of self-justification and defensiveness in people, including me.

I hate doing the booth indoors. It’s too echoey and I feel cut off from the outside air and light.

Theme of the day: the idea of “doing what I can,” which is a very tricky one for me; worrying about the world that one’s kids or grandkids will have to live in. Relatedly, I’m very out of practice at probing people’s assumptions without putting them on the defensive.

Spotted: a URI student retwisting her twist-out while listening to a speaker. (This was, however, quite a white crowd generally.)


Some conversations:


I’m anxious about Gina Raimondo and Sheldon Whitehouse not speaking out against the proposed power plant in Burrillville . Escaped methane doesn’t know about borders … I’m upset. It’s discouraging, and there’s some hypocrisy–“We’re doing something about the environment,” but they’re supporting this huge plant that encourages fracking. Methane is 100 times more deadly than the emissions from coal.

Why do you think they’re supporting it, knowing that?

It’s political, it’s a “jobs program.” I’m a union person, but I’m not in favor of a jobs program that will ultimately be unemploying a lot of people because of loss of land, rising tides and so forth. … I’ve been at demonstrations, my friends have been arrested–Lisa was arrested a couple of days ago  … We’re all in this together. The biggest motivating factor is my grandkids–or their children, I really, really worry. It’s frightening.

Have you noticed the climate changing in your own lifetime?

 Oh yeah. When it rains, it really rains. When those storms come, with the extraordinary high tides, I’ve never seem that kind of flooding. I’m not so much here [at the conference] to educate myself but to be in solidarity–I mean, there’s always something to learn–but I’m here to bring up the plant. I hope that they would put pressure on the political people on the stage today. The representatives from Burrillville came out against it because of pressure from the organizations and the people in that town–they were just inundated by the people. …You can see how difficult it is for politicians to be [in favor of] something that’s perceived to be a job loss. It takes courage and if people don’t have that, you have to apply pressure.


I just think it’s great that someone’s keeping in mind that the trauma that’s gonna come with the change in weather is gonna need some kind of response

What are some of the things you expect will come along with that trauma?

Trauma rewires the brains of young children–if we don’t set them up adequately, it affects them for their entire lifetime. That’s for children. And for everybody else, stress and anxiety makes mental and physical health problems worse.

So this more chaotic, more uncertain time is coming–how can we take care of each other in this time?

We need better infrastructure for the health care system writ large. We need to build enough sense of community so that we do continue to care for each other, so that people won’t be left helpless and alone [in the face of] coastal flooding, fires… I think as academics we get somewhat siloed. We know a lot about how to help people change their behavior, but without policies that support climate [action]…

Let’s say someone came to you, as a psychologist, and said, “I’m feeling this anxiety about the future, how do I deal with it?” What would you tell them?

I’d probably try to find out if there’s anything going on personally that’s feeding it.

But this is personal, it’s affecting people personally.

But it’s not acute, it’s not happening right now. When people are freaking out about it they’re not being effective, they’re not separating what can be done from what is a fear–separating the fear and the reality.


[This person came up while another person was telling me they work for the Rhode Island Sea Grant; they stood by while this person was talking to me.]

I have four kids, between 18 and 26, and I worry about the kind of world they’re going to have. For the first time it’s made me almost wish I hadn’t brought kids into the world. I go back and forth between thinking there’s a reason to be hopeful and thinking there’s reasons to not be optimistic. I keep telling them, Your generation has to figure this out, because mine really messed it up.

People often talk about it like that, but you know, you’re still here and you’re going to be around for a while.

But I’m almost 55, and I feel like the politicians who are now in office who are around my age are not being responsible, and it’s going to take the next generation to come in and make change … These days it’s just really scary. On the one hand I think it’ll be okay, everything’ll work out, but then you see what some of these people post on Facebook. I can walk on the beach and it seems so far away–

[The listening person]: There’s a lot of things happening on the beach.

What do your kids say when you say that to them?

They’re like, Thanks a lot … Hopefully they’ll all contribute. I feel like I’m doing what I can to raise good citizens. I don’t want o be super anxious and make them worry–they think I worry too much, but then I wonder if that’s just youth, when you’re not responsible for anyone other than yourself.


Do they feel responsible for each other?


I think they do feel responsibility for each other. [The 18-year-old] wants to make a difference. In your own little corner of the world you can make a difference, or you can actually get involved, you can try to make change. You can be a Senator Whitehouse. I guess it’s maybe a matter of coming to terms with what you’re actually in control of.





Tipping points. Deforestation tipping points. Tipping points of rising seas, tipping points with ice melt.


What scares you about that?


Every species will eventually come to an end, whether it’s when the universe ends or the sun turns into a red giant. The human condition will come to an end, but we’re doing so much to make it happen faster.


What do you do when you feel like that, or think about that?


I keep reading books, I always have an environmental book going. Or I go to lectures or conferences like this. I study it, I study it, I study it. I try to be an example to people, but I do not tell people I know what to do. …I try and avoid conversations [with climate change deniers], but if I have to have them, I say, This is what I think, it’s my point of view, but it’s based on research. I explain the scientific method. I ask them where their information’s coming from. And I have seen people come up to me and ask a question. I pick up books for people–I’ll just give them a copy.



Today’s poem


It’s not acute, it’s not happening right now

it is acute, it’s happening right now

in the here of our woods

in the where of where you were

liable to go for predictive suprise

of news that comes from elsewhere

if you’re actually acute

if you’re here it’s not news

where you’ve lived for years

for thousands of years

in your own self-interest

of painful action

if you’re already alive

if you’re asking for hurt

it’s a demonstration

if all of us are right

to be roared through horribly

before it’s not news

Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation

I’m staffing the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth and speaking on a panel at a conference at the University of Rhode Island (Kingston Campus) tomorrow! Come visit me. My panel’s at 1:30; the full agenda’s here. I’m going to try to get the booth set up by 8:30, when the conference starts.

This is sort of an odd event for me to do, because I have no scientific training and convincing people that climate change is real isn’t really what I use the booth for, though if someone asks questions I tell the truth and explain as best I can. I see it as a chance for me to learn a little, and talk with some people I might not otherwise, and warm up the booth before my stints in Burnside Park start in May. I think it’s free to come? If you find it’s not, let me know and I’ll cover you.


Alternate Histories: Port of Providence


Note: I wrote this alternate history after attending a community forum on environmental hazards in the Port of Providence and nearby neighborhoods.



Routine releases means emissions in normal operation, emissions that might happen daily or more rarely, and they’re frequently regulated by permits … In accidental releases, planning is very important. –Barbara Morin, Providence Department of Health


We’re always planning. We’re looking at every event. –Michael Borg, Providence Emergency Management Agency





The next day, the hazmat teams descended on the Port of Providence, because they were responsible for reducing harm from hazardous materials. They were just doing their jobs when they gave the Univar and Motiva facilities and the staff at the Enterprise propane and National Grid liquid natural gas tanks a timeline and a protocol for distributing or neutralizing their fossil fuel and chemical holdings. The people working there were glad to cooperate, knowing that every day of dismantlement increased the chances of survival for a third-grader or an old man on oxygen or a school of fish, and knowing that as they did this work, their livelihoods were assured in the neighborhood.


There’s no good way to put natural gas or coal back in the ground–not every process is reversible, not every wound can be healed. A council of South Providence residents doled out the natural gas and propane out to the rest of the city household by household, rationing it for heat and cooking, knowing that there would be no more when it was gone. They built big, ramshackle structures out of scrap metal and wood from dismantled houses across the train tracks, and colored them with chalk and festooned them with fabric to make sure the drivers could see them from far away.


The people of South Providence made room for the people who’d worked in the Port, and learned from them and the hazmat teams how to work with the chemicals without harm. Sometimes they were able to reduce them to harmless compounds, or suspend them in substances that would neutralize them. Sometimes the best they could do is parcel them out into smaller quantities, to be stored above water. Filtration, solution, transformation. Prevention: better than cure. The people who’d worked in the Port, and the hazmat teams, learned from the people of South Providence other sets of skills: arguing, running repairs, improvisation, rapid calculation, code-switching, field medicine. They all breathed more easily.


The next hundred-year storm hit before the tanks were fully emptied. A lot of fish and seabirds died, too many to count, and two humans trapped in a car, and an entire long row of windbreaking saplings that the people of South Providence, old and new, had planted a couple of years before. They succumbed to the chemical-infused saltwater; they stood like thin gravestones.


It could have been worse, it could have been better. The rest of the city’s people took the people of South Providence into their houses elsewhere and took turns cleaning and airing the flooded buildings, breaking down the ones that were too badly damaged or too far into the floodplain to make sense saving; they took it in shifts so that no one had to have too much exposure to the poisonous debris. They noted and charted the lie of the land, where the water wanted to go. They thickened and lined the walls of their homes with torn fabric, scavenged wood, leftover office paper, dry grass; they cooked on tiny solar stoves outdoors in summer, and saved their gas and wood for winter.


The people who were young during that storm were almost old when the next one hit, and things went very differently. All the tanks were long empty of poison; some were reefs for the shellfish that were just starting to come back. Long sections of train track ran quietly under the water, coated in algae that had evolved to digest the tar and creosote that soaked the railroad ties. People’s weather senses were better now, and with the help of predictive technology, they knew when to leave and let the water rush through what was left, if that was where it wanted to go. The city’s high points had food stores and hospitals; the city’s low points were thick with marsh grass shading into waterweed, and tiny crabs, and sand fleas, and lugworms, hunkering down to wait out a cleaner tide.

Environmental Justice in the Port of Providence Community Forum

The Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island is hosting a community forum on the Port of Providence, one of the city’s most environmentally compromised sites. It already affects the health and safety of people who live and work nearby, and it’s vulnerable to projected consequences of climate change like sea level rise and storm surges.

The EJLRI says, “This will be our first event focusing on the Port of Providence. Panelists will be asked to address the history of pollution in the port, existing facilities and the hazardous materials stored at the location, potential health impacts, and efforts residents can make to keep themselves and their community safe.

Port of Providence Community Forum

Monday, April 18th, 5-7pm

Juanita Sanchez Education Complex, 182 Thurbers Ave., Providence

Learn more or RSVP.