Climate Anxiety Counseling and Future Mapping with Rejin Leys on Governor’s Island, NY: 7/13/19

Weather: hot and bright and muggy; not bad in the shade

Number of people: 9 stoppers

Pages of notes: 20, but a smaller notebook than usual, so ~12 normal-sized pages

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 1

Pictures taken with permission: 3

Pictures taken without permission: 1

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 0

Money raised for Tooth and Nail Community Support Collective: I didn’t collect money this time.

Observations:

This was during a scheduled, arts-and-culture-related time, in front of a house where artists were gathered to make art about water (the link goes to a record of last year’s residency) and where other organizing and informational efforts related to climate change were going on in the houses nearby. The island is a slight, though not huge, pain in the ass to get to—you have to make a point of it, and some people were making a point of getting there to see the arts-and-culture-related things; some people were also there mainly to picnic and have a good time. Many of the people who spoke with us were residents or participants in the houses.

In that post, I’ll also write more about the way that Rejin Leys (artist-in-residence, collaborator, and friend) and I planned this collaboration, what actually happened, and what we learned from that. For now I will say that either before or instead of talking with me, people who stopped by our table were being invited (by Rejin) to draw a “blind contour” map of the continental US in order to think about borders, coastlines, and change. Here are two:

[IMAGE: two drawings of the map of the continental US, drawn while looking at the map but without looking at the drawing, on paper handmade with Poland Spring labels.]

The upcoming post will include more and better examples of the maps. Because of this exercise, I started many (but not all) conversations by asking, “How did it feel to do that drawing?” Note that in the conversations, italics are me, plain type is the interlocutor, and R (also in italics) is Rejin speaking.

Some conversations:

How did it feel to do that drawing?

I liked it actually. I already knew starting out that it was going to be totally inaccurate. I wanted to draw in the shapes of the places. It was a chance for me to practice nonattachment–[attachment] makes my life more difficult. It’s nice to feel like I didn’t need [the drawing] to be anything.

Does attachment affect the way you think about the future?

Yes. I have really severe anxiety and depression and they [contribute to] an inability to live in the present. I’m always looking to the future—not just 30 years from now when everything is horrible, but little things that are happening in the next few days, and every mistake I’ve made in my past. It’s obsessive and it’s bad—I can’t sleep. So having a moment to let go of all that is really nice.

What are some ways that you look for moments to let go of it?

That’s a hard question to answer, because when you’re so deep in it, any attempt to get out of it results in feeling guilty for taking time—like, “I need to rest, but do I deserve that?” I know that, I do recognize that, and I try and hold that but I don’t know how. I’m here and I’m recognizing that [moment]. But I think more to the point is the acknowledging that it’s happening–”This is a moment when I felt this—how do I keep this moment?”

What’s a change in the world that would free you?

Knowing that people cared more about, in particular about things like climate change but in general that you could count on people for more empathy. … So many people are all, “I have mine and screw you, unless it actually impacts me—my sister, my mother, my brother.” And maybe not even then. It’s hard to get people to care if they can’t personally go, “It affects me,” yet.

How is caring about it part of your day?

You have of course your little things that you do, like recycling—

I’m gonna stop you for a second. We can come back to the things that you do, but I also want to know how it feels. How the caring feels on the day-to-day.

I think about it a lot, especially because I’m from Florida, which will be underwater. I mean, the form it takes is anxiety, because I start to be very anxious about the loss. It kills me. It absolutely kills me. I’m so stymied by the fact that people don’t care. I feel so impotent to do anything. It’s very frustrating. I’m just this one little person, and I do what I can, but I’m not always doing what I can.

What are the things you do with other people that have to do with this?

I make art with other people a lot. I’m a big fan of collaboration. When I make art it’s generally to impart something to people about stuff based in the environment. I love to teach and to make things entertaining but also hopefully make people think about stuff more than they would have. My sculptures are all made of garbage, I try to have as little impact as possible—art can be super toxic too. 

Can you tell me more about Florida?

There was just a bad red tide. There are dead things washing up all the time, and it stinks. And then you contrast that with the constant need to be pristine for the tourists—there are trucks that come and pick up the seaweed. It feeds itself. I’d love to see less attachment to the idea of perfection, this ideal. They keep replenishing the beach—they dredge the waterways, and there are all these beautiful shells, but it’s because we’re killing these creatures. But nobody says anything and they keep doing it because people want their beautiful shells.

R: It seems like they see the coastline less as a part of nature and more as someone’s garden.

As a theme park. They want to be able to use it an unlimited amount, then they leave and don’t ever think about it again. That’s something that I try to deal with in my work. I want people to care. If the world were a smaller place– It’s cheesy, but the Mad Max apocalypse, something like that is the direct consequence that will cleanse the Earth. We’ve been here for nothing, no time.

How does thinking about that play into your trouble with attachment?

Cataclysmic change is actually comforting to me. When I get really crazy it helps me, to think I’m nothing. If you’re watching an animal documentary, it’s like, “This blue-footed booby doesn’t give a shit about me.” It helps me to zoom out and go, “We’ll be gone and that’ll be the best thing that could’ve happened.” Because we’re such a speck, such a small kind of meaningless speck.

So it sort of sounds like—a lot of people, with climate change, they feel like they don’t matter enough, and you said some stuff like that too earlier, but with this it seems like you’re trying not to feel like you matter too much.

If we matter too much then we think, we follow this Great Chain of Being…we think everything else is here to serve us. I get so frustrated alone in my house: Why do we think we’re more important than this grass?

So with that in mind then, you said you like to collaborate. How could you collaborate not just with other humans but with the rest of the living world?

Cultivating the wild, cultivating wild spaces. This is really hard for me. There’s a value in being uncomfortable. We can have less and we can survive. That’s something that everybody, that a lot of people, myself included, could benefit from, is accepting less in the way of comfort. You’ll get used to it, you’ll get over it.

*

I work in environmental policy and I am dealing very frequently with having to be very aware of the very terrible forecast. Climate anxiety is very real for me and my colleagues. Office conversation in other places, you think of it as light and easy, and it might start out that way but then it’ll take a turn toward some article that someone saw. It’s strange having conversations about terrible things in this casual way. I think you’re forced to ignore it to a large extent.

Can you leave it at work?

Not really. I try not to take it over into too many of my conversations with my wife and other people.

Have you seen any motion while you’ve been doing the work that you’re doing or does it mostly feel like spinning your wheels?

There’s been some motion in that there are different ways to think about these things. It’s hard to feel that something productive is happening—there are sometimes small victories, but they’re a drop in this ocean.

How about the literal ocean?

Obviously some of the changes that will happen will be in the ocean. I’ve only been a handful of times, but scuba diving was amazing—to see all those amazing things, but then I think, “Is this the last time?”

What if it was the last time?

There are times where I can sort of take that, like, “This is a fact in the world,” and then there are times when it’s incredibly depressing. It depends on whether I’m in a situation to talk about the sadder parts of these things or not.

*

[Person 1 and Person 2 came up together. Person 3 came up toward the end of that conversation.]

How did it feel to do that drawing?

Person 1: I was extremely confident when I was drawing it, and now I’m kind of amazed at how inaccurate it is.

R: What makes it correct or incorrect?

Person 1: I was trying to replicate [the map]. I can see places where I did that. I like the way it looks, but it was not what was intended.

R: Of course the coastline is always changing.

Person 1: My aunt lives down in southern New Jersey on a barrier island, and since Sandy—there’s a nature preserve there that’s all dunes, and since Sandy the sand is collecting much further out and forming a new island. They were thinking about dredging it, but they just left it there to be a new island.

R: We’re always thinking about what we’re losing, but this is just something that changed.

Person 1: It’s just further down. What’s interesting is that no one has a claim to it—it’s not part of any township.

R: It’s a truly free space.

Person 1: Well, and on the rest of the island, they’ve got the Army Corps of Engineers pumping sand back onto the beach. They can only [leave the new island in place] because it wasn’t developed. My aunt works for an arts and science foundation, and people just developed right up to the water, but the place where she works was less affected by Sandy and it’s because of the preserved wetlands around it. So she gives tours and explains how wetlands are supposed to be a natural barrier.

How does this idea of letting it go, just letting the island form, play into your anxieties about change?

Person 1: What if letting things take their natural course—things might get a little bit unwieldy, there might be blowback. But…if I don’t have awareness of what’s happening, that vulnerability is scary to me. My reflex then is to try to exert control, which I intellectually know is futile, to have control over all possible outcomes or even have awareness of all possible outcomes. My instinct in that case is to use mindfulness to come back to right now, see what’s actually present. Things that are maybe going to happen but haven’t yet—what are the things I do have control over in this moment? I can pay attention to the breath. If I’m in an activated, anxious state, that might be valid but I’m probably not going to think about things clearly.

What are the coastlines that are important to you?

The Jersey Shore. My grandfather built a house on Long Beach Island, and my aunt lives there full time. Her husband is a fisherman, a bayman. And we just moved to Cobble Hill, so we’re right near Red Hook and Buttermilk Channel. Red Hook feels like a little seaside town. And the Hudson River—I grew up in Northern New Jersey up where the Hudson gets a little bit narrower. And [to Person 2] you’ve got Florida.

Person 2: Yeah, but I don’t claim it. I don’t feel connected to Florida. It wasn’t my choice to live there, and as soon as I had a choice I left.

Person 1: Do you want to feel a connection to it?

Person 2: I prefer rivers. Rivers with mountains or cities—they give me a sense of scale.

What are some ways to take care of the rivers in this city?

Person 1: … I’ve been learning about the Billion Oyster Project–not only are they using oysters to rehabilitate the waterways, but they’re creating these community reefs, where people can be involved in rehabilitation in their neighborhoods. I look at something like the Gowanus Canal—it’s so polluted, what can an oyster reef do? But people now have a relationship with the waterway. There’s also the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club–you can sign up to go out and take trash out of the water … But I think with the canal, a lot of people are like, “It’s too gross to think about.” So anything that changes that—I haven’t signed up with them yet, but I’m trying to make it a priority … I’ve been holding a weekly climate grief support group Wednesday nights, and it’s good to have that time, but one of the other people involved pointed out that we could also be using that time to be doing stuff.

Can you tell me more about the support group?

Person 1: For two months we were having it every Wednesday. There’s a core group of three, sometimes it grows to seven, and we’re open for drop-ins. I try to combine contemplative arts and talking about climate change, because I noticed that if I just start talking about it, I start talking faster, and then the people I’m talking to pick up on that. So we start with contemplative practices and share some of the physical tools of slowing down. If we start getting breathless, slowing the breath down a little bit. We try to keep it casual, make it a little bit informal. People have such a wide variety of responses. Getting together in one place lets us not feel so alone. Climate change is something I’ve been concerned about for years—when I was at Hunter College taking an [environmental studies] class, my teacher cried in class and said, “I’m so sorry your generation has to deal with this.”  … For me, knowing that other people are concerned about it instead of being at home by myself and stewing about it is important.

Do you feel like the support group has affected the way you deal with it or talk about it outside of the support group?

Person 1: Yes. I don’t want people to be—I want people to care about climate change and be curious about it. I don’t want people to be so panicked about it that they [DIDN’T WRITE DOWN THE END OF THIS SENTENCE]. I turned to Buddhism because of climate change, and a lot of that is about preparing for death. … A teacher, a Buddhist chaplain, has talked about how when someone is dying, they might forget, and start making a plan for the future—I vacillate between, “Oh, these are the facts of things,” and going back to my planning. How do I internalize the reality so it isn’t so jarring?

We knew about each other and were in touch before this, so: is there anything that you hoped to talk about during our conversation that we haven’t yet?

Person 1: Somebody was saying that the way that we respond to climate change comes from templates that we established as children. …  Things always feel more manageable when I’m talking about it with someone else—it’s like, “Right, people do care.” I want to seek that out as I try to internalize it.

[Person 3 came and sat down at this point.]

[To Person 3] What would you like to say or hear in the work that you’re doing?

Person 3: I’d like to hear more and more interest in saying, “Yes, I’d like to become involved.” Today, there were quite a number of people who wanted information about our next meeting, and I hope they’ll come to see what it was like and then get more involved. I’m very optimistic. There was only one person who came in, and I couldn’t do anything about it: I asked, “Are you involved at all?” and he said, “ I read about it,” and I asked if he wanted to be involved and he just [mimes a shrug]. And I wanted to say, “We’re not talking about climate change, we’re talking about a climate crisis.” But there was nothing that I could say to him. That’s sad, and it feels not great. I’d like to be able to say [things like that], but I think you can’t go directly, you have to go through something else. I give talks, and something I’ve tried is starting with bamboo. [HERE SHE SUNG THE PRAISES OF BAMBOO FOR A LITTLE WHILE.] I want to be able to talk about that—it’s best to go through something positive if you can, to get to the issues.

Person 1: I feel that too. Like, “Why don’t you care about this, are you crazy?!” What’s the other way besides that—mostly questions and mostly experiential. Can I be communicating safety through my voice and body languge, even when I feel like I should be raising my voice?

Person 3: I’ve been involved with a [Project] Drawdown group—we just had our last session. One guy in the group lives part of the year here, part of the year in New Zealand, and he’s going to India to help farmers there with their soil,* and he’s begun to get on the subway and when there’s a long enough distance between stops, he gets up and says, “I don’t want your money, I just want two minutes of your time to talk about climate change.” And people ask him for literature. People say thank you. I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I want to, but I don’t know if I could.

[Person 3 went back to her station in one of the climate activism houses at this point]

Person 1: I would just say that I felt my breathing start to slow while I’ve been sitting here talking with you. When I feel alone with it, I feel like I have to be responsible for so much. Sometimes I feel resentful—why did these instructors at Hunter College burden me with this knowledge?

R: What [Person 3] was talking about might not be what I think of as the priority, but I’m glad that people are dealing with different aspects.

Person 1: I’m accepting that I’ll never be able to think about all of it or do all of it. When I’m trying to get people activated, there’s no one way—if you want to chain yourself to a pipeline, I can connect you with people who will help you do that.

*If you’re making a slight face about this guy, I am too. I would need to know a little more about him, his work, and how he’s behaving toward the other people on those trains before I could comment well on how this fits into the question of how we carry out our responsibilities to the world we share.

*

How did it feel to do that drawing?

It felt like I was not doing a good job. I was trying to sort of like get the shape, but I was getting anxious because I knew that the paper was finishing. 

Also, the coastline changes.

I don’t know how fast it changes. I mean, you can’t really tell unless you really go to the coastline. My family lives on the Mediterranean, in Greece, and I spent a lot of time in the northern islands. A big problem there is pollution—boats unloading their graywater in the harbor. There have been changes because of erosion and earthquakes that you can see from year to year. I’m now 30 years old, 32, and I see rocks that have fallen off. My grandfather had a little hut near the edge of a cliff, and this is leaning now—there’s a crack on the cement, and this year, everything is falling off. It happened slow—there were rains, there was hail, this corrosion is just natural. It was just like this forever. Nature takes its course, I guess. In a different place, it could be different. A few days ago, it rained so much in a place in Greece —when they built the city, they didn’t think about how if there’s [much] more rain it’s gonna be mayhem, it’s gonna be like the world is ending.

It’s not spontaneous, it’s just just earth’s moods anymore. We’re affecting it a lot. People don’t know what to do to prepare for seasons. It’s also about survival in some places. We [in the US, I think they meant] have other people growing our food for us—in other places there are more wars and famine, places that rely on a really tiny source of water. It’s crazy. I get goosebumps. And it’s a global phenomenon.

… I think for now, people know better, but rectifying those mistakes is very hard. People don’t generally react well. When you try to do work with the environment you will always get some resistance. It’s more difficult to convince older generations—they’re not used to thinking long-term or thinking, “What I do affects how other people live.” Individualism is hurting people.

… My grandfather has a garden and trees, fruit trees and olive trees, and he was loving what he was doing, so the things [he grew] were always delicious. When you grow something with love it always tastes better. I’ve been lucky to witness how to work the earth with your hands—you love it as a kid and it’s something normal, it comes out instinctively.

How are you feeling about all of this?

Emotional. But I can only just keep doing what I’m doing. I have scientific knowledge to share, I work with biofuels, and through my relationships around me, family and friends.

Are there ways you could give back to the place you’re living now?

People can’t change. If you live in the countryside, you don’t get enough information. I would change the mindset—maybe be selectively insensitive, maybe it’s the first step to people realizing they need to change.

*

I do this climate storytelling project and I’ve been working on it for the last few years. How do you actually engage people in a deep way? The organization is set up as a public engagement tool, and it’s tapped into something that isn’t really available to people: how to express yourself on climate change, but also how to make this kind of work matter more—to build an ecosystem for it. I’m very connected to the practitioner community and the traditional climate community—less so in terms of climate art … My life is totally different than it was before. I’ve had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, how do you raise money. I used to work in climate spaces, but it was the kind of thing where there was a paid staff position, you’d establish a position and get funding for it. Entering into creative spaces has a personal hesitancy for me. 

What’s your desire for these stories?

I want them to help transform people’s thinking, and to provide people with an outlet for expression. If I actually spend the time reflecting on climate—because I’m a parent, because I’m relatively young and I’ll be living in the future, because I care about my community—I need to deepen my competence [in communicating about it]. On the cultural level and the bigger picture, people need to talk about climate more. Giving them these tools has potential to unleash action at a much higher level. I see this as part of a series of projects that shifts or changes our cultural understanding of climate change. The personal hesitancy is so much more for me than—not in all cases, but in some cases, the letters [we collected] are so beautiful and personal that I want to do [them] justice. I feel like I’m holding people’s feelings and emotions and there aren’t that many other places where that can happen. I feel a deep sense of responsibility toward them that it will be beautiful and it will be moving and it will be helping other people to transform their thinking. I feel the weight of their concerns and I want to do a good job. … It’s so overwhelming, I’m already doing so much on it—I’m trying to build the parts that I’m good at and that I can do, and to farm out the parts I can’t do to people who are good at it. But there’s also a lack of resources to get [projects like this] attention, to fund the project in its entirety. Every piece or component is a full-time job. … How does a whole body of work get attention and funding? There are organizers, artists, social entrepreneurs doing this work—how can they get the support to sustain it?

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I believe in the forest floor: Fauna Obscura at 7pm TONIGHT

My friends Janaya Kizzie, Rachel Hughes, Mike Duffy and I are making a night forest with you, at 7pm TONIGHT (8/3), at 40 Sonoma Court.

We crave home, safety, sanctuary, but at times one finds the way home is obscured. For the wanderers and the weary, a sacred space awaits on the forest floor. Through light, projections, wood, and textiles, a forest shrine emerges.

Enter the forest. You may wander, or seek a guide, who will be holding a lantern. They’ll show you the seeds of stories in the leaf litter. You can choose one to take with you. If the firelit tent is empty, you can go inside and speak the story seed aloud. If there is someone in the firelit tent already, or if you don’t want to speak aloud, stand outside the tent and listen.

When you hear the crows or owls calling, a story is about to begin.

Everyone is part of this play. Make room for the people around you in the forest. Pay attention to how they are moving. If you want, you can move too.

Why is this on the Climate Anxiety Counseling blog, you ask?

It’s part of this effort to co-germinate fables for the time we find ourselves in.

It’s part of the small practices of improvising, collaborating and taking risks that I’m trying to embrace in order to be more responsive to the world as it is and as it’s coming to be.

It’s a reminder that the forest floor has lessons for us about how to live and die together, to meet fear, to be small in darkness together. That life and death are going on around us all the time. That lives that don’t do damage, and deaths that aren’t unjust, are possible, even though they may seem far from us. That we can walk in the forest together.

Picture

Picture

 

Climate Anxiety Counseling with the Manton Avenue Project, 6/29/18

The students and teachers of the Manton Avenue Project did me the honor and kindness of inviting me to do a guest workshop with them. As part of that, I did this model climate anxiety counseling session with one of their teachers, and some students asked her questions too.

They’re writing plays about climate change and “saving the world” this summer: you should go see them, on August 2nd and 3rd at 7pm at 95 Empire Street, and on August 4th at 6pm at the Waterfire Arts Center, both in Providence.

*

I look at weather patterns and I start feeling like, sad to the point of angry, because I feel like we’ve known [about climate change] for a long time, but there’s a large population of people that keeps insisting it’s not real, just because they want to keep driving cars and making money the way they’ve always done. I can’t believe we’re so shortsighted, with no sense of [how it will affect] the next generations. Our policies aren’t generous—it’s the policymakers. They have access to experts. They have control over how much information goes out, especially with social media. They should know better, but they’re on the side of a small population of very wealthy people who are probably not grounded in a lot of fact…

Do you talk with other people about this?

Yeah, but all we do is just voice our worries. I talk about it and then I try to get quiet. I try to think: how much space do I personally take up in the world? Even if I’m just one person, how can I pull back on fossil fuels, not live a live full of disposable things? I can write to companies and be like, “I love your product because it uses recycled material,” or whatever. When I talk to people, we’re complaining, but nothing gets done.

What would you like to see happen?

I’d love it if someone could tell me it was going to be okay, like, “Don’t worry.”  … It would be nice to be able to talk out plans and to be encouraged by actions we’re taking so that we can do more.

Can we go back for a second to what you’re feeling?

Sure. Especially about things I can’t exclusively control, I start feeling very alone. … It affects my energy to do things, my energy or willingness to try. I’m an anxious person anyway. When it gets really depressing, like a thing in the news makes me feel sad, I try to be what sometimes people call present. Petting my dog helps me do that—she doesn’t care, she doesn’t have an opinion other than, “Uh, it’s hot.” All they want to do is be with you …

I’m okay for the moment, I’m alright. I’m comfortable, I have clothes, I have food, I have a community of friends, and I realize that I can talk to them.

A student: How are you feeling right now?

I’m enjoying—it’s nice that it’s a nice day. Also the fact that it became summer. It was chilly earlier. I’m always feeling a complicated mix of feelings about that, but the smell of the air and the vitamin D make me feel good.

A student: What do you do to help with anxiety?

I try to look at the things that I feel I’ve been trying to do. After Christmas, for the New Year, I tried to get plastic bags out of my life, see how much I could use paper bags. I have cloth bags I keep in the car. I got compostable waste bags for the dog. So, what have I done [that is helpful]?

A student: What’s the connection between plastic bags and climate change?

It all gets bundled up to how our relationship to the world is. Plastic doesn’t break down when it goes in the garbage. And petroleum products, mining petroleum, those are unsustainable resources, just like the gas we put in our car, the fuel we use to heat our homes.

Me: What’s your takeaway from this conversation?

Taking it and keeping track of some sort of progress will encourage me to keep on with it or to explore different practices.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Kennedy Plaza/Burnside Park, 6/9/18, PVDFest

Weather: Hot and bright, then hazy

Number of people: 14 stoppers, 4 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 7

People who got the Peanuts reference: 3

Pictures taken with permission: 2

Dogs seen: 28

Dogs pet: 1 (this is obviously a bad ratio)

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $7.05

 

Observations:

This booth session took place during PVDFest, and most of the events in the park were events for kids. This meant that the music that made it hard to hear people talking with me was also incredibly irritating to adult ears. There was a ton of foot traffic, including many apparent out-of-towners, and I think the festival situation with many attractions meant that conversations were shorter than they otherwise might have been.

I saw a cop walk by at 1:05 but I’m sure there were many more around, even more than usual.

A bunch of people were out collecting signatures for candidates, and one of them said to me, “I’m feeling hopeful. Keep up the good work.”

A sweat bee and a tiny ant both visited my hand.

 

Some conversations:

India Point Park—at a corner of the park, we’re losing that to the water, and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s doing anything. I’ve been watching it over 24 months getting worse and worse. I would be surprised if [the city] doesn’t know about it, because it’s very obvious. Two-three years ago, I saw a pile of papers—books, looseleafs—fell in front of the [bus] tunnel and nobody cleaned it up. It took two-three months for the weather to work it out. Nobody does anything about that. All these events make me believe that the city needs to have better leadership, because it doesn’t cost a lot of money to do something about an obvious problem. But I’m a guilty person—I have not tried to do anything about that.

What would you do, if you did do something?

Maybe I would call the Parks Department, or the City Manager. But it’s crazy for them to need me to contact them. Also, because I was here as a new person, so I didn’t have that attitude I’ve been here for four-five years, and my attitude in the first years was I was an outsider, it’s not my problem. But now that I am no longer a tourist—if I were still a tourist, I wouldn’t even have stopped to talk to you.

*

I live down in Narragansett, and I’ve been trying to figure out some good groups that are more local. There’s the Surfriders, but I don’t surf. There’s also the Unitarian [Universalist] church in Peacedale—I did a march down with them in Wakefield against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I’d like to see a ban on plastic bags in Narragansett. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. I know—excuses, excuses.

*

Water. Water purity and cleanliness … I’m looking at offshore drilling, and also local swamp infrastructure. I’m from New Jersey, so there’s a lot of inland development—it’s not what some people are focusing on.

What do you feel when you think about these things?

Equal parts frustration and despair. Everyone recognizes it as a problem, but I don’t think there’s enough of a will. It doesn’t affect a large enough part of the community, and the people it does affect are relatively poor, people of color, on the outskirts. You get lip service from whoever’s running for Congress, but when you’re not in power, what are the things you can do? I’m not in a place where I even know who to talk to.

 

*

[These two came up together.]

Person 1: I’m very concerned about climate change and I just love this. As Darth Vader I live in space, but as [THEIR CIVILIAN IDENTITY] I’m very concerned. When people ask me how Providence is, I say, “It’s falling into the ocean.”

Why do you say that? I mean, why is that the thing you say? Or what reaction are you hoping for?

Well, people ask you something, and then you disrupt their pattern of consciousness.

What about your consciousness? Of the falling into the ocean thing?

My everyday experience is influenced by that understanding.

Person 2: I have a lot of fear about what the future’s going to bring. A fear of what politicians are gonna do. A lot of deforestation.

Person 1: They’re saying the Syrian Civil War was due to instability caused by crop failures. So, also, resource scarcity in areas that don’t have them.

Does that feel close to you, though, or far from you?

Person 2: It fees more far. Because it’s physically remote, not immediately visible.

Person 1: But sometimes it is, and people ignore it. Like after [Superstorm] Sandy, in New York, everybody was like, “We need to do this and that,” but the city didn’t change anything that it was doing.

Person 2: I don’t think as much about stuff that’s further away. But like, Miami Beach is flooding, Cape Cod’s gonna be underwater. It’s not on my brain for a long period of time but I suppose it’s in the back of my mind.

*

I’m one of these Luddites who don’t believe in global warming. I think the planet’s been around for millions of years and we have such a tiny snapshot of what’s what.

*

Natural disasters coming all at once. I don’t have anxiety over it because I can’t control it and I don’t worry about things I can’t control … I’m an importer, I import from China. I used to be only made in the USA but you can’t do that anymore. I have to make a living.

*

Person 1: Right now? The impact of returns on online shipping, the financial and the climate impact. It’s poignant for me because I’m finishing my basement, I live in Chattanooga, and I bought an air conditioner online, and it was the wrong size. And they’re so heavy, you can’t even ship them UPS. I almost used it, even though it was the wrong size. I was like, “Why would we keep it,” but it weighed on me so heavy.

Person 2: There’s context that can completely negate what you think you’re doing. And you can do your research, but it’s a lot of time.

Person 1: If you’re gonna stay in the system, you have to make these decisions.

*

 

 

I don’t know if it’s anxiety, but concerns. What are our children’s children going to be dealing with—what’s gonna happen? And the loss of beauty.

Do you picture it?

This is just worst-case thinking. I don’t picture anything. I watch movies and that makes me go, “Oh my God.” I do a ton of research on current events as it pertains to clean energy—I own a solar company, so I’m doing everything that I can to change it and encourage other people to do the same thing. There are a lot of people who somewhat know it but they’re not convicted enough to take action.

map 6-9-18

On the map of worries/places in Rhode Island they’d like to protect, people have written:

STOP THE FRACKIN’ POWER PLANT!

Lanking [Lincoln] Woods

Stop violence and the shooting of people

Erosion at India Point Park

Johnston Landfill is getting too big

Jenks Point

BEACH

Blackstone Valley Bike Path

SAVE FOREST FROM SOLAR PANELS

Save the climate + beaches: allow windmills along the windy coast

[Next to Block Island] Underwater in 20 years

Climate Anxiety Counseling: World Oceans Day Eco Fest, 6/8/17

Weather: Cool and gray

Number of people: 9 stoppers, 0 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 8

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 1

Conversations between people who didn’t already know each other: 2

Pictures taken with permission: 0

Pictures taken without permission: 1

Money raised for the Environmental Justice League of RI: $9.84

 

Observations:

I expected attendance at this event to skew fairly white, and it did, but my interlocutors were from a range of apparent demographics.

The theme of this event was the ocean and marine pollution, and I did get a higher percentage of people with climate/environmental anxieties than I usually get on a normal downtown day.

When I can, I connect people with local efforts to fight climate change and sustain ecosystems. I brought the No LNG in PVD campaign to a couple of people’s attention during this session. If you attended (or wanted to attend) this event and are concerned with the amount of plastic in the supply chain in particular, you might want to come to this action about reducing plastics production on June 19th in Newport.

I also really wanted to argue—you’ll see who with—but I successfully refrained. This is in line with the terms of the counseling booth, but I’m not sure it’s in line with my principles at large. (This is also probably the point where I remind you that I don’t post the things that people tell me because I agree with them or think they’re accurate, but because I’m trying to create a portrait of what people in Rhode Island think—at least the ones who are willing to talk with me.)

 

Some conversations:

I get freaked out about what you can really do if the government isn’t helping. I feel good about the things that I do, but I’d like the macrocosm to feel good. We live on the fuckin’ water! I can’t believe we’re not the bar. I feel embarrassed by our government.

When you try to go beyond the things that you do yourself, where do you hit the wall?

I hit the wall close, with my own father, people really close to me of certain generations. They trust the government—with recycling, he was like, “Why would I do that,” but if someone else says you gotta put the can in front of the thing he just does it. I start at home, but there’s just so much resistance there. I do things—I reuse containers, I turn out the lights, I make it myself—but I get pissed off about politics. I do my vote, but it’s like, You guys gotta say something! We gotta put it in a way they understand, like, You’re gonna lose money this way. And we gotta do more in communities of color. There’s not enough outreach. They’re not getting that information, and this affects them the most.

*

I have anxiety about the place where I collect all my amazing trash for my art. There’s all these really special objects, and it’s being redeveloped—there’s a big driveway where they want to bring trucks in to develop it, and it’s locked up. I have to boat around from Bolt Point Park to get to it. Anytime they could start developing that land, and then the shoreline will actually be dirty—right now all the trash is washed from being in the water. This started 7, 8 months ago, but I’ve been going there since 2002.

What do you find there?

Lots of plastic, tons of bottles out there. I found a lot of my performance objects there—a blowup doll face, I found an American flag from a ship. I call it my free store.

What have you learned about it in the time that you’ve been going there?

It’s a totally amazing space. I learned that it was built in the ’70s, artificial land built up, like a football field of flat land, by the Providence-Worcester Railroad. They wanted to use it as a shipping place but East Providence shut it down, and it’s been abandoned since the ’70s. It’s just a big rectangle that sticks out into the bay, so it’s like a sieve on three sides for trash—it collects and keeps it. And it’s all grown really beautifully with plants—there’s bunnies, there’s cats, you see predator birds … I contacted the Providence-Worcester Railroad about buying it, but they wouldn’t even get back to me because of how much it probably is worth—but so what, I feel like I could get the money. It’s not sold yet, but the other side is developed, Tockwotton is developed, so this is the only place left undeveloped that close to the city.

Who else loves it besides you?

A lot of different artists. Friends have gone with me to canoe there. I tried a couple years ago to get a grant to turn it into an art space. I’d really like to turn it into a giant sculpture park, with large-scale sculptures. But now that I’ve gotten a firm no from the company, it seems like I’ll have to let it go.

*

I’m entirely wrapped up in the fact of the United States being on the verge of terminal decline. We can no longer trust elections, and there’s a very large minority of the population unwilling to consider a different point of view in the face of obvious facts. We have a group that understands one thing, and that is winning elections. For me, climate is a symptom of that rather than the main concern—more outcome than cause. Nothing is going to matter if the US becomes a bystander nation. …. Russia’s trying to effectively destroy the Baltic countries and Montenegro, aided by Mr. Trump who has turned NATO into a dead letter. It won’t be long before that’s true of nations that used to shelter behind American might … I don’t think we’re going to have any allies at this rate. The United States has been a shining star to the world, even when people within the American bubble have been unaware of that. And now, we’re acting like we don’t give a flying you-know-what. [We’re becoming] just another country full of hypocritical views and nonsense.

How does it feel to be from just another country?

Well, I’ve lived in other countries that were just other countries.

Maybe “a citizen of”, then.

It doesn’t particularly bother me. But if miscreants were happy with the way things were going then I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. The United States created the architecture for trade, for settling disputes, for promoting various ideals. The impact has been to push lots of countries in the right kind of direction.

Why does Russia frighten you?

Well, let’s say they move beyond killing dissidents abroad to kiling editors of newspapers—let’s say a British editor, to give an extreme situation. Then Britain has to be terrified. Freedom of speech dies, freedom of expression is gone. I can’t think of anything more [didn’t catch the word] than Russia having a veto on politics.

*

It’s alarming, there’s no doubt about that. I just think I have a lot of faith in humanity. For people to wake up to values—I think there’s a natural purging that leads to a coming into awareness as a problem gets worse. It’s like a fever means your body’s working, unless it’s really serious. At the end of the day, the heart’s more powerful than the mind. If you don’t address a person’s anxiety, find out how to connect it with your rationale—how can you acknowledge their anxiety and shift them towards action? When I hear, “It doesn’t matter,”–okay, I get that—now what do we do? Sit down? Go to the party? What little small thing can I do today?

*

We’re killing all the fish with all the products that we’re creating. My anxiety comes from seeing animals suffer for our ignorance. I was at an event the other night and one of the servers was like, Can I take your plate? And I was like, Is it reusable, and he was like, No, it’s styrafoam. I’m not able to not see it anymore. My next project is about plastics in the ocean. I’m flying to Florida and kayaking to Rhode Island from Florida to raise awareness and funds for cleanup projects. I want to do something ridiculous to hopefully start a conversation.

*

(These two came up together.)

 

Person 1 (putting money in the jar): The environment gives so much to me, I can’t even pay it! I love kids, and I wanna have kids but I’m so worried about my kids’ future. What’s the world gonna look like when they’re my age? It’s already bad now.

How do you feel when you think about not having kids?

Empty. Without a purpose.

You’re not a parent yet—what gives your life purpose now?

Working with kids, and doing some stuff for the environment.

And if you found out that you couldn’t have kids, or did decide not to have them?

I would adopt. I would help the kids that are here. I just really love giving back what I was given—people in my life have been so helpful, they’ve helped me find purpose and confidence.

Person 2: Having kids is something you feel like you need to do. With me, I’m not good with kids. I’m not patient … I know the world is pretty much collapsing. There’s lots of things going on with climate change, people not being aware of the impact and how we’re all connected. I’m a fashion designer and I’m learning how messed up the industry can be. It’s one of the biggest contributors to waste. Sometimes I feel guilty—well, everybody feels guilty in a way. But I can’t clutter everything up just because of the environment. But [clothing] doesn’t really end up being recycled—I mean, it can go to the Salvation Army, Savers, but you can only use it so many times, and what happens then? They haven’t figured out a good way of recycling fiber.

Person 1: I’m so happy that you’re—not the guilt, but that you’re taking this into account for what you do.

Person 2: I enjoy buying stuff. And fast fashion is horrible, but it’s cute stuff. If [they make it] and nobody buys it, it’s gonna go to waste anyway, unless everybody stops buying it.

Person 1: As an economist, I studied economics, I can tell you that when information is given to people, that changes people’s decisions. You’re gonna be a pioneer and innovator at that time.

Person 2: Obviously one person can change the world, but there’s levels to it. I don’t have the money right now to make my own company. But just bringing awareness, knowing we’re moving somewhere. Like some companies, instead of buying a new one, you can bring it in and they’ll fix it for you.

*

My mother-in-law’s in hospice. She’s on morphine, heavy morphine. [My wife’s] been down there a lot, and I’m left holding the fort here. She’s got the harder work, but changes are hard, finding a new equilibrium is hard. And then the world—so it feels like there’s a lot of transition, both personally and in a larger way … You put on the armor and there’ll be a moment, right, where you can grieve. And [my mother-in-law’s] in pain, so there’s that, and there’s mourning difficult relationships, what could’ve been and wasn’t. The way we handle death in this culture is awful. People wanna keep it hidden. But we were able to get her home, she’s gonna die at home. So that’s—good? As good as it could be … I don’t think she knows it’s the end. And denial means you’re not living in the same space, you’re not agreeing on what’s the reality.

That perfunctory “I’m fine”–at what point do you acknowledge that you’re not fine? People shy away from discomfort, nobody likes vulnerability.

*

I am afraid that our democratic institutions are under attack, and that Congress is not going to do what it’s supposed to do, acting as a check against unfettered executive power. I am afraid that [Donald Trump] is going to be dismantling the administrative structures of government. Departments like the EPA are being unfunded or dismantled. They’ve already got permission to dump coal sludge into rivers. I’m afraid of no healthcare for anybody except wealthy people—I can see that starting to happen to me and my friends.

What do you do when you feel this fear?

I’ve painted my living room and I have painted my kitchen. I’ve been scraping and spackling and sanding and caulking. Making myself exhausted so I can sleep at night. I’m basically a fairly optimistic person. I’ve been calling my reps, I’ve been calling other people’s reps, I go to town hall meetings and demonstrations. That makes me feel like I’m doing something. I’m pushing hardest on impeachment—getting rid of that man as soon as possible—and on the 2018 election.

*

In 2025 there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than wildlife, by weight. The permafrost fields becoming no longer permafrosted and release methane. Ocean currents stopping because of the warming of the oceans, and how that’s going to cause massive disruptions in human society and nonhumans. We’re killing ourselves, which I’m kind of okay with, but we’re taking out so many incredible creatures that do nothing wrong.

Do you talk to people about this? How do you talk about it?

I’m still figuring it out. Mostly I try to present positives, suggest things that could be done. But it’s hard to think about changing lightbulbs when all these [environmental] protections are being stripped away. I’m a physician, and I try to incorporate this into muy day job—I haven’t been trying for very long, but there are a couple of good organizations, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Healthcare Without Harm. I work for Lifespan and they really don’t do anything. The amount of waste they generate every day—if you close a cut, you fill a garbage can. It’s heartbreaking. And they’re going more toward that because it’s cheaper and easier and it reduces the risk of contamination. But there are other risks we don’t talk about.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: World Oceans Day Eco Fest, 6/8, 5pm

The Climate Anxiety Counseling booth will be outside the Cable Car Cinema in Providence today at 5pm as part of the World Oceans Day Eco Fest. Come see the documentary A Plastic Ocean, hear live music and poetry, see things that people have made out of garbage, and learn ways to tend and sustain the waters that tend and sustain you.

It costs money to get into the show, but not to talk with me and the other people outside.

Remembering the Arctic Ice Cap: A Celebration of Life

Ever since I started offering Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’ve gone back and forth about mourning the places and people–human, nonhuman–that we know climate change will not just hurt, but kill, before they’re gone. It seems like ill-wishing them–pre-grieving, shooing them out of the world, walking over their graves. And it also seems like something that you’d do instead of trying to keep them alive.

This summer, in Newport, RI–which is admittedly a very odd place–they held a funeral for a beech tree that’s reaching the end of their life (fernleaf beeches usually live for 150-200 years–I’m not sure how old this one is or was, and I also don’t know if they’re still standing). I changed my tune a little bit. The tree was dying; this gave people a chance to appreciate it and acknowledge them while they were still alive.

And now, my friend Maya Weeks is holding a memorial and celebration for the Arctic Ice Cap: She writes, “As we anticipate losing year-round sea ice as soon as 2018, we are taking this occasion to gather and process our feelings about this changing ecosystem together. We will gather to say goodbye to the sea ice algae and the Arctic cod and the polar bear. Please feel free to bring candles and loved ones to the Mosswood Amphitheater [in Oakland, CA] at 2pm on Sunday, December 18.  Please feel free to say a few words if you would like. This is an outdoor venue with a ramp for accessibility.”

This comes just after another group of literal and figurative deaths in Oakland: people living and celebrating at the Ghost Ship, which burned, and the way of living and being that was possible there. You can donate to the relief fund here, and to funeral services and end-of-life costs for the trans women who died at the Ghost Ship here. When I donated to the latter, I also donated to the Trans Assistance Project’s main fund, which “exists to finance legal/ID changes and healthcare for trans folks in need,” because the living and the dead both need care, but in different ways.

Other living beings don’t necessarily do peopledom the way human people do. A forest might be a person; a jellyfish might be a community. And equating human and nonhuman death is full of bad logic and bad history, especially when the human who died died at the remote hands of structures of power and capital and cruelty. Who gets to die like a person, and who like a plant; who is a martyr, a casualty, a throwaway–these are all mediated by the structures I just mentioned, and I’m not looking to draw a comparison that isn’t there or isn’t right.

But one thing that the dead share is their absence–even if we, the living, are in communication with them or take their advice, we mostly recognize that the way they are is different from the way we are. And one thing the nearly dead share with the living is their presence, their ability to be touched and known. I’m still on the fence about mourning the still-alive. But I don’t think that sorrow and anger for one kind of loss needs to displace sorrow and anger for another kind, and I think that mourning the dead can help the living to fight like hell for each other.

 

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.

Providence 2050

The Providence Public Library, a place and institution that I love so much, invited people living and working in the city to imagine it in 2050, and this is what we said. I’m in there (though I don’t know that I would call myself an “emerging leader”) and so are a lot of people that I also love, and some I don’t know.

Thanks to Kate Wells and the PPL for inviting me to be part of this story.

Letters from Earth: Poetic Eco-Journalism by Aurora Levins Morales

Aurora Levins Morales is getting set to do a project similar to Climate Anxiety Counseling, but more mobile*. She says:

“Letters from Earth is a poetic journalism project, part travelogue, part documentary, an exploration of the impacts of environmental injustice on our land and our bodies.

Starting in early 2016, I’ll be traveling around the country in my tiny house on wheels, specially designed to be non-toxic, accessible and semi-sustainable, visiting the individuals, front line communities, and wild habitats most affected by our extract-and-consume economy, and writing and recording my most powerful poetic prose to tell their stories and my own.

I want to inspire people to understand and act on both the urgency and the potential of this moment.

Environmental injustice falls most heavily on people who are already facing multiple kinds of injustice in their lives, so Letters from Earth will center their lives, their bodies, their stories, and their leadership.

My audio blogs will be broadcast nationally on Flashpoints, on listener sponsored Pacifica radio.   Text versions will also be posted on my website, and I will post calls to action for each edition of Letters from Earth, as well as links to further information.”

If you have a little money to share, consider sharing it with her.

* Similar to Devi Lockwood’s One Bike One Year.