Part 1: I Want to Hear Whatever You Have to Say
Kennedy Plaza is the transit hub for Providence. You can catch any RIPTA bus there, and if you have to transfer, that’s probably where. People of many (apparent) races, ages, economic situations and genders walk and bike along its sidewalks: singly, in pairs, in gaggles. Individuals, couples, families, and groups of acquaintances or friends spend big swathes of time in Burnside Park when the weather’s nice. Some of them seemed like, or told me, they had nowhere else good to go.
I sat behind a booth made of plywood and cardboard for a total of 20 days: three hours a day for 16 days and two hours a day for four days (with two-day breaks). Some people, I saw multiple times: a woman at the end of her workday walking to pick up her daughter at preschool, a man picking up food at Saturday’s outdoor church service and free meal program. By the end of my month on-site, I was waving to people working the hot-dog and Del’s carts as I wheeled my booth into position, and they were waving back.
When I was designing this project, I decided I would listen to any kind of anxieties, not just climate-change-related ones. I wanted to know what was most pressing on people’s minds, the people I share the city with, partly because whatever is most pressing presses other stuff out. In fact, a few people did say, explicitly, that the damage global warming and environmental degradation might inflict is in the back of their minds, but that more immediate and personal concerns of survival are in the foreground; other people said they’ve redirected their activist energies toward areas where strategies are more clear and practiced, and where person-scale actions produce concrete, person-scale results.
Some people, as I noted in my first reflections, skipped right over the “climate” part of the sign and went straight to the “anxieties” part; other people wanted (and got) confirmation that I was interested in hearing and writing down anything they had to say. My other reason for not insisting on the direction of conversations was a little more nebulous: I wanted to listen to who the people talking to me actually were, not who I wanted them to be; I didn’t want to say, in effect, “Well, if you don’t have anything to say about climate change, you’re no use to me.” Listening to all kinds of anxieties was supposed to make our interaction more inter, more mutual, and I think it did, though you’d have to ask the other people to be sure.
People talked to me often about their long searches for safe places to stay. They talked to me, and sometimes to each other, about their addictions, their deceased family members, a girlfriend in Sweden who owns her own island. High school students shared worries about math and sex and needing financial help from their parents. Many people were worried about jobs — finding them, keeping them. Some spoke, powerfully, about their love of the ecosystems that felt like home to them. They ranged from eloquent to incoherent (most, by far, were somewhere between).
On-the-nose climate anxieties ranged, too: threats to specific people or places; human health-and-safety threats like scarce food, contaminated water and weather-related dangers like flooding and drought; ways that changes in landscape or access to resources might exacerbate existing imbalances in power; total ecosystem destruction, my personal nightmare. Many people, as I’ve mentioned, conflated “climate” with “environment” and “climate change” with “threats to ecology in general”–pollution and garbage, for example, or extinction through habitat loss. Partly because I think these things (and, indeed, many of the non-climate anxieties people shared) have the same root, I didn’t try to correct them.
As booth time went on, I found myself asking some versions of the following questions most, directing the conversation thus far:
Do you imagine this hard future? What do you imagine?
How do you imagine helping other people and things survive?
Who do you help now? Who helps you?
Do you talk to other people about this stuff? What do you say?
You can probably see where this has been, and where it’s going.
Part 2: The Perfect Person
Disclaimers have become a commonish practice among opinion writers and bloggers of goodwill: I’m not the best person to do this. I haven’t done the thing I’m writing about, or had it done to me; I can’t know what it’s like. I’m not a member of this group, I’m writing about them from the outside. I am not a lawyer, but.
As several articles about this project, and commenters thereon, have pointed out, I am not a doctor. (I don’t even have a Ph.D.) I’m not a counselor. But I have a few accidental and a few acquired characteristics that made me the perfect person for this project. I’m cisgendered, female, white, and small — a quadruple nonthreat in mainstream U.S. culture. Many people might look at me and think, “I don’t trust her,” but few people would look at me and think, “I should avoid this person because she might harm me physically or sexually harass me,” and I only have a few “OKAY TO ATTACK” categories written on my forehead in letters only jerks can read.
No one sexually harassed me. No one physically threatened me. If you read over the daily blog entries, you’ll see that the heckler count hovered between 0 and 1.5, and mainly rested at 0. I felt slightly intimidated twice, once when I pushed back (about someone’s vocal homophobia) and once when I remained quiet (about someone’s vocal racism) (in my defense, this person also spent a lot of time telling me that he didn’t like to fight and then telling me about all the fights he was in). A couple of people’s attitudes towards climate change irritated me, and I allowed myself to get into a couple of wrangles before renewing my commitment to not do that; a couple of people were extremely determined conspiracy theorists, and I admit that I didn’t write down everything they said.
Generally, though, I brought with me a habit of listening, of not rejecting out of hand, because I’m a teacher. Specifically, I’m a professor between my spring classes and my summer classes, with an employer unlikely to fire me for putting on a floppy hat and talking in public about a contentious topic. (Could someone who worked for the state do this project? For General Electric? For Morgan Stanley?) My grades are in. I have time right now, and I don’t need to use every second of that time to work a second or third job in order to pay for food and shelter. I live close to the project site, and my body works well enough to trundle a handtruck down and back, with or without the sand-filled umbrella stand (which didn’t work very well), and to perch on a backless stool for three hours at a time. And I received the patient practical and emotional support of a loving partner who helped me design the booth, lent me tools, and encouraged me daily. My friends and relations far afield asked intelligent questions. My friends, colleagues and acquaintances in town showed up in Kennedy Plaza, notably with hot tea and muffins. And my beloved city was generous with me, offering everything from official permission (represented by a tiny badge to hang off the bottom of the map, later glazed with non-waterproof yellow paint), through to online and word-of-mouth publicity, to the willingness to stop and figure out what on earth this thing was, what on earth this person was doing.
Because of these things, as well as because of my love of words and their many over- and undertones, this was the perfect project for the person I am — which includes my history, my present setting, my intimates, my community, my skills, my abilities, my contexts. It made me take stock of all those things, and now it makes me ask you: what effort to preserve or to adapt, to sustain or to protect, to illuminate or even to grieve, are you the perfect person for?
Sometimes I like to watch shows about spaceships. The thing I’m about to say is not about Goldilocks Planets, or about giant spheres of dirt in which a select few might one day burrow like earthworms, or utopias or dystopias or visions of the future. Those might come later. (Ursula K. LeGuin has a nicely ambiguous story called “Newton’s Sleep” about how they might go.) On the spaceship, everyone’s there for a reason, everyone’s good at something: you’re the weapons expert or the pilot or the medic or the mechanic or, in a fabulously late ’80s/early ’90s way, the ship’s counselor. Alongside the fantasy of flying gloriously solo, there’s a fantasy of being unable to do without each other, of having something indispensable to give and of needing a number of complex systems to work in order to thrive long enough to give it.
Here we are; we’re on the spaceship. What do we need from us, in order to keep us alive and thriving? The next phase of this project will be devoted to answering that question. I’m looking for advice from ecologists, climate modelers, and urban planners on the best places for our efforts; advice from activists, lobbyists and marketing folks on strategy; help from copywriters designers on presentation.
Creating the resource library of possible actions that I’m dreaming of is going to take a while. In the meantime, I’m planning two shorter-term continuations of the project; online “office hours” of some sort, and one-day appearances in seacoast towns in RI. Check back here for updates on those plans! I’ll continue to write poems and essays in response to what I heard over my month in Kennedy Plaza; some of those will appear here and some, I hope, elsewhere. Stay with me.