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.

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Alternate Histories: 6/13, 6/13, 9/14

[These are anxieties from three different people; here’s an explanation of why they’re together.]

6/13/15

Him: My big anxiety is that if you look back 65 million years, when the temperature jumped, it jumped in a span not of 100 but of 15 years, 8 degrees Celsius. We couldn’t adjust for it.

Her: The sea level rise from that–

Him: Basically if you melt all of [the] Greenland [Ice Sheet] you get 8 meters of rise. If you melt East and West Antarctica, you get an automatic 300 feet. Countries other than the U.S. are gonna push for geoengineering, but that has massive negative consequences. And the other thing is methane. There’s a tipping point with methane release as polar ice melts, and it’s greenhouse gas with 27 times the power of carbon dioxide. That’s really the thing that’s gonna put us over the edge. No policy can stop that. Barring geoengineering, this will happen.

Her: Based on the models.

So if this is definitely happening, what does that mean–

Him: For civilization?

I don’t think you know that. For you.

Him: It would be very sad, because we’re of the generation that actually had a chance to have an engineering impact for future generations. Cheap agricultural production is gonna collapse, and there’s gonna be an expansion of people who are denied their basic human rights.

Do you think there’s structures we could set up now that would reduce the chance of that?

Him: When I was younger, I went to Cuba and I looked at agricultural reform that was part of the reaction of the government to Russia’s collapse. All the imports of things like grain stopped. So they had to move from an agriculture that was focused on producing coffee, sugar and tobacco to a diversified local agriculture that could feed the population of the island. They were overall able to adapt the food supply, shift away from state-run agriculture. If we could facilitate such a shift–but agriculture runs off fossil fuels and glacial meltwater … I got burnt out on international development. Now I’m just trying to make money enough to make sure my family is safe. I’m building nonmilitary drones–they make 3D plans of buildings … I don’t see a total extinction event, I just see a very rough period for human rights. We have a tendency to hunt till there’s no more, drill till there’s no more. I personally think that humans are awesome, because humans make awesome things–humans are grasping the fundamental nature of reality in a way that no other creature has.

6/13/15

More storms. But it doesn’t feel personal to me, not like a personal fear. It’s more like the collective weight of an increasing level of disaster. It feels like a heavy weight, a collective weight of too much–too much happening at once. I have some sense of the fallout of that kind of [event]. I think there’s a lot of people that would vanish, would fall away, would die, and then the few people who are left would have to sort it out.

*

9/14/15

G sees history, and N feels it, looming above them, poised to fall. Let’s entwine not what they imagine, which is similar, but how they imagine it. When G is frightened, they gather data–names, relationships, likelihoods, projections, things that seem to them incontrovertible. When N is frightened, they register emanations–feelings that they share with other humans, with the strain that will show later in the year as blight on the edges of maple leaves, ground turning sour under heavy, sudden downpours, edged jokes about the Ocean State.

G can help tell us what structures we might put in place, what resources we might make available. Will we need new ways to balance what we permit with what we object to? G can seek out ways that people have handled this in the past, all through storied time, and correlate them with our coming needs. They can weigh the effects of different methane-capturing technologies and paces of reforestation. N can tell us if what we’re doing is working. Is the weight lighter? What does the air taste like? Which excuses do the violent try to make, and do they fly?

This happens–they tell us these things, and we listen, and act–and people who think like G go to places where that kind of thinking is needed, or wait where they are for people who think like N to reveal themselves. They come to recognize that data describes them, that history is something they are in, that the fundamental nature of reality is not something we grasp. It operates through us–we are among its tissues and its elements.

Through conversation, through proximity and through shared effort , people become better at each other’s kinds of thinking. Of course there are more than two; there are more than ten, or even a hundred; when we look away from all the different ways that people can see and understand the changes, we’re faced with the ways squids “understand” them or the way rocks “feel” them. And as we know this–as it’s expressed in numbers or in sounds–we may change what we do. This seems abstract, semantic, but history in us is as palpable as a dash of cool wind, the taste of bananas, a neck muscle easing.

Alternate Histories: 8/9, 5/17 (A Group Effort From Frequency Writers)

“What if you were in charge of everything in the world?” I’ll ask the students in Invisible Cities, my summer teen writers’ workshop for Frequency Writers on utopias and intentional communities. Last night people who attended the Frequency Open House had a chance to write mini alternate histories on the spot, with several people working from the same climate anxiety.

I asked for one responsive sentence from each person. I didn’t specify some of the constraints I used when writing the first alternate histories, and writers didn’t get a chance to correlate their responses, so some of these are more magical, gadgetary, contemptuous or apocalyptic than I allowed myself to be.

I’ll post them throughout the week. Here’s the first batch, by 3 different people.

8/9/14

The hole in Siberia. I wake up thinking about it. I was reading in the Washington Post … about how they figured out what it was and it’s not good: it’s permafrost that’s thawing and it’s supposed to be frozen, and it’s releasing [the greenhouse gas] methane, and I have this 20-month-old! I don’t want to leave him in a world where giant holes open up in the earth.

5/17/15

They figured out how to plug the hole–all the discarded pacifiers of the world congealed together–the baby saliva a new kind of permafrost, a sticky layer trapping the methane.

Everyone plugs up the hole (and all subsequent holes) with copies of the Washington Post.

Fox News would address climate change and the environment in a weekly televised forum. This would be the “New Reality Movement.” The Kardashians would slip from collective consciousness and general interest as we know it.

Alternate Histories: 5/24, 4/12

5/24/14

[Small girls to whom I gave a snapping turtle card and a blue cohosh card yesterday]

Can we use your chalk?

Yes.

 [They take it into the park and start drawing. Later they’re joined by 2 other girls, around the same age. Later still, girls and chalk are nowhere to be seen. I mentally bid farewell to chalk. A man comes up and we start talking.]

I don’t know that there’s anything we can do to help. We try to think as human beings that we have control over certain things, but we really don’t.

I think we’re talking about different things. I’m talking about like, if there was bad flooding, would you give someone a ride in your car?

No. I’d like to say I’d like to help all these people, but I think when it’s in complete survival mode, it gets to be every man for himself.

So you don’t think people depend on each other.

No, I do think people depend on each other … It’s something that needs looking into, and we’re not doing enough about it. There’s enough methane on the ocean floor–you know about this? What happens when the ocean warms up and releases that methane into the atmosphere? It’ll be a global catastrophe that–[he looks over and sees the girls drawing within earshot]–we’ll all be in trouble.

[About an hour later, one of the original girls brings the box back, chalk sticks well used.]

*

4/12/15

It is the responsibility of adults not to frighten children.

We talk about the ocean floor, like it’s the floor of a house, but it’s a field.

Around the methane vents deep in the sea, the methanophilic bacteria are at pasture, transforming what’s available to them into what they need.

The floor of a house is also a field, shared, full of inhabitants.

A human can’t throw his body in front of a methane vent, between a pair of children and a methane vent. If R throws his body between a pair of children and, say, a prime minister, who’ll be wise enough to see the line between them, to calculate the trajectory, to understand what he intersects, what he wants to interrupt?

What kind of present do you want for your children?

The methanophilic bacteria would be so happy, fat and full if the methane in the oceans emerged. It would be a rich time for them. Sometimes you have to choose who will get what they want.

Those children weren’t even R’s children, but he wanted something for them.

The best way to not scare someone is to get rid of the things that scare them.

Yes, and while we’re doing that, we can also teach them how to be scared. To be while scared. To not be frozen.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Day 10

Weather: clouds and sun, with a big heavy gray cloud coming in from the north

Number of people: 6 stoppers, 2 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 6

Conversations between people previously unknown to one another: 1

People who asked (and received) permission to take a picture: 1

People who recognized and commented on the Peanuts reference: 3

Mentions of the Industrial Revolution: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $6.30

 

Observations

A sample size of 2 suggests that Saturdays are slower than weekdays.

I may have missed a potential stopper while responding to a logistical text. Let that be a lesson.

 

Some conversations: 

[Small girls to whom I gave a snapping turtle card and a blue cohosh card yesterday]

Can we use your chalk?

Yes.

 [They take it into the park and start drawing. Later they’re joined by 2 other girls, around the same age. Later still, girls and chalk are nowhere to be seen. I mentally bid farewell to chalk. About an hour later, one of the original girls brings the box back, chalk sticks well used.]

*

I don’t know that there’s anything we can do to help. We try to think as human beings that we have control over certain things, but we really don’t.

I think we’re talking about different things. I’m talking about like, if there was bad flooding, would you give someone a ride in your car?) No. I’d like to say I’d like to help all these people, but I think when it’s in complete survival mode, it gets to be every man for himself.

So you don’t think people depend on each other.

No, I do think people depend on each other … …  It’s something that needs looking into, and we’re not doing enough about it. There’s enough methane on the ocean floor–you know about this? What happens when the ocean warms up and releases that methane into the atmosphere? It’ll be a global catastrophe that–[he looks over and sees the girls drawing within earshot]–we’ll all be in trouble.

*

I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want to have to be responsible–I don’t want to become an angry old adult and hate the world.

What do you like about the world now?

I like that everything is magical … I’m afraid I’m gonna be hurt. I’m in a state of transition. I don’t want to let myself drown in responsibilities, having a job.

What could you do to hold onto that feeling of magic?

Trying to learn how to be still and enjoy moments. Like today it was supposed to rain, and it didn’t, and I’m really thankful for that. I was raised by a conservative family, with the idea of a fairy-tale wedding and stuff like that, and I’m afraid of finding out that things aren’t really like that. 

*

[These two were friends.]

Friend 1: I’m anxious that we’ve passed the point at which anything other than geoengineering will make sense, and that it will become necessary seems like this huge problem in itself–whether it’ll work, what the side effects will be, will it stop working in a catastrophic way? And in a way that makes me feel more helpless, like what’s the point of doing other stuff, we should just jump straight to trying to block the sun with tiny mirrors.

Friend 2: Tiny mirrors? I don’t know anything about this.

Friend 1: They’re not really mirrors, they’re reflective particles.

Friend 2: My high school education was totally focused on the environment, on climate an conservation. [Friend 1] and I actually met at an action–was it about cap and trade?

Friend 1: Yeah–no, we were trying to get Barack Obama to go to Copenhagen in person.

Friend 2: Then I stopped. I turned more toward local work, work that’s more immediate, like helping someone [redacted for privacy]–I believe it’s important work, but I do it because it’s more satisfying to me. It’s easier to put my arms around. And the climate is so hard to put your arms around. We did that action where we stand where the water would rise–

Friend 1: By the end of the century, they’re saying sea levels will be 1-4 feet higher, probably more toward the high end of that. But the real thing, I think, is storm surges–not like a permanent thing, but what happens in a big hurricane … In the next few years I think I’m going to have to either stop working on climate issues or become a deeply religious person. I can’t sustain hope on my own anymore. I need a group of people for whom hope is built in — hope in the literal sense that we will do something or figure something out, that human civilization isn’t gonna collapse, and in a bigger sense that the world will continue to become better, more just, more peaceful, in the very longest term.

Friend 2: That we’ll make progress. Do you think we’ve made progress?

Friend 1: This is the Industrial Revolution question. I think so.

Friend 2: I do too. You were saying–a big part of your hope involved the future generation. Do you think people who are motivated to try to do something about this are motivated because of that?

Friend 1: I don’t know, it varies. I think in this climate context, 95% of the American public doesn’t understand what it means —

Friend 2: Or it’s not that urgent.

Friend 1: Or it’s not that urgent. Americans put climate change dead last on a list of things they were worried about, they put it after “moral decline.” 

Friend 2: Or they mix it up with like, recycling, and the ozone layer.

Friend 1: I think it sort of lumps together in this category of “We’ve done something bad to the air. Now we’re in trouble.”  … The policies in question have costs. This isn’t anyone’s, quote, problem. There’s always something that’s gonna be easier for you to do.

Friend 2: And everything’s just so connected. 

*

From the beginning of time–I believe in the Creation and what He created. I believe in trying to restore that, taking away all the sorrow and pain and death. I believe in the Lord.

How does your faith affect the way you live your life?

I try to study, I study the Bible every day … You end up praying for relationship, Heaven and Earth. We’re part of that Creation. It’s just finding it, I guess, divine.

*

[I give her the card with angelica on it.] This is a flower that grows here in RI.

Oh, I know! This is one of my favorite plants.

 

Today’s poem: 

Tiny mirrors reflecting light

back into space are under discussion

a flicker we can always hope for

because they are moving away

hope as progress, air as mirror

we did something bad to and now

we’re in trouble we’re drawing the dark

fur of an animal now that absorbs

without gloss or that reflects like

particulate matter my whole body works

with writing my face works with rage

self-heard and induced helplessness

I tilt and tilt myself toward and away

from the sun I tilt and tilt

my umbrella toward and away from the rain

“Not only that but” people keep saying

not only that but another thing

and no things but others

or no other things but us

on the land and in the water

the clouds boiling up in fast motion

because regular motion isn’t

scary enough I sit here without

my umbrella hoping to outwait the rain