Alternate Histories: 6/6, 4/23


I’d rather talk about global anxieties than personal anxieties! I have to talk about it! Auuugh! I just wanna shred things! I think the most impending one seems to be that there are a lot of people and places that could quickly be gone and nobody seems to give a shit about that. Like is this just another form of watching people die because they’re different from you. What island cultures will be gone? And people are just like, “Yup, that’s the deal.” And the other thing is seeing people talking enthusiastically about the profits to be made from water. Like, “How can we monetize this? Here’s the opportunities in this.”



In the following year of the drought, growers in the San Joaquin Valley agreed to phase out their crops over the next three years. As they’d involved and tangled so many other people in creating the drought, they prepared to untangle them slowly.

Individual farm managers worked to learn what else the people who’d been picking fruit could do: medicine-mixing, carpentry, speaking with the dead, tinkering with machinery, sign-lettering, smelling out a lie, butchering a goat, sorting out a dispute, weaving a rope, preventing a pregnancy. Some of the older people had grown food in their home towns, enough for a few people at a time. Could everyone who was on the land at the moment stay there, if they wanted to, if they let the monocultures wither, planted and foraged with care, lived more in line with the temperatures and the weather and helped the soil to recover? Would there be water enough for that?

If you’re dishonest with us, said the people who’d been picking fruit, if you try to hurt or shoot us, if you bring police or soldiers in to destroy us, we’ll kill you. You understand, we’ve never known you to act right. You need to prove yourselves to us.

If I tell you that the growers said Yes, we understand, will you believe me? You believe me when it goes the other way–the menace, the suspicion, flowing from strength toward weakness–because you’ve seen it, or maybe you’ve lived it, or someone has told you about it. But there’s nothing natural about that. It’s not gravity itself, but alignment with a certain set of forces. There are others.

Yes, we understand, the growers said.

On the loose and crumbling rocks of the Great Divide, on the mountains that cast the rain shadow, rivers flow downhill both ways, and female grizzlies climb up with their cubs to protect them from male grizzlies, who want to kill the babies that aren’t theirs. The rocks are too loose, too slippery; the males can’t manage there. The females barely can–they have to walk carefully. The babies are fine. Of course some of them do die, and of course some of them do grow up to prowl, frustrated, at the edge of the loose rock, where they can’t climb.

People aren’t the same as bears. After all these years, people aren’t even the same as other people. We can choose what we learn, the forms and sites of our danger and our safety, the direction of the flow of our justice and our mercy.


Climate Anxiety Counseling: Reflections on Week 4

Part 1: Exhaustion

At the end of each shift, I packed the booth components onto the handtruck and trundled westward and upward. Back on home ground, I wheeled the booth into the garage. After a dry day, I left it packed up; after a wet day, I unpacked it and wiped off the components, leaving them to finish air-drying overnight. Then I went into the house and washed my hands, which were covered in sweat, ink, and grit from the ground on which the booth rested. I turned the tap. The water came on. I squeezed liquid soap onto my hands, rubbed them together, rinsed them, turned the tap off.

I walked you through that last part not because I think you don’t know how washing your hands goes (I very much hope you do), but because you probably know so well how it goes that you don’t think about it very much. Now, I don’t know your life. You may be careful and reserved about your water use; you may not turn that knob very often. But if you live in the U.S. you are probably confident that when you do turn it, water that you can use will come out  …

… unless you live in an area with periodic or ongoing water rationing, or have a delinquent landlord who hasn’t paid the water bill, or live downstream from something like the Elk River chemical spill. Many people predict that those exceptions are likely to become more common in upcoming years, and some people, as an interlocutor pointed out on Day 19, are already drooling over ways to profit from that. But at the moment, we turn the knob and out comes the water, and the moment is hard to get away from. On Day 17, another interlocutor said she sometimes “catches herself” letting the water run while she steps away from the dishes she’s washing in order to do another task. “It’s true,” she reflected, “if you live as though there’s a water shortage, you use less water. I wish I had more of that mindset on a daily level.” She spoke of her grandparents, who carried habits formed in a time of scarcity into a time of plenty.

When I got home from a shift, I was exhausted. I had used most of my physical energy and emotional responsiveness. Also, I was usually hungry and either in urgent need of a bathroom (because I couldn’t leave the booth long enough to pee) or very thirsty (because I shortchanged myself on fluids so I wouldn’t have to pee). Because I live in a safe place with not only clean and ample water but a loving partner, food on hand, and an ample stock of mystery novels with dapper detectives and YA novels with beleaguered-but-brave heroines, I eventually was replenished and restored. A longer shift, or a project involving more physical or emotional activity and risk, would have required more replenishment and restoration, and if those weren’t available, would require me to either give up the work or damage myself (probably not before being a real shit to other people, unless I was very careful). When we think about how to do things more fully or more completely or even more quickly, we need, also, to think about how long we want to be able to do them.


Part 2: Chains

The counsel of inexhaustibility is very, very profitable for a few people. As we look outward and downward from them in money and status, it’s fairly profitable for some, mildly profitable for many, and actively detrimental and destructive–even if we think just in terms of money, which at least in the U.S. tends to be how we think first–for many, many more. When we use other standards besides that of money (safety, dignity, range, pleasure, possibility) the unevenness is worse. When we use a longer timescale and a wider, of course, they’re robbing themselves along with everybody and everything else, maybe calculating that their lives will run out before they’ve burned everything they need.

Many people who stopped by the booth spoke of their own complicity in this system of profit, even when they were on the low-benefits end — the damage they couldn’t help doing. Many others spoke of the small actions they try to take to do less damage, or to actively benefit ecosystems on a local level. Sometimes these two ways of seeing and naming were united in one person.

The soap I bought to wash my hands with is a link in a chain that leads up to the robbers, the blankeners of the ocean and the land. But it’s a mistake, and can be a paralyzing one, to squint and crane your neck until all the links look like they’re the same size. Similarly, if–like one of my interlocutors from Day 20–you plant a garden of things that pollinators like, that is great, but it’s great in the way that buying soap is terrible. Small, individual restorative actions are the same size as small, individual destructive actions; they’re at the most tapered end of the chain. One of this project’s next phases, if I can manage it, will focus on how to take actions — both in restoration, and against destruction — toward the bigger links in the chain.

I say, “If I can manage it,” but like everything else, it’s more of a “we” situation.  Check back towards the end of this week for some notes on how you can be part of that “we”, as well as a master list of RI-specific worries people shared with me, a full count of money donated for the Environmental Justice League of RI, and an outtro to this phase — including more about my loving partner, the food I have on hand, and other things that made me a good person to do this project.