Climate Anxiety Counseling: Miantonomi Park, 8/12/19

Weather: Hot and bright

Number of people: 5 stoppers, 2 map markers

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 8

People who got the Peanuts reference: 2

People I’ve spoken with before, back for more: 2

Dogs seen: 7

Dogs pet: 1

Money raised for Tooth and Nail Community Support Collective: $0.07

Observations:

I had Elizabeth Malloy of Living on Earth with me, listening and recording (with permission), to see if there’s a story in all of our stories. She will be back to record at the 8/26 and 8/28 sessions, so come on those days if you want to be on the radio.

Nonhuman animal presences: Two tiny brownish butterflies, ant, white butterfly, housefly, bronze dragonfly (I can’t figure out what kind these are), seagull, little green fly.

A rare thing happened: Someone came back to speak with me for the second time and I got to hear what they did after our first conversation. If they can face their fears and expand their capabilities as steps toward participating in the world in a way that’s responsive to climate change, maybe you can too.

Some conversations:

*

What’s the question of the day?

The question of the day is: in a bad storm, what would the strengths and weaknesses of your community be?

[We talked about this some, and I think I brought up that because Providence is a city, there are a lot of people who have a lot of different skills to share.]

A lot of the jobs here are the same thing, just different places. Like waitresses. Very few people do construction. People who do construction aren’t from here.

If a bad storm were to happen like that, all of Newport is just done. There’s water over here, there’s water down there.

What’s the worst storm you remember?

Have I been through a storm? A lot of the bad storms, I’ve heard about, I haven’t been through.

*

I noticed that you wrote on the map, “It doesn’t happen in just one place.” Can you say more about that?

You can take one place and try and protect it, but that doesn’t do anything about the whole problem. I’m really really frustrated. Nothing seems to be happening and what’s happening isn’t fast enough. The Point section [of Newport], all those very old houses—and a lot of them are for sale. And they can’t move them all. Since I rent, I’m never gonna own, I don’t think of it that way. Superstorm Sandy cut off a road to the wildlife refuge for years. …

I did go clean the beach. I wanted so bad to go down to [the] Allens Avenue [cleanup], but I don’t drive well on the highway. If I can still register, I’m gonna just go and be terrified. I signed up for communication skills [courses], and computer skills—I think I can learn a lot but computer skills are going to be the most useful. And I did sign up for the climate discussion at the library. What I’m trying to do is write down my thoughts so I can keep organized. We only have a certain amount of time. It’s not funny. This is now.

*

[Person 1 and Person 2 are kids, Person 3 is their parent.]

Person 1: I don’t want the ocean to be dirty.

[To Person 2] What about you?

Person 2: It’s kinda like the same thing but I don’t want like—you know how sea turtles, they think [plastic] bags are jellyfish?

Do you talk to other people about this?

Person 2: To my mom. And some of my teachers at school and at my camp.

What do you do at camp?

Person 2: We go outside and we go sailing. Today I did a learning thing about the ocean, so we can keep the ocean clean. So [one of the teachers] did these tests and we did like—and we made our fingers look like a turtle and we put a rubberband, and it was kind of like a test of a how a sea turtle feels. And we did a thing where she said to dump out all the seeds and put it in the plastic beads and we did that three times. I think all that plastic beads was actually the pollution that was inside of the birds and sea turtles.

When you learn about stuff like this, what about it makes you angry or makes you sad?

Something dying. Something I get mad about is like something on TV—somebody choking, like an animal. … I don’t exactly tell anyone about it, I kind of keep it to myself.

Person 3: How come?

Person 2: ‘Cause I like to. Sometimes I even think if someone’s doing the exact same thing as me.

Person 3: You learned a bunch of songs about not polluting. Do you remember any of them?

[Person 2 did not want to sing the songs.]

Person 3: I think one of the hardest parts of thinking about climate change is using the right language. Especially with young people … It’s really serious [but] is that going to help the situation, talking about it with young people and scaring them?

How do you talk about it in your house?

Very experientially—something’s happening and you talk about it in the moment. For whatever reason, animals are the way to a lot of people’s hearts. Kids love animals and don’t want to see them hurt. [And it comes with] the guilt of, “It’s kind of our fault.”

What would you like to do in response to this that you’re not doing?

It would be great to take them to New Mexico to build an earthship. That’s a really big dream. We’ve gone to a couple protests…I wish there were more options. … They talk about the three Rs, but I think there should be five or six Rs. We should be teaching them about refusing things, and repurposing things…

[Climate change] seems hypothetical because you’re not there. It’s easier to do these experiential teaching things in the moment—like pointing out the cycle of something and the people who made it. …It’s shifting, the conversations are happening more. It wasn’t really a thing to talk about in the ’80s when we were kids.

How has climate change affected the way you think about your kids and the future?

I’m pretty hopeful. Kids are incredibly resilient beings. I don’t fear for them. The only thing—I guess if I had climate anxiety, which I do, it’s about accessing nature, because it’s—there’s just not going to be as much access to nature in its current state. And the ocean especially, because water is so important to the health of humans. That’s the only thing that I think I’m really concerned about, is losing … that as they get older. My kids and their generation are 100% problem-solvers, maybe because they have to be. [But] one of my pet peeves is when people are like, “It’s up to these kids.” It’s not up to them. It’s up to us to make everything sustainable and [I DIDN’T TAKE DOWN THE END OF THIS SENTENCE].

*

My grandchildren were visiting last week… I’m very concerned that my grandchildren will have no water to drink, and I can’t tell them that. We talked a lot about climate change and why we don’t have dinosaurs. “Maybe we’ll have another ice age.” I just couldn’t get into the Industrial Revolution, from the 1700s and the 1800s…So we’re all feeling pretty confident [about] our lives, they’re not terrified of dying in their lifetimes …

*

Black woman, 50s, glasses, stylish

I’m definitely anxious and I’m more anxious about the deniers in our government. These rollbacks that they’re doing…I’m frustrated about that and I don’t understand it. The frustration is [with] the “profit over humanity” type thing. I’m worried about changes that I’m seeing in the current weather patterns. We don’t know what to expect … Should I start getting sandbags? Should I get an inflatable raft and keep it in my garage? Am I being paranoid? Am I being silly? Or realistic?

They’re trying to bury the science that’s out there, and it’s up to us to try to fight it… I don’t know if they just have an agenda and they’re putting lies out there or if they don’t get it, they just don’t want to. I think the bigger thing is, our values have to change. We’re very materialistic and I don’t think we’re looking at the big picture.

What are the values that you think we should either bring back or start having?

Just the simple things in life. Community, education, just being able to live our lives without everything they put in front of us. We don’t ask ourselves [whether we need it]. … If we were to cripple [companies’] profits–

What helps you?

Reflection upon it all. My church family. …Having like-minded people around you who can kind of see that perspective—people who you can learn from and who are receptive to things that you’re saying as well. Taking a look inside and asking yourself, “Why do I have to have this?” … A big part of our problem is—as a community—is it’s inconvenient to do a lot of things and I think that’s what’s holding us back. I don’t do too much for the cause in that regard. I think that’s a big reason people don’t want to talk about it.

… I need to start putting myself in a mindset to live on the bare minimum. [On the island that] my parents were from, the island that we used to visit, they had no electricity. Do I prepare myself to go back to that? … It’s not gonna kill me to use an outhouse. My family back in Anguilla, when those two hurricanes hit, we were so worried, we didn’t hear from them for a week and a half, and when we finally got in touch they’re like, “We’re fine.” My cousin had food in the fridge and they took the food out and they had a barbecue for everyone. They knew how to do the manual labor, they knew how to put the houses back together. The thing that I find different here is that people here are all about that profit—people [with those skills] are gonna be thinking, “What’s in it for me?”

[IMAGE: The components of the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth (plywood table, wooden stool, cardboard signs, map of worries, canvas bag for other materials) packed onto a red handtruck. Nestled in the bottom of the upside-down stool is a container of cherry tomatoes.]

Alternate Histories: 6/6, 4/23

6/6/14

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.”

*

4/23/15

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.