The recent activity in North Korea has urban survivalist websites humming. I wish I didn’t know. Some people watch rom-coms or eat fried Oreos as a guilty pleasure; I quietly troll urban survivalist websites. Why? Because fear is powerful and hell on your Internet habits.
If Earth overheats and crops and fuel become scarce, guess what? I know good bartering supplies include tampons, mercury fillings, eyeglasses. One particularly anxious day I read instructions on how to cook on my woodstove—so in the early days of environmental apocalypse and culture collapse, my family will enjoy bygone potatoes roasted over hot coals and underdone loaves of bread. We might be going down, but we are going down with half-assed gourmet edibles. I’d tell you to come on by for a piece of wild turkey jerky, but culture collapse might be hard on hospitality.
Did you know there are Self-Reliance Expos, where they give prizes to the best “preparedness pail” or survival bucket? Did you also know if I read about those buckets in the right melancholy mood I’m tempted to buy five of them?
No, I don’t own any semi-automatics or live in a bunker. But something happened to me this year. The little bud of hopelessness that I have worked most of my adult life to stamp down blossomed inside of me and became full-fledged environmental anxiety. I used to think about climate change once a month; now I think about it multiple times a day.
I can’t help but feel that the inevitable is here, that we’ve passed some sort of tipping point, both behavioral—some sort of bizarre human acceptance of environmental degradation—and CO2-related. Following fellow Vermonter and climate change activist Bill McKibben on Twitter means a daily dose of reality, and for me, melancholy. I follow his links to places like The Atlantic’s Five Charts About Climate Change That Should Have You Very, Very Worried, and the heat maps and rising red temperature lines mirror my rising panic.
I think: maybe we’re not getting out of this one.
I was an earnest child. I craved approval and, perhaps thanks to being brought up in the southern brand of religion, admired moral rectitude. If good people recycled, I wanted to recycle. These were the days of D.A.R.E. and over-simplified water cycle charts; the Thanksgiving narrative in social studies class hadn’t even been revised for political correctness. When I first jumped on the recycling wagon and heard the word ozone, I believed in America’s greatness, as evidenced by Ruffles potato chips, ET, and Bruce Springsteen. I knew nothing of political parties. I assumed that if a serious problem like global warming was facing the United States, someone would approach the President, tug on his sleeve, and whisper in his ear: It’s time. Roll out the Teslas and solar panels. NASA would press a button and deploy an atmospheric fix. Americans would make sacrifices: driving-free days, a home garden movement, lights-out time. If there was a serious problem like global warming, the right people would step up and solve it.
Who are the right people? Where are they? What are they doing? Is it enough? Is what I’m doing enough?
Recently a UN report indicated that Permafrost is melting across Siberia and Alaska, resulting in a significantly higher release of carbon. If this rate of melting continues, the carbon emitted would accelerate global warming, and result in an “irreversible, runaway effect.” As I’m writing this, McKibben tweets “Warming could lead to 100% rise in Mega-Storms for East Coast.” A few weeks ago, one of his tweets lodged in my memory: “An area larger than the US melted in the Arctic this year…UN climate conf. plans ‘baby steps.’” While I’m thankful for real talk, and McKibben is one of my personal heroes, his unsentimental facts are a black cloud over my head. If you’re listening, there’s no shortage of gut-wrenching news on the climate front. Sometimes I wonder if I should be listening. It makes me glum, judgmental, and anxious.
I see statistics—for example, that by the year 2100 we’ll endure rising seas, increased disease and hunger—and find myself calculating my life span, my daughters’ life spans, lamenting the fact that it may not be a good choice for them to have children of their own. I hurt a little when my three year old starts a sentence with “when I’m a mommy.” What will it be like growing up knowing that the best isn’t yet to come? That the world isn’t yours to conquer and explore? That it has lost most of its freshness and mystery?
God Bless America…from the mountains, to the prairies, to the…anoxic, overfished oceans re-claiming our coastal cities?
How bad can it really be? This is where a fiction writer’s imagination is a curse, where empathy and easy feeling are a daily liability. I imagine digging a bunker in our backyard and filling it with canned goods, living in a world that looks something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You know—marauding cannibals, abandoned buildings, limited resources. Perhaps there’s a reason we see an uptick in apocalyptic literature; fiction distracts us from the immediate, but also models Worst Case Scenario in a way that enlists our senses, tugs at our heartstrings. But, from what I can see, digesting fictional and compelling apocalyptic landscapes is not enough to pull us over into a course of real action, though denial and distraction are helpful coping mechanisms.
I dive after recyclable containers in the trash, hyperventilate over people running the faucet aimlessly. I purchased a TerraPass to offset part of the carbon footprint of my book tour. We got an energy audit on our ancient farmhouse and are planning to go solar. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was twelve (livestock contribute considerably to emissions and land degradation). We drink water out of old salsa jars. I grow a big garden and put up my own food. I saved seeds this year. I vote for progressives who believe in global warming. Do you see what I’m doing here? I’m trying to convince you and myself that as an individual I am less culpable, that my hysteria makes a difference. I’ve made an effort to reduce, re-use. The blood is not on my hands.
But I know it is. I drive a hybrid car, but I drive it a lot. My husband and I made two more carbon-producing life forms, beautiful ones. We meant to employ reusable diapers, but have done our share filling landfills with Huggies. Almost daily the UPS truck backs up to my door, delivering yet another purchase I’ve made online. Sure I make my own maple syrup, but I also buy off season avocados and vanilla from Madagascar. We pollute and consume just as much as anyone else. My righteousness feels shrill and useless, an earnest drop in the bucket. There’s an enormous gulf between the principled action I believe I should take, and how I honestly live.
My wheels are spinning. I don’t know where to start, or where to stop. I want a mandate, guidelines, someone to force my hand. I want rules, shared sacrifice. I want greenhouse gas emissions and industrial pollutants managed. I want the degradation of our planet more often framed as a solvable problem, not a politicized one. But we’re only asking the world to reengineer the global economy, to make presumably enormous economic sacrifices in the name of sustainability, right? Billions of dollars, billions of lives. I don’t deny that the situation is mired in economic and political complexity—but tell me, will any of that matter if we lose our quality of life?
David Ropeik wrote a column in the Times about the subjective and often irrational nature of our “eco-angst”, that individual worry does not necessary correspond to likelihood or magnitude of a potential catastrophic event. He writes about “the tangible health risk from eco-anxiety itself. When we worry more than the evidence warrants (about any kind of threat, not just environmental), and those worries last for a couple weeks or more, we live in a persistent low grade fight-or-flight response with various biological systems turned up or down to protect ourselves.”
Yes. That sounds true to me. Here I am, mothering and writing and trying to be a semi-normal human being, while under a “low grade fight-or-flight” response. This is why I can’t reach for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at night; it’s damning and makes me restless: “Future generation are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.” This is why I knit, badly, in bed until I pass out. This is why I embark on long runs. I can feel this useless, neurotic worry and I have to do something to keep it at bay. I’m jumpy. Run the faucet too long in my kitchen and I’ll slap you with the spatula.
My husband calls for a little more optimism. I want to be hopeful. On good days, I go to 350.org and am heartened by their belief that we can make large-scale changes in the human activity that results in global warming. Not that we can, but we will. But most days, I don’t think we’re going to save this planet. I don’t think, as humans, we’re going to do the right thing. Is that constructive to say? No. Is it subscribing to the very unhelpful school of shaming the enemy, even if that enemy is yourself? Yes. But if I knock the moral sieve out of the way and give it to you straight, that’s what keeps me up at night. Our inevitable failure.
We talk so much about life after death, heaven, whatever you call it. I happen to think we already live in a sort of paradise, or we can opt to. Like the writer Allan Gurganus says: “despite our constantly poisoning this planet, who can deny it’s stayed stubbornly beautiful?” But I wonder for how long. I really do.
Unseasonably warm days bring me no joy. I led my girls out to the swing set on a hot November day last fall, and trailing behind them all I wanted to say was: I’m sorry we couldn’t do better. I’m sorry I didn’t make the right sacrifices. I’m sorry for my intellectual impotence, the fact that I couldn’t write the novel or the op-ed that changed the way this is all going down.
Ultimately, I’m riddled with human guilt.
Surely some of you also feel this way? If it has not yet, will the worry get us? Fear of the unknown or the scientifically predicted? Humans—and I hope you don’t mind me saying this—are wasteful, selfish, indulgent beings, but also sensitive. Ropeik writes, “Human-made risks upset us more than risks which are natural.” Not only will we have to stomach that we’ve irrevocably destroyed our planet, but that it’s our fault. Just before Christmas, Lydia Millet wrote a compelling op ed in the Times about the place in our hearts and imagination for extinct animals. “What of the children of the future?” she writes. “When the polar bears and penguins are gone, the gorillas and elephants and coral-reef clown fish like Nemo — what diverse and lovable army will be their close companions?” I think it’s only our mass estrangement from nature that has delayed our spiritual falling out so far.
The extinction of beloved, necessary species is already happening. But say we risk extinction ourselves. Say we reach the “irreversible, runaway” point and are forced to admit it. What’s that going to feel like? Waiting? Have you ever seen those videos of Doomsday preppers, with their underground bunkers and weapons cache, making their children do survival drills every week?What’s it like to live with the knowledge that our environmental stability is collapsing? Does that reshape our sense of consequence, and perhaps what matters?
There are therapists who specialize in managing environmental anxiety. But you know what? Let me suffer. I’m not sure I deserve to be psychologically comfortable on this front.
I know my cynicism and free-wheeling fear are completely unconstructive. On its worst days, my environmental anxiety makes me a somber spouse, frightened mother, and sometimes a shitty writer who can’t keep her fear off the page. You think I could find something constructive to do about it.
Except most of what I end up doing amounts to armchair activism. I, along with 300,000 of you, liked an indignant post on Facebook. I forwarded a pre-worded email about the Keystone Pipeline to Grandma or signed a petition some non-profit organization spoonfed to my inbox. Ninety-seven percent of Greenland’s surface ice sheet melted in 4 days in July. This is happening, and I’m letting it. We’re letting it.
Every time I try to write something constructive about climate change, like this, I feel earnest. Well so be it. I am fucking earnest.