By far the most common first response to the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth is, “What is this?” It’s a fair question. The booth doesn’t look like most things you’d expect to encounter in downtown Providence opposite the bus station, which is the main place I set it up. It’s about as wide as I am, painted plywood and cardboard, and the sign reads CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELING 5¢: THE DOCTOR IS IN.
In answer to the question, I have a spiel that I give: “I’m asking people if they’re worried about climate change, or if not, what are they worried about? Do you have any worries you’d like to share with me?”
Sometimes they say, “No thanks,” but often—if they get that far—they talk.
They don’t always talk about melting ice caps, or water shortages, or longer winters. Often they talk about accessing school services for their child, job-hunting, grappling with mental illness, finding a safe place to sleep for the night.
When I was designing the project, in 2014, climate change and its effects were the things that worried me most. But from the way people I knew responded, I could tell it wasn’t the same for them. So I wondered: What were my neighbors’ nightmares about?
May 30, 2014
“I’m twenty-two years old, and my entire life, climate change has been on my mind,” this person said to me.
They came up at the end of a three-hour session, and I was fading a little. To my eyes they presented as white, and had dyed hair—maroon, I think—and rubber rainbow bracelets. “We don’t have too much longer of the weather patterns being the way they’ve been,” they said. “My grandfather was a meteorologist, and he taught me how to read the signs of what weather was coming next. Those signs are no longer so predictable. Everything is changing. Three thousand years of human writings that talk about weather patterns, and they’ve never shown it changing as fast as this. It’s going too fast for a natural evolution cycle.”
Scientists agree: The projected extinction toll varies, but a study out of the University of Arizona this year confirmed that the pace at which, in the past, species have changed their climatic niches—the combination of temperature and moisture that they can weather—at a rate nearly 200,000 times slower than the climate is changing now. If you live in a city, the plants and animals you see most often are the ones that can already tolerate a high degree of stressors: gasoline and microplastics in stormwater runoff, particle pollution in the air, heat sinks and strange wind configurations. They may last a little longer. Still, you can go outside and imagine the holes that will open in their ranks: the urban raptors you won’t see wheeling high anymore, the shade trees that won’t come back from the winter.
The Arizona study seems to have focused mainly on land animals. My young interlocutor also spoke about the way absorbed carbon dioxide is acidifying the oceans. More acidic seawater means, among other things, that calcium-shelled creatures—plankton that live at the heart of the food web, water-cleaners like oysters—can’t form thick enough shells to finish their life cycles; combined with higher water temperatures, it kills coral organisms, leading to the bleaching you may have read about in the news. Bleaching a reef is, roughly, like clear-cutting a forest, or seizing and bulldozing a neighborhood by eminent domain.
What makes us care about the fates, the deaths, of people we will never see? Experts on science communication say that to get people’s attention you have to connect it not just to humans, but to the kind of human they think they are. I could’ve talked about oysters as drivers of coastal economies, or as delicacies. People from the middle of the country, or vegetarians, might still be left cold, unless they already cared about the organisms and the relationships among them that add up to the only world we know.
“You clearly know a lot about this,” I said. “Does it worry you?”
“Yes,” they said, “and I think it should worry everyone. We’ve forgotten that we’re just creatures. We’re changing the earth and making it unsustainable—not only for us, but for everything.”
They asked me if I was worried, too. They asked if it helped, doing this. I said it helped to feel like I wasn’t alone in being scared. “You’re very much not alone,” they said.
June 6, 2014
It was my last planned day of Climate Anxiety Counseling by the bus station, though I had a stint planned at a county fair for later in the summer. The woman who’d been resting under a tree in the park came out toward the end of my shift to see what I was doing. She positioned her walker—the kind with the seat—at an angle to the booth and settled in for a long chat.
“When the world ends, there isn’t anything you’re gonna do,” she said. “I don’t dwell on it like that, but I do think about it. What are you gonna do, walk around with masks on? The most important thing is air. You gonna make filters? You can’t even drink the water. The water supplies, the machines, ain’t nobody gonna filter the water. People will start to be like, ‘We’re gonna kill him and drink his blood, we’re thirsty.’”
Sometimes when people flippantly mention the end of the world, I ask them if they imagine it, and what they imagine. This person volunteered it, and in her tone there was a kind of apocalyptic glee. This is more common on social media and in ordinary conversation than it is in my sessions. Sometimes it seems akin to gallows humor, getting comfortable with hopelessness. Sometimes it seems like a kind of smugness: “Look how right I was about how bad things are!”
This is probably the attitude that makes me angriest: the acceptance of things as they are, with no sense of obligation to make them another way. And things as they are, as we now know, contain the roots of things as they could be: unbreathable air, not “just” in Delhi and Beijing and Salt Lake City; undrinkable water, not “just” in Flint, Michigan and Grassy Narrows, Ontario, but everywhere and always.
This particular interlocutor was a Black, disabled, feminine-appearing person. I don’t know much about her life other than what she told me—she had a dishonest landlord, a tendency to stock up on food—her voluble conversation and her half-mocking, half-serious imagination. But I doubt that any forthcoming apocalypse would be the first time she’d faced personal or structural hostility, and maybe this blithe, bleak imagining had helped her get through the times before. “There’s gonna be the eaters and the entrees,” she said. “I’ll be a good entree. One leg alone will feed five families.”
Listening to her reminded me that how I or anybody feels about this doesn’t matter except as it shapes our actions. Political and corporate ads alike often follow a person—real or invented—whose life, as framed, makes a particular point. Not all viewers will be able to recognize themselves in that story; what we’re meant to do is to want what that person wants, and to believe that complying with the ad is the way to get it to them. I wonder—and this is a real question—what the people who make the decisions that warm the climate and strain the world hear when they hear stories like hers.
May 27, 2015
“Do you have any anxieties you want to share today?” I asked.
“Bringing my son out to swim,” said the youngish man, “which he’s been wanting to do. He’s autistic, and I get anxious when I wanna bring him outta the water—I had a lot of problems with that today. And last night we had a little trouble sleeping ’cause we have no electricity, so no A/C. I had to take like a wet rag to cool him off.”
“Any chance of getting it turned back on soon?”
“I’m hoping in the next six months,” he said. “I work over here at the mall and they’re not giving me enough hours. Matter of fact, climate change messed up my hours at work. I work at the arcade and no one wants to be inside playing games.”
Rhode Island, a temperate coastal climate for many generations, is predicted to undergo an increase in high heat days—over 85 degrees Fahrenheit—in the coming years. Unusually high temperatures can kill the elderly, children, and the physically weakened: Researchers project that if days became ten degrees hotter by the end of the century, as in one model, the state’s death rate would rise by about eighty deaths each summer. In hotter weather, too, people fight and hurt each other more.
Climate scientists also predict longer periods of drought punctuated by relatively brief deluges, different from the frequent showers and occasional extended rains that the region is used to. These changes will affect things like growing seasons and food webs. We know—because we have skins and feelings, not just because this family’s story shows us—that they will also drastically, intimately change the way that people feel about being alive. They can make the difference between an endurable life and an unendurable one.
I’m tempted to say, “People don’t think about this when they think about climate change,” but of course, the people who talk to me about it do. The people who make the major decisions that warm the climate don’t care about whether the electric company shuts someone’s electricity off, or what services a young autistic person and their family might need. If this family’s ability not just to survive, but to live well is already a matter of indifference to them, an additional threat won’t sway them.
May 24, 2016
One of the teenagers started talking to me and the other two flocked over in that wary drift of teenagers everywhere. “I’m anxious about taxes and I’m anxious about Trump becoming president,” said one girl. “I heard on Facebook that he’s trying to start a cotton-picking program for Black children, and if he becomes president I’m moving away or hiding.”
I asked the group what they did if someone around them praised Donald Trump. “I laugh at ’em!” said one of the boys. The first speaker said, “If it’s someone older than me I’m gonna be polite, like, ‘Well, I disagree.’ If it was a kid, I would go all day.”
The other boy, who’d been the first to start talking to me, asked the other two, “Do you vote?”
The girl said, “I’m sixteen, so I can vote in the city, like for Mayor.” One of the boys patted her and said in a solemn tone, “When you’re eighteen, you can change the world. Every generation has a chance to change the world.” Then he shifted registers: “But ain’t nobody tryin’ to do all that work!” They laughed each other away, into the park and gone.
To this girl and her friends, their ability to change the world seemed a little ridiculous: Only people like Donald Trump could do that. The voice that the boy was using to say, with mocking earnestness, “Every generation has a chance to change the world,” sounded to me like a parody of an adult—a principal giving a graduation speech, a voice-over on a commercial. We make fun of things we know aren’t true, and things we’re afraid are true.
I can’t tell you how many people in their thirties through fifties have said to me, in my three years at the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, that they put their faith in the next generation. Their conversation reveals an awareness and a hatred of the damage human-built systems are doing to the systems of life on earth, humans included. Yet they give their children, or other people’s, all the work to do, which means they never learn or show them how to do it.
What would “all that work” be, for these three young people—the work of changing the world? Did the path adults were recommending to them lead to any kind of change they could recognize? I wish I’d asked them. A deep source of anxiety for teens and adults alike—including me—is that we can’t find our power in the face of climate change, can’t see a path to acting against it, and end up sitting as still as the people who refuse to recognize it.
August 17, 2016
I decided pretty early on that I wasn’t going to try to convince anybody who didn’t recognize the reality of climate change. I’ve broken that resolution a few times, but when the slight man in his fifties or thereabouts came up and said, “What is there to be anxious about climate change? The people who are worried, they have three meals a day, they’re driving around. It’s all marketing,” I recommitted myself to listening and asking questions.
“If it’s marketing, someone must think they can gain something from it,” I said. “Who gains something from it?”
“It benefits liberals and secularists,” he said. “If you don’t believe, there must be something wrong with you. It affects elections; it affects what you buy and consume, what you think—just like a religion. We’re told to be afraid.”
I named Climate Anxiety Counseling with a lot of care. I didn’t want to name it climate change counseling—even if I knew how to make people feel better about that, I wouldn’t want to. Anxiety, we’re told, is when you don’t know what you’re afraid of, or whether it will happen. In the wake of the 2016 election, there were a lot of tweets circulating along the lines of “we should be afraid,” citing this or that statement or action of the new president’s as the thing that should make us afraid—afraid of what it might mean for a future we can’t see. A marine biologist and conservationist, introducing an article on melting mountain glaciers, tweets , “This should worry and motivate you.” But fear by itself is useless, as likely to be a numbing agent as a spur.
“I’m going to leave this earth,” said my interlocutor, “and the sun’s going to rise and set like it has for the past hundreds of thousands of years since God created it. And He is in control of everything, even though man thinks that number one, he can destroy the earth and number two, that he can save it. I think the latter is the craziest.”
“I don’t separate humans and the earth like that,” I said.
He bristled. “Are you saying there’s no difference between me and a snail, or me and the rocks and the mountains?”
Of course I wasn’t saying that: The difference is that one is a human and the other is a snail. I think my interlocutor meant that humans are better than snails, more important than the rocks and the mountains. He meant that we humans are exceptional. But humans are organisms: We evolved, and we can go extinct. And the conditions for our good and that of other organisms overlap.
Most things that would make life better for snails—clean air, clean water, cooler and less acidic oceans, available greenery, a functioning food web—make life better for humans, too. A lot of the things that sicken and kill snails sicken and kill us, or will in the long run.
“I’m saying all those things are part of the creation,” I said. “I’m not talking about equivalency, I’m talking about all being part of something.”
“Part of something, yes,” he said. “But everything here has been created for our purposes, and we’re supposed to be grateful.”
And there it was, the place where we could not connect, the place where there was no room for us to simply coexist according to our lights. On his way to film and support the water protectors of Standing Rock, filmmaker Sterlin Harjo wrote about a similar unnavigable encounter, a problem he describes as “a complete divide in a way of being . . . If you think it’s ok to harm someone or something as big to our existence as the earth in order to have more for yourself, then there is no changing you.”
I didn’t push it, either. I thanked this man for talking with me. He said he appreciated my willingness to have a conversation about “these issues,” a conversation that so often seemed impossible. I didn’t feel like we’d had a conversation: Neither of us had changed, or been changed. We separated and haven’t seen each other since, and the pride I felt at our respective civility quickly decayed to shame and frustration at my failure to find a place where we could meet. If there was an opportunity for us to act together—“despite our differences,” as people say—it was lost.
To what do all these stories lead? The strength of the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth—its low-gatekeeping, high-attention, one-on-one interaction; its potential for intimacy—is its weakness, too. Not requiring people’s contact information means they feel safe with me, but reduces the potential for ongoing or collective action. Not collecting people’s demographic details keeps the conversation flowing at a natural pace, but makes what I gather a lot less like real data. A student made a noble effort to record some conversations, but much of what you can hear is traffic and wind.
I don’t offer Climate Anxiety Counseling in the colder months, and the combination of time and work it takes isn’t compatible with the busy season of my paid job. So I haven’t held a booth session since Donald Trump was elected. Yet because my friends know what I do, some of the anxieties they’ve expressed to me about Trump’s presidency have been climate anxieties: They worry, and with good reason, about members of his cabinet , his assertion that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” and his obsession with profit above all else.
Since the election, a much larger percentage of the humans I know are talking about these anxieties; I don’t need to set up a booth to hear them. People I know slightly and people I know well, once they get past “How are you doing?” are more eager to share their large-scale climate-related fears than they once were, and more cognizant of the fact that the world can be more than one way.
I no longer have hope that the changing climate won't bring with it terrible damage and loss. Recently, scientists brought together over twenty years of data that predicts conditions “catastrophic for humanity.” What's left of my hope has to do with how people will treat each other in that world, even in the midst of pain and fear and strained circumstances. Since many of us already live with anxiety and difficulty, we can start practicing now.
In the world I wish to inhabit, healing services are free or cheap to access. People share what they’re good at, and become better at what the people around them need. Denizens of a city interact outside affinity groups or customer service transactions or those “bubbles” we continually hear about. People tell the truth about their grief and their burdens, even to strangers. In these ways, in offering Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’m trying to help bring about the world I want.
But you can’t make a world one person, or even two people, at a time.
A major, usually rhetorical, question I hear during Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions is: “What can one person do?” The answer I’ve come up with is that “you” have to learn how to be more than one person. You have to listen to what other people need and want. And you have to act in unison with people to bring about the changes that will help us all survive—the snails and the humans, the rocks and the mountains.