stuck in the second stage of grief
being a bummer about climate change
trigger warning: this newsletter is about climate grief and kind of a bummer! If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to handle that today, I understand, no need to read.
This Week in Reading
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman
In exchange for the movie rights to his novel, Patrick has earned the lowly honor of being a PA on the film set, a job that primarily entails driving around the former teen star who serves as the movie’s lead. Leaving his wife and daughter behind on the east coast, Patrick navigates the deteriorating former paradise of Los Angeles. California’s drought has taken a turn for the permanent; water—traditional water— is available only for the luxury market. Everyone else is drinking WAT-R, a lab-made water that is allegedly even better than the original. “More water than water,” Californians can choose between slippery WAT-R for showering and cleaning, and stickier WAT-R for athletic performance. The market dominance of this synthetic water seems to correlate with the emergence of a mysterious kind of early-onset dementia, but the public is assured that they are unrelated. Besides, to revert to a time pre-WAT-R would require California to re-solve all of the problems WAT-R was invented to alleviate.
We have been talking about climate change my entire life—though we used to call it global warming. In elementary school, the discussion centered around holes in the ozone layer and greenhouse gases. Now the buzzy keywords are “carbon emissions” and “rising sea levels.” I am part of a generation that has only known an earth in decline.
It is one thing to be told the world is ending, it’s another to witness it get worse year by year. Longer, hotter summers, storms, fires. Ash falls from the sky in Seattle annually now— a phenomenon absent from my childhood memories. There is less snow in the mountains, glaciers creep back inch by inch. Rising tides are encroaching on coastal cities. California’s fire season seems to stretch longer every year. I am only 28— how much more can we lose in my lifetime?
While Patrick runs menial errands for movie executives, his wife and daughter move to a nature retreat on the east coast. It is a space to collectively mourn for climate change; each day a wake for the latest species driven extinct, habitats obliterated by the most recent disaster.
I am told we must write about climate hope, that to give into climate despair is to convey to others that it is time to throw in the towel, turn our backs on this planet and continue our cycle of consumption and destruction. Nihilism isn’t cute, but sometimes hope feels like a literary gimmick. I feel a compulsion to balance my writing at the equilibrium of grief and positivity—criticism neutralized by even-handed solutions. But to pose a problem and a solution in the same breath soothes before ever letting the reader feel the sting. Hope can be crucial and dishonest at the same time.
Over the course of my life the public narrative about climate change has shifted from future to present planning. If those holes in the ozone layer get bigger, then we’ll really be in trouble! we said, pumping gallons of gasoline into the tanks of our SUVs. The discourse has progressed from preventing a climate crisis, to mitigating its worst effects, and finally to coping with the consequences of what is already upon us. When Hurricane Ida flooded the streets of New Jersey this summer, an official on the radio said that we needed to improve emergency preparedness and infrastructure. This was the new reality for a region previously unthreatened by tropical storms, and for the sake of our communities, we better stop acting so surprised. She is right, of course, that we need to step up to protect those most vulnerable to climate disaster, but I was also rattled—when had we collectively skipped ahead to the fifth stage of grief? Who decided we were done with guilt and bargaining? I am told we need to move out of sorrow if we are to be stirred to action— but I think we are perhaps missing an opportunity to harness the raw power of human fury into something that could salvage this place. Yes, the fate of our planet lays in the hands of corporations and policymakers— but these refrains, truthful as they may be, also feel like an easy way for all of us non-Exxon Mobile CEOs to push the climate crisis out of mind.
Many of my peers are questioning the ethics of having children. I understand the hesitation, but having children has never been about ethics. I think the earth will last my baby’s lifetime, but I know I will be raising my child in the twilight of this planet.
It is depressing to know I will leave an earth less beautiful than the one I was born into. Will Miami one day be synonymous with Atlantis? Will New Orleans take on the mythical quality of Pompeii? I feel greedy in the natural world—guzzling aquamarine alpine lakes and crooked wildflowers and old growth forests out of fear that this may be the oldest they ever get.
Humans' compulsion to expand, conquer, and exploit are inherently at odds with our role as one of an uncountable number of species in an interconnected ecosystem. The balance between man and nature was not always so askew, but it is not so easy to return to a simpler time— we would have to dismantle the systems we have grown dependent on. Impossible to revert to a time without international travel and two-day shipping, we are tasked with building our way out of our past follies: renewable energy, sustainable manufacturing. Like the introduction of WAT-R in Something New Under the Sun our imperfect solutions have their own repercussions. The paperless world we manifested through the internet is reliant on rare metal mining, technological waste, and massive servers that make up 2-5% of the earth’s carbon emissions. The clean energy created by hydropower rely on dams that fundamentally upset our waterways and ecosystems. Solutions create more problem, because ultimately, we are demanding resources from the earth at a rate beyond its capabilities.
History is written as a hero’s journey. War, death, famine, have been present since the dawn of time, but we bend the past along a triumphant arc. Each tragedy is only setback that precedes an even more glorious victory, a mere bump in our undisputed path towards progress. Examining these rosy secondary sources it is difficult to pinpoint where the turning point was. When did the relentless innovation of humanity shift from advancement to devastation? Was it the discovery of oil? Capitalism? Colonialism? When did our desires outpace the earth?
Empires fall. It is not the end of the earth, it is the end of humanity, and the end of an earth hospitable to us. What will the planet look like after us? How many millennia will our arcade trinkets and coffee cup lids outlive us for?
When I moved to LA I told people it was because that is where the apocalypse was going to happen, and I wanted to watch it. I still believe that is true. But it’s a beautiful morning is Los Angeles today— 55 degrees and sunny. The apocalypse has not come yet.
This book is less of a downer than this newsletter, I promise. I also really enjoyed Alexandra Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, Kleeman’s writing is consistently sharp and unsettling and darkly funny. If you want to stay informed about climate change I recommend subscribing to the Heated newsletter by Emily Atkin. I really appreciate the way Atkin finds the climate angle of news items that aren’t typically seen as climate stories. Other books about the natural world, both terrifying and beautiful: Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis, Upstream by Mary Oliver, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
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