#2: It Feels Like Summer
My mother always use to tell me that her mother always used to tell her to always carry a jacket in September. This is classic North Carolina weather advice, because, while it’s usually still well into the seventies most days, you never know when it’s going to get chilly. But lately, I’ve been surprised by how relevant it has been to NYC weather.
Remember that meme that went around last year and how everyone thought it applied to their own state or region?
Well, this weekend it’s going to be 81 degrees in NYC. So it seems like Southeast weather patterns have migrated north. I wish I could be happy about this. North Carolina has the most beautiful weather of anywhere that has any semblance of seasons. But, since I know it’s only the result of an increasingly unpredictable climate, I find myself longing for the brisk autumns of not so long ago when I would have never considered leaving without a jacket in the first place.
So I thought it appropriate to write about climate change this week, via a somewhat circuitous route through work and Pandemic-induced melancholia.
These days, it seems like everyone is quitting. The age of the “YOLO” economy has dawned. From office workers to athletes, the pandemic has pushed many to their breaking point. Millions of Americans have seen a shift in their priorities, and are striving, in the midst of incalculable loss, for a more fulfilling existence.
Now, don’t get me wrong, quitting, as an act of self-preservation, is admirable. But I know from experience that jumping ship is more often an act of desperation than one of liberation, or at least it was for me. In my experience, people only quit like that when things get so bad that they can no longer see how to turn things around, or when they don’t have the time, energy, or tools to make things better.
In this sense, the so-called “Great Resignation” seems to be more reflective of the general complacency of our times—our sense of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming crises—than of an optimistic outlook on our economic future. Nothing is getting better. Everything is getting worse and we can’t see how to fix it. So we try to escape.
I think the Great Resignation might be a symptom of what some are calling the “Grief Pandemic,” the one predicted to outlast the pandemic back when we still believed this pandemic would end.
We’ve lived through a year and a half of suffering while still being expected to do our jobs, go to school, and lose those pandemic pounds. Few of us have had adequate time to stop, reflect, and mourn, especially those who have lost family members and friends, those who have seen their lives uprooted, essential workers who have and are still putting their lives on the line, who have lost co-workers, friends, and family members with little more than a couple of months of daily applause to show for it.
Many of us are dealing with what bereavement expert Kenneth J. Doka calls “disenfranchised grief,” the kind of grief that isn’t affirmed or supported by society. This includes grief for those with whom one has no formal relationship as well as grief for “small” losses, like quality time with friends and family, hobbies or routines made impossible by lockdown, or the epic thirtieth birthday party you’d been planning for months. It also includes the kind of collective grief we are all experiencing as we hear story after story of the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on people’s lives.
Personally, I’m still haunted by images of the Italian man pleading for authorities to collect the body of his dead sister as he stands in front of the bed where she lies, face blurred. I’m still grieved by the front page of the New York Times covered in names, back when the death toll was 100,000, seven times lower than it is today—back when that was a staggering and intolerable number. To think that we are now approaching 700,000 deaths in this country with even less concern is grief enough.
In the midst of all of this grief, in late August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report which confirmed what many climate activists have warned us about for the last thirty years: the climate catastrophe is here. Global temperatures will continue to increase in the next few decades and, in every scenario, will likely reach 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels by 2050. Futhermore, unless we take extreme measures to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and achieve negative carbon emissions following that, global temperatures could exceed 2ºC by 2100.
The death toll is already climbing. Over 100 people in the Pacific Northwest died from this summer’s heatwave. In New York City alone, 13 people drowned in the flash flooding brought by remnants of Hurricane Ida. On a global scale, it’s estimated that climate change is already causing around 5 million deaths each year due to extreme temperatures alone.
And, of course, those who suffer the most will be those who have already borne the brute force of the centuries of imperialism and capitalism that have brought us to the brink in the first place. Some of those most vulnerable to climate change are the people fighting the hardest to stop it. In, 2020, 227 climate activists were murdered, one-third of them indigenous, for fighting resource exploitation, agri-business, air, and water pollution.
Then, there are the animals. Flora and fauna are disappearing 1,000 times faster than at pre-industrial rates. This year alone over 20 species were declared extinct, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and nine species—eight birds and one plant—in Hawaii alone.
To add to all of this, there’s the grief of knowing that, even if we do manage to get through this pandemic, there’s no going “back to normal.” We must either make the drastic changes required to mitigate the worst outcomes of climate change—sacrificing much of the comfort, convenience, and certainty a century of capitalism and neo-colonialism has taught us to expect—or there will be even more death, destruction, and grief.
These days, scientists are analyzing our paralysis around climate action and its roots in our grief about the devastation to come. Renee Lertzman, a psychologist and author of the book Environmental Melancholia, calls it an “arrested, inchoate form of mourning.” To galvanize people to action, clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon argues, we must first process our climate grief. “Everyone needs to grieve for his or her own future, which isn’t going to look the way we thought. It’s going to be more parched, more crowded, more dangerous, and more austere.”
Other climate scientists insist that, though grief may be necessary, fatalism is the worst possible response to these harrowing statistics. After all, a temperature increase of 1.5ºC, is exponentially better than further increases. The IPCC report notes that every additional 0.5º increase is likely to cause a substantial increase in droughts, heatwaves, heavy precipitation, and other extremes.
Just think: what we’ve experienced this summer is the best-case scenario. Doesn’t it seem imperative that we fight like hell to make sure it doesn’t get any worse?
Which brings us back to work. Without time and space to grieve the pandemic, we’ve turned to the cynical. Hospitals are overwhelmed and children are dying of the virus at unprecedented rates. Meanwhile, we’re busy making up nicknames for Ron DeSantis and starting forums to make fun of people who are already dead and will never see any of it. Few, it seems, have the time to ponder solutions to our society’s most intractable problems, much less organize around them and mobilize for change. So, instead, we tweet, we heart, and we “amplify,” all without realizing we’re mostly talking to ourselves.
Where climate change is concerned, we post pictures of red skies, videos of flooded subways, and that doggie on fire meme over and over and over again and lament about living in the end times. We’ve romanticized our own extinction. Just as Prince and R.E.M primed us to, when the world is ending, we party like our lives depend on it.
Meanwhile, billionaires and corporations are shaping the conversation on climate change solutions, applying the two-question screener that determines the value of everything in this country: “will it make money?” and “for whom?”
Much of the ruling class, it seems, has already conceded to climate devastation. They’re busy testing out their rocket ships, building space hotels, and planning to colonize Mars. Just last week, I watched a documentary about a series of architectural firms building floating structures in advance of the impending inundation of coastal cities. It’s called “Seassteading,” and most of the sleek, modern structures discussed—condos, shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants—are being built for the wealthy. Peter Thiel is even funding the creation of a floating island kingdom.
So where does that leave the rest of us? This virus has given the majority of us a far more communitarian view of our existence. We mask up, vax up, and social distance, not just for ourselves and our loved ones but for everyone else’s. Can’t we channel that same energy to face the greatest global existential crisis since, I don’t know, the last extinction-level event?
The fact is, we’re running out of time. We must find bold solutions and we must implement them now. However, I also think that, in order to galvanize the level of mass action necessary for this extraordinary task, what we need is a true and earnest reckoning. Less apocalypse porn and nihilism; more retrospection and self-reflection. More grief. We must sit with the incalculable tragedy that the past thirty years of burying our heads in the sand has wrought and with the future that might have been, had we acted sooner.
This process certainly looks different for everyone. Gone are the days of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model of grief. Not everyone experiences all stages, nor necessarily in the prescribed order. What seems universally true, though, is that the only way out of grief is through it. Without closure, people tend to get stuck—in depression, denial, fear, anger, obsession with the past, or some other disabling emotion—and their lives get stuck as a result.
We’re stuck, it seems, oscillating between panic and apathy. We’re stuck in the past, or in the bleakness of the present, leaving little room for hope. I think, maybe, it’s through grief and the mental clarity that comes with closure, that we find that hope and embrace a vision for the future. As architect and oceanographer Jacques Rougerie notes, history is the story of a thousand generations building for the next things they would never see the fruits of themselves. Our own futures may be compromised, but we don’t have to sacrifice them by failing to act.
There is a strong basis for the hope we so desperately need. France voted earlier this year to ban intranational flights where trains routes under 2.5 hours exist. This seems obvious and easy and something that puzzlingly, our collective trauma at the hands of TSA has not naturally inspired. Elsewhere, in April of 2019, NYC passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which includes Local Law 97, requiring buildings over 25,000 square feet to meet certain greenhouse gas emissions limits by 2024, and even stricter limits by 2030, with the goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. Harvard University, which has the largest endowment of any college in the world, $41.9 billion, recently announced that it would allow all remaining fossil fuel investments to expire.
All of these actions, however, were the result of fierce, protracted battles fought by climate activists. That is the kind of work for which we must prepare ourselves.
A friend of mine and climate activist in NYC, Tom O’Keefe, noted that much of the doom and gloom narrative surrounding climate change plays into the hands of the fossil fuel lobby and others who would like nothing more than to convince people that change is hopeless. “Significant harm has already been done, and certain further damage is unavoidable, but whether we go off the cliff’s edge to runaway heating, remains a function of human action, so far as any of us knows at least.”
Another friend and Earthjustice lawyer, Marvin Brown, in response to a more doom and gloom-focused early draft of this newsletter, invoked a quote from Cornel West and Roberto Unger: “Hope is not the condition or cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. And those who fail in hope should act, practically or conceptually, so that they may hope.”
Finally, as I was looking around for more signs of hope, I stumbled upon a quote from one of my favorite speculative fiction authors and prophetess Octavia Butler: “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead, there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
This Week’s Top Five:
This video, which explores our proper role in the Earth’s ecosystem.
This bowl I made (with a lot of help) in my first-ever pottery class. Next week, I’m writing about pottery, so stay tuned.
This wholesome Twitter thread, an eloquent meditation on self-acceptance and accepting love.
This feature on New York City delivery workers who are organizing for protection, better pay, and better working conditions.
This interview with one of the greatest athletes in history, Simone Biles.