Back in October, when California was on fire in many places, but not, mercifully, where I live, I was invited to a dinner party. On the afternoon prior, I anticipated this appointment with some apprehension. I said to myself, do not cry about climate change in front of these people, not under any circumstances.
For anyone who wants to affect-police me about “giving up,” I do not sit around crying about climate change all day every day. I spend much of my time writing about climate change, and sometimes when I am doing that I discover information that makes me really upset, and then only sometimes do I start crying or become otherwise incapacitated.
On this very day, the day on which I was going to a dinner party later where I wanted to (a) appear somewhat “together”; (b) not spread my despair around, I texted my friend W. and said: "I am worried about myself, I am not ok.” W. then drove a full hour and a half to hang out with me, and we laughed for most of her visit, like we didn’t have a care in the world, about climate writers we think are idiots. (Most but not all of whom are dudes. This is one of the only things that makes me laugh anymore, thinking about how other people who are also appropriately obsessed with climate change are idiots. Is that good? No. Will I give up this rare experience of enjoying something? I will not.) Then she drove an hour and a half back home, and I had enough energy to get through the day without freaking out and then I had to go to that dinner party.
Right before it I said to myself, again, "Do not cry about climate change at this dinner party." Do not get tears in your eyes, do not let your voice break. When everyone asks how you are, say you are fine. Talk about your new dog, talk about how you finally tracked down a bright pink velvet blazer for under $200, talk about fucking cookies you like and why, but do not cry.
So I walked into the party, which was to be just five people, and all women, and everyone said, “How are you?” and immediately I said, “Well I have been depressed about climate change but I feel better at this moment so I am not going to discuss it.” Which was not ideal but honestly for me, was pretty good.
And everyone seemed more than happy to avoid the subject and instead we talked about Affordable Decent White Wines and I was like, yes, yes, please just let me live inside this moment for a little while. How glorious it was to say, “Yes this is a pretty good pinot grigio for $11 bucks,” instead of screaming, “Canada can’t just move its grain fields north, there are fucking FORESTS in that spot, and granted, a lot of them are being cut down so that European countries can turn them into wood pellets, which they burn and then actually claim that they are not actually emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, because even though wood burning emits CO2 don’t worry, they are planting trees to replace those burned trees, except guess what, assholes, trees don’t grow as fast as they burn and the soil in those forests sucks anyway.”
There was none of that. We started talking about Sacramento, and how it is confusing to those who have never lived there, not confusing to those who have.
And then the last guest, my friend L. arrived, and she had a glass of water, and poured herself a glass of wine. She drew a helpful map of Sacramento. Then she burst into tears. “I’m sorry, you guys, but I am just so upset about climate change,” she said. "I just feel so sad, guys! I just - I mean, we could have stopped this. We could have stopped this 20 years ago, but we didn't do anything. I knew when I was in high school, and in college. I knew! And I didn't say anything. And now it's too late." L. is not “in climate,” but she took a lot of science in college, and has a job where she reads and interprets data. "I wish I'd never…” she waved her hands frantically in front of her face as if trying to clear the world of what she was going to say next. "You know I love my kid. But more and more I just wish I'd never had them. What's going to happen to them? What's going to happen to us?"
That leaden feeling that climate change is coming for all of us is starting to run so thick in all our veins, that even bourgeois politeness and American optimism are no match for it.
I had been waiting for this milestone: My first dinner party where someone started sobbing uncontrollably about climate change. Ordinarily I’d find gratification in the fact that this someone wasn’t me but seeing her cry reminded me I wasn’t crazy or overly concerned and I always kind of wish that I were. That leaden feeling that climate change is coming for all of us is starting to run so thick in all our veins, that even bourgeois politeness and American optimism are no match for it. Yes, it's coming for the poor more than it is coming for my friend, who continued to sob, and talk about how she felt like an idiot that she lived in a big house and had two cars and took vacations involving airplanes and had been doing it for years. The more recently you were born the worse it will be for you, as well, but it's coming for all of us.
After a while, of course, as often happens when one displays raw emotion in public, even in semi-public, she started to apologize. She was sorry to be a bummer, she was sorry to unload, she was sorry to kick off the weekend like this. I told her that it was fine, and normal, that five hours ago I had said many of the same things to another friend. I didn’t say more. I didn’t say my first thought when I wake up is, “Why won't it rain, will it ever rain, when will this all burn?”, and I walk around all day struggling so hard to take pleasure in the things around me. I said none of this, because even though she had cried I was still holding onto my promise not to cry.
There were three other guests. Only one of them, G., was a close friend of L’s. G. said, “I hear you,” and didn’t say much else. Another seemed surprised, like “Wow, aren't we just going to all get electric cars and go on as before?” (Sorry, no.)
The third was very sure that we would solve the whole problem with technology. "I really honestly think everything is going to be fine," she said. “We will get a ...better government soon.” I wanted to scream at her and then I kind of wanted to be her (but without kids, or her husband.)
L. stopped crying and had another glass of wine and I think felt better, as I had earlier that day after my friend showed up and I let it all out. I mean, the knowledge was still there, but the pressure had been released.
On the way home, I thought about the woman who believes we will solve the whole problem with technology, and the one who was optimistic that we are going to be able, with different leaders, to implement different policies, and that the prognosis for human life, for all life, will improve. I wanted to tell them the truth, that we may be able to prevent the worst, but are already locked into a cycle where really bad things are going to happen to lots of people, possibly even us. I also wanted to say, we can’t vote our way out of this, and even if we could, what are your plans for the voting not going your way, and no, shrugging is not a plan.
As infuriating as it is that these people don’t get it, and probably never will, I have to admit I benefit in a short term way from their ignorance. Their credulity that someone is taking care of things right now (no one is, but we could change this, probably, if we all revolted in ways that would deeply challenge pretty much every fucked up “value” we have been taught by pretty much everyone) is a nice, soft cushion to rest on during hard moments. I will actually miss it when it's gone.
By Sarah Miller