October 7, 2021

Despair is Lazy

Technically, it is fall here in New York. Fall is, without question, the best time in New York. If every city has a season that shows it to its best advantage, New York in the fall is the city at its most magical, glorious, full-throttle perfection. The trees explode in color. The air conditioners turn off. Coats, the New Yorker version of the LA fixation on cars, come out. In Field of Dreams, Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe emerges from the cornfields and asks “is this heaven. “No, it’s Iowa,” Kevin Costner says. “No, it’s New York in fall,” says me. 

Not this year. As we head into the second week of October the average daily temperature hovers in the mid-seventies. The other day, it was so humid my dentist’s office had the air conditioner on. All the leaves in Central Park remain green. I am still wearing sundresses. If I wear anything else, I end up dripping in sweat forty-five minutes after I leave the house. 

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Last year, New York was designated a subtropical climate. And anyway, “surprise” would be the wrong word. My experience of this weather hovers somewhere between a persistent state of grief, rage, and despair. For many, notably those with the fewest resources, this is not new. Nor is the luxury of having a persistent reaction, as opposed to one that lets you look away. 

When we talk about climate change, we tend to focus on the most extreme examples and images. The starving polar bear on the melting iceberg. The burnt Koala Bears. The families in the west fleeing wildfires. The numbers we see reported are apocalyptic. 

And the thing is, as much as we express alarm, we like the apocalypse. It’s like reading the last chapter of the book first; there is a comfort in knowing how things end. 

The end times have been a prevalent theme in every culture and every religion for all of time. Our current iteration of end times is apparent in how we entertain ourselves, some version of the apocalypse has dominated since the late nineties and a widespread anxiety over the millennium. I read Station Eleven at the beginning of lockdown last year and it was weirdly comforting, not least because when I emerged from the story, which (I don’t think this is a spoiler) is set twenty years after a virus destroys most of the earth’s population nearly overnight, I was like, “ah well this slow-motion version we are in doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.” 

It’s a mindset. But it is the right one? 

Of course, it is bad, frequently for reasons that were/are entirely preventable. But we have a hard time processing emergencies in slow motion. When things happen quickly, and violently, the acute despair we feel over it can also relieve us of feeling like we are responsible. Or have any agency over what’s happening. 

The lack of agency and sense of what we can do with regard to climate change is itself overwhelming. What can I do, for instance, to prevent the loss of an entire season? (This 2004 article about how New York is actually very green, has lodged itself in the heads of many who live here.) The solutions are so huge, and so beyond any daily responsibility I can incorporate into my life. Despair feels satisfying in a way because it’s at least an extreme response to an extreme moment. 

It’s also lazy. It’s the emotional equivalent of a retweet in lieu of actual activism. 

If there is one takeaway from the last few years in America, it’s that individuals who make an effort – to call their representatives; to vote; to ensure others can vote; to participate – actually do make a difference. Actually, it is probably the takeaway from the last twenty years in ways we do not discuss enough (maybe Ryan Murphy can make it the subject of his next American Crime Story). 

It’s an exhausting thing to come to terms with at the end of two years when so many are drained and dream of things being, if not fun, than easier, even if for so many they have never been easy (I am currently watching Maid, and even though I keep having to pause and step away because it’s so anxiety-inducing, I keep going back, which is maybe the best review it’s possible to give a show). In addition to everything else, we still have to pick up the phone can call and complain. Decide not to put our money towards the companies who are facilitating the planet’s decline, even when they make our daily lives easier. Act. Every day.

Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is going to fix itself. We are capable of changing this even if it’s easier to believe all is lost, because then, at least, we could party like it’s 1999.