What Do We Do With Our Climate Anxiety?

I first met the writer, activist, and self-described “monster bleeding heart” Kate Schapira in college, where she was first my professor and later the advisor of my well-intentioned but lopsided nonfiction thesis about whales. Kate’s writing and teaching, which is rooted in care and the environment and invested in the non-human, touched many of the tendrils I, too, wanted to write about one day. Both in class and in office hours, Kate taught me that listening to someone—not just hearing someone out—can be an act of grace, even love. In 2014, Kate, in emotional distress from the looming destruction wrought by climate change and inspired by the amateur psychiatrist Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts, set up in a public park in Providence, R.I., with a sign: Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth.

For a decade, Kate has sat behind this booth and listened to strangers share their climate anxieties—fears that were abstract and concrete, on the horizon and happening now, personal and ecological, and often deeply isolating. Through listening, Kate hopes to redirect people’s emotions away from isolation and into collective action, which—spoiler!—is the best way to cope with climate anxiety. (If you’re interested in starting a Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth of your own, Kate would be glad to help you.) Kate’s first book of nonfiction, Lessons from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth: How to Live with Care and Purpose in an Endangered World, published April 9, collects some of her lessons and reflections from her time in the booth. It’s also a guidebook for anyone sinking into their own climate dread, with a number of exercises, practices, and questions that aim to bring readers closer to their environment and find their place in direct action.

Kate’s conversations at the counseling booth led her to become involved in local fights for environmental and climate justice, such as the movement against LNG, a natural gas liquefaction facility that converts fracked gas brought by pipeline for export, which was built in a low-income community of color on the South Side of Providence. The book includes many interviews with Kate’s Providence neighbors involved in this activism, as well as artists, writers, friends, and strangers who respond to climate change and build connection and networks of care in different ways. When Kate and I talked about the possibility of an interview, she suggested speaking alongside one of the people featured inside the book, the writer and theatermaker Diane Exavier. Kate, Diane, and I spoke over Zoom on a Friday this spring before Kate had to dash for Estrogen Road Trip—her standing appointment helping a friend pick up her hormones.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

I think about the human extinction project as sort of self-centered, very fatalistic, there’s nothing we can do so let’s just all remove ourselves. But this book is such a wonderful sort of argument that there is no saving the environment without saving each other, and seeing people as so integrated into the environment. Kate, you mentioned growing up looking at these posters of frogs and zebras and thinking, “That’s the environment, and this is me. We’re separate, so I will save them.” I was curious if, for each of you, there was a moment where you began shifting the way that you thought about people in relation to the environment, and the entanglement of us.

Kate Schapira: When I started doing the counseling booth, a lot of what I was kind of feeling pain for and grieving for were places that I’d never been, things that I had never seen. The tipping point for me emotionally, was an article about coral bleaching. I’ve never seen a coral reef. Now I never will see one—I’m not going to, because I’m not going there, because they don’t need me to go there. 

But as I started doing the booth, one thing that happened was that somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, I see that you do this thing. We’re having a meeting about stopping a liquefied natural gas plant on the South Side of Providence. Would you want to come?” I didn’t even know that was happening. It was so individualistic, my approach, right? It was so stupid in certain ways. You know, this is the downside of having a poetic practice because you do this weird little thing in your room, and you think the relationship is between you and everything. In a way it is, but only in a way. Because in the other way, the relationship is between you and you, and you and you, and them and everything, and you and them and everything.

So I learned about this project, and by the end of that meeting, I was like, all right, what do you guys need? So then I started catching up with where they were at. Most of the people involved with that at that time were people who were living on the South Side. They were going to be breathing whatever leaks were in the methane pipes. They were going to be in danger of whatever explosions were going to happen if this thing, in its operation, raised the water onto the floodplain where they were trying to build it. I have a number of extremely curse-word-laden opinions about this project, which they built. They built it. We fought it for two years. We stuck with legal methods, regulatory methods, and they built it. It’s built, it’s operating, and that bums me out every time I think about it, every time I go down that way. 

But when I was interviewing for the book, some of the people who were in that fight with me, and who were the leaders of that fight, they were like, “You know, there were two years, when that plant wasn’t in operation that it would have been in operation, if it wasn’t for the work that we did.” Obviously, I still feel like shit. I always feel like shit. But that did change my thinking of it a little bit. It isn’t an on-off switch. It isn’t all or nothing. There are degrees of damage, degrees of participation, degrees of involvement and intertwinement. And I do feel that fight was where I gained an intimate and walking understanding of human intertwinement with the rest of the living world.

Diane Exavier: Thanks so much for describing that, Kate. Because what you’re talking about is a series of interruptions, right? That for two years this destructive machine got to be interrupted. And that that is something to celebrate.

I come from a really big family. I’ve always battled for my whole life the feeling of wanting to be a creator, because creativity is something that’s very important to me, but also knowing very physically that I’m part of a collective, and that the thing that I want to do individually does have to bounce back against the collective, a collective body. And that’s something that’s always sort of kept me in my place, that I can’t go off like I’m gonna do it alone. Because there is something to answer back to, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

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I like to have somebody call you back home or call you back somewhere. It’s not the worst thing in the world. And I feel like it’s part of my relationship to Flatbush. I’m not stuck here, but there’s something that has called me back constantly. It’s not the most green place on earth. I live down by Brooklyn College, so it does get greener down here. But it’s not even about the sort of visual signs of nature or environment in that way. It’s the feeling that this is a living body. That this neighborhood is a living body. And there are ways in which I leave and return and it kind of holds a place for me. And in that way, it’s a sort of exchange. I hold a place for it. It’s a thing that’s living all the time. It changes all the time. And that the ways in which it changes are what remind me that it is in fact, alive. And that if we’re going to keep it alive, then that is a call, right? There are things that need to happen in order for that to be possible. So just sort of seeing the life in something or someone else. And also part of that is, at every level, seeing the life in something else is reminding me that I do have a relation to it. It really is a decision on how to show up to that.

Kate: Yeah. And that I think is also just a reminder that all living, all aliveness is in the relationships, right? In the same way that thought is what happens in between your brain cells, it’s in the mix, the proximity, and the tension. And so your neighbors are your field. Your neighbors are your forest. I mean, it’s just true. You know what I mean?

You make a great point in the book that people who only think about climate in relation to future anxieties or plans are not experiencing it right now, or maybe haven’t even lost anything. And Diane, I pulled a quote from the book that I really loved, where you talked about “The work is knowing your part in a well-oiled death machine. Knowing that there might be parts of me that need to die too, the parts of me that keep the machine going through complicity or complacency or ignorance or inaction. And I will welcome those small deaths because I want to keep you and me and us alive.” Which is such a beautiful and difficult thing to think about. I wanted to ask you both about how you think about the ends of various worlds in relation to the climate crisis, and what we might have to lose or kill or counter in order to keep all of us alive.

Diane: Oh, my God, all of it. I think maybe the first thing that we—it’s maybe what I’m sort of most presently working on, because so much of it is ego—but killing the need to be innocent. I think the thing that stops any sort of action or any willingness to deal with something, I think we’re seeing it in a whole lot of conflicts worldwide, right, is that nobody wants to be guilty. Everybody wants to set themselves apart from a problem. 

I think if you admit that you are, by whatever association, part of a problem, you are scared that the person who is suffering from your problem will come back to get you. That is really what that is, right? You’re afraid of a violence that has been allowed in your name. You’re afraid of that violence coming back to you. And I think the first thing certainly I want to do is let that suspicion die. The emergency is so great that nobody has time for that kind of revenge. Nobody’s thinking about me, right? Nobody’s thinking about me, about how close I am to the sort of core of the empire, if I am willing to stop and help, right? That’s the difference. If I’m willing to show up, nobody is gonna be like, “Oh, but you know, who are you, where are you, who did you vote for?” Like, that’s not anybody’s actual concern if they are dying? Those are not the questions that they have time to ask. 

I think we need to kill the individual. I don’t understand how anybody thinks anything happens alone. It is so crazy. I can’t even get up alone. There’s a whole series of things—billions of cells in my body have to work together to get me up in the morning. How could I think that I’m just gonna go through the day alone, that there are not so many things working in conspiracy to keep me alive enough to go to and from so many things are intervening to get me through a day. 

And I think we need to kill our ideas of work. What is work? Actually, what are we working for and toward? And maybe we need to quit? I’ve become very anti-work these days. What is that desire to be productive? Useful? Why are we hedging our personal relationships on that? Why do we look down on people who don’t work? How is that related to the climate crisis? Right? Because all of that work, most of it is just pushing fossil fuels into the air, right? Whether you’re working at your desk, or you’re working on your truck, or even the work of an artist—you’re flying on these planes. All of this work is actually contributing to the death of this planet.

Those have been my big three lately. Work, individualism, innocence. Innocence is really the big one because it really does keep people from engaging at all.

Kate: Building on that, I think I would also say that the other thing that that does, is it freezes people, right? It makes people afraid to move because they might put a foot wrong and somebody might jump down their neck. And it means that people who might otherwise be able to work together for something and build something together are instead at odds with each other. And who does that serve? When I think about work too, I think about these questions of allegiance and loyalty and alignment—who am I in allegiance to or in alignment with? What are the different things that I am helping happen with the work that I do? And that is or can be also very tied to your sense of self. I am a writer, I am a professor. Now, mind you, I definitely reap the benefits of being those things in ways that I would miss if I was going to let that go. But also so what? Truly, truly, truly so what?

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I think that I think all the things you said, yes, you know, kill them dead. Once we start to get into the area of direct collective action—not just quitting but going on strike, not just trying to use less of something, but trying physically to stop that thing from being made or built—people are terrified of that. Because then not only do you have everybody jumping down your neck that you’re doing it wrong, you also have literal material consequences of that thing. You could lose your home.

So I think another thing that maybe we need to just let wither away and die is hope in the systems that are hurting us. And that’s a very tough one. Because many of those systems are at the scale that we really do need, right? Who can fix a bridge? Who can pay to weatherize a home or several homes? Very often that’s big structures that ask us in exchange to put our faith and hope in them, but then they kind of don’t do those things anyway. So to say I got to let die the dream that hard work will lead to personal safety, for safety for my family. I got to let die that dream that—and again, not everybody has this dream, many people had this dream forcibly removed from them many years ago—but some people have to let go the dream that police are there to keep people safe. So they have to let go the dream that personal success and familial success can come from your own merit and your own hard work. Some people need to let go the dream of innocence, or of being a good person. The whole point of being on this earth is not to be a good person. It’s to have a good effect. 

I understand that this book came out of so many conversations that you had with people of all ages. You also include some conversations with people who are trying to talk to their children about climate change, and how they see their role as parents and what they hope their children will do in their own lives to heal the earth. I’m curious how each of you think about talking to younger generations, about climate without drowning them in fear and dread?

Diane: My stepdaughter is 14. We live in the same neighborhood, essentially, that her, her dad, her mom, we all kind of grew up in the same area. So I think maybe one thing to remember is that we are different ages, right? The memories that we are associating with the kind of dread or anxiety that we have, they don’t have those. The world that they are growing up in starts from when they were born, in their perspective. I’m not saying that they don’t understand history or that they don’t have a perception of it, but literally the thing that they have a lived experience of starts from when they were born. So there can often be a kind of projection of, “Oh, my gosh, you don’t understand. You don’t know.” Well actually, their life started in 2009. What would they know? So I think there’s a humility, a stepping back and trying to listen first for a description of the world as they know it, as they have experienced, and as they see it, and hopefully, feeling like that creates an opportunity of exchange.

I think anything like that needs to start with: What do you see? What do I see? What is meeting in the middle? You really do need to create a space, because their perceptions are different. Their imagination and the buttons of their creativity are also different, right? Which means that their ideas for possible solutions, or things to do, strategies might also be different. And that’s maybe the thing that I’m more interested in.

Kate: Two things that I would add to it are I think that modeling a sense of responsibility toward life and lives is a big piece of this for me. I’m not a parent, but I kind of other-mother two kids of my friend’s. I’m saying all of this about modeling responsibility toward one another, modeling caring, and taking care of one another. And I do do that. Being excited about the living world together— its joys, its beauties, like pulling down the catalpa pod from the park tree to have a sword fight with or pulling out the little clover petals that grow in the cemetery to drink from. All of this is stuff that we do together. 

Being guided by them is kind of another area too where what we’re saying overlaps—noticing what they’re interested in. Not trying to insist that they be interested in what you’re interested in, or feel what you feel. Recognizing that somebody who has been in the world less time than you is not just there to be an amplifier for your feelings, your principles, your values. 

I think trading and sharing opportunities for expansive imagination is also something that can be part of these conversations. If a kid asks you a question about why something is a way, you can answer that question—from history, from what you know—but you can also say, how could it be different? How could it be better? What would be different than this? Who would it be better for? And you can do that in a pretty explore-y, fun kind of way. You don’t have to come down like a big rubber mallet on it.

And not for nothing, thinking about how we might act collectively, a big obstacle for a lot of people is—I gotta get my kids to the doctor, or I gotta get my kid to this, I gotta get my kid to that, I got to be home with them. I can’t go, I can’t go, I can’t go. And so a big part of what I try to ask people to think about in the book, too, but also just in conversations, when people are like, “Well, I don’t know, if I can march, or I don’t know if I can talk into a megaphone, I don’t know if I have anything that people would want to say, or I can’t go to a sit in, or I can’t whatever.” Can you put on a movie for your kids and your friends’ kids? So they can go testify at the public hearing, or they can go stand in the street and shout, or whatever it might be. There’s a potential for expansiveness as well as for connection there, that I hope is also part of the transformation that we can offer one another.

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Diane: Quickly returning to something you said before in terms of what we need to let starve and sort of go away. You have to be willing not to be good, right? Experiments like that are not about being good. They don’t look good. They don’t look like what we’re set up to view as success. They’re messy. They’re really trial by fire. It’s a rehearsal. You practice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it really doesn’t. You really have to be willing to actually enter into that. The things that especially American society thinks about being good, it’s all fixed. You fill out the paper, you show up whatever it is, and it’s like, “Oh, I get to say that I did this right because this is what it conventionally looks like.” That other thing is so much messier. And it requires so much imagination, but a real kind of grace. You have to really be willing to look at somebody and say, “I don’t know if either of us have this right. But let’s see.”

I love thinking about imagination. I guess it makes me think about what we can learn from kids and youth and people who haven’t yet maybe learned those walls or ingrained them and are much more willing to invent new ways of being together.

Amongst all this talk of anxiety and grief, and the little deaths that are necessary, and the little deaths that are tragic, I’m curious, what makes each of you both feel very alive right now?

Diane: It’s a hard one. You know, I will say, this is gonna sound so cheesy. But I will say the deal that I have with the person that I’m making my life with, actually [makes me] feel very alive. Because partner is not really the word for what we do. He’s, he’s really a co-conspirator. And I think, as a person who, I’m very much an overachiever. I love being good. I was taught to be good, that is how I get my sort of rewards in life whether monetary or psychological or emotional, but I feel like for the last five years, we’ve been doing a thing that the question is always “why not?” and suddenly float some ideas that stick. And more of those ideas don’t stick.

But it has really welcomed so much possibility and has made so much space for so many different kinds of relations. And I feel so much more a part of my family because of the way that I’ve been able to be with this person that both of our families have been able to extend. And that’s people I’m blood-related to but also friends and different other kinds of relations. It’s a way I’ve always dreamed of being without even knowing that I was dreaming of it. And it really is the thing that makes me feel like anything is possible. And I feel very grateful for that relation every day. Even now I’m a little overcome. I feel really humbled and grateful and inspired by a person who so simply just asks “why not?” And we get to jump planets together. And it’s so simple and I’m so grateful for it. And it really does make me feel extremely, extremely alive.

Kate: Mine is a sad one—sad but good. So two things. One is that my parents are getting older. My dad has Parkinson’s disease and my mom has a partner with Parkinson’s disease and being with them in the realities of their situation and sharing love with them, you know, and also sharing all of the frustrations and dead ends and different needs for reconfiguration with them is making me feel very alive, often in a way that is discomforting and sorrowful and and aggravated. But it makes me feel like my tissues are operating. 

And in a related vein, this year, I got a chance to set up the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth at three environmental justice convenings, where people who had been working in these realms were getting together in some cases for the first time regionally to get connected and capacitated to apply for some federal money that’s available for that kind of work in ways that hasn’t been the case before. The theme was, you all know how this money should be spent. And we want to help you be the ones who decide how it will be spent. And we know that you are tired, that you are lonely, that you are under-capacitated, and we want to share some of that capacity with you. So a really powerful moment.

And what was especially powerful about it for me was that these were people who for years, in their neighborhoods, in their relationships, they had had to be the solutions people. They had to be like, if you will just do this, if you will come to this meeting, if you will step out into the street with us, if you will do this, if you will do that, this is gonna work. And what I was hearing from people, I don’t think it’s an overshare to say this—what if it doesn’t work? What if this is coming too late for us? I don’t know how to talk to my kids about what I do. I’m scared. I’m sad. All of this tiredness and frustration and sorrow. And it was a very great honor for me to be able to be with people in those moments and to hear them. And I felt extremely alive in that moment. And I really, truly hope that they did too.

That’s beautiful, Kate. I really appreciate both of you making the time and space today for this conversation. And I also want to let you, Kate, help your friend get her hormones.

Diane: Yes, Estrogen Road Trip!

Kate: Thank you so much. I am going to run and I appreciate you and I’m grateful to you and I’m delighted by both of you.

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