In seventh grade, we had a long-term substitute teacher for social studies because our teacher had fallen down the stairs. Besides his need to remind us he wasn’t strict (he was “just preparing us for the real world”), I only have one memory from his time as my teacher: He made me cry. No—he made me have an existential crisis, the first I can remember having, but certainly not the last. He told the class that whatever we chose to do in the future wouldn’t matter because the world was ending anyways.
My stomach churned for the rest of the day until I was able to go home, flop on my floor, and sob. This is the first time I can remember consciously breaking down about the climate crisis. Granted, I was also having an intense pubescent mood-swing—but I felt betrayed, fearful, dizzily confused, and sad. I was sitting in my room, surrounded by pictures to commemorate my life, stuffed animals I was gifted as a baby, various books I love, and the clothes that I wore to snuggly hug my body. I was secure, sheltered, but fearful of the innate uncertainty one experiences as a human in today’s world. I was as protected as anyone could be, and yet I found myself looking around my room, playing that game: “If you were only allowed to bring one thing with you to a deserted island, what would you bring?”
Now I’m nine years past being thirteen and I can’t stop listening to “We’re All Gonna Die” by Joy Oladokun. I look back on this moment as one of the main epiphanies in my life. Clearly there was something in me aching for the fate of our Earth.
And I continue to ache. For an assignment in my class, “Narrating the Anthropocene,” I recently spoke with Jon Robertson, a survivor of the 2017 Thomas Wildfire that ate through Santa Barbara, California, and surrounding areas.
In 2017, the “island game” came to life for the Robertsons. Their life was deserted, but instead of sand, it was ash.
He told me about his daughter, about her plan to become a professional costume designer. Hours felt like too small a unit of time to correctly valorize her efforts—clippings of her fabric, design sketches, and complete costumes worn by actors with dreams just as big as hers.
Her portfolio was one of many casualties in the Robertson family household. They also lost Jon’s wife’s late mother’s paintings, three wardrobes they’d spent their lives building, and an entire home that they could barely afford but had housed them through retirement. Jon heard that the fire was moving one acre per second. He thinks this is why neighbors immediately next to him were left untouched—the fire literally skipped over certain houses. It was so swiftly moving that his house, and the home within, were gone as quickly as a gas stove can ignite.
Each generation can remember an era of loss and struggle—anticipation of nuclear warfare, a rise in terrorist attacks, an economic crash, a constant flow of mass shootings, a mental health epidemic. But the climate crisis is unique in that it was heavily predicted, it is currently experienced, and its future implications are certain. Talking to my peers, it is clear that permanence becomes a harsh water to tread when imagining our futures. Rising sea levels, food shortages, extra high temperatures, and the natural disasters we may face will certainly factor into our visions of our futures, if they haven't already. Every generation has had to cope; it’s a fact of life. But we’re the generation of pre-coping. What’s worse: knowing now that we have to make these sacrifices and forever fearing lack of stability, or having already set down roots for yourself and having to start over?
Hearing Jon’s story, my mind went straight to the worst—I wondered if there was even a point of settling down. It's only a matter of time before we are all physically and spatially affected by the climate crisis. Whether that’s in the form of our home burning down, our streets flooding, breathing through masks, adjusting to staring at screens more than ever before, or eggs tripling in price again, sacrifices are already being made and the strides we make in building up our lives no longer feel permanent. Like building castles in the sand right before high tide, the impending waves waiting are guaranteed to erase our work. Nevermind the environmental harm of overproduction, even the emotional risk of working hard only to lose it all is frightening on its own.
But when I asked Jon whether he felt hesitant to rebuild his life as abundantly as he had before, he said no. In fact, he felt the opposite. Once all of his belongings were destroyed, he decided that everything he would buy would be an updated version of what he had before. If he was going to spend money, he wanted it to count. Being as fortunate as he was to have the means to do so, it was his way of coping. It was his way of feeling human in the midst of something that he “could barely wrap his head around.”
The phrase “the new normal” jerks my body into fight-or-flight. We’ve almost reached the three-year mark of being sent home from freshman year of college due to the pandemic (and how nice it feels to get further from that moment). But it seems like the new normal is something that is ever-evolving. The tippity top of a treadmill band that’s impossible to reach no matter how fast you run. It’s a concept, a mindset, that will be ingrained in young consciences. It has to be. There can simply be no more “out of sight, out of mind.” But how do you teach a child to prepare to lose what they’ve just received? How do you teach a being, new to this Earth, about a disappearing world? Object permanence—something we gain once we’re about eight months old—is also about when children begin to experience separation anxiety.
I am lucky to say I have felt a sense of placeness for the majority of my life. My family has never moved homes, and over the summer, I even had camp to act as a second one. I’ve had the same best friend since I was two. I’m close with my siblings.
Maybe it’s growing up. Maybe the feeling that the rug can be ripped out from right under me is just the world saying, “This is 22!” Certainly, that’s part of it. But that can’t be all.
Why did it take 13 years for someone to tell me so nonchalantly what was coming? It’s time to start environmental education early and consistently. Because what we do does matter. Every being on this Earth deserves access to a place, a permanent home, and the opportunity to build a tangible life.
Like Jon said: It may have felt materialistic, but the objects that we surround ourselves with are critical to building our sense of self. It’s human to collect. It’s human to settle. It’s human to lay down roots.
But who are we when our need to be grounded by physicality is constantly being put to the test?