Can I wall myself up into it, shut my eyes, and say: I don’t have to worry about climate change?
“We don’t have to worry about climate change.” It’s an offhand comment, inspired by faux science cited in some inconsequential YouTube comment and legitimized through a filter of ten-year-old naïveté.
My dad, eyes fixed on the TV screen, barely acknowledges it. “Very funny,” he says, already moving into the next moment.
But I’m still rooted in the urgency of this new information. “No, I’m serious,” I say, “I was reading, and it’s just the natural sun cycles making the Earth hotter. It’s what’s supposed to happen. We’re worrying about nothing.” This was the big sell. Even then I understood how words were more than an arrangement of shapes and sounds, how certain collections of syllables and phrases were like incantation; to speak was to harness magic, and these particular words cast dark anxieties into sunbeds of relief. The trick was repetition, that tool of wordsmiths and Wiccans. If my dad could say these words too, perhaps we could banish the beast.
He says instead: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
We don’t have to worry about climate change. We don’t have to worry about climate change. I don’t have to worry about climate change—at this point I still want to be an artist when I grow up. I imagine galleries filled with drawings, maybe a family there too; I imagine worrying about adult things, mundane things like paying taxes and the grocery budget. I can reify this future, shape it with rounded lips, feel it tumbling from the tip of my tongue; I can wall myself up into it, shut my eyes, and say: I don’t have to worry about climate change.
As cold fear dissolves into incanted denial I can feel this future, feel the pulse of it like my heartbeat under my hand. Later I’ll come to believe climate change is nature’s way of reminding humanity of its place where we’ve forgotten it, our existential predator, the unveiling of something resting above us on the food chain. But right now, I don’t have the words to describe the way it feels, casting my eyes downward to avoid looking up into the folds of the pall. I imagine my future in the way that a writer imagines the lives of fictional characters, willing away that dark predatory mass, the watching eyes of some indefinable and terrible truth. Climate change bares its teeth and the ancient instincts we’ve never quite forgotten tell us: run.
“I’m serious, Dad. It’s what I believe. Climate change isn’t really happening.”
In time comes the realization that growing up is an act of inheritance, that I am running to an abstract murky nowhere, that living is looking and “future” is irrevocably entangled with the terrifying somewheres of a world handed down; there is a wave, a tide, a crescendo—
Blood roars in my ears. My throat is tight, skin taut, as if there was a hand around it squeezing my windpipe where angry tears are rolled up and threatening to spill out. “Don’t worry. We’re not at the point of no return,” she says. As if it’s a consolation.
My heart thrums out of step with the rhythm of my mother’s words. It didn’t start out as an argument, but lately to discuss the news with me is also to engage with the undercurrents of my adolescent inquiry. She doesn’t know I see myself in the headlines I recite like prayers, that the gaping spaces between words of newsprint are like eyes, slits of eyes staring at me from between stalks of bushes in some godless night, and the noise I want to make is primal, guttural, senseless. To my mother I am babbling, panicked and disjointed statistics the language of a fear she can’t ever really understand—
Breath hitches in my throat. The scientific consensus grips sacred imaginations in a stranglehold. Ordinary woman, ordinarily happy, flickers and gasps—
Multitudes of anger collapse into a singularity. There is only now and the future is an infinity; it was born of this moment and will die in the next. “What do you mean, ‘Don’t worry.’ The science is right there…”
Maybe if I vote right.
If I eat right.
Maybe if I let Siri, my friend—so passionate and smart—maybe if I let her care about climate change and listen to her when she talks about it, I’ll have done enough. Solutions are out there, after all. She’s just one of the many people who knows what they are, who can tell the rest of us what to do. Let’s make a deal, your knowledge for my delusions.
The time of death comes just after social studies, when Siri cries while telling me we’ll have used up all our resources for the year by August. The voices in the hallway meld together and then dissolve into an echo; my head swims with fading sounds of easy laughter.
There’s a reflective pitter-patter of rain against the window panels of the bus. It’s one of those days where I feel as though if I’m not careful in the world I could drown in it; there is a great noise around us, and a great silence between us. Siri has just said these words: “I’m not sure I even want kids. I mean, when you think about it—think about what the world’s gonna look like by that point… I read a report that said the desertification of the Midwest could lead to massive food shortages by the time we’d be old enough to have kids.” The bus is speeding through the vastness of a cornfield, lush stalks, endless, blurring together in the rush of rain and distance. So much I can’t make out a beginning or an end. The edges of my horizon are defined by what I stand to lose.
In the silence I picture the childhood I had. It wasn’t happy, exactly, but it was plentiful; I never knew the hollow of hunger or the cold fear of war. My parents, shrouded in the normalcy of relative peace, assumed in having children that I, too, would have a peaceful existence, that I would experience life within the normal parameters of suburban fear and personal joy. The pits of the stock market and drops of the stomach upon sights of far-away refugees would be the troughs of my existence. Graduations, marriage, children would be the peaks. I imagined for myself the kinds of lives they had: the blessing of being undefined by any particular history, of being ultimately forgettable. Peace is quite mundane.
In the moment, I nod. What else is there to do but nod? This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper, but a nod. Too big to fit inside a school bus on a Wednesday morning. Too few words to shroud the body of the dead future. Grief’s name gets lost in the stupor.
The feeling’s there, though.
Conversation plods forward. I sink into the sound of the rain.
It catches me off guard, sometimes. I’ll be watching some sitcom on Netflix or joking around with my roommate and I’ll get a news alert on my phone: “The EEV mosquito-borne illness claims a fourth victim.” And everything falls apart.
Canned laughter swells and fades, my room disappears around me; the tide comes in and I inhale fear, choke on it, and drown in it. Search engines and tapping fingers and blurred paragraphs of articles scrolling faster overwhelm my vision, and my thoughts are interrupted with memories of swelling mosquito bites everywhere, with the jokes of my childhood summers: “Oh, don’t even bother with the bug spray, they’ll bite her no matter what.” And ,“If Hannah’s around, I won’t get bitten at all!”
I gasp for air. Preventative measures include using insect repellent (never worked), wearing layers (they bit through my clothes), mosquito netting (and I can’t help but think how fast it happened, how in the space between Netflix and the news, the gates to my future came to bear dystopian insignia).
The inevitability of it presses on my chest.
Later, in the car with my mom, I’m asking her: Will this be how it ends?
And it feels like a premonition.
Other times it’s as natural as the breeze, as the hum of background chatter filling the spaces between conversation. I’m up at a friend’s cabin, and we’re sitting in a small rowboat on the lake. The sky is blue and serene. Puffy white clouds drift gently across the horizon. Sunlight glints off the water, sparkling and clear. Around us, reeds spill off the shoreline and the forest stretches into the distance; the rustling leaves are a chorus, an ode to abundance.
But it is not spectacular. In fact, it is entirely mundane. And for a moment, I wonder if I’m allowed to enjoy it. I feel the weight of some future history watching me in this moment from behind the veil of things I cannot foresee, cannot possibly imagine. How will I be remembered? Does the future contain days like these, made unremarkable by their frequency? Or should I memorize every detail of this sunny quietude, every fleeting sensation? Hold it in memory as long as I can?
And what are my responsibilities to this moment? Do I owe the future my consciousness, or can I lift it into the ground with my friends, bury all expectations and preparations, and laugh with them instead?
Weeks later, on a walk with my mom, I am arrested by the sight of a butterfly. Its wings glint in the sunlight and it flutters in the wind, and a smile breaks across my face. I point. “Look, Mom—look, a monarch.” She sighs in awe, and we come close to sharing the moment.
The butterfly floats between long cattails, flashing brilliant oranges and bright yellows and a sparkling black. Its antennae quiver in the breeze. We watch as it settles on a stalk of lavender, as it flaps its wings once, twice, as it catches the tail of a sunbeam. Neither of us speak. My heart seizes, for a moment, when it begins to flutter away; I watch as it is lifted by the breeze and the light, becoming smaller and smaller until gone.
I will remember what butterflies looked like.
Hannah Pahs is a writer from Northfield, Minnesota. She is a graduate of The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, and is currently an English major at St. Olaf College.