Photo: Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Emily Raboteau, Anadolu Agency/Getty, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (4), Alex Coppel/Newspix/Getty, courtesy Emily Raboteau, Daniel Volpe/The New York Times/Redux, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (2), Kevin Hagen/The New York Times/Redux
Some scientists say the best way to combat climate change is to talk about it among friends and family — to make private anxieties public concerns. For 2019, my New Year’s resolution was to do just that, as often as possible, at the risk of spoiling dinner. I would ask about the crisis at parent-association meetings, in classrooms, at conferences, on the subway, in bodegas, at dinner parties, while overseas, and when online; I would break climate silence as a woman of color, as a mother raising black children in a global city, as a professor at a public university, and as a travel writer — in all of those places, as all of those people. I would force those conversations if I needed to. But, it turned out, people wanted to talk about it. Nobody was silent. I listened to their answers. I noticed the echoes. I wrote them all down.
At last night’s New Year’s Eve party, we served hoppin’ John. Nim said that when he used to visit relatives in Israel, he could see the Dead Sea from the side of the road, but on his most recent trip, he could not. It was a lengthy walk to reach the water, which is evaporating.
Chris responded that the beaches are eroding in her native Jamaica, most egregiously where the resorts have raked away the seaweed to beautify the shore for tourists.
After losing her home in Staten Island to Hurricane Sandy, Lissette bought an RV with solar panels and has been living off the grid, conscious of how much water it takes to flush her toilet and to take a shower, I learned at Angie’s house party.
At tonight’s dinner party, Marguerite said that in Trinidad, where they find a way to joke about everything, including coups, people aren’t laughing about the flooding.
On this evening’s trip on the boat Walter built, he claimed with enthusiasm that we might extract enough renewable energy from the Gulf Stream via underwater turbines to power the entire East Coast.
Moreover, Walter predicted with the confidence of a Swiss watch, no intelligent businessman will invest another dime in coal when there is more profit to be made in wind, solar, and hydrokinetic energy. Economic forces will dictate a turnaround in the next ten years, he said.
After Hurricane Irma wrecked her homein Key West, Kristina, a triathlete librarian, moved onto a boat and published a dystopian novel titled Knowing When to Leave, I learned over lobster tail.
We ate vegetable quiche at Ayana and Christina’s housewarming party, where Christina described the Vancouver sun through the haze of forest-fire smoke and smog as looking more like the moon.
In the basement of Our Saviour’s Atonement this afternoon, Pastor John said he’s been preaching once a month about climate change, despite his wife’s discomfort, and recently traveled to Albany to lobby for the Community and Climate Protection Act.
When I see those brown recycling bins coming to the neighborhood, said a student in Amir’s class at City College in Harlem, it tells me gentrification is here and our time is running out.
Just between us, Mik said over drinks at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village, it scares me that white people are becoming afraid of what they might lose. History tells us they gonna get violent.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Kathy, who’d prepared the traditional corned beef and cabbage, conversed about the guest from the botanical garden in her master gardening class, who lectured on shifting growing zones, altering what could be planted in central New Jersey, and when.
Sheila, who brought weed coquito to the tipsy tea party, said that when people ask her, “What are you Hondurans, and why are you at the border?,” she says, “Americans are just future Hondurans.”
Mat recalled vultures in the trees of Sugar Land, Texas, hunting dead animals that had drowned in Hurricane Harvey, during which he’d had difficulty fording flooded streets to reach his mother’s nursing home.
After a bite of roasted-beet salad in the Trask mansion’s dining room, Hilary spoke of the historic spring flooding in her home state of Iowa, where the economic impact was projected to reach $2 billion.
Carolyn warned me at the breakfast table, where I picked up my grapefruit spoon, that I may have to get used to an inhaler to be able to breathe in spring going forward, as the pollen count continues to rise with the warming world. My wheezing concerned her, and when she brought me to urgent care, a sign at the check-in desk advised, DON’T ASK US FOR ANTIBIOTICS. Valerie, the doctor who nebulized me with albuterol, explained that patients were overusing antibiotics in the longer tick season for fear of Lyme.
On his second helping of vegetable risotto, Antonius reflected that in Vietnam, where his parents are from, the rate of migration from the Mekong Delta, with its sea-spoiled crops, is staggering.
Due to Cyclone Fani, Ranjit said he was canceling plans to visit Kerala and heading straight back to Goa, where he would be available for gigs, lessons, jam sessions, meals.
Michael said that beef prices were up after the loss of so much livestock in this spring’s midwestern flooding, and so he’d prepared pork tacos instead.
At the head of the table where we sat eating bagels, Aurash said we won’t solve this problem until we obsess over it, as he had obsessed over Michael Jordan and the Lamborghini Countach as a kid.
He added that, just as his parents weren’t responsible for the specific reasons they had to leave Afghanistan, in general the communities most impacted by climate change are least responsible for it.
Balancing an empty plate in his lap, Karthik said that New York City (an archipelago of 30-odd islands), with all its hubris, should be looking to Sri Lanka, another vulnerable island community, for lessons in resilience.
We have more in common, he went on, with the effective stresses of low-lying small-island coastal regions such as the Maldives, the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean than with a place like Champaign, Illinois —
“I’m from Champaign!,” Pamela interrupted, her mouth full. “It’s in a flood plain too!,” she cried. We’re all sitting at this table now.
“Personally, I’m not that into the future,” said Centime, who had a different sense of mortality having survived two bouts of breast cancer. She uncorked the fourth bottle of wine. We’d gathered over Indian takeout for an editorial meeting to comb through submissions to a transnational feminist journal centering on women of color. “But I can respect your impulse to document our extinction.”
Eating a slice of pizza at a kid’s birthday party in a noisy arcade, Adam reminisced about the chirping of frogs at dusk in northern Long Island — the soundtrack to his childhood, now silent for a decade.
“Sad to say,” he mused, “among the 9 million meaningless things I’ve Googled, this wasn’t one. It’s like a postapocalypse version of my life: ‘Well, once the frogs all died, we shoulda known.’ Then I strap on a breather and head into a sandstorm to harvest sand fleas for soup.”
Hiral, scoffing at what passes for authentic Punjabi food here in New York, was worried about her family in Gandhinagar and the trees of that green city, where the temperature is hovering around 110 degrees Fahrenheit weeks before monsoons will bring relief.
After T-ball practice at Dyckman Fields, while the Golden Tigers ate a snack of clementines and Goldfish crackers, Adeline’s dad, an engineer for the Department of Environmental Protection, spoke uneasily of the added strain upon the sewage system from storms.
Jeff, who’d changed his unhealthy eating habits after a heart attack, said, “We are running out of language to describe our devastation of the world.”
Lacy agreed, adding, “We need new metaphors and new containers with which to imagine time.”
Keith confessed that he was seriously losing hope of any way out of this death spiral.
We sipped rosé, listening to Javier read a poem about bright-orange crabs in the roots of the mangrove trees of Estero de Jaltepeque in his native El Salvador, where the legislative assembly had just recognized natural forests as living entities.
The historic move protects the rights of trees, without which our planet cannot support us. Meanwhile, Javier discussed the lack of rights of migrants at the border, recalling the journey he made at age 9, unaccompanied, in a caravan surveilled by helicopters.
In Sudan, where Dalia (who read after Javier) is from, youth in Khartoum wish to restore the ecosystem through reforestation using drones to cast seedpods in the western Darfur region, hoping to stymie disasters such as huge sandstorms called haboob.
Owing to this month’s massacre, one of Dalia’s poems proved too difficult for her to share. “I’d be reading a memorial,” she said.
I strained to hear the unspoken rhyme between the rising sandstorms and the dying mangroves, hemispheres apart.
Salar wrote to me about the call of the watermelon man this morning in Tehran where groundwater loss, overirrigation, and drought have led to land subsidence. Parts of the capitol are sinking, causing fissures, sinkholes, ditches, cracks.
The damage was most evident to him in the southern neighborhood of Yaftabad, by the wells and farmland at the city’s edge. There, ruptures in water pipes, walls, and roads have folks fearing the collapse of shoddier buildings. The ground beneath the airport, too, is giving way.
“Our airport’s sinking too!,” mused Catherine, who’d flown in from San Francisco for this evening of scene readings at the National Arts Club, followed by a wine-and-cheese reception.
“It’s not true that we’re all seated at the same table,” argued David, a translator from Guatemala, where erratic weather patterns have made it nearly impossible to grow maize and potatoes.
Retha, David’s associate, quoted the poem “Luck,” by Langston Hughes:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Then we went out looking for the Korean barbecue truck.
“Say what you will about the Mormons,” said Paisley, who lives in Utah, “but they’ve been stockpiling for the end of days for so long that they’re better prepared.”
At the Stone Barns farm, where tiara cabbages, garlic scapes, snow peas, red ace beets, zucchini flowers, and baby lambs were being harvested for the Blue Hill restaurant’s summer menu, Laura spoke hopefully of carbon sequestration in the soil.
Edgily, Lisa argued, “There’s not a single American living a sustainable lifestyle. Those who come close are either homeless or are spending most of their time growing food and chopping wood.”
S.J. said their car as well as eight of their neighbors’ cars, including a freaking Escalade, got totaled by a flash flood in the middle of the night in Charleston without warning. Living in a sea-level coastal city is becoming more terrifying by the day, said S.J. They now check the radar before parking.
Magda turned philosophical before returning to Tepoztlán, Mexico. What is the future of memory and the memory of the future? she pondered. We were eating raw sugar-snap peas, remarkable for their sweetness, out of a clear plastic bag.
Her eyes, too, were startlingly clear. “My daughter’s 27 now,” she said. “By mid-century, I’ll be dead. I can’t imagine her future or recall a historical precedent for guidance …” Magda lost her thread.
Meanwhile, Roy had been pointing out the slowness of the disaster; not some future apocalypse, but rather our present reality — a world’s end we may look to culturally endure with lessons from Gilgamesh, the Aeneid, the Torah, and the Crow.
The other Adam sent word from Pearl River at breakfast: “Today’s temps at camp are going to reach 100. It will feel hotter than that. We’ll be taking it slower and spending more time in the shade. Don’t forget sunscreen, water bottles, and hats; they’re critical to keeping your kids safe.”
There was no shade at the bus stop in front of the Starbucks on 181st Street. “Why wasn’t climate change the center of last night’s Democratic presidential debate?,” asked Ezra, a rabbi.
“They didn’t talk about it at all in 2016,” pointed out Rhea’s mom, who preferred to see the glass as half-full. “This is progress!,” she cheerfully exclaimed.
Ryan, Albert’s head nurse on the cardiac unit, feared the hospital was understaffed to deal with the upswing of heat-induced diseases. Delicately moving the untouched food tray to rearrange the IV tube, he said, “It’s hard on the heart.”
“My homeland may not exist in its current state, a bewildering, terrifying thought I suffer daily,” Tanaïs said of Bangladesh. “Every time I go to the coast, there’s less and less land and now a sprawling refugee camp. Every visit feels closer to our end.”
“Let’s lay off the subject tonight,” suggested Victor, as he prepared the asparagus salad for dinner with Carrie and Andy, who were back in town for the music festival.
Holding court over waffles this morning in the stately dining room of the black-owned Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Philadelphia, Ulysses, who works to diversify the U.S. Geological Survey, said, “We need representation. Earthquakes affect us, too. Volcanoes affect us, too. Climate change affects us, too.”
Charlie stirred the gumbo pot. He speculated that his girls’ public school had closed early this year because its sweltering classrooms lacked air-conditioning to manage the heat wave. “Our seasons are changing,” he said, regarding the prolonged summer break.
While Lucy distributed glow necklaces to her little cousins on the Fourth of July, her aunt learned the fireworks display had been canceled by the Anchorage Fire Department owing to extreme dry weather conditions. Alaska was burning.
Cyrus yanked off his headphones with bewilderment and looked up from his iPad toward his mom. “It says there’s a tornado warning,” he cried. All through the airport, our cell phones were sounding emergency alarms, warning us to take shelter. A siren sounded.
“Take shelter where?” begged his mother in confusion. She clutched a paper Smashburger bag with a grease spot at the bottom corner. The aircraft was barely visible through the gray wash of rain at the wall of windows rattling with wind.
Nadia, a flight attendant in a smart yellow neck scarf, served us Würfel vom Hahnchenkeulen in Pilzsauce on the delayed seven-hour red-eye from Philly to Frankfurt, on which each passenger’s carbon footprint measured 3.4 metric tons.
Owing to a huge toxic algae bloom, all 21 of the beaches were closed in Mississippi, where Jan was getting ready to start her fellowship, I learned before tonight’s dinner at the Abuja Hilton.
Jan ordered a steak, well done, and swallowed a malaria pill with a sip of South African wine. She referred to Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” which starts:
The world begins at a kitchen table.
No matter what, we must eat to live.
Eating chicken suya in the mansion of the chargé d’affaires, Chinelo spoke quietly of the flooding in Kogi state at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.
Few Nigerians realize, Buchi said, that the longevity of Boko Haram in the Northeast, the banditry in the Northwest, and the herder-farmer crises in the North Central are a result of rapid desertification and loss of arable land even as the country’s population keeps exploding.
Jide, a confident and fashionable hustler, slipped me a business card claiming his sneaker line was the first innovative, socially conscious, sustainable footwear brand in all of Africa. His enviable red-laced kicks said, “We’re going to Mars with a space girl, two cats, and a missionary.”
Stacey, a science officer for the CDC, was geeking out about the data samples that would help control the spread of vector-borne diseases like yellow fever and dengue when the waiter interrupted her epidemiological account with a red-velvet cake for my 43rd birthday.
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / Ché la diritta via era smarrita!,” shouted Nicole, my college roommate from half a lifetime ago, before we had kids, before she went blind. We had memorized the opening lines of The Inferno, had crushes on the Dante professor, and knew nothing yet of pain.
Naheed said, “The southwest monsoon is failing in Nagpur. For the first time in history, the municipal corporation will only provide water on alternate days. There will be no water on Wednesday, Friday, nor Sunday in the entire city for two weeks.”
Chido told us that in Harare, she was one of the lucky ones on municipal rotation getting running water five days out of the week, until fecal sludge appeared, typhoid cases cropped up, and the taps were shut off entirely. “They are killing us,” she said.
Kate said the back roads of Salisbury, Vermont, were slippery with the squashed guts and body fluids of the hundreds of thousands of northern leopard frogs — metamorphosing from tadpoles in explosive numbers — run over by cars.
Centime sent a picture of a memorial for Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. “For your time capsule,” she offered. The plaque read, THIS MONUMENT IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.
Posed as a letter to the future, the message ended, ONLY YOU KNOW IF WE DID IT.
“What would you do if the power went out and you were stuck underground in a subway tunnel?” Lissette drilled, showing me the prepper items in her crowded backpack, heavy as a mother’s diaper bag: water, protein bars, flashlight, battery, filter, knife …
“Bobby was stuck underground on the 1 train during last night’s commute for 45 minutes,” said his wife, Angela, describing the clusterfuck of six suspended subway lines. “And in this heatwave, too,” she griped. “Folks were bugging out! — ten more minutes and there woulda been a riot.”
Morgan wasn’t the only one to observe it was the poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn that had power cut off in yesterday’s rolling blackout. The powerless scrambled to eat whatever food was in their fridges before it spoiled. Wealthier hoods were just fine.
“Can you rummage in my mind and take out the fire thoughts and eat them?,” asked 8-year-old Geronimo at bedtime. This was the ritual. He felt safer with his anxieties in my stomach than in his brain.
Just back in L.A. from an empowering trek to Sicily where she’d visited the Shrine to the Black Madonna despite sizzling temperatures, Nichelle shared her two rules for dealing with the global heat wave: “(1) Drink lots of water. (2) Watch how you talk to me.”
Marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the Reverend John sermonized, “You’d think after seeing the Earth from afar, we would do anything to protect this planet, this home. You’d think wrong.”
“We’ve become drunk on the oil and gas poisoning the waters that give us life,” he preached. “And we have vomited that drunkenness into the atmosphere. Truly, the prophet is right,” he said, quoting Isaiah 24:4. “The Earth dries up and withers. The world languishes and withers. The heavens languish with the Earth.”
“We have broken the everlasting covenant,” reasoned the Reverend John. “Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that God loves this world.”
At last night’s “Intimate Dilemmas in the Climate Crisis” gathering at a software company on Madison Avenue, we were told to write our hopes and fears for the future on name tags as a silent icebreaker, then to stick these messages to our chests and walk about the room. Sebastian’s was only one word: war.
Mary, who left the event early, said she worried about her aging mother down South. “I’m the first person in my family born after Jim Crow. They fought battles so I could live the dreams my mother couldn’t. How can I talk to her about this existential grief of mine when she’s already been through so much?”
“Having one less child reduces one’s carbon footprint 64.6 U.S. tons per year,” Josephine from Conceivable Future informed us.
“Why is it so easy to police reproductive rights of poor women and so hard to tell the fossil-fuel industry to stop killing us?,” asked Jade, a Diné and Tesuque Pueblo activist in New Mexico, whose shade of red lipstick I coveted.
Ciarán set down our shepherd’s pie and Guinness on a nicked table at Le Chéile. On one of the many drunken crayon drawings taped to the walls of that pub were scrawled these lines from Yeats:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Protesters from Extinction Rebellion Ireland staged a die-in at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, where Ciarán’s family is from, arranging their inert bodies on the floor among silent stuffed “Mammals of the World.”
Ari cooked lamb shoulder chops with eggplant and cilantro purée, a family recipe from Yemen, where swarms of desert locusts, whose summer breeding was ramped up by extraordinary rainfall, are invading crops, attacking farms, and eating trees.
Meanwhile, Yemeni villagers are eating the locusts, shared Wajeeh, catching them in scarves at nightfall, eating them with rice in place of vegetables, carting sacks of them to Sanaa and selling them, grilled, near the Great Mosque.
When Nelly and I chewed khat with Centime in Addis Ababa a decade ago, discussing creation myths at the New Flower Lounge while high as three kites, we never imagined that Ethiopia would plant 350 million trees in one day, as they did today.
Eric distributed Wednesday’s fruit share under a canopy in Sugar Hill, Harlem. I took note of the Baldwin quote on the back of his sweat-soaked T-shirt when he bent to lift a cantaloupe crate:
The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Off the rugged coast of Devon, where Jane grew up picking wild blackberries, the Cloud Appreciation Society gathered to slow down and gaze up at the sky in gratitude and wonder. Nobody spoke of the modeled scenario released by scientists of a cloudless atmosphere.
“In the beginning,” said Elizabeth, who lives in Pass Christian, a block from the Mississippi shore, “before they closed the beaches, I saw the death with my own eyes. Dead gulf redfish, dead freshwater catfish dumped from the river. Thousands. I saw a dead dolphin in the sand.”
“I’m always so pissed at plastic bags and idling cars, but I feel like there’s no point in caring anymore,” said Shasta upon learning that between yesterday and today, more than 12 billion tons of water will have melted from the Greenland ice sheet.
Meera grew disoriented when she returned to the Houston area to finish packing up the house that her family had left behind and could not sell; it was languishing on the market for a year as if cursed.
Because he dearly loved taking his boys camping in the Mojave Desert, Leonard felt depressed about the likely eventual extinction of the otherworldly trees in Joshua Tree National Park.
The El Paso shooter’s manifesto said, “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist … If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”
In her kitchen, Angie nearly burned the platanos frying in oil on her stovetop. “That ecofascist targeted Mexicans,” she said, swatting at the smoke with a dish towel. “He called us invaders.”
“In the Black Forest,” said Daniel, “there are mainly firs and spruces. Many of them die because it is too dry. We used to have something called land-rain. That was light rain for days. It’s gone. When it rains (like now) it feels like an Indian monsoon. What I really want to say to you about Waldersterben (dying forest): Come now, as long as the Black Forest exists.”
Claire, a former Colorado farmer, spoke of intensifying forest fires. “The mountains are full of burn scars like this,” she said, sharing a shot from a blaze near Breckenridge.
None of us will be able to say later that we didn’t know we were doing this to the Earth.
Isobel stopped planning our 25th high-school reunion to study the weakening of global ocean circulation and the tanking of the stock market when the Dow dropped 800 points today. Back to back, she traced with a painted fingernail the lines of the inverted yield curve and the slowing Gulf Stream.
Zulema wasn’t surprised when Pacific Gas & Electric went bankrupt from the billions of dollars in liability it faced from two years of raging California wildfires, though it wasn’t a downed power line that ignited the Detwiler fire she fled. It was a discharged gun.
On being evacuated from Mariposa for six days by that fire, whose smoke reached Idaho as it burned 80,000 acres of trees dried into tinder by bark beetles and drought, she said over soup dumplings: “I almost lost my house. It’s surrounded by charred forest now. We’re like those frogs in the boiling pot.”
“The developers don’t live here, so they don’t care,” said Jimmy, the tuxedoed waiter who served me linguini with clam sauce for lunch at Gargiulio’s on Coney Isalnd, where the new Ocean Dreams luxury apartment towers are topping out despite sea-level rise. “All they care about is making a buck.”
Manreet said she felt anxious. Yesterday in Delhi, where her sister in-law lives, the government sounded a flood alert as the Yamuna River swelled to breach its danger mark.
“Punjab, where I come from, means ‘The Land of Five Rivers,’” she explained. “It’s India’s granary. After a severe summer left the fields parched, the brimming rivers are now flooding them. It’s worse and worse each year. I feel weirdly resigned.”
Although the sky directly above her wasn’t blackened by smoke from the burning Amazon rain forest, Graduada Franjinha saw protests along the road to a capoeira competition in Rio. “It’s so sad to see how humankind destroys the lungs of the earth that gives us breath,” she said.
Saddened by the loss of 28 wild horses in Pamlico Sound to a mini-tsunami, Chastity remembered seeing them as a kid and swearing to commit them to her forever memory. “You don’t see beautiful things like that and question whether there’s a higher being,” she said. “You just don’t.”
Chaitali said she can’t stop thinking about Grand Bahama after learning that 70 percent of it is now underwater. “Where are all those people going to go?,” she asked, mystified and horror-struck.
It is an unprecedented disaster, said Christian, struggling to control his voice. He had cut his hair since last I saw him. Dorian was still hovering over his birthplace of Grand Bahama. “Natural and unnatural storms reveal how those most vulnerable are disproportionately affected,” he said.
At last night’s party, Jamilah, a Trini-Nigerian Toronto-based sound artist and former member of the band Abstract Random, took a bite of pastelito and said she’d like to get to the Seychelles before they drop into the Indian Ocean.
“Eat the fucking rich,” said Jessica, in reply to a quarterly investment report on how to stay financially stable when the world may be falling apart.
Arwa feared that the plight of 119 Bahamian evacuees thrown off a ferryboat to Florida for being without visas they did not legally need was a sign of climate apartheid.
“Ma’am, I am the heat,” Maurice replied to the woman in New Orleans’s Jackson Square who warned him against jogging outdoors because of the heat advisory in effect.
Maya, proud owner of a Chihuahua–pit bull–mini-pin mix in Montclair, was saddened to learn that nearly 300 animals had drowned at a Humane Society shelter in Freeport during the hurricane.
Melissa, incensed, asked why they didn’t let the animals out of their damn crates.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, a shit ton of people died too,” argued Sanaa.
Tons of babies, tons of elderly and infirm people, even perfectly healthy people died, too. Over 2,500 people are still missing, and 70,000 now homeless.
“Did you not see the videos of people trapped in their attics with the waves crashing over their houses? Y’all sound fucking stupid,” Sanaa fumed.
“Did you hear the NYC Department of Education approved absences from school for the youth climate strike next Friday?,” Elyssa asked during the Shabbat Schmooze while the children swarmed around a folding table tearing off hunks of challah and dunking them in Dixie cups of grape juice.
“I’d rather go to school,” said Jacob. His dislike of large crowds outweighed his dislike of third grade.
Amanda, whom I last saw at Raoul’s, where we ate steak au poivre and pommes frites, said she had to sell off half the herd on her family’s Texas cattle ranch after a drought left the tanks dry, the lake depleted, and the hayfield shriveled.
She mentioned, almost as an aside, that they’d lost half the honeybees in their hives to colony-collapse disorder in the past five years too.
“Everyone here is linked to someone who works in oil,” she said. “It’s the center of the damage, and all that industry makes my efforts feel small. Sailing in Galveston Bay after a tanker spill, I wondered if my soaking-wet clothes were flammable.”
TaRessa, from Atlanta, said, “I have always loved awakening to birdsong. This year, for the first time, I hear none.” A third of North American birds had vanished from the sky in the span of her lifetime.
“I’m here to sign out my child for the climate strike,” said a dad to Consuelo, the parent coordinator in the main office at Dos Puentes Elementary.
“By the time they’re our age, they won’t have air to breathe,” worried Consuelo. “They’ll be wearing those things on their faces — mascarillas respiratorias.”
Ben’s sign said, I’M MISSING SCIENCE CLASS FOR THIS. He was 6, in the first grade and studying varieties of apples, of which he knew there were thousands. He’d also heard that as many as 200 species were going extinct every day.
Shawna told her daughter on the packed A train down to Chambers Street that a teenage girl had done this, had started protesting alone until kids all over the world joined her to tell the grown-ups to do better, had sailed across the ocean to demand it.
Along Worth Street toward Foley Square, the signs said:
SHIT’S ON FIRE, YO
COMPOST THE RICH
THIS IS ALL WE HAVE
I WANT MY KID TO SEE A POLAR BEAR
SEAS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE
MAKE EARTH GREAT AGAIN
SAVE OUR HOME
In yellow pinafores, Grannies for Peace sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while a nearby police officer forced a protester to the ground for refusing to move off the crowded street to the sidewalk. “Shame!,” chanted the massive crowd in lower Manhattan.
“When our leaders act like kids, then we, the kids, will lead!,” shouted a gaggle of outraged preteen girls in Catholic-school uniforms. Their voices grew hoarse, though the march had not yet begun.
Humera’s Sufi spiritual guide, Fatima, said, “Alhamdulillah! Let’s offer a Fatiha for the young generations who are inheriting a heavy, sad burden left by their predecessors but who are in process of finding their own voice of goodness. This is a movement of consciousness. “
“You need to use an AeroChamber that goes over his nose with the pump so he gets all the asthma medicine,” La Tonya, the school nurse, instructed me. Her office was full of brown boys like our son, lined up for the first puff of the day.
“The point of the shofar is to wake us up,” Reb Ezra said, lifting the ram’s horn to his mouth. He blasted it three times with all he had. “Shana tova!,” he shouted. The table was dressed for the New Year with apples and honey.
“Who shall perish by water and who by fire?,” went a line in the Rosh Hashanah service as we were asked to think about atonement. So began the Days of Awe.
Namutebi said at Andrew’s memorial service that in the 25 years since that picture of him holding his son in Kampala was taken, Uganda has lost 63 percent of its trees.
“The Rollerblades are $5,” said Abby, who sold books, clothes, toys, puzzles, and games she’d outgrown, spread over a blanket on the sidewalk leading to the Medieval Festival, to make money to fight climate change.
Danielle made risotto in the pressure cooker for dinner tonight in Marin County to feed her 91-year-old grandparents, who are staying over because they lost power in Sonoma as part of the huge, wildfire-driven blackout.
“I’m almost scared they aren’t turning off our power and we’re going to end up engulfed in flames,” said Danielle. “My grandfather keeps asking when the storm is coming, and I keep trying to explain to him that this isn’t like a hurricane.”
She was curious about how the rest of America sees this — 800,000 people without power as risk mitigation by the gas-and-electric company against wildfires during high winds. She asked, “Do they know this is how we live now?”
“We are okay, but it is starting to get smoky, and we are sorry about our friends closer to the fire,” Zulema alerted us. The Briceburg fire was 4,000 acres and 10 percent contained. “PG&E will cut power to the northern part of the county,” she said.
“You’re going to feel some discomfort,” Dr. Marianne warned me at yesterday’s annual gynecological checkup. She inserted the speculum. I stared at the wall with a picture of her taken five years prior on the white peak of Kilimanjaro.
“Are you in pain?,” the doctor asked, discomfited by my tears. The glaciers that ring the mountain’s higher slopes were evaporating from solid to gas, the wondrous white ice cap towering above the plains of Tanzania for as long as anyone can remember disappearing before our eyes.
In the highlands of Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda — where Damali is from — the climate is no longer hospitable for growing coffee. Damali will likely serve hot milky spiced tea at the family gathering she invited us to with a proper note card through the mail.
Baby Kazuki’s mother feared her breastmilk had sickened him after she reintroduced eggs into her diet. And she feared for the 8 million people ordered to evacuate their homes, as Typhoon Hagibis flayed Tokyo, including the house where her father was born.
In the park this morning, Ana said her Realtor had advised against the offer she wished to make on purchasing her first home through the subsidized Teacher Next Door program. The house she’d fallen in love with was in a flood zone.
Romy sent us video of the churches in Damour ringing bells before sunrise to warn people of the raging wildfires. “Lebanon is burning,” Romy said. “Probably the biggest fire this country has seen. Please send help.”
Amaris said, “Mount Lebanon, the refuge of persecuted native minorities and their history in the Middle East, is on fire. For a place that represents holy land for us, I’m not joking when I say I feel my soul has been set aflame.”
And then, as if by listing the scorched villages, she could turn them verdant again, she mourned their names: “Mechref, Dibbeyye, Damour, Daqqoun, Kfar Matta, Yahchouh, Mazraat Yachoua, Qournet El Hamra, Baawarta, Al Naameh …”
Yahdon, bred in Bed-Stuy, bought his gold Maison Martin Margiela designer sneakers secondhand to stay sustainably fly, he said.
Amelia posted a picture of the view from her kitchen window in Quito last week. “Gracias a Dios, we escaped the fire and the house is still standing!,” she said amid nationwide civil unrest, wherein protesters clashed with riot police and a state of emergency was declared.
“Fossil-fuel subsidies were reinstated to stop the protests in Ecuador, a petrostate where the price of an unstable, fossil-fuel-dependent economy is paid by the poor. It’s been a tough week,” said Amelia, following up with a picture of a chocolate cupcake. “We all need a treat sometimes.”
“What’s your position on public nudity?,” slurred Elliott, my seatmate on this morning’s flight to San Francisco. In Melbourne, where he’s from, Extinction Rebellion activists had stripped for a nudie parade down Exhibition Street.
“Are we under the ocean or in the clouds?,” asked Geronimo, looking up at the illusion of undulating blue waves made by a trick of laser light and fog machines at tonight’s Waterlicht show, both dream landscape and flood.
“Anyone else have their fire go-bag ready just in case?,” asked Lizz, who paints wrought iron in San Diego and writes about brujas. Six hundred fires had burned in California in the past three days.
“For me as a parent, knowing that my ancestors have overcome the brutality of colonialism gives me hope for the future,” said Waubgeshig, originally from the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario. “My people have seen the end before.”
Salar, just back from Beirut, described a contrast between streets of festering trash and citizens forming a human chain, across sect, at the start of revolution. “It’s like we forgot the planet was our house until it grew so dirty we had to wake up,” he said.
Felicia, Mark, Dean, Robin, Dara, Kellen, Alexandra, Roxane, Alethea, Susan, David, and Roy all marked themselves safe in Los Angeles during the Getty fire, which started near I-405 and Getty Center Drive, destroying 12 homes and threatening 7,000 more.
No word as yet on the safety of Samara, Marisa, Nkechi, Josh, Kelela, Anika, or Laila.
“It’s because of global warming,” said Geronimo, dressed as a wizard, when his father recalled having to wear a winter coat over Halloween costumes during his own New York City childhood. The jack-o’-lanterns were decaying. It was 71 degrees when we walked to the parade.
Naheed brought us back a painting of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, and his wife Parvati, from the Dilli Haat handicraft bazaar in New Delhi, where schools have closed because of the dirty, toxic air.
“I feel guilty,” said Alejandra, a City College student, at the first Extinction Rebellion meeting held on campus, the same day 11,000 scientists declared a global climate emergency.
“Is there going to be food at this meeting?,” Hector asked, poking his head in the door of the nearly empty classroom with mismatched, broken chairs. Down the hall was a food pantry. “You’d get more students to act if you offered food,” Hector said, then left.
“Our aim is to save humanity from extinction,” said Tom, an Iowa native. He’d volunteered to give the presentation, having joined the protest back in August. The slideshow included a picture of him drenched in fake blood at the feet of the Wall Street bull.
“This is a decentralized movement. Our nonviolent civil-disobedience actions are theatrical. We disrupt the status quo by occupying space. This was my first time getting arrested,” Tom said. “You can do this too.”
“Not me,” said Cedric, referencing the obstacles to his participation, as a black man. “If I get arrested, will it go on my record? Who pays my bail?”
Valentin, a full-time rebel since graduating with a degree in architecture, said we could address the criticism of the rebellion as a white movement that fetishizes arrests at our next house meeting. Demanding divestment, he added, should be on the agenda.
“Back home in Ontario, the backyard rinks are gone,” lamented Michael, the man we met playing solo street hockey in the schoolyard of PS 187. He showed my boy, wobbling on new inline skates, how to balance himself with a hockey stick, how to gracefully sweep the puck across concrete.
At Václav’s baby shower, Yana, who’d ordered the usual Mediterranean platter, told him to just rip the wrapping paper off the gift. That’s how Americans do it, she said. Vaclav held up the bibs, booties, and dresses she’d bought for his baby, due in five weeks.
“Is it just me or does it feel like this is the last baby we will produce?,” whispered Renata, depressed by our aging and shrinking department in an age of endless austerity with several retirements on the horizon but no new hires. “It feels like Children of Men.”
Geronimo climbed into our bed with The Children’s Book of Mythical Beasts and Magical Monsters open to a page of flood stories, floods delivered by vengeful gods: Utnapishtim, Viracocha, Zeus, Vishnu, Noah, and Chalchiuhtlicue.
“ ‘The Mexican goddess of rivers and lakes once flooded the whole world to get rid of all those who are evil, but those who were good were turned into fish and were saved,’ ” he read. “Will I be saved?”
“You will be safe because we are privileged, not because we are good,” I said, torn between wishing to comfort him and wanting to tell him the truth. “Those who are less safe aren’t drowning because they are bad but because they are poor.”
“Samantha’s got serious respiratory issues now too,” said her mother, as we waited for the school bus to drop off our kids outside our building around the corner from a busy bus terminal in a neighborhood at the nexus of three major highways and the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world.
“Are we rebels or are we not?,” asked Lena, a French international student studying environmental biotechnology. “The best way to make people know the movement is to plan an action and make demands,” she said.
“Wow, and here I thought it was going to be just another game,” said Aaron, class of ’98, after student activists from both schools disrupted today’s Harvard-Yale football game, rushing the field to demand fossil-fuel divestment. “I guess I should have gone in to bear witness instead of hanging out at the tailgates.”
Next to me at Kathy’s Thanksgiving table sat her eldest son, who’d driven up for the holiday from Virginia, where he said his neighbors in the coalfields knew their industry was dead and were understandably fearful of the transition into new lines of work.
The Ghost of Christmas Present encouraged Ebenezeer Scrooge to do the most he could with the time he had left, in the Harlem Repertory Theater’s opening-night production of A Christmas Carol. The last ghost waited in the wings.
Sujatha said it was getting harder to see outside in Sydney, but the failure of state and federal government action was clear: No mitigation policy. No adaptation policy. No energy-transition policy. No response equal to the task of this state of climate emergency.
“I am worried,” she said, as ferries, school days, and sports were canceled because of air quality 11 times the hazardous levels. Mike bought air filters for the house, face masks for their two kids. Shaad had asked her, “Will this be the future?”
The other Ben had been at the U.N. climate conference in Madrid all week and felt depressed about our chances of getting through this century “if it wasn’t for these kids,” he said, sharing a picture of teens with eyes drawn on the palms of their upheld hands. “They are watching and awake.”
“We’re not here for your entertainment. The youth activists are not animals at a zoo to look at and go, Awww, now we have hope for the future. If you want hope for the future, you have to act,” said Vega, a Swedish Fridays for Future leader.
“You know it’s bad when the sun looks red and there’s ash on every windshield,” said Sarah from Sacramento, who could feel it constricting her lungs.
“What’s the right balance of hope and despair?,” asked the other Laura.
In the Netherlands, where Nina just submitted her doctoral-dissertation proposal to the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government must protect the human rights of its citizens against climate change by cutting carbon emissions.
“Everyone not from Australia, I’m begging you,” said Styli in Sydney. She feared international ignorance due to the lack of celebrity and location. “The truth is, our country is burning alive,” she said, on the nation’s hottest day on record, one day after its prior record.
“It looks like an alligator’s head,” said Ben from the backseat on the drive to Nana’s for Christmas. “No, a hydra,” said Geronimo. Billowing smoke from the towers of the oil refinery and petrochemical plant to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike at Linden took shifting monstrous shapes.
“It’s always the women who pick up the mess at the end of the meal,” sighed Angie, doing the dishes at the kitchen sink in a pink T-shirt that said, SIN MUJERES NO HAY REVOLUCIÓN.
Though it was the third night of Hanukkah, Rebecca was still preoccupied by the Parshas Noach she’d heard weeks before, admonishing her to be like Noah, who organized his life around saving his family despite the part of him that couldn’t fathom the flood.
The hardest pill for her to swallow was this: Knowing that a single transatlantic flight for one person, one way, is equivalent to commuting by car for an entire year, she now feels flying to Uruguay to see friends and family for the holidays is a kind of violence.
Home in Bulawayo for the holidays during Zimbabwe’s worst drought of the century, NoViolet described hydropower failure at Kariba Dam. Downstream from Victoria Falls, shrunken to a trickle, the Zambezi River water flow was too anemic to power the dam’s plants, and so, NoViolet said, there was no running water three to four days a week, and power only at night, “A terrible living experience.”
“The time of the month can be a nightmare for women and girls. Showers are a luxury. Those who can afford to turn to generators and solar power, but for the poor, it means adapting to a maddening and restricted life,” she said.
“Mom!,” called Geronimo from the bath. “I can’t breathe.”
Ben was disturbed by the dioramas on our visit to the American Museum of Natural History. “Who killed all these animals?,” he demanded. “Don’t they know this is their world, too?”
“I learned to fish at my grandparent’s house on the beach, and now my kids enjoy its calm waters,” said Trever from Honolulu. “Every year, the ocean inches higher. We will sell the house next year.”
From Gomeroi Country, Alison wrote, “Even away from the fires, we saw a mass cockatoo heatkill on the Kamilaroi Highway near Gunnedah. Willy-willy after willy-willy followed us home down that road. I can’t find it in me to be reflective about the decade right now. Love to everyone as you survive this, our night.”
“The worst part is feeling helpless, held hostage at the whim of an abusive, inconsistent parent who wreaks havoc, then metes out arbitrary punishment in the name of protecting us,” said Namwali from Zambia, about the failing of the hydroelectric company and the failures of those in power. “In a word, capitalism.”
Another New Year’s Eve. In distant parts of the planet, it was already tomorrow. The future was there and almost here. We drank prosecco at Angie’s party, awaiting the countdown while thousands of people in the land Down Under fled from the raging bushfires and headed for the beach, prepared to enter the water to save their lives on New Year’s Day.
The screen of my phone scrolled orange, red, gray, black — fire, blaze, smoke, ash. A window into hell on earth. I shut it away to be present for the party and the people I loved. Before he kissed me, Victor said, “Here’s to a better 2020 for our country and the whole world.”
140 blocks to the south of us in Times Square, the ball is about to drop.
*A version of this article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!