Last night, as we waited for the first indoor takeout we’ve allowed ourselves since March–we’ve been good, so good–I reflected on the righteous fury I feel when people break the rules of pandemic. A guy had his mask down below his nose, on the street, and I glared fiercely at him even though he pulled it up before he came abreast of us. A woman walked out of the restaurant along the yellow “in” line, instead of along the red “out” line, and for about a second, I hated her. I didn’t quite torch me up that everyone in the restaurant—including us—was sort of leaning to the right or the left to talk to the cashier around the protective plastic barrier, because it was hard to hear through it. I was able to point out those routine floutings of safety protocols to L, with a sort of amused distance. Did you notice that. Isn’t it funny that. But it didn’t enrage me, didn’t activate that part of my brain that lights up like a wildfire and fills my head with smoke.
As we stood on one of the islands of faux safety, six feet from the next ones, waiting for our tacos, I ventured the frog-in-a-boiling-pot metaphor to describe why RGB’s death felt so gloom-inducing. You get used to the status quo, no matter what it is, even if you’re already boiling. Trump is president and could win again, and the prospect of a 6-3, 7-2 Supreme Court locking us into every bad future you can think of, well, the Roberts court was going to kill the Green New Deal at 5-4 too. Abortion is already prohibitively difficult in many states, no one in power respects Black lives, electorates are structurally disempowered, health care is a joke, the list goes on. It demeans us to pretend that RBG was holding things together, that “things” were already in pieces. It was already “the handmaid’s tale” for the detainees subjected to involuntary hysterectomies, and the pandemic death toll ticks along merrily, a thousand a day, day after day.
Somehow, your brain convinces yourself that however bad it is, well, this is how bad it is, and thus, it won’t get worse. But when a sudden dash of extra hot water is added, it upsets the whole system. You remember not only the horrible new facts, but also the old ones. You’re overtaken by a wave of new-feeling horror, at all of it, at the endless parade of sick monstrosity this country obsessively proves itself to be, that we have to talk ourselves out of seeing in order to live.
Of course, L said, it’s fitting that that isn’t true, about the frogs. I nodded, sagely, as if that had been what I was thinking, because I’d had heard something like that, and anyway the “actually the science behind the famous sociological nostrum is bunk” is such a familiar experience. Yeah, how like us it was, humanity, that we invented a wrong story about frogs in order to describe what we humans actually do.
We were already cooking. So what are we doing when we focus on sustaining that?
The sociologist Rebecca Elliott observed that we tend to approach climate change by trying to preserve what we have, sustain it, rather than reckon with what we’re losing. In a paper about what the fact and reality of climate change can do to transform how we think about society, and the science of it, she argues that “Loss is a provocative riposte to the dominant and more conventional concept that frames social scientific study of climate change: sustainability”:
[Loss] adjusts the analytical focus, asking about what does, will, or must disappear rather than about what can or should be sustained. Loss is a more ambivalent outcome—though it does not necessarily imply pessimism or catastrophism—where sustainability is often mobilized as an overtly normative project of harmony and holism, the identification of “win-wins,” the reproduction of a certain kind of status quo, and the voluntarism of enlightened actors. These are framings with different moods: where sustainability is sunny, loss is melancholy.
But is the feeling we’re having now “melancholy”? What is there beyond the progressive’s faith in the arc of the universe and the cynic’s faith in doom and gloom? With both, I think, we tend to grip what we have, tighter and ever tighter, fixating on it long after we’ve lost reasonable hope of keeping it. When I think about melancholy, I think about Hamlet and Freud and the grief which can’t release itself into action. This is what Elliot wrote, but it’s not exactly what she meant. She was writing about the dangers of locking ourselves into normative patterns of behavior, of trusting in the promise of harmony and conservation, in moments when the normal is already long gone.
After all, another story we might tell, about those frogs, is that when the pot starts to boil, the toil and trouble convinces the frog to finally jump out. Maybe a new dash of hot water spurs our imaginary frog to take action. In any case, Elliott makes a slightly different point: the questions foreclosed by insisting on continuity, on sustaining and preserving and conserving, is what will happen after loss. But those are the only questions that matter. “What is lost so that other things can be sustained? And…more deeply transformative visions: what might take the place of what is lost?”
As a writer, I feel the impulse to end this with something bold and strong, something like “The country we think we have, the earth we evolved under, is already lost” and then something rousing like “the question before us is how to build a new one.” Fierce, but vague. That’s the way this kind of thing usually ends, narrating into existence a bold and rousing fierceness we’ll more privately admit we haven’t quite worked out. And that’s fine. Endings are hard to get right, so we rely on habitual narrative templates, fitting the words in later.
But just at the moment, I’m still caught in the busy anxiety dreams that roiled my brain all night, the classes I was to teach in subjects I never mastered, on my way to an unfamiliar building in a bus whose schedule I can’t fine, caught in gridlock traffic, hours away from its destination. Maybe I had those dreams because I slept uneasily, my belly groaning with an excessive second dinner of greasy meat tacos. More likely it was the beer I had–a Corona, for the irony–that had been sitting in the fridge for about a year. I almost never drink, but last night I was feeling a lot of urges to do things that I don’t normally do, even something so heedless of caution as drinking (half) a beer. Who knows what we all will do next.