i went on a field trip to NASA last week to ask some very patient scientists about ice. they let me follow them around like a goth puppy and ask a lot of tiresome questions and they showed me the clean room where satellites get worked upon and the giant vacuum chambers where satellites get heated up and cooled down to simulate the conditions they will encounter in their working lives and the giant room where scientists play loud noises at the satellites to make sure they won't fall apart during takeoff and i made a joke about guns n roses and the scientists were nice enough to laugh.
i got to see also a model of the james webb telescope which is in i think texas right now but will eventually go a million miles out into space to look at the beginning of time. and then i got to look at the most recent ice-loss data from antarctica as it came in, which was a strange feeling, sitting on a desk in a scientist's office in maryland looking over his shoulder at the end of the world as we have known it, as we know it now, on a computer screen. i mean, they don't put it like that at NASA. but you know what i mean. it's crazy that they even have that data, because it comes from shooting photons at ice from two hundred miles up in space. we watched a video some design students had made about the photons, which i found very charming; the photons have little sunglasses and get tired and help each other travel back and forth from the satellite to the ice with encouraging noises. i made a joke about how they get sunglasses small enough to fit the photons. You should see the youtube comments, the scientist said.
what does it feel like to do this every day, i asked another scientist working on this project. what does it feel like to watch the end happening. i can't really think like that and function at my job, he said, and i thought, yeah, tell me about it, i should probably read about something else. it's my job to get data, he said, i can do that every day and worry on the weekends what people are going to do with the data i get. he took me to the cold room where they keep ice cores and i got to pet a three-hundred-year-old ice core from greenland that has been decommissioned from scientific use. you can see the layers of each year in an ice core, like the rings of a tree, all the way back to before exxon mobil rewrote the future of the arctic, all the way back to when the arctic still had a future. i got a little teary petting the ice core but i don't think the scientist noticed.
after that we went to the gift shop and i found a very splendid gold-plated mug with the james webb telescope logo on it, and i said Oh of course, it's gold because of the beryllium coating on the telescope mirrors, and he was extremely impressed, and i did not tell him that i had learned about the beryllium from a poster forty-five minutes earlier. i gave the scientists each a copy of my zine. this is great, one of them said, very kindly. i never take pictures anymore either, he wrote to me later. they do the landscape a disservice.
a couple of weeks ago i went to dead horse bay with a new-ish friend. she had to keep texting her other friend, who was like You are going where with who?, that she was not being murdered. i told her about how i quit half my jobs to have more time to write but instead of writing i sleep too much and watch a lot of bad television. i don't know what's wrong with me, i said. a minute earlier we had been talking about my upcoming trip to NASA and the arctic and climate collapse which is literally all i talk about now; i am not that much fun to be around these days. have you considered the possibility that you might be really fucking sad? she said.
no, i said. i think i'm just lazy.
a different scientist from NASA was coincidentally giving a talk about climate change in washington, DC on the same day as my field trip, and so after i went to NASA i took the train into the city and walked across the national mall to the scientist's talk at the national academy of science. the artist dornith doherty, who photographs seed archives, had a show in the lobby; there was a great big picture, right there, of the seed vault in longyearbyen, and i wanted to tell the other man looking at the art that i had been there–not inside it, you're not allowed to go in there if you are a normal person and anyway when i was in longyearbyen it was being renovated because the permafrost is thawing so much faster than anybody predicted was possible when it was first built–but i saw it up on the hill. it took a lot of effort but i restrained myself.
i was glad i had been spending the last year reading obsessively about ice loss because i am a very smart person and still if i had not spent the last year reading about ice loss i would have been largely unable to follow the scientist's talk, but since i have i did fine. in science you learn a lot from a system that's changing, the scientist said. the good news is that we are learning a lot. the bad news... he paused. i don't think you need to run for the hills, he said. but i would walk. it seemed like a joke he has told more than once. although, actually, it's not very funny.
after the talk a lot of gentlemen got up to ask a question that was actually in two parts and one gentleman had a question that was more of a comment, which was him berating the scientist, a nobel laureate (peace prize, but still) for not mentioning geoengineering, and i writhed in my chair and shot a look at the person sitting next to me, who also happened to be extremely good-looking, to see if his soul was also trying to leave his body during the question that was more of a comment, but he seemed unperturbed. maybe for men it's different when their colleagues go off the rails. when the question that was more of a comment was finally, mercifully, over, and the audience was set free into the balmy spring evening, i ended up behind the geoengineering fellow, who was telling his friend with some irritation that he had had rather a lot of trouble following the talk. i considered telling him that i had had no trouble whatsoever and i could recommend some useful entry-level books for him if he would like, but i restrained myself then, too.
there was another question that i can't stop thinking about, from a man who said he worked in city planning and disaster management. what is the number in feet of sea-level rise, he said, that we are looking at here, exactly, and the scientist said we can't tell you the number exactly. we cannot expect fiscal partners to invest capital in risk mitigation if there is not a clear benefit analysis, the man said. which is of course the problem; we will not be able to calculate the precise economic benefit of an action until long after the window of time for that action is over. we are not talking about risk mitigation. we are talking about the end of the world.
but still. i think of this interview with climate activists and i think of this essay and i think of this line from it, over and over: You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called “the sickness unto death.” i think of something an activist said to me a long long time ago, about how when your house is burning down with everything and everyone you love inside it you can sit and watch it burn or you can go inside and do your best to save what you can. i still sleep too much and i still drink too much and i still watch a lot of bad television. i still wear despair around like an old coat. i don't know how to put out the fire. but i'm not giving up quite yet.
during the siege of leningrad the russian botanists working at the vavilov institute seed library barricaded themselves inside their vault. one by one, they began to die. the seeds were their future; the seeds were in trust for a world on the other side of tomorrow, a world on the other side of war. they starved to death rather than eat the seeds in their care. today, the institute has a collection of three hundred and forty-five thousand seed varieties; eighty percent of them are the only remaining seeds from those varieties in the world. someday the time for planting will come again, whether or not we’re here to see it. right now, that’s close enough to hope for me.