Published in Strays.
“You know, the fact we’re even sitting here, talking about this, says a lot about us, right?”
“Right, two white guys at a coffee shop at two in the afternoon, skipping school to solve the world’s problems.”
“I can only speak for myself here, but I like drinking coffee more than I like data entry, so I’m not about to get too worked up over it. Plus, someone has to.”
“Has to what?”
“Solve the world’s problems. Might as well be us.”
Steve takes another sip from his Americano. No sugar, always Splenda. Not stevia, not Nutrasweet. Splenda. Three packets and always with a little soy milk. Barely enough to register that it’s even there, but somehow enough to cut the flavor of the coffee just enough that drinking two or three cups in a single sitting becomes an effortless affair.
“You were saying something about privilege before I derailed us. Go on,” continues Steve, tipping the cup up to his lips as if to accentuate his intention to clear space in the conversation for Ronnie to continue.
“Extinction Rebellion. I’m too deep into the thought—I guess, maybe I’m overly focused on it, since it’s what I keep bringing up when we get together. It’s just so barbaric—global corporations’ controlling whether or not we’re going to be able to save the world for future generations, or if they’ll kill us off by way of over-consumption and apathy.”
“I’m with you, but you’re right. We’ve had this conversation before.” Steve takes another sip, swishing the dark brew between his teeth for a moment before diving back in.
“I literally remember sitting right over there in our chairs while you went off on the spiritual malaise of sorting your recyclables, knowing full well they’re going to end up in a landfill anyways.”
“Maybe it’s pre-traumatic stress disorder.”
Steve pauses for another moment, considering where Ronnie might have borrowed that phrase from. It was too clever to be an original.
“Are you sure it’s not just boredom?”
“Maybe I’m just grieving an end to all this which is still yet to come. The pain, the confusion, all of it. I know it’ll get worse before our lifetimes are over, and I hate it. I’m frustrated that there’s no way to help. That’s why I was talking about that article I was reading about the ER…”
(“Oh,” Steve thinks to himself, “that’s where he got the idea.”)
Extinction Rebellion. Remember? The movement! The word that comes to mind that sticks with me is ‘regenerative.’ I understand we’re doomed, especially if we don’t stop our direction as a civilization, but that’s not enough, right? Trading gasoline-powered cars for cars running on batteries isn’t exactly the answer; they still require resources to create the cars, more resources to make the batteries, more resources to recharge the batteries, let alone the resources needed to make the charging stations and everything else that comes with them, only to realize that the batteries don’t exactly last forever and once they do die they can’t even be recycled once they’ve been used up!”
“Well, they can, bu…”
“But there’s no money in recycling them. Only in producing them. Which is the whole problem in a nutshell—that’s why ER is important, because it’s supposed to be about more than creating just an image of ecological conservation. It’s about doing the deal, regeneration, reversing the death march.”
“And you’re sure it isn’t just boredom?”
“Some say boredom is a feeling like everything is a waste of time; serenity a feeling like nothing is.” Realizing his condescending tone, Steve cuts himself off from the thought before continuing. “Do you remember what I asked you over there last week,” he sighs, pointing back to the chairs closest to the restroom; the set of chairs they frequent so regularly that when they arrive at the coffee shop, Steve and Ronnie refer to the mid-century faux leather loungers as “our chairs.”
“If the world is ending, our survival might depend on us closing ourselves off to the awareness that is doing so.”
Pausing briefly, Ronnie leans in, “I just can’t believe that you’re saying we have no purpose here. How am I supposed to just let go of this?”
“Therapy?” Steve laughs, “Jesus, Ronnie, like I can even answer that. All I’m saying is, exhausting yourself with these mental exercises isn’t exactly helping anything or anyone. Particularly yourself.”
“Which is why I brought up that article. How I see it, the ER is about people taking action and I think it’s high time I join in. ‘Suit up, show up’ is what you’re always saying, anyhow. Maybe it’s time I follow your advice?”
“Oh, you know damn well when I say that I’m talking about practical ways of helping people who need support. You keep talking about this article… How is chaining yourself to a building and getting arrested supposed to help anyone?”
“Awareness, Steve. People have to know what we’re up against.”
“Fine, let me put it to you like this then,” Steve says, slowing down to collect himself. “Let’s say there are three kinds of people here: People who are aware of this problem, people who will never care, and people who might be able to become aware. Are you with me?”
With an unamused look on his face, Ronnie nods.
“How much of the population do you think that third category applies to?”
“I have no idea.”
“Let’s be generous and say it’s big. Ten—no, twenty percent.”
“And let’s say your demonstration converts all of them! You achieve a one-hundred percent conversion of all the world’s citizens who were once unaware, but have now become aware of the world’s environmental crisis. The world is now at maximum awareness. Mission accomplished. Now what?”
“Whatever, Steve. Why do you do this?”
“What then, Ronnie?” Steve realizes his tone and hurries his next thought out. “We’re still left with a system that is hell bent on destruction; the over-production and over-consumption I’ve heard you talk about, awareness doesn’t fix that. You mentioned ‘regeneration’ but when does that word stop mattering? What I mean is, when do we need to change from doing everything—and I know you know I mean everything—the way we’ve been doing it to some new way that will actually help curb the trend of our extinction? Do we have ten years? Twenty, before it’s too late and ‘regeneration’ won’t matter?”
“Steve, no one knows that.”
“You’re right, but it’s probably sooner than later, isn’t it?”
“This isn’t just about awareness though, it’s bigger than that. It’s spiritual, Steve, so please don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I’m talking about this stuff. It’s a crisis, man. Retreating into our caves and saying ‘this can’t be fixed’ just feels like eschewing responsibility.”
(Steve makes a mental note: Another suspect phrase that can’t be a Ronnie original.)
“All the pain, the death, that we can prevent isn’t—can’t be a worthless use of time and effort.”
“Eschewing responsibility?” Steve says, bringing his cup to his mouth to hide the smirk developing on his face. “There’s a school of thought,” he continues, trying to divert Ronnie’s attention away from the grin that’s peering out at his friend from behind his coffee cup, “that says our mission is to be of no mission of our own doing. The highest potential purpose we might have is no purpose beyond ourselves. This puts us in harmony with nature, in a way. After all, what individual—or even collective—purpose do other species have? Why are we so special? This just aligns us with nature, helping reconcile humans with Mother Earth’s plan.”
“I hate it when you smile at me like that,” says Ronnie, oblivious to anything Steve just said.
“You’re not wrong for caring. I just wonder if you care so much because you want to be part of the solution, or if you just want to be right?”
“Whatever. Point taken,” Ronnie says, almost literally biting his tongue as he raises his eyebrows and motions with his cup, as if to say a refill is saving him from saying what’s really on his mind. As he stands up he notices their chairs are now unoccupied, but he keeps on walking to the counter instead of saying anything to Steve about them. Later that afternoon Ronnie will think more about what Steve just said—his challenge. Is this about other people, the fate of the entire goddamn human race, he’ll ask himself, or is it just about being right? Both, maybe, he’ll concede to himself. It will be another two weeks before Ronnie brings this back up to Steve, and when he does so he mentions it as if he came up with the thought on his own.
“Anyways, Extinction Rebellion, you should look it up,” Ronnie says, sitting back down. “The aim of socio-political defiance is admirable even if it is a little pointless, like you’re saying. I think so, anyways. I mean, if letting corporations off the hook for the responsibility of how we got here is the alternative, it’s still something I can get behind.”
“That’s a sticky trap though, Ronnie. Where do you draw the line? It’s like at work, where HR sends us those emails telling us about how we should take better care of ourselves.”
“Yeah. That’s the same thing, different context. They’re putting the responsibility on us to manage the social pollution created by a toxic workplace rather than addressing the toxic workplace that they’ve helped create.”
“I don’t follow the connection.”
“You’re angry about corporations not taking responsibility, right? These global industry giants, right? They’re the primary users of natural resources and polluters of the environment. That’s what I hear you saying. But they eschew responsibility, to use your words, by placing the burden of their abuses on consumers. That’s kind of why recycling was invented—not as a means to clean up or make production sustainable, but as a way to displace burden from corporations’ overuse of resources on to consumers.”
“Reduce, reuse, recycle.”
“But you and I both know how little of that takes place, and recycling only worked when we were able to ship our trash to China. It’s the same thing here, we get those emails because the company is saying we should do yoga to help deal with the stress of Mike yelling at us rather than have them look at the corporate culture that allows our boss to rip a strip off us every time he’s having a bad day.”
“Oh,” says Ronnie as he slumps in his chair and his eyes draw down to the floor.
“I just want you to be OK, man. We haven’t known each other too long, but I’ve come to really appreciate how much you care about the world. I see how much this sort of stuff takes its toll on you though, and just want to see you take care of yourself, too. It’s like this old proverb about putting yourself first to be of better service to those around you.”
“Enough with the philosophy, Steve,” Ronnie groans. “But you’re not wrong. I guess I just want to be part of a movement, y’know? Something bigger than myself; make a splash, right? Or maybe I’m just tired of work,” Ronnie adds, letting out an awkward chuckle.
“You are part of something bigger,” Steve says. “This isn’t going to end in Hollywood dramatics—it’s going to be a boring, predictable downward spiral. And we’re not even going to be around to witness the end of it. So take it easy on yourself.”
Steve and Ronnie look at each other as they normally do when they reach the point in the afternoon where they mutually realize it’s in their professional best interest to return to work.
“Mike’s gonna be on us today—I feel like we’ve been gone all afternoon.”
“Chances are he’d be on us anyways. Hang tight, I’m gonna have them top me off before we go. Can I get you anything when I’m over there?”
“Answers,” Ronnie shoots back with a smile on his face. “And maybe a job application.”