For Orion‘s Winter issue, Courting Disaster: Romance in the Climate Crisis, we asked Elizabeth Rush and Liza Yeager to take on a gigantic, nebulous project: an interview series focused on if and how the climate crisis has changed dating. The following stories, dotted with tiny audio moments to bring each interviewee alive, are excerpted from the print issue. Subscribe to read the whole series, in print, right here.
Elizabeth Rush: I had gotten an assignment to report on how climate change is impacting online dating—it was the kernel of an interesting idea, but my instinct told me the question was probably bigger. I also felt like maybe I wasn’t the right person to do that reporting. My son was born in May 2020, right in the scariest part of the pandemic, so I hadn’t really gotten out much and I hadn’t online dated since 2009. So I called Liza.
Liza Yeager: Mostly, my friends just smirk when I tell them.
DENALI, climate activist: I don’t have any thoughts on sex and climate change.
MIRIAM, midwife: I am sorry, but, like, what and climate change?
ER: Tinder. Like, online dating and climate change.
MIRIAM: Okay. I thought I heard you, but I was like, I can’t possibly have heard that right.
TJ, wildland firefighter: Are you talking, like, too much sunlight or not enough oxygen kind of gets people not going as well?
VERENA, social worker: It seems like you’re just trying to put sex and climate change into the same essay, to make it fun.
SALLY, environmental scholar and activist: My first reaction was, I have nothing to say on this. I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t explicitly thought about how this big topic in the world relates to my romantic relationships. So, whatever.
LY: I start trying to think of questions people might actually be able to answer: Do you think you’d be in an open relationship if you weren’t kind of aware that the world is ending? Would you have sex with someone who doesn’t believe in climate change? What is attractive to you about the person you’re with? Do you like that he knows how to kayak in the bayou or is it that he knows how to survive a storm?
ER: What I find attractive has certainly changed over time. I used to be into the kind of guy who could read a topo map and fire up a camp stove at the end of the day, you know the rugged self-sufficient type. But, well, those guys—at least in my life—they were never very good at caring for me. And I value care more than I did before. It may sound bizarre but I think about having to survive a climate disaster often enough, and I also think that were I to make it, my husband would be the reason—he is really good at making friends.
LY: My friend Jackson knows more about structure than I do. When I explain the idea for this story, they tell me it’s like a classic novel, where, at first, the political context is in the background and the individual dramas of the characters’ lives take up all the space. Like Anna Karenina, they say. Or Derry Girls? I ask. Yeah, they say, like Derry Girls. But slowly, as time passes, the context comes forward. Until you can’t help but notice it everywhere. It takes over, and that’s actually the point of the story. Like the Sound of Music, I say. Yeah, says Jackson, usually it’s the Nazis.
Photo by Leanne Dunic
Jean decided to start medical school on the island of Dominica. The school website advertised that Dominica hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in more than thirty years.
JEAN: So, I’ve been there two weeks. And on Saturday they’re like, Oh, just be aware Hurricane Maria is coming. I believe it was a tropical storm, actually. It wasn’t even called a hurricane at that point. I didn’t really care. I just knew I had an exam on Monday, and if I failed it, that’s it.
LY: So what were you doing that day? Studying?
JEAN: Yeah. We were learning about the nerves that connect to the arm, all that stuff. My godfather in Puerto Rico, he doesn’t normally message me, he’s like, It’s getting really bad. Be careful. But the exam hasn’t been canceled. At some point my dad sends me a picture from the Weather Channel. And you see that the hurricane is headed directly toward us now. Oh, this is a very dramatic part. My dad’s texting me and he’s like, It’s Category 3. A couple minutes later, Oh, it’s Category 4. I didn’t get any text for like ten minutes. And then he says, It’s Category 5. Be safe. And then we lose all power.
We wake up to . . . the apartment’s fully flooded. There’s probably, like, I wanna say, two feet of water.
Well, everybody’s just freaking out at that point. And they put us, all of the students on the island, in an auditorium kind of space. So at this point, everybody’s mind kind of changes to like, Oh shit. Like, this has become really real. Like, this is gonna be like survival of the fittest out here. Like Hunger Games.
My emergency buddy had met this girl in one of our classes or like an anatomy lab or something. I guess I loved her immediately. There was just something about her. She was cool. She was, like, calm. I knew that, like, oh, this is the person I’m gonna hang out with for the next seven days.
They started giving us, like, Ramen noodle. But we didn’t have clean water. So you would just eat them as crackers. The school, I guess they lost their satellite phones. So for three days nobody knew anything. People were sleeping under tables. They were sleeping in classrooms. And everything smelled like mildew. And there was no plumbing. And there were no showers. So people, they were getting pretty stinky.
LY: How were you feeling at this point?
JEAN: Honestly, yeah. I don’t know. It all just seemed like an adventure to me. Because we were just hanging out all day and like, I was having a good—I guess maybe I trauma-blocked it or something. I wasn’t ever nervous. I don’t know.
LY: Well, and you had a crush. I feel like that helps.
JEAN: Yeah, exactly.
It was actually on the way to the airport. We were sitting together on the bus. And we were separate from everybody else. She actually brought it up. She’s like, Uh, this has been a crazy time or whatever, but just know that I, I do like you? But I have this current boyfriend and all this stuff. So it was . . . it was a very weird conversation. But it was the first time we held hands, I guess. Like secretly.
When I came back from it, I think I experienced a little bit of, it’s not PTSD, but, like, stress. There was a point where I remember driving to one of my friend’s houses and a branch fell while I was driving or something and I went into this crazy anxiety attack. I honestly have no idea what happened, but my heart started racing and I started sweating. I was hyperventilating. And I called Sandra. She just told me to pull over immediately. And to relax. She stayed on the line with me. Like, she didn’t really say anything. We both didn’t say anything. We just stayed.
Photo by Leanne Dunic
Kerrick, twenty-six, works as a researcher in Minneapolis.
KERRICK: My ex-partner, I think when we were dating early on, he was way more informed and, like, freaked out about the climate crisis than I was. And that was a big problem. He described feeling like being in slightly different realities. I was like, I don’t wanna be like you. I don’t wanna be freaked out all the time. And feeling like it’s difficult to connect with people sometimes because of how freaked out I am. But now I have a lot of climate nightmares. Where I’m running away and I have to sort of guard people I love against these forces. I feel much more on the page that he was on. I think we’re pretty equally freaked out now.
Photo by Leanne Dunic
Michael is a customer service agent in Atlanta.
MICHAEL: I noticed a big difference. Like, as soon as summer came. It may not be ninety degrees, but with humidity, it’s just so sticky and muggy. My wife, I think it’s affecting her mood. I, I really do. She’s just seemed so withdrawn maybe the last few years. We’re disconnected. That doesn’t mean that we don’t love each other. It just means that the way she acts sometimes, it’s just so strange and I just can’t explain it.
LY: And how long have you thought that, like, this is because of climate change?
MICHAEL: I was watching a documentary on it and people were talking about their concerns about climate change and they start saying, I feel this way. And, maybe a few months ago when I noticed how she was acting on a particular day, that’s when I thought to myself, well, maybe it’s climate change. I’m thinking to myself, Could it be climate change or am I just imagining this? I don’t wanna call a therapist and say, Oh yeah, by the way, can my wife come in? Because I think climate change is making her flip out. I don’t wanna put my wife in a straightjacket, you know.
LY: Well, maybe you should talk to her about it. Maybe it’s something else.
MICHAEL: Yeah. She’ll try to put me in a straightjacket.
LY: I interviewed twenty-six people as we were making this story. In almost every conversation, I heard something that completely surprised me. But the one I think about most is the call I had with Nick, who sent me a two-line email I almost didn’t respond to.
Photo by Leanne Dunic
Nick, a contractor in Georgia. The first time this interview was scheduled, he couldn’t talk, because he was in the middle of paying his power bill. The next day, he started the conversation by talking about lots of other things: his mom’s foreclosure, a friend OD’ing, how his girlfriend’s grown kids have PTSD and schizophrenia and how he’s trying to help them keep their jobs. He’s warm and chipper. He says he likes a lot of different kinds of music because he’s a Pisces.
NICK: They’re fish, so we kind of go with the rhythm. I’m Aquarius, Aries, and Pisces.
LY: That sounds like a lot of water stuff.
NICK: Yeah. I just moved back from Maryland. I lived on the Chesapeake Bay. I used to work on skipjacks, big old oystering boats. The captain I worked for, he stopped oystering when he was ninety-four years old. He had a stroke and his dementia set in really bad. And his family, like anytime he acted out they’d come and get me, ’cause I was the only one he’d listen to.
I rode out Hurricane Sandy up in Maryland. I had a house that was right there on the water, and it was a module home up on cement blocks. The water came right to the bottom of my door, never came in the house. The pine trees got pushed over. It was like hundreds of trees that were just straight pushed over. I went through three or four hurricanes up there. I rode a kayak around on the road one time ’cause it was so much water. It was like caskets and stuff floating around. There was an old church and I guess they didn’t have ’em buried very well.
LY: Were you scared?
NICK: No, no. I was enjoying it. I was having fun with it. Like, go check out over here. Let’s see what happened over here.
During the wintertime, the last couple years I was there, I don’t know if it’s just getting colder and whatnot, but the whole bay would freeze over, for like a month at a time. Every year I tried to walk farther and farther out there on the ice. I wasn’t working for two months out of the winter ’cause of the weather.
I’m a contractor right now, but I’m actually on disability. I’ve messed up my spine pretty bad. They want to use my C3 vertebrae to fuse together my 5 and 6. I mean, I still go to work and still do jobs just fine. It’s just sometimes I get really bad headaches and dizzy and stuff. I get real bad dizziness.
LY: Did you say in your email that your injury changes with the climate, or did I make that up?
NICK: Yes. With my back and stuff.
LY: Like when it gets cold?
NICK: Yeah. It seems like my back hurts more, locks up more. My hands lock up a lot more. I mean, it’s really weird for your hands to lock up. You ain’t able to move your fingers or nothing. It hurts to move. I just like to sit there and wait for it to unlock itself.
LY: And you noticed that it’s colder now than it was when you were growing up?
NICK: My mom had stories of when we were younger and it snowed one time. Only time she could think of that she remembered snow. And now it’s commonplace pretty much every year. Temperatures are slowly getting colder and colder.
[When Nick first tells me this, it strikes me as odd. But it’s true: Overall, Georgia has warmed. But in some places, it’s gotten cooler. It’s because of a disrupted jet stream; freezing air from the Arctic moving farther south than before.]
NICK: When it’s colder, we end up snuggling a lot more in bed and staying in, not doing anything. I find myself, a lot of times it’ll be 12 o’clock by the time I’m waking up. Just going to the store, you gotta put on two and three layers. I don’t even like wearing shoes. Half the time I wear flip-flops, so, yeah, it’s kind of a headache to me.
I’ve been looking up these major disasters and stuff and just how much money these people just screw off and it’s like, Lord.
We are screwing up our planet. We’re screwing it up bad. I mean, it’s got to the point where we can’t even eat freshwater fish. Like literally all our fish are polluted with plastic. Microplastic. And we still create this stuff constantly and hand it out.
I think we can’t stop ourselves. We’re too selfish. We’re not gonna stop ourselves till we crash.
Photo by Leanne Dunic
Sarah bounces back and forth between Rhode Island and Alaska, fishing on gill-net boats. Before she spoke about her love life, she talked about seeing mid-Atlantic species traveling farther and farther north. Her life is constantly changing because the water in the bay is getting warmer.
SARAH: Five years ago, I thought, Oh, I’m supposed to save. I’m supposed to have something to live on in my old age. And with the pandemic, in particular, and the urgency of climate change, it has totally rearranged my, you know, what economists call the discount rate, how I value the future compared to the present.
I’m single, as of about a year ago. You know, I had a long-term relationship, um, that was loving and stable. It had a future. But it wasn’t quite fulfilling to me. So, yeah, my whole attitude changed to a much more “seize the moment” approach.
I’ve had this crush on a guy I fished with five years ago. I sort of maintained a crush on him while I was in that other relationship. And so once I got out of that relationship, I contacted him. I’ve been pursuing him. It’s weird, like I have absolutely no read on where he is in terms of actual interest. Like, he’ll spend time with me. Sometimes he will communicate, sometimes he won’t. He lives on the other side of the country. I’m trying to figure out how to play my cards. So it’s a very weird situation and he’s a lot older than me.
Basically, I am just, my brain is just totally living in the moment now.
Like now, I’m pursuing this older guy—he’s twenty-five years older than me—obviously that doesn’t have a long-term future, at least not one like the relationship I had with a guy my own age. But I don’t care. Like, I don’t know, the future just doesn’t exist for me anymore. It’s like the only thing that matters is the here and now.
This piece was produced with generous support from Merloyd Ludington Lawrence. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of our Winter issue.