The day that wildfire smoke triggered the fire alarms in our Portland, Ore., apartment, I looked at my then-boyfriend and decided I could marry him. He was packing a go bag in case a fire reached our house and we would have to evacuate. With global warming and drought exacerbating wildfires, more than one out of 10 Oregonians had already been displaced or was at risk of having to evacuate from burns around the state. My partner was preparing for the worst. This made me feel safe.
It was 2020, and I was experiencing the perk of falling in love while also living in dread: the promise of stability in an increasingly unfamiliar world. When the pandemic contracted our social worlds and climate disaster contracted our physical one, we were left with each other. It created an easy script to follow. Whenever I felt annoyed with him, I blamed what was happening outside our window. When things get better out there, I’d think, it’ll be easier in here.
But then the disasters did not go away. The smoke and heat found us, summer after summer. And then it was the moments that global warming felt quietest — no longer at the wheel of our days, but heavy cargo in the trunk all the same — when I felt most alone.
Hunkered in our basement apartment, I was hungry to discuss philosophy and logistics. Did it make sense to dream of homeownership in a place that felt precarious? Not just because of the monster earthquake scientists say could hit the region anytime, but because the summers I had grown up with had been replaced by days of smoke and record-breaking heat. How could the city support vulnerable citizens through better infrastructure? How might we contribute to those efforts?
My boyfriend was supportive of my focus, but he didn’t share it. When I brought up global warming, he’d often try to comfort me: to wrap me in a hug, cue up an old episode of “Seinfeld,” offer a CBD gummy. I struggled to tell him that I didn’t need anesthesia or answers, I just wanted a relationship where we shared more of the same inquiries. In her memoir, “Lost and Found,” Kathryn Schulz writes that falling in love with the woman who is now her wife taught her that “if you do care about the same questions, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you arrive at the same answers.” Soon it wasn’t just the far-off future we’d stopped talking about, it was our dreams for the weekend. Outside of quarantine, our lives had slipped onto different rails. We broke up when it became easier not to talk about feelings at all.
My mother used to tell me that relationships don’t succeed because you like holding hands, but because you like looking in the same direction. She and my father had married while facing a horizon of stability. As middle-class white Americans, they saw a future of homeownership, health care and retirement funds. If relationships depend on a shared fantasy of the future, then global warming does more than unsettle our environment — it creates uncertainty in our interpersonal ones.
In the last year, I’ve started dating again. This time, I’m swallowing my fear of sounding too anxious and am talking about climate change early on. After all, it is hard to fall in love with a person if we are not also falling in love with the future we want to create together.
I don’t approach these conversations with an agenda or as a quiz. But I’ve found that talking about how global warming affects our lives, however casually, becomes a sort of canary in the coal mine for learning about a person’s broader beliefs and behaviors. How black-and-white they see the world, how they view their role in the community, how they engage with science and systemic inequality.
I knew I wouldn’t mesh with the man who texted me “Life is better if you’re cheerful. I don’t read the news :)” but neither did I want to be with the one scheming up a walled compound of canned goods in Idaho. When another man told me he was looking for a woman with whom to visit places like Venice, in part because they were sinking into the sea, I didn’t know what to say except that I wasn’t her. As someone drawn to gray areas, I was put off by the guy who quipped that only “dumb” people were still having children. I don’t presume my own perspective is right, but I do know from my last relationship that I’m tired of trying to be chill. I can’t care any less than I do.
The last few years have created more grist for these conversations, expanding our imaginations of how quickly lives can change. The hydra of Covid-19 and climate disaster has given us a collective experience of loss. Though effects are magnified by social and racial inequity, nobody has been immune. Every first date I’ve been on has included a conversation about the pandemic, because we all have a story about how we made it through.
Chatting about climate change within the first few dates might not be standard yet, but the issue was the No. 1 concern for OkCupid daters in 2022, with a 368 percent increase in environmental and climate-change-related terms on profiles over the last five years. After noticing that young users increasingly cared about the climate, Tinder released a new campaign featuring a rendering of two people holding hands before a giant monster made of trash. “Someone to save the planet with,” it says.
I don’t think those daters just want a partner who believes in global warming: We want someone willing to grapple with it, to do the inconvenient work of reimagining our own lives in the face of it. It’s not just about when or whether to have a baby. Because global warming and pandemics go hand in hand — the progression of the first may increase the likelihood of the second — it seems likely that new long-term relationships could include both prolonged periods of staying inside and snap judgments about hitting the road.
Talking about the future with a partner or a potential partner might feel scary, but if we aren’t communicating, we’re projecting. Don’t we owe ourselves the intimacy of something more? I see now that it was not only conversations about our planet’s future that I struggled to have with my ex, it was conversations about our own future, too. It can be easy to feel as if the question of whether to have children, like rising sea levels, will be dealt with down the road.
But the future, as with the sea, does not obey its supposed bounds. If being alive right now sometimes feels like standing on a cliff, I want to be with someone who’s not afraid to peer at the frothing tides. Not because I need to solve anything, but because I don’t want a relationship built on looking away.
“I feel safer when I’m in love,” a friend recently told me. And at these times when our future feels most uncertain, romantic relationships are not just distractions, they’re places for nourishment, bolstering us to face what’s outside the door.
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Erica Berry is the author of “Wolfish: Wolf, Self and the Stories We Tell About Fear.”