| Arts & Culture
Climate Change The Comfort of Time Loops in the Age of Climate Crisis
Unlike these stories, we don’t have decades of do-overs—especially on the West Coast, where the droughts are real and the big earthquake could shake things loose anytime.
For hundreds of miles, Kelsey and I whizzed down I-90 through a dolorous haze. Wildfire smoke had made its way coast to coast, and we were a two-car caravan stuck in the middle—her in our white Ford Fusion hybrid with our travel-averse dog, Lucy; me following along in our new second car, a maroon Ford Escape, loaded to the gills with U-Haul boxes and loose clothes. We’d purchased the Escape in a panic—in the pandemic, used cars were selling like lightning—and though I hated the idea of an SUV, another hybrid was out of our price range. We were driving west after lengthy visits with my family in Michigan and hers in Illinois, part of a multiweek move from Tallahassee to Tacoma, where I had accepted a new job. For segments of the drive, I had neither a full sense of the sheer breadth of land we covered nor any true gauge of the direction. Drive in a straight line long enough and it feels like you could be going anywhere. As we passed from state to state, I accumulated a bag of recyclables: cardboard coffee cups, to-go containers, anything from our travels that I could avoid dumping in a trash can. The whole process of moving didn’t so much have me fretting about my carbon footprint; I was past that, fully nauseated over an enormous carbon body slam. Each day in transit, I wondered how I might use less. And when those ideas fell short, I dreamed of starting over, of choosing better. I know I’m not alone in thinking like this. Communal dread over the climate crisis is growing, and I see this anxiety increasingly reflected by the media I consume.
I tried not to mope over the Escape’s poor gas mileage, which was worsened by the weight of our stuff. It was late July 2021, and a heatwave—too common now to really cite as an anomaly—cast the endless miles into a land of beiges and browns. Verdant farmlands misted by irrigation lines gave way to arid dirt and dead grass. After taking pictures of some bison and exploring an old western tourist town, we nixed plans to camp in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, as the temperature had risen close to one hundred degrees. Later, in Bozeman, Montana, a bustling town nestled among mountains, full of boutique gastropubs and craft breweries, we spent several days hiding out at a Holiday Inn. The housing values had recently doubled or tripled, the town a newfound climate refuge for the wealthy. We hiked and listened to the locals complain about the poor air quality from the smoke. We’d planned a stop in Coeur d’Alene, but the temperature kept rising, and Lucy needed water and shade, so we stayed no more than half an hour for a bite to eat. A day later, we arrived in Tacoma.
We parked in front of our rental house, a two-story craftsman painted navy blue and built in 1912, which we’d only seen through a couple Zoom calls with the owner. The last tenants had neglected the yard, so our lawn was mostly mud and straw, recently reseeded and odorous with fresh soil. On our walkthrough, the house felt massive, overwhelming in stature. Three bedrooms, one and a half baths, more than double the square footage of our previous living situation. In the past, Kelsey and I had always rented small apartments or half a duplex, tight spaces with shared walls and unavoidable neighbors, low utilities bills, and little to no yard work. Short of buying, we thought a single-family home was the logical next step. It was the shiny object we were conditioned to want to attain.
I knew the cost and upkeep of the house would be different from our past residences. The size alone suggested more resources—electricity, water, yard waste—but the increased cost of living and proximity to the Western megadrought made the house’s consumption all the more apparent. When the landlord politely asked for us to run the sprinklers twice a day so the new grass would grow, I felt a knot in my stomach. It was a request I was contractually happy to oblige, as it was his house and we were simply its current inhabitants—and part of me really did want a lush yard where we could play with the dog—but the thought of all that water slapping across the soil in the late summer heat filled me with anxiety. It would be a new routine, another wasted resource for me to add to my internal tally. A drop in the bucket, one could argue, but substantial to me. Domestic chores have always been the place where it’s easiest to see the accumulation of what I consume. Is the kitchen trash can already full again? How many times have I flushed the toilet today? What will it take for me to change?
Early in the pandemic, more than a year before our move, I—like so many others—was trapped in what felt like dozens of microcosmic lifetimes, routine loops where I lost myself in mundane activities. Without a gym, I took to lifting firewood in the backyard and soon dove into an ill-advised plyometrics regimen with the unrealistic hope of dunking a basketball, which was quashed after I severely injured my ankle. I scattered puzzle after puzzle on the kitchen table, I dabbled in Peloton, I grew green onions in a mason jar on our sunny front windowsill, I attended Zoom happy hours and Zoom readings and taught Zoom classes while my students folded mountains of laundry and made grilled cheese sandwiches. I dozed in one of our two hammocks each afternoon, a book across my chest, thinking that if I cut off my fenced backyard from the rest of the world entirely that it would be a blissful kind of purgatory, a space where I could be, if not truly happy, at least content. Rocking between the trees, I tried for a few moments to not think about our abundance of recycling, the packaging and transportation cost of our groceries, the people getting sick and dying everywhere because they could not afford to stay home or did not have the resources to alter their routines or, on the other hand, were actively lashing out against the idea that their lives could be inconvenienced for the sake of public health.
Living in the comfortable illusions of a time loop meant I could defer my anxieties about our environmental future.
During those warm Florida afternoons, it was easy for me to lose track of the days, lazing about my slice of quotidian paradise, an afternoon beer or icy margarita in hand, because so many things were on pause. Our backyard was full of birds and I would listen as they fluttered from tree to tree. I was lucky enough to keep my job teaching at the university, and to do it remotely at that, but my work responsibilities felt distant. Florida’s governor violently shirked safety measures while obfuscating and lying about the state’s case numbers. The pandemic made clear how little control I had over most things in my life, yet that made the decisions I did have control over—in relation to the environment, my neighbors, public health—feel that much more significant.
Now across the country, all these months later, I’ve had countless discussions about when and how things will change (if ever), but I’ve also started thinking more about how difficult it is to break disastrous cycles. Our imagined narratives—across literature, television, and film—are one place where we have at least always considered the consequences of this harm. In early 2022, I read Adrienne Celt’s forthcoming third novel, End of the World House , which follows best friends Bertie and Kate surviving a series of unexplained bombings that kill Bertie’s parents, as well as global warfare, food shortages, and natural disasters. Living in the Bay Area, their privileged techie-adjacent lives remain relatively stable even through the worst, and they pledge to buy an End of the World House together somewhere in eastern Washington if things really go to hell. This plan is foiled when Kate decides to take a new job in Los Angeles, so they distract themselves with a boondoggle in Paris, where they become trapped in a chaotic time loop in the Louvre. Bertie, an artist and graphic novelist who works for a gigantic tech firm, reflects on the repercussions of their international trip: “An enormous waste of jet fuel, but what if you were dead soon? What if everyone was?”
Our Florida duplex was the first domestic space where I mentally prepared for how we could hunker down if things went to hell. I imagined endless afternoons in our hammocks, snipping sprigs of rosemary and oregano from our herb garden out front, our overgrown bush that I joked had all the thyme in the world. We were walking distance from everything we could ever need: water, grocery stores, gas stations, bars, coffee shops, parks. Living in the comfortable illusions of a time loop meant I could defer my anxieties about our environmental future.
My stress over using resources has existed for years, but in Tacoma it has amplified. The neighborhood isn’t as walkable, the gas is more expensive, the dishwasher remains, somehow, always full. When the semester began, I spent two days riding my bike to and from the university but soon gave up because the commute was nearly an hour of hard pedaling each direction, and I needed that time back. We spend our weekends hiking in the mountains, and I scan the horizon from snowy peaks over miles of evergreens. When I post pictures from those hikes, I can’t help but feel I am presenting a pretentious, leave-no-trace élan meant to prove I am a planeteer; personal evidence to say I told you so when the death knell inevitably chimes. The wrappers of our granola bars crinkle at the bottom of our backpacks until they are ferried home, only to wind up in a landfill somewhere else.
In their privileged West Coast bubble, Bertie and Kate see this attitude everywhere:
“The thing that made the world’s collapse so hard to parse was the regularity that persisted, in spite of everything. People still had air-conditioning, for example. They paid their bills on their cell phones, and even as various foods were rationed—avocados disappearing when Mexico closed its border with the U.S., coffee and tea in the seasons of storms—motivated citizens were able to use online maps to track where and when truckloads of greenhouse produce were scheduled to arrive, and plan photogenic rituals around them . . . There was a jangling presence of mind that drove everyone forwards, a new ingenuity, which only sometimes curdled into something less photogenic. ”
But the time loop isn’t a source of safety or refuge from global collapse—instead, it reveals Bertie’s unshakeable sense of helplessness. Trapped in a day on repeat during her Paris vacation, the sense of rest and relaxation loses its meaning. Bertie’s individual actions change neither the day’s repetition nor the rapid destruction of Planet Earth, but, ironically, the timing does give indefinite recess to the climate crisis. The world is already falling apart around Bertie and Kate, but as long as the loop continues, there’s no need to flee for the End of the World House just yet.
Maybe these time-loop narratives remind me that I don’t have decades of do-overs and I can’t be so slow to improve. I read and reread Celt’s novel with the climate crisis in mind. In a similar fugue, I watched and rewatched the 2020 time-loop film Palm Springs , a rom-com with a nihilist bend à la Groundhog Day , but the mise-en-scène is a temperate oasis, a blissful eternal waiting room of ample sunshine and immaculate swimming pools. Nyles (a pun?) and Sarah, the film’s two central characters, are wedding tourists in a desert resort. They drink beer while floating on pizza-shaped inflatables, living a serene existence with no consequences, because today is always yesterday and tomorrow. There’s no risk of the water drying up or the temperature climbing or Palm Springs becoming nothing more than another unsustainable ghost town. But despite the paradisiacal setting, the loop is still oppressive, a thing to be escaped. Both Palm Springs and End of the World House take place on the West Coast, where the droughts are real and the money is real and the big earthquake could shake things loose anytime. Living here, I’ve learned there’s a kind of sunglassed insouciance about looming environmental collapse. Everyone seems to be betting against a ticking clock.
Maybe these time-loop narratives remind me that I don’t have decades of do-overs and I can’t be so slow to improve.
Change, however, takes time. For example, film buffs estimate that in Groundhog Day , Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is likely trapped in a time loop for more than thirty years, an extensive window that allows him to learn the locals’ habits as well as master ice sculpting and the piano. Palm Springs , likewise, isn’t too telling about the exact number of todays that have been rehashed, but my sense is that Nyles and Sarah are trapped there even longer, because unlike Phil they have to find a scientific means of exit. This makes possible a high degree of personal change: The novelties of this paused existence might grow old, but these characters have the benefit of unlimited time and opportunities to make mistakes without permanent repercussions. Their failings and foibles are always reset, whereas we are not so lucky. We can’t borrow thirty years to reimagine how our routines might make us kinder, smarter, more sustainable people. Our conveniences and comforts are difficult to cast aside when time is simultaneously moving too fast toward catastrophe and too slow for us to fully recognize our quotidian errors.
Every time I buy avocados or rip open plastic packaging, I ask what it will take for me to radically change my deleterious domestic habits, while also recognizing the extent of my individual responsibility isn’t the major problem. The answers are there, but those in power haven’t taken decisive action. I consider that if it’s this difficult for me, someone incessantly weighed down by climate anxiety, how hard would it be for others without my ample resources? What about the nonbelievers? The hoaxers? The workers who simply need a pick-up truck? The only real way to change environmentally damaging patterns on a global scale will require the implementation of systems that force us to adapt. Until then, my loss aversion is nothing more than an omnipresent coping mechanism. At times, I convince myself nothing matters because it’s the only way for me to get through the day.
When Kelsey and I talk about buying a house, I always dream of something small and unadorned with solar panels on the roof and rain barrels out back and a loamy vegetable garden. I imagine our End of the World House, a place where we will be able to hold out when things get bad. Of course, this imagined abode is steeped in privilege, the kind of domestic oasis that is violent in its isolation, because its serenity relies on avoiding the chaos and scarcity always lingering at the periphery where countless other people are suffering. Our routines there would be different, making small adjustments toward sustainability, but they would also be inherently filtered through a kind of greedy academic lens. The friends I have who enjoy talking about golf and the stock market are not so different from the approaching-middle-aged me bragging about heirloom tomatoes and efficient home heating. I keep running through time loops in my head wondering how to improve my contributions to the world, but since the time loop is nothing more than a hypothetical, perhaps instead I should be asking when the world will force me to evolve. By savior or doom, the change will arrive. I sincerely hope it is the former, but in either case, we will have no choice but to abandon the comfortable rhythms of our lives. It’s mostly a matter of when.
Palm Springs ends with Nyles and Sarah escaping the time loop despite high risk of death. They are by then, of course, in love, willing to jump into the uncertainty of the next day because they can navigate it together. The final scene finds them once again afloat in a glistening, clear pool. They’ve likely spent decades in limbo, but Nyles jokes that now he has to pick up his shaggy dog Fred from a neighbor. Long on hold, the daily responsibilities of their lives instantly regain meaning. The naively romantic messaging might seem over-the-top, but I can understand the motivation to shake free of inane repetitions, of mundane habits, of the acute sense of ennui and loss, when a sustainable future feels newly possible. We don’t have the luxury of being caught in time, but we do have the chance to rethink the patterns that drive us toward catastrophe. The sooner we arrive there, the more there will be to look forward to.