Dear scholarship liaison officer:
The $4,000 Daniel White Foreign Study Scholarship, administered through the government of Canada, funded three months in Argentina to study how one region is adapting its approach to housing in the interest of sustainability. This research was in support of my MA thesis in sociocultural anthropology. Though unconventional in form, long overdue, and in excess of the stipulated two-page limit, the final report that follows does, as required, account for my Research Activities, Problems Encountered, and Outcomes Achieved.
Leah Powell or Olivia Simon or whichever scholarship liaison officer is now managing this email account (and, if Ms. Powell or Ms. Simon have moved on, please convey my gratitude for their efficient and impersonal correspondence over the course of my tenure as award holder), I failed. The money is gone.
However, Article 3.6 in the Award Holder’s Guide states that, “despite advance preparations, the researcher may not know where the search will lead.” It is on this basis that I submit the following report. I hope you will deem I have, in a manner, reckoned with shelter in the Anthropocene.
I flew to Patagonia as planned ($1,297). From the window of the plane, the needle-thin points of mountains punctured the clouds. Somewhere down there was the small community where I was to be a participant-observer. I would join a team of researchers measuring the climatic impact of different building methods. I belted in for landing, the Award Holder’s Guide open on my lap. A monochrome portrait of Daniel White, the promising young anthropologist in whose honour my scholarship had been named, beamed up at me. A confirmation. I flipped a few pages and read: “Because it seeks to understand the unknown, field research often entails risk.”
We descended into a densely forested valley, the shadow of the plane tracking over a preternaturally blue lake. I was prepared for any eventuality. I had packed my tent, camp stove, and sleeping bag. I imagined building clay houses, then nights by the fire after long days, drinking Fernet and Coke with the team. I even considered that, out of contact with my husband and immersed in fieldwork, I might feel a situational attraction to one of the impassioned, brilliant researchers in my proximity. I would not act on this attraction. I would comport myself like the Daniel White Foreign Study Scholarship recipient I was.
“People will be interested in your work as soon as you say ‘Patagonia,’” said Dr. Felix Hernandez, my host-supervisor, who met me at the airport. “There’s something people love about this place.” He heaved my backpack into his trunk. “The nature, the mystery.” He looked about my father’s age, with wire-rimmed glasses and an elbow-patched cardigan. He drove me to his self-made home, built not of clay, as I’d expected, but of wood. The house was set into a hill, which a rambling garden climbed. He pulled a plum from a tree and offered it to me.
On his deck, beans bubbled away in a homemade solar cooker, sun through glass. Inside, the home was open concept, more as a matter of function than aesthetic. The floors were unfinished plywood. A kitchen occupied one corner, counters cluttered, seeds germinating in wet paper towel, a terrarium of crickets chirping (insects which, he later explained, he would grind to make protein-rich flour).
Hernandez’s desk was stacked with papers, scientific journals, and books with gold-embossed titles (A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times). In English (kept up, he explained, by reading Dickens), he bemoaned that people here protested gas prices but neglected to insulate their homes. “Mosquito minds!” he exclaimed. “Look.” He pulled a piece of paper—a gas bill—from atop the pile, tapping where a column of zeros added up to one larger, bolded zero. “I insulate, and I haven’t had to turn on the gas this year. But no one cares about the truth of the data!” He waved his hand as if the numbers were a swarm of gnats. “This is why we need you. Social science! You tell the story and people will care.” His eyes were bright behind his glasses. “Have you read Great Expectations?”
I had not.
For lunch, Hernandez made huevos revueltos and fried up a squat zapallito until it glowed neon yellow. We talked about our lives. It turned out that he had a son about my age who lived in San Francisco, and the son’s wife was about to have their first child.
“Incredible!” I said, perhaps too loud.
(Leah, Olivia, though it may be impolitic to mention in a scholarship report, I wanted a baby. I wanted one as soon as possible—immediately, yesterday, and definitely upon my return home. I did not advertise this. In fact, I had discomfited many a dinner party by mentioning how irresponsible it was, at a climatic level, to bring children into the world.)
Hernandez showed me to the small bachelor place he’d found for me to rent ($1,500 over three months), an uninsulated addition behind a rural medical clinic. There was a hot plate and a single carcinogenic-looking pan, a little half bathroom, and a shower stall, minimal but operational. The murmur of consultations filtered through the wall.
There was no Wi-Fi, but I could text my husband, little thirty-five-cent blips, and I did, to say “Miss you!” to mitigate any pain of separation, which I assumed he might feel more than I, given that he was home and I abroad.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. A dog began barking at 2 a.m. and others followed, high-pitched yips and low drawn-out howls. The next day, I noted the construction sites on either side of the clinic, empty but for the dogs (I counted six). I assumed they had been left to guard the lots, which seemed to entail constantly barking at invisible threats. Any silence over the coming months was filled with anticipatory dread of the next volley, which soon began.
By the end of week three, I couldn’t understand why I’d yet to meet the team. I looked over our email history: Hernandez had indeed used the word equipo. Maybe I had further trust to gain before I would garner an invitation. I decided to be direct. I asked, “Where is the team?”
Veronica was now based in Chile, he said, and it was a shame I’d just missed Hugo, who was now studying the carbon emissions of different diets in northern Mexico. He gave me articles from various team members on the climatic impact of various activities necessary to life.
“Quando van a regresar?” When they come back?
“Come back where?” he asked, taking a bag of frozen crickets from his freezer.
It turned out that the “team” I had imagined was really just individual doctoral students, each supervised by Hernandez from afar. No nights around the fire. No houses to build. No romance. I maintained the bearing of an award holder: I did not show the disappointment whipping itself into small peaks of despair. Hernandez announced that he would be going to Santiago for a week to lobby politicians to mandate home insulation. There was still the town, ten kilometres away. I thought I could adapt.
I went to the social-housing office, the independent radio station, and the library, asking, “Que haces el frente de cambio climático?” What do you do in front of climate change?
Most people looked at me as though I had asked what they were doing to prepare for the unicorn invasion. Finally I met Enrique, a subsistence farmer who had built his home on the side of a mountain. It had white plaster walls and dirt floors—a gradation rather than a threshold between outside and in. He told me that, on the farm, they were not so much making new decisions because of climate change as they were maintaining a traditional, low-impact way of life. He and his wife, Luz, gave me a tour of the property, the back of which overlooked a valley and the mountains beyond. This was a place where access to beauty was not yet predicated on wealth.
Luz invited me to stay with them for the night. “I’m going to be a participant-observer!” I texted my husband, who responded with three thumbs up.
Research Activity: Enrique and I slopped his pigs. The hogs were so big they seemed like prehistoric megafauna. I had to beat them back with a stick to get the food in their trough. They barked and snapped; they did not oink.
Enrique told me that, though there was corruption in Argentina, there was also liberty, community. They could put out a call on Facebook for building supplies—one person might have a door, another a window—and a house could rise from the dirt within a week.
As I lay awake on their sofa that night, everything felt possible. I texted baby names to my husband. “Wilde. Luz.”
“You want to name our children Loose and Wild?”
I thought of him, of home, of his worn-out waffle-knit pyjamas.
“I miss you,” I texted. And I did, Leah, Olivia, acutely, but I believe a Problem Encountered is that I erroneously equated the feeling of missing, which requires absence, with love, which demands, from time to time, presence.
(Leah, Olivia, to address an unexpected outcome, the marriage doesn’t make it, which, I mean, anything can happen to a relationship, nothing is guaranteed, and the Daniel White Foreign Study Scholarship is just what happened to this one. I don’t want you to think I’m holding this out as some kind of excuse, though I may bring it up from time to time as I continue to account for the ways I have failed to live up to the government of Canada, the memory of Daniel White, and you.)
I just needed another, say, six case studies to justify the scholarship. I went looking, but people were just living their lives, making their individual decisions—there was no grand, coordinated approach to climate change, a problem people were not perceiving on a daily basis.
Hernandez returned and had me over for lunch. “Mosquito minds!” By and large, he told me, the people of Chile would rather get new wood-burning stoves (terrible for the environment but tangible, physically present) than better insulation (hidden within walls and therefore suspect). “I can’t wait to see how you will turn the data into a story,” he said, as if that had always been the plan, as if he was waiting for me to do the world’s shittiest magic trick: transubstantiation of charts on climatic impact into Great Expectations. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Hernandez—any and all failings were entirely mine. I just did not know how to respond.
As we ate, I tried to keep saying sí at regular intervals to indicate attention. There had been a windstorm the previous night, branches thwacked the window of my room, the electricity fritzed, and the dogs hadn’t stopped for a moment. Awake in the night, I’d turned to the Award Holder’s Guide. At the back, following the glossary and endnotes, was a finely printed paragraph disclosing that Daniel White, beloved alumnus, had abruptly cut his first postgraduate field study short by taking his own life.
“You’re working too hard.” Hernandez knocked on the table. I snapped awake, having slipped on a patch of sleep. I wondered what he imagined I’d been doing. Six weeks in and so little to show. “You’re young,” he added. “Enjoy yourself. There’s more to life than work.”
I did not feel young. I asked if he had any more articles from the team.
I came up with a new plan. I would write about Hernandez and his efforts to change his fellow citizens’ “mosquito minds.” Using his system, I would calculate my own climatic impact as a starting point, then I would use my research to communicate how anyone could calculate and shrink theirs.
I did note in the Award Holder’s Guide that “the agency must approve any changes to the proposed activity.” I did not send an update. I was not scared of you, Leah, Olivia, but of your function. I worried that, if I raised the spectre of deviation, another scholarship liaison officer would be introduced, a Rachel, and she would demand I repay the $4,000 immediately, which would leave me stranded in Patagonia—dogs still barking.
I texted my husband about the change in approach. He sent emojis of several hearts echoing off of one another, a pirate-ghost, a volcano, a dinosaur, a penguin. I found his enthusiasm and randomness hard to integrate and turned my phone off, not understanding that lack of action could also have an impact.
Consulting a pile of Hernandez’s articles, I calculated my own annual carbon output. I expected to be on the low end, but it turned out that I was above average. I had nullified every low-emissions aspect of my life (poverty, veganism, nihilism) by accepting the Daniel White Foreign Study Scholarship and the travel it entailed.
Another sleepless night. I wondered what my impact would be if I poisoned the dogs. I imagined it would be a good thing, climatically speaking, given that pets add significantly to one’s carbon footprint.
Around this time, Leah, Olivia, I spent $40 of my scholarship on the data required to google your names, which led me to your respective LinkedIn profiles and allowed me to see that you, Leah, have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and you, Olivia, an MA in public policy. I thought back to the email in which I’d sent my flight confirmation. Olivia, you had signed off with, “Have a great day!” I wondered if you might actually want to hear how it was going, if you might have some advice. I wanted to go home but couldn’t countenance the two flights, three tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere, to return empty handed. And a child? A further 1,500 tonnes.
Which was when I used more data to dial. And yes, I had drunk a beer, a one-litre bottle. I called the number listed in the Award Holder’s Guide and encountered a labyrinthine welcome menu. While waiting for an option in the vicinity of my needs, I looked at Hernandez’s article on the carbon output of different home-construction methods. The overall calculation took everything into account, including the carbon embodied by each worker’s lunch, which is greater for methods that require more exertion, which require workers to consume more calories, which generally means a greater impact.
I opened a second beer and entered the first three digits of your respective surnames into the directory, but the system didn’t seem to recognize them. Or maybe liaison officers aren’t listed, to protect them from the intimacy seeking of award holders, and I do understand.
I felt better after the beer. I spotted an opening in Hernandez’s method, a way of going deeper, of calculating impact at the most detailed level. The next day, Hernandez invited me for lunch, but I declined. Suddenly, I had a great deal of work to do.
Leah, Olivia, I would note that, in the Award Holder’s Guide, there are allowances for pregnancy, allowances for an increase in carbon emissions, for beginnings, for growth, but there are no allowances for the diminishing of one’s impact, for things falling apart. I wonder how Daniel White would feel about the way his legacy has been fed into the machine of infinite growth.
I calculated the climatic effect of each and every thought, of blinking, shitting, sobbing, and alternatively the effect of repressing a feeling. I worked day and night. What I didn’t understand was how to account for the variables. What about an effect on another person that may cause them to take action, any number of actions, which then has an environmental impact, positive or negative?
If, for instance, my husband sends an email listing ten things he likes about me and I respond with, “I will talk when the work is done,” and he says, “The work will never be done,” and I send a tickertape of baby names, “Juniper, Willa, Roxanne, Lemon,” and he replies, “How about you come home first?” and those messages zing between two hemispheres, what is the net effect of the choices he or I make in response, whether it’s sleeping an average of four hours a night (as I did) or texting streams of emojis with no context (as he did) or continually travelling away from home and living in an eternal future in which I will be better and more conscientious but only after I’ve finished being the Daniel White Foreign Study Scholarship award holder? Can one feel and feel, and will it all be climatically neutral as long as no action is taken and the feelings are not imposed on another?
Our effects, it turns out, are infinite and infinitesimal. Everything can be broken down into smaller and smaller units. I was lying very still in the grass, considering the carbon implications of different deaths, natural and unnatural, when Hernandez appeared in the back yard and yelled, “Get in the car!”
Suddenly, I noticed a stinging and looked down to find my arms flecked with ash. My pages of calculations scattered in the wind. Metres from where I lay, a rock the size of a baby’s head bashed through the roof of my rented room.
Hernandez drove us back to his place, by which time it was raining tiny stone darts. We dashed from the car to the cellar. A volcano had gone off in Chile, he said, launching into a story about how Indigenous peoples had known not to settle here—Chilean volcanoes tend to deposit their debris on the Argentinian side of the mountains—but, of course, the colonizers thought they knew better and built anyway. “They thought the word border would be enough.” I thought of the word marriage.
Hernandez rummaged around in the cold room for some food and wine, and we ate by flashlight. His daughter-in-law had gone into labour that morning, but there was no cell service down here, no way to check in.
“How is the work going?” he asked. I hadn’t spoken to another person in three weeks.
“No sé.” I was still half-tracking my impact as I opened a jar of pickled beans. Anything greater than zero felt like failure.
He nodded, as if he’d always known the research was fruitless, his as much as mine. He drank his wine. “I can’t wait to retire and work in my garden,” he said. He told me an Argentine saying about how to have a good life: “Tener un hijo, plantar un àrbol, escribir un libro.” Have a child, plant a tree, write a book.
The flashlight began to dim as the battery faded. Child, tree, book.
Problem Encountered: a tree cannot absorb the impact of the other two.
When we emerged from the cellar, it felt like time had stopped. The world was washed of colour, not so much white as blank, no distinction between sky and ground, horizon and lake.
For the first time as an award holder, I felt free. Any and all expectation was wiped away. We were in a vacuum: yell, kick, do your worst. The world was unreactive; any impact would be absorbed; nothing was too much.
I packed up and ignored the further rent paid on the apartment. I set out on a long dirt road, toward the bus terminal. The countryside was deserted, the feeling of a snow day, suspension, smoke in the air. The tall roadside grass was strewn with ash-covered trash: diapers, plastic bags, candy wrappers, a lone sock, half a sofa. Every piece of garbage seemed like it could just as well be mine—my impact laid out, each item prefiguring its loss.
I looked down to find a passport, navy blue on the grey-white ash. My photo was inside. All my nerve endings retracted in panic. I distinctly recalled zipping it securely into my pack. I gripped it tightly for the rest of the walk, but it still seemed possible to look down and find it gone.
Just before I reached the terminal, at the side of the road, the bottom quarter of a dead dog protruded from a large black garbage bag. The red plastic tie on the bag cinched around the body in a bow. I wondered whether this was one of the dogs from next door, whether I had willed its death somehow, whether the diaper way back was mine too—from a baby I’d forgotten somewhere or from one I’d forgotten to have.
According to the Award Holder’s Guide, “it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the beginning and end of a qualitative research project.” This was not my experience. The wind whipped up the fine volcanic ash, particulate coating my lungs. I closed my eyes and let go of Daniel White, allowing him to move on to the next award holder.
My research leads me to conclude that a society that would make decisions on the sole basis of carbon impact is not healthier but is a collective of slip-thin nudists dwelling in cocoon-like sacs hung from the ceiling of a large communal room. They do not speak and deny all relationships—no love or hate—too much energy. They don’t exercise and they subsist on vegetable broth.
Articles advising people against children or pets or meat and dairy if they care about climate change are provocative enough, but honestly, the best way to minimize one’s impact is to cease to be alive. However, I’ve yet to read anything in the Guardian titled “Save the Planet: Kill Yourself,” and I suspect this is an unacceptable conclusion for the government of Canada as well.
Leah, Olivia, this is not to assign blame, but if I had unrealistic expectations, I would gently posit that there is something about the scholarship-application format that encourages overreaching ambition, an idealized version of what is possible. I could have failed in an interesting way. I could have gone rogue, become a fringe survivalist, or travelled to Italy and taken a lover, spent $4,000 on hedonism and beauty. Instead, I just fell short. To atone to you, the government, and the memory of Daniel White, I propose a repayment plan—$33 a month for the next decade.
When I finally charged my phone, there were five minutes of dings, messages piling up. There had been flooding back home, and my husband had been dealing with all our possessions: water damaged, lost. I looked at the timestamps—it had happened five days earlier.
“Sorry,” I texted. “Can I do anything?” He called and the real-time ringing felt electric.
“Where have you been?”
“Jesus. Do you ever think about how your actions affect other people?”
“Yes,” was all I could say.