'In the Sun,' Charles-Edouard de Beaumont, 1875. Oil on canvas.

Natural Selection

How environments, heat, and cold affect the ways we love each other

WE CALLED IT THE DESERT island game. Arriving at a train station or airport gate, you’d survey your fellow passengers—those with whom you were throwing in your body to hurl through space—and you’d have to choose by the time you boarded. Who would you want to be stuck with if it all went wrong?

We were teenagers. What did we know about other people? I’d have been horrified knowing I was auditioning for a part in someone else’s mental landscape while rummaging for pretzels or filling my water bottle. We were only just growing into an awareness of our mortality. We were role-playing as bodies on a planet we could not control. Trying to figure out when—if—love could stint our fear.

 

WHEN YOU THINK OF GLOBAL WARMING and birds, you might think of dehydrated birds falling from the sky, baby birds jumping from hot nests, or birds migrating at the wrong times. But as we face forecasts of wingless skies, it’s worth remembering that population health can be affected in quieter ways—when, say, courtship goes awry. Most creatures have a short window for breeding and conception, and though some birds mate for life, many face particular time pressure. A bird, unlike a human, cannot spend months observing a potential partner.

Near the beginning of the hottest month in history, I sat at my desk in Portland, Oregon, and watched a video of a male bird stand tall, puff his neck like a cobra, and launch himself into the air with a chirpy snort. He was a little bustard in his native habitat on the steppe of the Iberian Peninsula, where temperatures were lately climbing toward 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I was watching the bird’s mating dance, which happens at a lek, where males gather to show off for female birds. A recent study found that, as temperatures rise, the increasing need for birds to rest and preserve energy comes at the expense of this kind of exertion. When it gets too hot, they are less able to dance. Female bustards are then more likely to select different mates, because a weak mating ritual connotes greater overall weakness, potentially leading to less fertilization success and overall weaker offspring. Agriculture has already led to massive habitat loss. Even without heat waves, their numbers are declining.

In a Darwinian sense, “natural selection” describes how the most adaptive traits in a species will persist while others die out. For most species, the “why” behind partnership is to find a mate who can bear them the strongest and most successful offspring, and, in some cases, help provide for their nest. It’s less straightforward to those of us for whom partnership means more than two figures of opposing sex. I grew up understanding I could marry whomever I want, but I now understand I have freedom over the verb of it too: not only do I not have to marry, I also do not have to perform marriage in any prescribed format. Just as a home need not have four walls, a marriage need not imply two people raising children together, or even living together, or even sleeping with one another. We do not just romantically “select” another being, we select—together, and often with perpetual rewrites—our mode of existing beside them.

Whom we entangle with depends in part on the future we are angling for, but the future no longer unspools in predictable ways. Natural systems do not react within the range of variability we once expected them to. Hundred-year floods could soon happen annually in parts of the United States. As white middle-class Americans, my parents got married envisioning a future of home ownership, retirement funds, and summer camping trips. Myriad forces have eroded those horizons, and now, with global warming and other environmental degradations increasing the likelihood of pandemics, storms, and wildfires, my peers and I face long-term relationships likely to include both quarantines and evacuations too. With these, the terms of modern romance, some might prefer not to settle down at all.

But stasis is not an option for nonhuman animals, who must now choose mates based on a reality that no longer exists. Today, the snowshoe hares with genetic advantage are the ones who can blend into diminished snowpack, whose pearly coats turn brown earlier in the season. The dark pigmentation on male dragonfly wings—once useful for improving flight conditions, attracting females, and intimidating rivals—is now a heat sink, capable of raising body temperature by 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the dragonflies that were once the most ornamented and “romantically” competitive are now the most overheated. Assuming our climate changes slowly enough for these species to evolve, snowy hares will get browner earlier in spring. Dragonfly wings will fade in vibrancy.

A few days after I watched the bustard online, smoke from Canadian wildfires turned the skies of New York City into rust. A friend wrote that she was trying to decide whether to keep a date with a man she’d matched with on an app. He was cute, she said, seemed smart and normal. But her head was pounding, and the pollutants in the smoke were causing her face to break out. I told her that when I’d been in a similar position last summer, I’d gone on the date anyway. It gave us something to talk about, I said.

We have always chosen one another amid uncertainty. Pressed our bodies together despite plague and war and flood, hunting for the ways we can and cannot save one another, falling and failing, doing it all again. Our meteorological climate is shaped by our human one, but we don’t have a word for this equation in reverse—how the environment is affecting us, not just physically, but also emotionally. The climate crisis is forcing us to reimagine our houses, our meals, our roads, our decisions to have kids. What about our love?

Lover’s Tryst, 1750-1800. Gum tempura and gold on paper.

 

TODAY, WHEN OREGON SUMMERS don’t resemble the ones I grew up with, I know it is because of humans burning fossil fuels. In 1816, however, a spring of record-breaking warmth would not offer such clear forensics. Heat lightning unzipped the New England sky, and then, two weeks before the summer solstice, tremendous cold. Vermont farmers who had recently shorn sheep now attempted to tie their fleeces back onto them, but many froze regardless. “You could pick up numbed hummingbirds . . . in your hand,” recalled one farmer. Across the Atlantic, things were no more legible. In early July, Jane Austen wrote to her nephew that the weather was “really too bad, & has been too bad for a long time, much worse than anybody can bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.” That summer, the birds were quiet and the oak trees were skeletal. There would soon be a honey shortage: the bees were gone.

We know now that this weather was the result of Mount Tambora erupting a year earlier in Indonesia, the largest observed eruption in recorded history. With a force of energy amounting to thirty-three gigatons of TNT, the eruption triggered a tsunami and a tremendous cloud of ash, sending rafts of pumice thousands of miles into the sea and cooling the weather across the entire Northern Hemisphere. In atmospheric science, the word teleconnection is used to describe the climactic relationship between geographically disparate regions. When I learn this, I think about how weather affects our personal lives. About how we must tear our gaze away from the sometimes catastrophic point of first contact—a flooded house, a forest burned—and consider its ripples outward, not only climactically, but emotionally. Some 10,000 people were killed by Tambora’s eruption, but 100,000 more died from resulting famine and disease, and more still were displaced and sold into slavery. To refer to this merely as “the Year Without a Summer,” as codified in popular memory, is to “criminally understate” how drastically humanity suffered as a result, writes scholar Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

In the middle of that foggy, thunderstruck July, a group of English writers gathered in a Swiss villa to dream up ghost stories and pass the time. Present among them were Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, eighteen years old, and her married lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she was now the mother of a newborn child. Mary, of all people, would have known the danger of procreation. Her mother died soon after childbirth; Mary’s firstborn died a few days after being born prematurely. Two weeks later, Mary dreamed that the baby came back to life after being warmed by the fire. “I think about the little thing all day,” she wrote.

There is a way in which her world would be defined by loss. Decades later, she wrote that loneliness was the “curse of [her] life.” And yet during that strange summer, rain battering the windows as their group huddled in candlelit conversation, Mary exercised a muscle that would serve her the rest of her years: a willingness to acknowledge that the broken and the beautiful would grow side by side. That love and grief would not only twine together, they would be, sometimes, the same thing. “What should I have done if my Imagination had not been my companion?” she wrote years later. I take this to mean, How can we bear the world’s sadness if do not allow ourselves to dream?

 

I SUPPOSE I HAVE BEEN thinking about the relationship between love and environmental loss ever since I was a child, when I was told that both were likely to affect me. This was why I’ve always loved both romantic comedies and disaster dramas: I wanted to rehearse how to act when the future arrived.

The first story I remember absorbing in this way was the one about the man and woman who lived in the garden. They were happy there, in air heavy with fruit and flowers. They would walk around naked, her hair long coils, like the serpent who curled behind her head. What was it Chekhov said? That if you put the apple on the tree in the first act, someone has to eat it in the third? I did not grow up with religion and only knew the story obliquely, more hearsay than scripture. I knew they consumed what they shouldn’t—I too loved fruit; I never blamed her—and, as a result, they had to leave the garden. Where did they go? I imagined the dusty concrete lot where I learned to ride my bike. How could they face each other there? The scariest thing to me wasn’t that they’d been kicked out of paradise, but that it challenged their love too. How could you love when all you saw before you was loss?

“I feel safest when I’m in love,” a friend from a country under perpetual siege recently told me. She did not have to say that feel was the operative word. As an archetype, the biblical story of fall and exile is applicable only to lovers for whom paradise—a world of stability and abundance—has felt possible at all. All of us deserve to be ringed by concentric circles of care, but when those systems never exist, or do not aid us—the weather gone rogue, international treaties failing us, politicians disappointing us, social systems frayed—we are forced to lean on those closer in. We require more from our loved ones when we get less from everyone, and everything, else.

“As he spoke the rivers swelled, the water tanks refilled, the pollutants and the sea snakes were cleansed from the storm surge, the Maldives rose above the waterline, the melting glaciers were restored to their rightful form,” says the narrator of Madeleine Watts’s debut novel, The Inland Sea. The narrator is an aspiring writer living in bushfire-addled Australia, entangled with a man who does not love her back. She’s aware that the subject of her desire is toxic, but she compares being with him to being under a bell jar. His attention shelters her. I know the feeling; I’ve fallen for it. But I don’t want a love that is anesthetic; I want love that mobilizes me to better face the warming world, that, as bell hooks writes in All About Love, enjoins us to “see ourselves as being like the one who does change rather than among those who refuse.” What change, what growth, can happen under a bell jar?

I refuse to believe that romance, however rooted in our private world, need distract us from the public one. As Icelandic writer and climate activist Oddný Eir writes in her autofictional novel Land of Love and Ruins, trying to “draw a house” always becomes an exercise in “draw[ing] up a social order.” I have made the mistake, before, of thinking it is more interesting to fantasize a lover than to fantasize the world where I’d like to be in love. These days, I don’t imagine a different planet; I imagine what ours could look like if we collectively acknowledged its loss. To clock what is gone is to clock all we can still save. A world where we are mad, but we’re working out of love. Building better systems of care. Fighting for a place where the dragonflies can shimmer in the light. It’s one of the reasons I think we need to keep telling—and living—love stories, even as the forests burn. Because falling in love can mean falling into a new way of being.

Whom we entangle with depends in part on the future we are angling for.

LIKE ME, MARY SHELLEY envied that garden love story. In the book she began during those stormy weeks in the villa, she wrote that Adam was “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous,” while her creation—Frankenstein’s monster, born in that summer of climate disruption—felt “wretched, helpless, and alone.”

And yet, as she later wrote in the book’s introduction, her “hideous progeny” had been “the offspring of happy days.” Despite the weather, that summer of 1816 would end up being one of the happiest windows of her life, a period when “death and grief were but words.” Mary and Percy often worked on the book together, their annotations suggesting they perhaps sat side by side, using the same pen and ink both to draft and input corrections. The monster might have felt wretched, but Mary—scheming the book through “many a walk, many a drive, many a conversation”—did not. She was in love.

 

ANY CHILD WHO HAS BLINKED open their eyes to a snow day—sensing, even before looking out the window, that new pallor of light—will know that the sensation of our environment transforms us. And early studies in the field of embodied cognition suggest as much. Holding a mug of warm coffee will make a person more likely to perceive another as emotionally warm. Sitting in a wobbly chair will make someone more likely to discern instability in their relationship. The stability and temperature of our external environments can—literally—determine how we engage with our relationships.

In June 2021, during the week the jet stream buckled, sending temperatures up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland—melting streetcar rails, rippling pavement, and eventually killing more than eight hundred people in the region—I felt my affection for my then boyfriend spike. The heat had incinerated my quibbles and doubts, boiling cohabitation down to the bluntest facts: our world less habitable, we were helping one another survive.

He cut cardboard to insulate our window AC; I laid wet washcloths from the freezer on his head. When we packed our duffel bags because of approaching wildfire danger, I thrilled in our teamwork. Anything I was feeling, I blamed on the weather. But then the heat stayed, and the smoke stayed, and the disasters went from anomalies to everyday reality. I wanted to talk about what was happening outside, how it was affecting our future. The future scared him. He began to spend long nights at the computer, researching his ancestors’ past. We were speaking different languages. I suppose you could say that in the absence of acute crisis, we lost the thread that held us together.

“Love is not just looking at the other person,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “it is looking together in the same direction.” But it is easier to look together when the world before us holds still and the seasons behave. When we have energy for desire. In Rozina Kanchwala’s play Love in the Time of Climate Change, a climate activist is haunted by the expiration dates on both her fertility and the livability of Earth. “I can’t seem to tune out these two ticking time bombs,” she says. “My own and the planet’s.” Neither is a metaphor for the other; they are two concrete experiences, each its own specter of unlivability. She downloads a dating app: “I guess I should line up some dates so I can at least tell my mother I’m trying, and feel like I’m doing something,” she says. She might as well be talking about her activism.

Rather than tackle the systemic problems they have caused, institutions often respond to disaster by projecting a false sense of responsibility onto the individual. As a result, many of us are told to “fight” climate change by winnowing our “carbon footprints,” a term BP invented to deflect from their own carbon football fields. Capitalism thrives on the aspirational self-reliant individual and on the sense that marginal changes, taken together, obviate the need for systemic transformation. If I just buy or wear or eat the right thing, then I will feel better. A similar strain of individualism persists in contemporary romance, the middle-class American milieu that sociologist Polina Aronson refers to as the “Regime of Choice.” Taught that the “right” partner is out there somewhere, we become “romantic technocrat[s],” searching for a silver bullet, excavating our own interiors in pursuit of choosing the Other.

I have sometimes caught myself falling for this myth of individual power—not only in myself, but in a prospective lover. I distill the mega-problem of environmental loss into the smaller problem of partnering. “Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity,” writes Esther Perel. If I date this person, then I will feel safe. But no one technology, no one person’s gaze, can make our world okay. A good partner provides good support, and support is mobilizing. How might we harness the energy generated by romance and reflect it into our world?

Greek Lovers, Asher Brown Durand, 1825. Engraving. 

 

BY THE TIME MARY AND PERCY MARRIED, it was on the tail of two suicides, those of his estranged wife and Mary’s half sister. The couple would go on to lose two more children, including the baby who had been with them that summer of 1816. Percy would drown in a sailing accident before the age of thirty. “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” Mary wrote in Frankenstein. How do we help one another bear change?

For the Shelleys, one answer was through art. Not only the writing they created as collaborators and supporters (“Be severe in your corrections, & expect severity from me, your sincere admirer,” Percy wrote), but also in the paintings they traveled together to see, before which “all worldly thoughts & cares seem to vanish.”

A year before his death, Percy had written to Mary about his wish to “desert all human society” and “retire with you & our child to a solitary island in the sea.” Romance has always offered the promise of shelter, another person as harbor in the storm. But to glance at theirs, forged amid crisis both climactic and personal, is to see that, however much they fantasized retreat, their connection was rooted not only in “pleasure and security,” as Percy wrote, but also in reaching outward to the world. “Our house is very political as well as poetic,” Mary wrote to an incoming houseguest. “I hope you will acquire a fresh spirit for both when you come here.” Their relationship did not just buoy them—it nourished others.

 

THE WORD CLIMATE HAS ITS ROOTS in the Greek klima, or “slope,” a reference to the incline of the North and South Poles on the horizon, shaped by the latitude upon which a viewer stands. Every slope has an angle at which things begin to roll. This—what physicists call the angle of repose—is the point beyond which, in one direction, a pile of snow will become an avalanche, and in another direction, an object rolling down the hall will stop. It’s alluring to imagine an angle as clear as this. A threshold of carbon dioxide that delineates one way of being from another. Though climate tipping points exist, so much change occurs at gradual slide.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about today’s cultural climate is the disparity in how we view our meteorological one. We cannot organize against crises we refuse to see. To deny global warming is to deny the suffering of those whose lives have already been upturned by it. Nobody escapes a heating planet, but one of its cruelties is that we suffer—and witness it—unevenly.

Is it any surprise that attraction for a potential partner might waver based on our experiences of and values around our environments? You see the friction of values wherever you look—for instance, while watching an episode of Indian Matchmaking, a reality television show about millennials of Indian origin, searching for romantic partnership. In one episode, Devika, a fashion designer, on a date with Akshay, a chicken farmer, tells him about how she recycles old sari textiles, only to be cut off as he interjects that he, too, appreciates sustainability. She pauses, appraising him, and then comments, “You wouldn’t be using a straw if you were mindful.” A few minutes later, they quibble about her vegetarianism.

Later on in confessional, when asked why he won’t pursue another date with her, Akshay does not bring up this environmental undercurrent, though it is, at least in the TV cut, their most obvious tension. (Devika’s Instagram bio reads: “the straw girl.”) We could talk about the utility of focusing on individual action, but it’s not just Devika and Akshay’s careers that look different—it’s the choices they make in the face of environmental change. They struggle to communicate across the gulf.

Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that “the type of human being which we prefer reveals the contours of our heart.” But can’t it do more than that? Can’t it reveal the contours of what we want and need from our futures too? OkCupid reports a 368 percent increase in environmental terms on profiles over the last five years, with climate change ranking first in daters’ 2022 concerns. This doesn’t surprise me: Partnering with someone who shares your environmental perspective doesn’t just feel important; it feels safe. Climate change isn’t conceptual; it’s affecting us now. The philosophers of our time know this. A friend recently sent me a photo of a new Tinder ad in her subway station: Two people hold hands while facing a towering monster of trash. The copy at the bottom reads: “Someone to save the planet with.”

We do not just romantically “select” another being, we select—together, and often with perpetual rewrites—our mode of existing beside them.

THOUGH CRISIS, BOTH LOOMING and lived, can make envisioning tomorrow impossible, its illegibility can also usher in a no-rules-apply feeling—a place where previously unimaginable relationships can grow. Farah Ali’s novel The River, The Town begins in Pakistan in 1995, where heat is its own narrative force. It silences citizens (“if we open our mouths they become filled with wool-like thirst”) and casts a “dry-mouthed, concave-stomached sense of time” across the land. The book’s central protagonist is a fifteen-year-old named Baadal (meaning “cloud”) because all the children are named to “evoke a sensation of coolness, of thirst being quenched.” One day, Baadal helps an older divorced woman carry buckets back from the river. The next week, he thinks often of her, trying to anticipate how he can assist her again. “I want to see Meena again, and I want her to see me,” he says. “I want her to talk to me, find out about me, to ask if I am alright.” His desire to be taken care of is matched by his desire to take care of someone else. Though one friend asks why he goes around “acting like Meena’s little errand boy,” another sees his actions as “just one of the many ways the people in the Town are slowly going crazy.” Within months, Meena and Baadal have left together for the city.

The beginning of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 shows weather inciting intimacy even more directly, when two friends—a man and a woman, both straight, single, and in their thirties—watch a movie while they wait for a hurricane to make landfall. As the woman falls asleep, the man is struck by the urge to touch her. He trails a hand to her stomach and she opens her eyes and brings it to her chest. They lie like this, waiting for the storm, and when it’s clear that it won’t come, their intimacy evaporates. “Those moments had been enabled by a future that had never arrived,” Lerner writes.

Reading that scene, I thought of a five-foot-wide suspension bridge that wobbles 230 feet above a rocky, forested British Columbia river canyon, where, in 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Art Aron stationed a young woman. As men passed her by, she asked them to fill out a survey and, afterward, shared her number in case they had any follow-up questions. Fifty percent of those who took her number called her at home. Later, when she did this at another bridge—this one sturdy, unmoving cedar, twice as wide and only ten feet off the ground—only 13 percent of the men called.

The “creaky bridge experiment” has become a canonical study, despite its limits and heterosexual tilt. Researchers concluded that men on the high bridge were primed for attraction in part because they had experienced fear. Danger kindles adrenaline, and excitement and fear can affect the body in similar ways: our senses perk up, our blood pressure swells. Even prairie voles have since been found to experience more arousal after anxiety.

I am most interested by the implication that the men on the high bridge called the woman from a place of earnest, ignorant desire, unaware that their attraction was not sparked as much by the woman as it was by the bridge. How often have we mistaken our environment as nothing more than the backdrop of our lives? What is lost when we fail to recognize that it can sway our hearts, too?

 

IN 1814, THE SUMMER MARY and Percy first ran away together, Europe was seeing record-breaking temperatures. On the day of their flight to France, the heat made Mary faint. Almost two years later, while walking in Switzerland, Percy would be the one to collapse—this time not from the heat, but from a tumble during that year’s superlative cold. Leading their path down the mountain in torrential rain, he tripped and fainted, “and was for some minutes incapacitated,” wrote Mary, “wetted to the skin.” They were in a landscape beaten by the elements, surrounded by broken trees ripped out by avalanches, a place of “vast and dreadful desolation.” What did she feel watching him lie there in the storm? Their connection would not go away in death, Percy would later write, but it would be different.

I do not believe in “only having eyes for one other,” because one of the best things about infatuation is how the natural world looks when filtered through it. I once traveled with a man to a remote, dusty part of his country, and when his friends heard where he had taken me, they were incredulous. Why did you take her there, when we have so many stunning places? I told them I loved it, because I had. How could they not see that the desert grove had been as astounding as any waterfall? That I’d nearly wept on a hike when the man grabbed my hand and pointed toward the trill of a common songbird? I’d been drunk on the man, sure, but the feeling had sloshed outward. I wanted to gaze at everything; I wanted to keep the whole world safe. We do not love in spite of crisis; we love, in part, because of it. We have to believe in the possibility of life going on. A crush is a dream that propels us into a future in which we can imagine ourselves alive.

This is why I cannot think about romantic love without also thinking of the little bustard. His body the color of almond and milky teas, his neck a wide black collar lined by two white bands, the top one dipping into a V like the ribboned neck of an old collegiate sweater. When he dances, the bird’s collar puffs like a feather boa. How hot those feathers look. His courtship ritual has been passed down from one generation to another, a cornerstone on which his species’ future depends.

Across the ocean from me, a bird like this stands on baked grassland. Shifting from one foot to another, trying to weigh if he should pull back his wings, throw back his throat, and begin to dance.


This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis, and was produced with support from the Orion Fund for Women Writers. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.

Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear. A former writer in residence with the National Writers Series in Traverse City, Michigan, Erica is currently a fellow at the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters and a Writer in the Schools with Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon.