Transcript

748: The End of the World as We Know It

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

It's been the kind of summer that makes it seem like the alarmists were right about everything. Heat waves and drought and wildfires across the West, hurricanes along the East Coast drowning people in their cars in New Jersey and in their basement apartments in New York.

So yeah, climate change is real. And most Americans believe that is what we're seeing right now. But for most of us, including me, knowing that that is our future-- it doesn't change much for us. It's like knowing that you're going to die someday. Like, sure. True. And then you put it aside, go on with your day. But there are people out there who look at the same evidence that the rest of us do, and they just take it to heart in a way that most of us don't. They have a wake-up moment. Rebecca Huntley had one. Totally took her by surprise.

Rebecca Huntley

So I'm a really early riser. I'm, like, a 5:30 AM riser, as I think a lot of moms are, because it's sometimes the only time that you have any quiet time. Everyone is asleep. Make the first of 10 coffees that I'll consume that day. Sit on the couch. Turn the TV on. And I just see all of these young Australians-- thousands of them-- walking on the streets of Sydney, which is where I live, all of them looking like they could be friends of my oldest daughter.

Ira Glass

It was a massive climate strike-- young people skipping school to protest, inspired by Greta Thunberg and her protests.

Rebecca Huntley

And they were carrying all these signs, most of them handmade, saying, we can't vote. We don't have a lot of money. We don't have a lot of power, individually, or even as a group. Do something.

Ira Glass

She says it felt like they were pleading for action, their generation to hers. And the fact that they seemed exactly like her own children-- it just got to her in this way that was new.

Rebecca Huntley

And I realized, actually, these kids are talking directly to me, specifically to me. It felt so personal. And I need to do something. And something in me shifted at that exact moment. And it felt physical. I felt an internal, physical sensation.

And even now, as I talk about it-- and I'm not a crier-- I actually well up with tears thinking about it because it was this genuine sense of, I can think about my kids and the things that I do for them every day. I make sure they brush their teeth, and I make sure they do their maths homework. And this is one of those things.

Suddenly, the fact that we've got a very limited period of time to turn this around-- the scientists talk about 10 years. They talk about 2030. So we've got the next decade. And in the next decade, my youngest kids won't yet have finished high school. And it just suddenly seemed so extraordinarily urgent, critically important.

And I remember finishing my coffee, getting up off the couch. And I went straight to my study, and I logged into my-- you would describe it as a pension fund, but we call it superannuation. And within 10 minutes, I'd divested my superannuation completely away from fossil fuels.

And so that was one of hundreds of different things that I started to do from that point on, triggered by that moment.

Ira Glass

Rebecca actually talked to one of our producers, Aviva DeKornfeld, who, in the last few months, has interviewed dozens of people who have had these wake-up moments. Hey, there, Aviva.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Hey, Ira.

Ira Glass

So these happen in all kinds of different ways, right?

Aviva DeKornfeld

Yeah. Yeah, to all kinds of different people, all of whom actually made a point to tell me they did not consider themselves environmentalists in any way prior to their wake-up moment.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Yeah. It's more like they were just walking around and got bonked on the head, and then everything changed. People describe it like waking up in a bizarro world where everything is the same, but the way they feel about it is totally different. The wake-up reorganizes their priorities completely. In fact, lots of support groups have popped up in the past few years to help people deal with the immensity of these new feelings.

Ira Glass

What happened to Rebecca?

Aviva DeKornfeld

In Rebecca's case, she totally changed the focus of her career, pivoted it to climate issues. She also cut back on eating meat, decided she needed to get an electric car or have no car. And those are the kind of things that would affect the rest of her family-- her husband and her kids. And what I found in these interviews is that this is where the trouble comes in for so many people-- when their families haven't undergone the same transformation that they have.

Ira Glass

Right. That makes sense.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Yeah. Everyone mentions some version of this. Like, this one guy, Glen Schleyer, I talked to-- after his wake-up moment, he tried to convince his whole family-- brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews-- to all see this the way that he now did and to come to climate rallies with him.

Glen Schleyer

The common reaction that I got was, wow, I didn't know you were so passionate about this environmental stuff. Or, like, you're really into this. It's really interesting. It's great. It's great. I really support you. It's great that you're into this.

And that was so frustrating to me, because I'm like, I'm not into this. It's just what's happening. It's like, if there was a truck barreling toward us, and I was trying to get us out of the way, you wouldn't be like, wow, you're super passionate about trucks. I just didn't know you're so into trucks. Was this always a thing? I think it's really great that you have this interest. It's like, no, this is just what's happening.

So I was like, do you just keep running back and forth, yelling at people? Do you ruin your relationships? And I realized that I was potentially impacting relationships that are the most important thing to me in the world for no benefit.

Aviva DeKornfeld

No benefit because?

Glen Schleyer

Because it wasn't changing anyone's mind. It wasn't working.

Aviva DeKornfeld

So Glen decided to leave his family alone. But other people told me that they couldn't back off in the same way, and it's had a huge impact on some of their closest relationships.

Ira Glass

And that actually brings us to today's program. The idea for our show today came from Aviva's interest in these families where one person sees something that feels big and important and urgent, and they try to bring everybody along, and it is just bad for everyone. We have one story like that, plus a story about a surprisingly effective way to deal with the problems of the world, large and small. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: 1.5 Degrees of Separation

Ira Glass

Act One, 1.5 Degrees of Separation. So Aviva was interested in the toll that having a wake-up moment like this could have on a family. And she heard about somebody who had a moment like this over a decade ago. And it led him to quit his job, dedicate his life to activism. He tried to pull his family into it. And what unfolded was the most extreme example of things going badly in a family that Aviva heard of. It pretty much destroyed his family. He ended up estranged from them.

The guy is named Michael Foster. And when Aviva reached out and asked him if he would talk about how his climate activism had damaged his relationship with his wife and children, he was totally up for it. But he told Aviva that he thought his kids' side of the story was actually more important than his. He thought it was crucial that she talked to them, which, of course, Aviva wanted to do. Both children are now young adults. They were glad to talk.

What happened in their family is not necessarily typical of climate activists. Mike's activism shifted the whole center of gravity of their family in ways that are definitely particular to his personality. But the immense "end of the world" stakes of the issue were what sent Mike and his wife Malinda and their kids down the path they went. Here's Aviva.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Mike and Malinda were never the kind of couple who saw eye-to-eye on the big stuff. They met when they were in high school in Texas. They both did speech and debate and would see one another at the competitions, though they weren't really friends. Mike, who was an evangelical Christian at the time, carried a Bible everywhere and led prayer circles before the tournaments, while Malinda and her friends would smoke weed out back.

Malinda

His story is that the first time he really remembers meeting me was when he had just finished leading a prayer circle. And he met me. And I had a button. This was back when you wore buttons. And it said "not saved." And his mind just melted that someone would proudly wear a not-saved button.

Michael Foster

That's my story. How dare she tell my story. My mind melted. I didn't know that there were people out there who could just be happy and funny and saying, yeah, I'm not saved.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Each felt like the other was this kind of exotic bird or something-- totally foreign to them but also mesmerizing. And so when they went to the same college nearby, they started dating. Mike was no longer an evangelical Christian at that point. But Malinda says their relationship was still very rom-com, opposites attract.

They broke up and got back together all throughout college and then found each other again in their late 20s. At that point, Mike was a child and family therapist, taking kids to the outdoors to do a kind of wilderness therapy. And Malinda had a corporate job, was making good money.

Malinda

So we were together for a few years. He had asked me to marry him a few times. And I was like, I don't think it's a good idea for us to get married. We're just too different.

Aviva DeKornfeld

But Mike felt familiar in a way that only first loves can. So eventually, Malinda said yes to Mike's proposal. They got married, had two kids, Emrys and Stella, lived in Seattle. At this point, climate change wasn't a big part of their lives beyond the basic stuff.

Michael Foster

We were really green. We were your cartoon green Seattle family. So whatever stereotype you have, that was what we were doing. [CHUCKLES]

Aviva DeKornfeld

They recycled, composted. They used energy-efficient light bulbs. And then one day, Mike heard about this new documentary he wanted to go see--

[APPLAUSE]

Al Gore

I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America.

[LAUGHTER, CHEERING]

Aviva DeKornfeld

--An Inconvenient Truth. Mike convinced Malinda to go see it with him for their date night. Sitting there in the dark, Mike felt like Al Gore had taken all the dots of information about climate change that Mike had picked up over the past couple decades and arranged them into a pointillist painting of our future. And the picture was grimmer and more dramatic than he thought.

Michael Foster

And then at the end of it, it has the credits roll. And during the credits, it will, on this black screen, have these little white letters that say things like, plant a tree. Change your light bulbs. Drive less. And that's it, right? So you've just spent an hour and a half learning that the world is ending, and nobody is doing anything, and you're supposed to plant a tree. So there was this major, major disconnect of, wait a minute. That's not going to do it. That's not even close.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Before the documentary, Mike thought we had time. Now it seemed clear to him we were just a few decades away from a radically different planet. Mike started poring over climate research, reading every day. He traveled to California to go to a training led by Al Gore himself, where he learned to give a slideshow about climate change.

When he came back from the training, Mike showed his kids the slideshow and presented it at their schools. Emrys, Mike's older kid, who, by the way, uses the pronouns they/them, remembers being excited by that. And this was in 2012. Emrys was 10 at the time.

Emrys

It felt like minor celebrity status, right? Because my dad was a guest speaker. And I needed everyone to know that that was my dad. It's like, you know the presentation we're having today? Yeah, my dad is doing that. Or, like, I heard that my dad is going to be coming next week to do a presentation in class.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Mike and his kids start climate clubs at their schools. Mike also teaches Emrys and Stella the slideshow, and they all start going around to teach it together. Both kids threw themselves into the work. For Emrys, the importance of the topic immediately resonated. But Stella, who's eight, had a much simpler reason.

Stella

It was a way for me to get his attention. If I asked a question, he would be paying attention to just me rather than the family, which I guess is selfish. But at the time, I was like, Dad, look over here. I can ask questions about climate change. I'm smart.

Aviva DeKornfeld

News of Mike's slideshow spread, and he started being invited to present at other schools. Pretty early on, Mike decided that kids were the answer. His activism would focus on them. That was already his specialty as a therapist. And he figured, children have the most at stake here. They're open to the message. And adults will be able to hear the science from them differently than they'll hear it from other adults.

So Mike's first big step down that path-- he organized a march with a national kid-centered climate group called I Matter. He says the Seattle police gave the marchers a 14-motorcycle escort to Pike Place Market. Emrys and Stella both spoke at the march. Emrys said they'd never talked in front of so many people before.

Emrys

He helped me write my speech, and he had me practice it a ton. I was super excited to speak there because everybody's attention was on me.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella, the younger one, found all the attention a little overwhelming.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Marcher

Stella!

Stella

The main thing I remember was looking at my dad to focus my gaze.

Aviva DeKornfeld

To steady you.

Stella

Yeah. And I really looked at him to not freak out.

Aviva DeKornfeld

In this speech and all the ones after it, Emrys says that Mike gave each of them specific roles to fill, roles that Emrys says they naturally fit into.

Emrys

Stella was the one that would make the audience go, oh my gosh. She's so cute.

Young Stella

Hi. I'm Stella Foster, and I'm nine years old.

Emrys

And then I was the one who was supposed to make the audience go, like, oh, OK. Wow. [CHUCKLES]

Aviva DeKornfeld

It was like a one-two punch. Like, Stella disarmed them, and then you went in for the kill.

Emrys

Yeah. [CHUCKLES] Basically, yeah. I think I was a little bit supposed to scare people.

Young Emrys

We just need the adults to get their acts together and realize that each year they wait is 30 more years of floods, fires, droughts, famines, and extinctions.

Aviva DeKornfeld

For Malinda, watching Mike and the kids give speeches and spend so much time together-- it was really nice. They're having fun and working on something that felt so important. She wasn't around much to help. She had a big job at a telecommunications company that kept her busy and on the road a lot of the time. But she jumped in where she could. She made a website for Mike and did a lot of the behind-the-scenes logistics stuff she's good at.

Mike got more ambitious and brought the kids along. They started organizing for Plant-for-the-Planet, a kid-run organization with a goal of planting a trillion trees. The whole family recruited friends to join. Mike quit his job to focus on climate work. Emrys and Stella met the governor and the mayor. They were lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state of Washington to curb emissions. They were in an HBO documentary about kid climate activists. But none of that stuff felt like enough to Mike. He was thinking more about the way he and the family were living at home.

Michael Foster

Malinda and I had an agreement. I was the vegetarian. I was the one doing the "make the world better" stuff. And she was the one who was working at the corporate giant, paying the bills. And I was fine with that. But when I'm doing these climate talks-- and I mean, like, one day would be five talks-- and I'm hearing myself going over this material and really grasping at what I'm saying, it became harder for me to be OK with the trip to Hawaii.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Harder for Mike to be OK because airplanes emit so much carbon dioxide.

Michael Foster

So I went out on a limb. And I was like, this has no integrity for me anymore. I can't just go along with our agreement.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Other people I talked to who went through a wake-up moment-- they also got to this point. They came to believe that we have to change our behavior in all kinds of ways to avoid the worst-case scenarios. And we have to do that knowing individual action won't be enough. One family driving an electric car or giving up plastic straws isn't going to do the job. Any serious climate solution will require an overhaul of our energy sources at a global level. But it'll also require us to live differently. Without that, the situation won't change. And that's where things get messy-- deciding where to draw the line in your own family.

Malinda

The kids really wanted to get a cat. And I was like, well, I grew up with pets. I think that'd be great. And he said, no, we can't do that. And I'm trying to understand why. He says, the carbon footprint of a domesticated house pet are ridiculous.

Aviva DeKornfeld

That is, all the processed meat the pets eat, and the cans and plastic the food comes in, plus cat litter, dog toys, trips to the vet.

Malinda

We're not going to support that. There cannot be pets in this house.

Aviva DeKornfeld

The family ended up settling on getting chickens, which turned out to be a good compromise because the kids loved the chickens. And Mike was happy the chickens produced eggs, because it meant they wouldn't be supporting factory farms that produce supermarket eggs. But flying on planes became a real point of contention in the family. Malinda wanted to take the kids to Disney World for vacation.

Malinda

He's like, we're not going. We're not? He's like, no, we're never getting on a plane again. We're not? I missed that memo. What? What? And I made the mistake of saying, but I fly for work. And he was like, exactly. And maybe if you didn't fly, the world would be a better place.

Aviva DeKornfeld

To Mike, flying felt like an existential threat to his kids' futures and to everyone's.

Michael Foster

It was unbearable for me to continue doing the things that were going to make their life impossible-- actually impossible-- in the near future.

Aviva DeKornfeld

At the time, did you have any doubts about the lifestyle changes you were making? Because you're having to balance really believing in the cause and also accepting that you're a dad with two kids. And maybe one pet doesn't actually make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but it does make a really big difference in my kids' lives. How did you balance that?

Michael Foster

That was really impossible to balance because I'm not talking about a cause, because I'm talking about their survival and the things they're going to suffer when they get older. So anyway, so I'm sorry. I'm getting into the preaching mode, and we're trying to talk family here. But to me, it's the same thing.

Aviva DeKornfeld

So Malinda kept flying for work, but nobody else flew. And Malinda didn't like all these changes. But she didn't disagree, exactly.

Malinda

Climate change is a noble cause. That was what I was telling myself. This is for the world. This is for a better future for my children and their children. Why am I being such a bitch about it?

Aviva DeKornfeld

One of the biggest ways climate activism changed this family is that it turned Mike into a kind of stage dad, performing with his kids all the time, with all the tension and friction that comes with that. It was especially intense because Mike's climate work was all about kids, so he needed his kids to be the face of it. Here's Emrys.

Emrys

I started having issues with my dad when it was-- he started feeling more like a coach than a dad. And he was just bringing more and more and more things. It's like, I would wake up in the morning, and he would be like, we're leaving in two hours. There's a presentation. Here's your notes. You have to speak. Write a speech now.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Emrys had always liked giving speeches, liked writing them. But Mike wanted to see their speeches ahead of time and practice, and would get angry if they didn't let him, and get mad afterwards if he thought they didn't hit the right points. In front of crowds, Mike was always complimentary of their speeches.

Stella

It's like, if you're in a theater production, and the director gives a talk after the show or something. I was the actor. I played my little part. And then he would come out and be like, oh, I'm so proud. They did an amazing job.

Michael Foster

My name is Michael Foster, and I am a proud papa right now.

[CHUCKLING]

I don't know what to say. They blow me away every single time.

Emrys

And then once the audience leaves, it's time for notes. Once they're not looking, then you talk about what you did wrong and everything that you have to do better next time, to put it politely.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Since Malinda was off working so much at the time, supporting the family, she had no real sense that, increasingly, this had become Emrys and Mike's dynamic until, one day, the kids had a speech far outside of town. Malinda drove the family to and from the speech since she had a hybrid car, and Mike's electric car couldn't make it that far.

Malinda

Emrys had given a speech. And I thought it was brilliant. I'm the mom. And we got in the car, and I was driving. And Mike was in the seat next to me, and the kids were in the back. And he was yelling because Emrys hadn't let him read the speech before they gave it.

And he was saying, you should have let me read that speech before, because I would have told you at the time. I would have told you that you were missing these points. And goddammit. If you had let me see that, you would have done a better job. You missed your opportunity. You fucked it up, and you missed your opportunity. And I'm driving, going, whoa. So let me just say, I thought it was great. Well, what do you know? You don't even listen half the time. And I was like, whoa.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Looking back, Malinda points to this moment as one of her failures, that she let her kids give speeches after this. But at the time, Mike was so confident in what was right. And Malinda didn't trust the feeling that told her otherwise.

Malinda

So I'd-- like, well, maybe this is their dynamic. Maybe this is how they communicate, that they flare up, and they-- not that the kids ever yelled, but maybe Mike yells. But maybe that's how it works, because the next day, they're working on it again.

Aviva DeKornfeld

And he's a family therapist, or child therapist.

Malinda

And he's a child and family therapist. So there's that hanging over my head, too, of, he knows. He's the expert.

Aviva DeKornfeld

This is just the beginning of their family breaking apart. And one of the reasons Mike was eager to speak with me is because he feels pretty in the dark about what happened, what split his family up and left his kids so bitter that, at this point, they haven't spoken to him in years. He doesn't get what he could have done that was so bad his family still wants nothing to do with him. He said he feels like he's in an Agatha Christie novel. He knows he's the killer. He just has no idea how he did it.

When we spoke, Mike never contested anyone's memories of what went down. He told me, if they said it, I believe it. He knows he has a temper. Malinda said he's always had one. In college, he'd have blow-ups, though she always knew how to calm him down. But Mike and Malinda and the kids all agree-- the outbursts ramped up considerably after Mike got into climate activism. Malinda said he was never physically violent with her or the kids. But the frequency and the focus of the blow-ups changed.

Michael Foster

I would just go from, like, 0 to 90, and you would not see it coming. And all of a sudden, it was like, inside me, it felt like, OK, the world is going to end because of this, [CHUCKLES] right?

Aviva DeKornfeld

Because climate?

Michael Foster

Because of something somebody did or said or whatever. Like, if we can't-- if our family, or you and me, can't do this one simple thing, then how does the world get to remain living, right? Because we're--

Aviva DeKornfeld

The stakes always felt that high.

Michael Foster

Yeah. Sometimes it would just be like, OK, we-- I am this person who's in this role, trying to say, here's how we get to live on Earth for the next 10,000 years. And I can't persuade my family to let go of the Starbucks cup or whatever the thing was at the moment. OK, so then the world ends.

Aviva DeKornfeld

That's what it actually felt like to you.

Michael Foster

Yeah.

Aviva DeKornfeld

More than once, Mike called Stella a fucking bitch and a cunt. Stella said before Mike got into climate activism, he would yell at her about the kind of stuff any parent might-- for lying about brushing her teeth or staying up late past bedtime. But in those instances, Stella knew her dad still loved her. Now, she worried about that.

Stella

I had a good father for years before the climate change started. There were flaws. But it was only once it was climate change, where he put so much of himself into it and wanted me to put so much of myself into it, that I really got the feeling that his love was completely conditional.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella remembers when she realized she was over climate activism. It was her nine and a half birthday. They celebrate half birthdays in their family. And in celebration, they'd planned a dinner at one of Stella's favorite restaurants. But before they left the house, something happened to set Mike off, and he started ranting about the state of the world. Stella said that when her dad got into climate-talk mode, there was nothing to do but listen. 15 minutes ticked by, then 30, then 45.

Stella

I just remember thinking, like, I just want to talk about what we did at school today. I want to talk about this cat I saw on the walk home. I want to talk on my half birthday-- and feeling like it was not an option for me to talk, because he was talking.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella never told anyone she wanted to quit activism, because deep down, she felt like she had this personal responsibility to stop climate change. Secretly, Emrys was feeling the same way.

Emrys

The more I started realizing that I didn't want to do it, the worse a person I was. Like, horrible things are going to happen to people because I'm not willing to do this. It felt like I was the worst person in the world. It was all guilt all the time, and fear. It was fear of him and fear of the apocalypse.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella's carbon footprint started to haunt her. When her mom drove her to school, when she drank a glass of milk, even when she exhaled sometimes, she'd think, all I'm doing is putting more carbon dioxide into the air. She started having nightmares every night of the world burning, or of oceans rising and flooding her house, or going to the grocery store and finding the shelves completely bare because droughts had killed off all the plants.

Mike and Malinda both told me they had no idea the kids were feeling this way at the time, which Emrys and Stella said makes sense. They were good at hiding it. When I asked Mike about how bad the kids felt, he said he never meant to make his kids feel as bad as they did. But he also defended guilt as a tactic.

Michael Foster

Guilt is seriously underrated. Guilt and shame keep people from murdering each other. And honestly, guilt may be one of the few things that could keep life on Earth going for the next 10,000 years. If we can't feel guilt or shame about what we're doing and learn how to do something else, it was over a long time ago.

Aviva DeKornfeld

One way to hear this story is that it's not about climate change but about a dad who goes off the deep end for reasons that have more to do with his own personality than anything else. But I can't dismiss the role climate change plays in this story. I think the grim picture of the future that Mike carries in his head is actually more accurate than the picture most of us carry around.

And it's genuinely hard to figure out the right way to have feelings about climate change. It's easy to lose perspective when the problem is so vast and woven into every part of how we live, how we get to work, what we eat, and the stakes are so high.

I talked to other people who had wake-up moments, many of whom are reasonable and kind and not alarmist by nature, who alienated their families, and in lots of cases, lost their families, in the wake of their newfound clarity. Malinda and the kids see all that but also believe it didn't have to go this way. Malinda said that to me in our very first conversation. Mike could have done his climate work without torturing his family. That is, he didn't need to cuss out his kids.

Ira Glass

Coming up, how the most ambitious, arguably most successful thing you ever do as a political activist could also be the worst thing that you do for your family. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program-- "The End of the World As We Know It." If you're just tuning in, we're in the middle of Aviva DeKornfeld's story about Mike Foster and his family and how his climate activism led to changes in their family and ultimately divorce and his estrangement from his two kids who he hasn't spoken with in years. We will pick up where we left off. Both of his kids, Stella and Emrys, want to quit doing activism with their dad. Again, here's Aviva.

Aviva DeKornfeld

It takes about two years of going to climate meetings and speaking at rallies with their dad before Stella and Emrys confided in each other about how they really felt about it and what they actually wanted. Here's Emrys.

Emrys

I remember we were out on the back porch going inside, and Stella stopped me. And she whispered, do you think Mom and Dad are going to get a divorce? And I was like, I don't know, but I kind of hope so. And she was like, me, too. And yeah, after that, it was better because we had that solidarity.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella started doing secret research about parental custody to figure out the odds that she and Emrys would get to live with their mom in the event that her parents did get divorced. And she started dropping hints. She was just beginning sixth grade around this time, and her school offered these elective support groups. There were a bunch of different options, and one of the groups was for kids with divorced parents. That was a group Stella signed up for. When Malinda found out which group Stella had joined and asked her about it, Stella shrugged and said, just in case.

Things continued like this for a while-- everyone going through the motions-- until it all came to a head one night. Emrys wanted to go to a Fall Out Boy concert. Mike insisted they come to the monthly Plant-for-the-Planet meeting instead. When the meeting was over, Emrys and Stella waited by the car for 45 minutes in the cold before he came out.

Emrys

We started driving home. I think I was very obviously sulking. And ultimately, I told him that I was annoyed that he had taken so long to come back and that I hadn't really wanted to go to the meeting in the first place. And he just lost it. He got so mad.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Stella remembers this night, too.

Stella

He was shouting in this car, just yelling, like, you're ungrateful. You don't realize how much I do for you. Why can't you just go along with it for one night? What is your problem? What is so important about this fucking concert? And he was driving erratically. He would pull the car over super fast and turn and start yelling at us again, unprompted.

Aviva DeKornfeld

And what are you guys doing at that point?

Emrys

We are literally-- both of us are just sitting in the back seat, mouths closed, eyes wide, crying, absolutely terrified. I'd never seen him that angry, and I'd seen him get angry a lot. And so yeah, when we came home, we just got out of the car as fast as we possibly could and ran inside to get to our mom, because it was like the safe zone in a game of tag or something. It was like, she meant protection from him.

Malinda

I was in the family room, and the door flew open. The kids came running in, crying, sobbing. And their dad came running in after them, screaming at the top of his lungs. And I'm like, whoa, whoa, whoa. What is happening here? What is going on? And I went upstairs to talk to the kids. And they said they were afraid that they were going to die in the car. I'm like, what the hell happened?

Aviva DeKornfeld

Malinda made up her mind. Not long after that night, she told Mike she wanted a divorce. Mike calls it a climate divorce. Malinda says no. If anything, climate change kept them together longer than they should have been.

Malinda

I feel like I looked past and accepted so much more of what was bad, because it was in service of climate change. If he had been a QAnon conspirator, it would have been so easy for me to say, no, not doing that. But it's climate change. [LAUGHS]

Aviva DeKornfeld

Mike and Malinda get divorced, and Mike moves just a few blocks away. The kids get to live with their mom full-time, as they'd hoped. And to establish some sort of new relationship with Mike, they try a couple rounds of family therapy. But according to the therapist notes, the first round crashes and burns because Mike keeps interrupting to explain climate change and the importance of his work to the therapist.

When they try again months later, Stella gets up the courage to tell Mike her big secret for the first time-- that she doesn't want to be a climate activist anymore, that she was only doing it because she felt he gave her no choice. Stella figured he'd say he was sorry, and she prepared herself to forgive him.

But instead, Mike seemed angry. He did apologize. But the thing he apologized for was that he hadn't invited her to more climate events so that she'd be more emotionally invested in the cause, see it the way he did. A word to listeners who might be sensitive to this, this next part of the story mentions self-harm.

Stella

I just remember feeling like I'm never going to escape him, and wanting everything to just be done with because I was so tired of having to explain these things that I'd gone through and having to think about him and having to talk about him and talk to him and having him not be who I needed him to be when I needed it. It just all became too much.

Aviva DeKornfeld

About an hour and a half after the session with her dad, Stella attempted suicide. She spent the next eight days in the hospital. She told her mom to keep her dad away from her. She didn't even want him to know she was in there.

Stella

For me, it was the first time that I said no. It wasn't very dignified. I was kind of screaming and crying, like, no, don't let him in. Don't let him in. But I think having a complete break from him where he just stopped being at all a consideration for a week, but also having had the power to remove him, was really critical for me.

Aviva DeKornfeld

I told Mike what Stella said, how their conversation in therapy was a breaking point for her just before her suicide attempt. He said he had no idea. He didn't remember apologizing for the wrong thing, for saying he was sorry he didn't get her more invested in climate work.

Michael Foster

I wish I could remember saying it. It sounds like the kind of stuff that would have come out of my mouth. And what a shitty thing when she needed something else.

Aviva DeKornfeld

After that, Mike stopped trying to contact Stella. She didn't want him to, and the therapist said it could be dangerous for Stella. So he laid low, hoping the kids were OK and waiting for an invite to return to the family. Stella says that with the burden of fixing her relationship with her dad lifted, she started doing a lot better. Freed from climate work, she had time to do things that she actually liked, like reading fantasy novels. She also got a great therapist and started taking antidepressants, which she said have really helped.

And so with Stella feeling sturdier, it seemed like Mike and the kids might possibly find a way to rebuild, have a relationship of some kind, however fractured, until this next thing happened, which brought about the end of their world as they knew it. It was the fall of 2016, a little over a year after Stella's suicide attempt. And she reached out to ask for a meeting with her dad and Emrys and the therapist. In the meeting, Stella and Emrys told their dad that for them to consider having a relationship again, they needed him to stop doing climate work for a while. Here's Stella.

Stella

He said he would. And it made me really happy. It felt like change.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Emrys was struck, too.

Emrys

Maybe if he could get rid of that, then he really does care about us. Like, he must really love us if he's willing to give that up.

Aviva DeKornfeld

A few weeks after that, after Mike told his kids he would stop doing climate activism, he did his most extreme climate action ever.

Reporter

Protesters manually turned off five oil pipelines today. One of the five protesters can be seen here turning off the pipeline valve in North Dakota. The group says--

Aviva DeKornfeld

Mike traveled to North Dakota, broke past the fence around the Keystone pipeline, and turned a valve, shutting off the flow of oil. He was arrested on-site and, at that point, charged with six felonies and two misdemeanors, which, combined, could land him in prison for more than 90 years.

Emrys

I was mad. I was so mad.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Here's Emrys again.

Emrys

Man, I was pissed. That was the point where he's saying he would stop doing all this for us. And it's like, oh, he's going to prison.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Here's Stella.

Stella

That moment really just was it for me. I just didn't care anymore. It felt like relief because there was no small voice in my head saying, but he's your dad. You've got to love him. I was complete and whole and didn't need him and didn't want him.

Aviva DeKornfeld

A bunch of the charges were either dismissed or amended, but Mike ended up spending six months in prison. He told me he didn't realize his kids were asking him to stop climate activism right then. He thought they meant someday. He said he had no idea this was the last straw for them. The valve-turning propelled Mike to fame in a new way, especially in their little green Seattle community, Malinda says.

Malinda

Then the story was, he's a hero. Look what he's done. He's a hero. He's a hero. And there was an article in the local Seattle Magazine which painted him as this martyr and talked about how he sacrificed his relationship with his children for the planet. And they tried to say that, yeah, we couldn't fly anymore, and the marriage broke apart. And he had a quote saying something like, basically, I just annoyed the fuck out of them. I was like, that is so-- it is such a simple viewpoint. You didn't annoy the fuck out of us. You were as annoying as fuck. But you actually wounded us. You harmed us. You hurt us.

Aviva DeKornfeld

After the Seattle Magazine article came out, climate people would come up to Malinda and the kids and tell them they should really talk to Mike again, they should forgive him, because he's doing such important work. But Emrys doesn't see his work that way.

Emrys

I think it's made it so that his name means something, but to very few people. It's a subset of people who are already inclined to that stuff. But he hasn't achieved anything. With his climate stuff, like I said, the valve-turning had no effect. The oil got there a couple hours later. He's made a series of empty gestures and spent years posturing as a hero and a family man and has just destroyed everything, I think, that was actually meaningful about his life.

And I think, on some level, he knows that. And that's part of why he's so distressed about having lost his family. [SIGHS] I don't know. I guess I wish him well. But he can find meaning that isn't family, at this point, because we're done with him.

Aviva DeKornfeld

It's been nearly six years since Mike and Malinda got divorced. There's been essentially no contact between Mike and the kids since the valve-turning. The first time I talked to Mike, our interview lasted nine hours, mostly because almost every question I asked about his family, he ended up veering into climate change-- how bad things were, how no one was doing enough, how so many endemic species face extinction this century, a fact he told me four times in our interview.

He oscillated between extreme sadness over his nonexistent relationship with his kids to anger about the state of the world to agitated concern that I hadn't asked him any of the right questions yet, because I hadn't asked him about the science, about what it was going to take to change things.

The morning after our interview, I woke up to an email from Mike. And he asked for a do-over. He said he'd accidentally gone into climate-rant mode instead of speaking as a dad. He said, quote, "I can't live with what I said. I can't. My ramblings sound monstrous and idiotic."

We tried again. He told me he didn't agree with his family that the problem was his personality and the way he handled his activism. He thought there were things he could have done better, but the real problem was that he and Malinda weren't on the same page. I told him I didn't think having two parents like him would have solved things with the kids. He didn't see it and didn't understand why his family couldn't have brought up how they were feeling with him.

Michael Foster

It's still news to me that they're afraid to talk to me about this stuff. I understand you've told me that there were these moments when I got angry, and I was really, really scary to them. And a big person and little kids-- totally get that and take responsibility for that. And yet, the apologies, the talks, the hugs, the bedtimes, the whatever, the living life that happened in between these whatever months of not being angry-- I guess I was under the illusion that they could talk to me about anything.

Aviva DeKornfeld

It sounds like you didn't, at the time, realize how your behavior was impacting them. But there are a few interactions that seem like, even at the time, you would have understood the impact. Like, Emrys mentioned that you had called Stella a fucking bitch and a cunt when she was really little, like 10--

Michael Foster

Yeah.

Aviva DeKornfeld

--which-- that feels like--

Michael Foster

That was horrible

Aviva DeKornfeld

--you would understand.

Michael Foster

That was horrible. That was a nightmare. Yeah.

Aviva DeKornfeld

I could see how it'd be hard after that, after your dad calls you a cunt, to ever--

Michael Foster

I would not--

Aviva DeKornfeld

--say anything--

Michael Foster

Yes.

Aviva DeKornfeld

--to him to make him angry again.

Michael Foster

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I did anything and everything I could afterwards to make it right. But come on. You're right. That was a thing that you can't take back. Yeah. So I live with that. [SIGHS] I'm broken. I don't know why I'm here. The thing I love the most is the thing I'm farthest from.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Things for Malinda and the kids are pretty good these days. Stella just turned 18. She says her climate nightmares only come every couple weeks instead of nightly. And she's off at college this fall, a milestone that, for a while, she never thought she'd reach. Emrys is 19. They work on a boat, teaching kids about marine life and maritime skills, a job they love, though they skip out on teaching the lessons about climate change. They said they're not ready to do that yet.

While I was out in Seattle doing my interviews this summer, the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of the most extreme heat wave in the region's recorded history. Cable lines melted. Roads cracked in the heat. Over 100 people died. Stella told me that during the heat wave, she had to sit in her room and repeat to herself, things are bad, and there's nothing you can do about it, until the feeling passed. Emrys says, in low moments, their dad's voice pops into their head and tells them they haven't done anything with their life, that all they do is turn oxygen into carbon.

Malinda and I did our interview in her office, the only place we could find central AC. It was 106 degrees outside. She told me the irony isn't lost on her. Mike was right about the climate. She said the hairs stand up on the back of her neck when she thinks about it. Malinda and the kids-- they try to block it out. But that's getting harder and harder.

Ira Glass

Aviva DeKornfeld. She's a producer on our show. Just a note. If you or somebody you know might need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK. Again, that's 1-800-273-8255.

Act Two: Out of the Crying Pan and into the Fire

Ira Glass

Act Two, Out of the Crying Pan and into the Fire. So there are all sorts of ways your world can end. And sometimes you want it to end, you need it to end, because that's the only way you can get to a new beginning. A couple weeks ago, I watched 15,000 people who wanted exactly that.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi

OK. So we're standing in Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe, New Mexico, under a 50-foot puppet.

Ira Glass

My guide for this is Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, who grew up here in Santa Fe. He's also one of the hosts of NPR's Planet Money podcast. Technically speaking, the puppet is a marionette-- a ginormous one-- five stories tall, with a green, ghoulish head, on a hill towering over a baseball field and public park. His name is Zozobra.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi

He's the scapegoat of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Everybody puts-- they write down all of their anguish and sadness and misfortune that they've experienced in the last year. And they fill his whole body up. And then at the end of the night, he's going to be lit on fire and supposedly purge all of our sadness.

Ira Glass

Alexi has been coming since grade school, when his class would visit during the day and watch them hoist Zozobra into the air. And the sadnesses that he would write down to be burned were about unrequited crushes and not getting the part in the student production of Grease. He shows me the ditch in the back of the park, this arroyo that his friends in high school would run through if they were sneaking in a bottle of tequila or something and wanted to avoid security.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi

Yeah, kids do drugs. Kids get drunk. But also, the crowd turns really angry. And it's actually a scary-- it can be really scary out here. As much as it's a thing where people are releasing whatever has been making them sad throughout the year, it's also-- everyone directs their rage that they normally are hiding towards this puppet figure up on the hill. And people are screaming to burn him, and they're screaming expletives. And it's just a side of people you don't see, usually.

And you'll see everybody here. It's like, Santa Fe is a small town. And so I've seen teachers from high school or from elementary school as far gone as any of us.

Ira Glass

Drunk.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi

Drunk.

Ira Glass

When Alexi says you see everybody here, just to put that in perspective, Santa Fe's population is around 80,000. 60,000 people usually come to Zozobra. Though, this year, because of COVID, they limited attendance to a fourth of that. It's tons of families, maybe half Latino. The sadnesses that people write down to be burned are officially called glooms. And they're collected in boxes in town before the event and at the event.

Julia Goldberg

Come right up! We've got plenty of paper, plenty of pens, and plenty of boxes. You've got the gloom, we have the receptacle. That doesn't work. It's just--

Ira Glass

You're going to have to make it rhyme.

Julia Goldberg

[CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

You've got the gloom, we've got the room.

Julia Goldberg

There you go. Do you want to [INAUDIBLE].

Ira Glass

As I'm sure you know, it has been a boffo year for gloom. Lots of people wrote notes about COVID and loved ones they lost, but also about other big glooms-- climate, Afghanistan. Alexi has got some family in Kabul that he's worried about, and he put that into his note for Zozobra, along with some other people he wanted to remember. People write down all kinds of personal stuff.

Lauren Iverson

Right now, my dad is in a psych hospital this week, and I like-- well, I'm picking him up tomorrow. But I wrote in something for him.

Desaili Gomez

So I just put-- I know this is a little personal story. But I put, my ex left me, my uncle and dad passed away, and then my friends were ghosting me. And then I said, 2021 has got to go.

Ira Glass

At the gloom-box tables, I saw an eight-year-old boy, Julian, who carefully wrote, on a slip of paper, "I miss Mom. I miss the house." His dad, Joaquin, explained.

Joaquin

Basically what happened was, because of COVID and everything, losing my job, I wasn't able to make the payments on the house, and I ended up losing it. So that's about it.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Joaquin

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Julian's mom moved to Colorado. In the past, people have brought legal papers from disastrous lawsuits to go into Zozobra for burning. This year, Kay Arnold's medical diagnosis made it into the pile. Kay was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer in May. She lives in Texas and drove in with her daughter to watch it burn.

Kay Arnold

Stage-four breast cancer is not, at this time, curable. So I'm responding well. I'm being treated. But what else are you going to do with a cancer diagnosis, right? Stick it in a big, giant zombie, set it on fire.

Ira Glass

What do you think it's going to be like to see it burn?

Kay Arnold

I think it's going to be invigorating. I'm already on the verge of tears. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Why does it work to burn something in an effigy?

Kay Arnold

I just think it helps you to feel like it's gone. I don't know. That's a good question. It feels like you're doing something, especially about something that maybe you can't do anything about. I don't know. When you can't do anything, why not set it on fire?

Ira Glass

She'd already done everything reasonable for her illness-- doctors, medicines. Time to try something unreasonable. Katarina Valdez brought her wedding dress to be burned. One of the organizers actually sent her a photo of the dress hanging inside Zozobra that she showed me on her phone.

Katarina Valdez

So that's the back of Zozobra. And then my dress is right there at the bottom with the envelope that I put-- I put a letter from myself just saying goodbye to my past, that time in my life.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. It's just hanging there on a hanger.

Katarina Valdez

Yeah, it's on a hanger. It really, literally is on a plastic hanger hanging in Zozobra.

Ira Glass

Also in that envelope, some photos that she never wants to see again and a promise ring given to ask forgiveness, Katarina says, for something she never should have forgiven. She was married for seven years.

Ira Glass

What's it like to see that there?

Katarina Valdez

It's really exciting. I'm sick of seeing it in my mom's closet. And I've been divorced for three years, and I want to move on. I have three beautiful children that are finally in a really healthy and safe environment with us. And they're thriving at school. I have a beautiful, amazing new partner. He's going to start giggling. We've been dating for seven months. [CHUCKLES] And so it's the perfect time to do this.

Ira Glass

She'd love to bring the kids with her to see the dress burn. But she said they're with their dad, actually at Zozobra somewhere, right then.

Katarina Valdez

And I don't know if he knows now. I didn't tell him, but I'm sure my kids did.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. I just want to look out on the field. So somewhere in this field--

Katarina Valdez

Yeah.

Ira Glass

--is your ex-husband with your three kids--

Katarina Valdez

My three children. Yes.

Ira Glass

--who have definitely told him that your wedding dress is in there.

Katarina Valdez

Yeah. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

She said, if it upsets him, she's sorry. But she needed to turn the dress into ashes.

Crowd

(CHANTING) Burn him! Burn him! Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!

Ira Glass

The sun sets, and the crowd starts chanting for the big moment. I watch the burn with Katarina and her boyfriend.

Katarina Valdez

I'm a lot more nervous than I thought I was going to be.

Ira Glass

Costumed dancers set off fires in a line across the stage and taunt Zozobra, who moans and waves his arms in protest. A dancer in red carrying torches sets him on fire. Skyrockets shoot off. Orange light starts to flicker inside Zozobra's body.

Katarina Valdez

There he goes! There he goes! Baby, there he goes! Oh my gosh. Baby, there he goes. [CHUCKLES] Oh my gosh. Baby, there his dress goes! Baby!

Ira Glass

Zozobra's dress basically makes up the bottom half of his body. And of course, inside his dress is Katarina's dress.

Ira Glass

Wait. Look. Now there's fire inside the dress.

Katarina Valdez

There it goes! Baby, there it goes! There's his skirts. And that's where my dress was.

Ira Glass

Zozobra flails his arms just a little while longer, and then it's done.

Katarina Valdez

There it goes.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

He just collapsed to the ground.

Katarina Valdez

Yeah, our glooms are gone. And that's it. Our glooms are gone, and we move on. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

You feel good.

Katarina Valdez

Yeah. Yeah, I feel amazing.

Ira Glass

And you feel different than you did earlier.

Katarina Valdez

Yeah. Yeah, this is what I hoped for. So it worked. It worked. So I'm excited to see what the morning brings.

Ira Glass

Everyone Alexi and I talked to afterward said they felt different, less encumbered. But nobody could explain exactly why. A few said it's just primal-- throwing something into fire to vanquish it. Even Kay, the woman from Texas who burned her medical records, told me she knows her diagnosis. She knows she's going back to the doctors and the medicines. But even she felt more hopeful, like a fresh start.

As people started to clear out of the park, a handful gathered around the smoking embers of Zozobra to roast marshmallows on the flames of their unhappy year, welcoming the new one with burnt, sugary sweetness.

[MUSIC - HELLOGOODBYE, "LET IT BURN"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's program was produced by Miki Meek and Aviva DeKornfeld. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Sean Cole, Damien Graef, Seth Lind, Mary Marge Locker, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alissa Shipp, Jessica Suriano, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Chloee Weiner. Our managing editor this week-- Diane Wu. Senior editor-- David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor-- Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Rebecca Huntley, who you heard in the opening of our program. One of the things that she did after her wake-up moment is write a book. It's called How to Talk About Climate in a Way That Makes a Difference, which is where we first heard of her.

Also thanks today to Brett Wean, Kacy Suther, Kristy Drutman, Juliet Liu, Beth Haase, Fred Ehresmann, Lisa Jaramillo, Desiree Lira, and Julia Goldberg, who was manning the gloom boxes at Zozobra. Our website-- ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He was making fun of me this week because he found out that I am really into skateboards. Though, I have to say, not the entire skateboard, OK? I don't care about the deck or the wheels.

Michael Foster

Wow, you're super passionate about trucks. I just didn't know you're so into trucks. Was this always a thing? I think it's really great.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.