In January 2020, a new decade was coming into view, and Australia was burning. Record-breaking temperatures and dry conditions across the continent had turned New South Wales into a tinderbox, and bushfires spread across the region with a destructive intensity that would destroy over 3,000 homes and scorch an area roughly the size of the UK. Smoke from the flames was so intense that it altered weather conditions throughout the South Pacific. Retroactively, it would be referred to as the Black Summer.
About half a decade earlier, an Australian artist named Courtney Barnett released her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. The album would be included in a number of best-of lists that year, with critics praising its “looseness” and clever reflections on the mundane details of daily life. I was won over by these qualities as well, but the song I found most captivating was the one that departed most sharply from them. Called “Kim’s Caravan,” it’s a heavy and somewhat eerie track, the point on the album when Barnett is at her most broodingly introspective and her band has descended to meet her.
When Sometimes I Sit… came out, I was living one hemisphere north of Barnett, working for an environmental non-profit in Beijing. China was building coal plants at a rate that was incompatible with a livable planet, and the non-profit was advocating for policies to pull it off that course. In hindsight, the effort looks like a microcosm of global climate work more broadly: a Sysiphian attempt to impact a massive and notoriously unresponsive government apparatus over whom your influence feels vanishingly small and, at times, illusory.
Around the time Barnett dropped her debut, one of my American colleagues confided her concern that her work in China hadn’t even made up for the emissions from the flight that had brought her there. Not sure how to respond, I said that her plane would have flown whether she’d boarded it or not.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
“Kim’s Caravan” is about several things, but conservation is a primary topic. In one of its first scenes, Barnett observes a dead seal on the beach, which a nearby local says he saved three times before it finally passed. Reflecting on the seal’s apparently suicidal inclination, Barnett sings, “Guess it just wants to die/ I would wanna die, too/ With people putting oil into my air/ But to be fair, I’ve done my share.”
It’s that last line that made “Kim’s Caravan” stick with me more than any other environmentalist anthem, which tend to function as either protest songs or dirges for a tragically lost world. It turns out I didn’t need someone to rage or mourn with me. I needed someone to acknowledge they struggled with the same inner conflict I felt when considering my carbon footprint, to show me I wasn’t alone in feeling that, for all my work efforts and best intentions, I was also, inescapably, an agent of the end that I was trying to prevent.
It’s not surprising I found this person on Sometimes I Sit…. Barnett’s brilliance as a lyricist is built on her repeated willingness to put the insecurity and guilt that frequently follows inner conflict on full display without reaching for justification or false resolution. Because insecurity and guilt are inherently isolating feelings, this is both an exceptionally brave act and a supremely generous one. Arguably more important than resolution, Barnett’s songs offer companionship, an understanding friend in those shadowy mental spaces where the barbed walls of self-perceived failure threaten to box us in.
This is an especially gracious offering to those with climate anxiety, and particularly Barnett’s fellow Millennials. Our generation came of age at the fraught intersection of two environmental ethics, when a doctrine of conscious consumerism primarily designed to prevent littering was being imperfectly applied to the crisis in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If we just turned out our lights and drove less, we were told, we could prevent planetary catastrophe. As it became clear this wasn’t enough, we were left searching for where and how we failed.
It’s since come to light that the concepts of littering and carbon footprints were both created by corporations to mask their own (much more significant) contributions to these issues. Barnett is likely aware of this as well, following her line about “doing her share” with the quip, “Guess everybody’s got their different point of view.” In context, this feels like an acerbic allusion to the both-sideism that’s hobbled action on climate change over the past few decades.
But guilt is a difficult emotion to unlearn, sticking around long after logic should have dispelled it. As a result, those children of the late 80s/early 90s who are predisposed to give a fuck are left haunted by a recurring sense that their everyday actions are failing a cause they know to be crucial. This becomes, at its worst, a sort of secular Catholic guilt, a feeling that one’s mere existence in modern society demands penance.
“Watermarks on the ceiling,” Barnett sings in the song’s opening line. “I can see Jesus, and he’s frowning at me.”
I don’t personally know what it was like to be in the U.S. on November 8, 2016, but friends have described going to bed in shock and waking up in a country they barely recognized. Watching the election in the Eastern Hemisphere was similar, but without sleep to break up the impact. The election flipped to Trump around 10 a.m. Beijing time, and the rest of the day felt shrouded in a bottomless fog. I worked, ate, and tended to the mundane details of daily life while fielding texts from environmentalist colleagues reaching out in stunned disbelief. It seemed the seal we’d been fighting to save had slipped onto the sand one last time to die
That night, my American friends and I gathered to process the day’s events. One friend brought a bottle of the rankest convenience store liquor that $2 could buy, which I took and never returned. A couple of hours later, I was lying face down in my bed, the trash can next to me filled with fresh vomit. Had I looked up, I might have seen the visage of Barnett’s frowning Jesus in the watermarks above me. But instead, I just lay there, head spinning, and let myself slowly drift off to sleep.
When I think about individual climate action today, I don’t think about religion, but I do think about prayer. There’s a reason why even those with the loosest of ties to organized theology can still find themselves looking to prayer in times of crisis. Life has a cruel habit of turning up tragedies that we have no ability to influence or control, and sometimes being able to take action—any action—is what’s needed to cope. If nothing else, prayer is an action, one that’s unfailingly available regardless of how dire the outlook.
Climate action is also, at its core, an action. It’s an outlet on hand, in one form or another, to any who feel their future is falling away more quickly than they can live it. The little life changes we can make (and options abound; take your pick) are valuable precisely because it is within our power to do them. They can’t erase the anxiety, but they can help us cope, not as obligations or distractions but as protective collections of tiny prayers to reinforce faith in our own agency—a faith that can ultimately empower the type of collective political resistance that still has the best chance of making a difference.
“Kim’s Caravan” doesn’t have much advice about regaining control, but it does extend a lifeline to those who’ve lost it. Near the end of the song, Barnett, our generation’s Patron Saint of Uncertainty, leaves us with the last piece needed to navigate when the fog sets in: hope. “Satellites on the ceiling,” she sings in the pre-penultimate line, paralleling the first. “I can see Jesus, and she’s smiling at me.
In many ways, it’s easier to work on climate issues today than it was in 2016. America’s current government is not actively denying the issue is real, and recent legislation has strengthened many of the solutions that can provide real progress. In other ways, it’s much harder. The last year has shattered heat records that have stood for centuries, triggering Black Summer-type disasters across the globe. Optimism and despair are both in ready supply, depending on where you look.
“Kim’s Caravan” would have us look up. Maybe Jesus is frowning at us from the watermarks and satellites above. Maybe she’s smiling. Maybe it’s just a bunch of starlight and ceiling stains. In a way, it doesn’t matter. The world above our beds can take many shapes in the dim light of an encroaching dusk. What matters is that we still get up the next morning.
Collin Smith is a music journalist based in San Francisco. His writing has been featured in places like Bandcamp Daily and The Wire, and he also publishes No Chambers, a monthly newsletter highlighting artists and albums from non-Western countries. In his free time, he works on electricity policy at a clean energy company and occasionally posts from @kahlinsmith.