There are moments in my everyday life that are mournful, their own tiny funeral procession. Small deaths every day. Climate grief has the power to lift a person out of their life and contexts and completely isolate them, a personal apocalypse as the veil is torn away and we, if not the end of the worlds, face the end of many little worlds and the possibilities that go along with them. My experience with it was not that dissimilar to my experience with mental illness, which I was diagnosed with in my teens. There’s a force external to your self that influences your perception of the world; a filter across reality that doesn’t affect everyone. Except in the case of climate change, it’s the removal of the filter – that business as usual lull that nothing will change – that sent me hurtling. The dictionary, literary meaning of apocalypse, if not the actual end of humanity or the rapture.
Truth is, apocalypses happen every day. This sense of permanence and safety was always a privilege.
I’ve never been an inveterate optimist. I’ve spent most of my life feeling as though something was deeply wrong, whether it be with me or with everyone else. Alienated by everyone around me because they couldn’t touch the pain I was experiencing. I came across an article in The Believer today (https://believermag.com/under-the-weather/) Chris, a man stricken with climate grief who reacted by stripping himself of his own personhood. I’’m reminded of the person I used to be and who I am now – and they are very similar in many ways. Climate grief, however, isn’t a manifestation of mental illness, it’s a real response to the material fact of our changing climate while depression is a response to the material neurodivergence in a brain. They determine how we construct reality and thus they are both deeply subjective.
I recognized a lot of my own initial response to climate grief in Chris: his desire to make himself smaller, as though it would reduce harm. I once told a grief counselor, over the phone, that I didn’t want to die but I didn’t know how I was going to live. That’s the sort of burden knowledge of the climate crisis forces on us, in the vaccuum of climate leadership and real traction on a global level. We internalize the misanthropic message that we are the bad thing, and maybe if we opt out of life and living in an oppressive system, we can reduce harm.
Later, Chris tells the author “I couldn’t accept the privileges of humanity when I didn’t want any part of humanity”, though I would argue that the privileges he experiences aren’t universal to all humans and living things and we not treating them like they should be is part of the reason we’re in this predicament.
I think it’s very natural, even rational, to want to reject everything about a system that we find maladaptive, one that we know causes harm. We want to erase ourselves from a future where we know there will be suffering, many climate activists wish to avert but do not have the direct or individual power to stop. Rebecca Burnell and I have discussed “soft suicide,” or the conscious editing of ourselves out of a future we find too painful to countenance. I wonder if the belief in near-term human extinction is a similar reaction – what would the world look like without humans in it? Human extinction presents itself as its own kind of denial – that it’s possible to live in the world and not make a ripple somewhere for someone. Focus on human extinction jumps over the ensuing human suffering, as though it doesn’t matter and as though humans themselves aren’t part of the earth, just like every other living thing. We, like the microbes, the fungus, the song birds, and the wandering herds are just as much a part of the web of life on this planet, though I can’t deny that many of us have forgotten that fact and our systems reflect that forgetting. Human extinction also makes us ignore our responsibility to each other and the non human. And that responsibility is easy enough to drown myself in.
Extinctionists also seem to believe that there exists, somewhere after people have gone, a return to an Edenic state for life on earth. That collapse and extinction are an ennobling state. The heroic martyrdom that makes space for nature to return. Uncomfortable thought experiments, yes. But no less mythic in my mind than the idea of constant human progress and utopia. Life is too messy. There is no returning to any previous time.
A few months ago when reading The Optimist’s Telescope, Bina Venkataraman gave me pause when she wrote that we have more sympathy for the future and our future selves when we can picture them. Some of us have a very difficult time picturing ourselves in a future we know is filled with death and the thought of living through such a future with any amount of happiness evokes in me a deep guilt. But it isn’t just the future is it? I’ve been living alongside death my entire lifetime. Climate change isn’t coming, it’s here, and what we really fear is that it will eventually come to us. It’s just that – now – some of us are paying attention. And what do I do then, with this eco anxiety? This grief?
I’ve been told by the many therapists I’ve seen (and abandoned) over the last two and half decades that I should go easy on myself, that there are things out of my control. But I refuse to abdicate responsibility. Maybe what matters most is what I do with the empathy and the grief I feel because certainly none of us deserves anything we get in our lives, there’s no such thing as karma. Only what we do.
Ash Sanders, the author of The Believer article, writes of herself, “I wanted a world that would last through the century. I wanted a world where my existence didn’t mean the end for others. But, barring that, I really wanted just one thing: To grieve. To say, This is unbearable, and to have people to try to bear it with.” To live in such an imperfect world is deeply unbearable, especially when we don’t have the means to change that imperfection immediately. And to just slough off the responsibility for change, with lives in the balance, is equally unbearable to me. There are so many people out there, through no fault of their own, who are suffering as a result of the systems that have benefited me and, to my mind, this as a side effect not only of ecological breakdown but inequity, colonialism, and capitalism. How the fuck am I supposed to deal with the fact my life means death? And how are we supposed to bear any of the above if we can’t acknowledge that fact? How are supposed to fix it if we don’t? But there will be no escaping either way, not if we deny the system and not even if we deny ourselves.
There will be no absolution.