Hint: it begins with an I or N


many people are suffering from what could be called “climate despair,” a sense that climate change is an unstoppable force that will render humanity extinct and renders life in the meantime futile. As David Wallace-Wells noted in his 2019 bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth, “For most who perceive an already unfolding climate crisis and intuit a more complete metamorphosis of the world to come, the vision is a bleak one, often pieced together from perennial eschatological imagery inherited from existing apocalyptic texts like the Book of Revelation, the inescapable sourcebook for Western anxiety about the end of the world.”

“Climate despair” has been a phrase used at least as far back as Eric Pooley’s 2010 book, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, but it’s been in wide circulation for perhaps as little as two years. In more progressive Sweden, the term klimatångest has been popular since at least 2011 (the year a Wikipedia article with that name was created). In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells notes that the philosopher Wendy Lynne Lee calls this phenomenon “eco-nihilism,” the Canadian politician and activist Stuart Parker prefers “climate nihilism,” and others have tried out terms like “human futilitarianism.”

Whatever you call it, this is undeniably a real condition, if not one with a set of formal diagnostic criteria. (It may reach that status—it took decades for “burnout” to be declared an official “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization.) It’s impossible to know how many people like Ruttan Walker have experienced climate despair as a mental health crisis, but despair is all around us: in our own momentary but intense reactions to the latest bit of climate news, in pitch-black memes and jokes about human extinction, even in works of philosophy and literature. There is now a fringe group of scientists and writers who not only take our imminent doom as an article of faith, but seem to welcome it.

This despair could be a consequence of climate change being on more people’s minds than ever before. According to social scientist and psychology scholar Renee Lertzman, author of 2015’s Environmental Melancholia, large numbers of people have recently come to the realization that climate change is real, scary, and not being addressed. “It’s a surreal experience because we’re still in the same system, so walking around, people are driving, and everyone’s eating a lot of meat, everyone’s acting like that’s normal,” she said. For some people, that feeling is incompatible with carrying on with the business of everyday life.

But climate despair goes far beyond a reasonable concern that a warming planet will make life more difficult and force humanity to make hard choices. Instead of rallying us, climate despair asks us to give up. In a 2009 study in the UK by researchers Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, climate-related data visualizations were presented to test subjects who were urged, in fear-based terms, to take action or else. Most of the time these appeals produced “denial, apathy, avoidance, and negative associations.” Ultimately, the researchers concluded, “climate change images can evoke powerful feelings of issue salience but these do not necessarily make participants feel able to do anything about it; in fact, it may do the reverse.” In other words, if you tell people something must be done or we’re all gonna die, they tend to take door number two, however irrational that impulse may seem.

Experts say now is precisely the wrong time to greet doom with open arms. According to Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, certainty about human extinction is not accurate, nor is it “a particularly helpful point of view.” Dessler explained to me in an email that “we are still in control of our fate.”

“This is painful,” Lertzman said. “It’s super painful to be a human being right now at this point in history.” Nonetheless, she added, “We need to translate our concern — our despair, our anger our feelings — into action.”

climate despair may seem like ordinary anxiety and depression in patients who happen to be fixating on climate, but it’s hard to deny the unique effect climate change is having on mental health. On May 5, a group of psychologists and psychotherapists in Sweden published an open letter to their government that noted the perverse status quo of climate change—the concern wasn’t so much that the environment is breaking down, but that nothing was being done about it.

Specifically, the letter noted that children are aware that the grown-ups are leaving them a shitty world, and that’s a really messed-up thing to be aware of when you’re a kid. “A continued ecological crisis without an active solution focus from the adult world and decision makers poses a great risk that an increasing number of young people are affected by anxiety and depression,” reads the letter, in Swedish.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who led the recent worldwide school strikes, said in her 2018 TED Talk that knowing about climate change was hell on her young psyche. “When I was 11 I became ill. I fell into depression. I stopped talking and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight.” She would later be told she had Aspergers, OCD, and was selectively mute. Then she came out of her despair, and found a voice when she decided to strike — refusing to go to school until the world demonstrated that it’s getting its shit together.

Simply reading facts about climate change can produce reactions not too dissimilar to Thunberg’s. The Uninhabitable Earth calls climate change “the end of normal,” explaining, “We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure.” Last year’s UN report on humanity’s probable failure to stop warming short of the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold had a similar message, as did the one from May about how 1 million species are on track to go extinct due to human-caused environmental degradation, assuming we don’t change our course and stop generating greenhouse gases (alongside other forms of environmental havoc). Also in May, an Australian think tank called climate change “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

Maisy Rohrer, a 22-year-old developmental researcher at New York University, has been struggling to cope with climate change for years. “I guess the despair started when I was 18, and I began learning about how much the earth was changing, and I’d have full-blown panic attacks about the arctic sea ice melting, and the polar bears starving, and I’d call my mom telling her life was pointless,” she said. She believed at the time that the human race “should be wiped out.”

“I became very suicidal, and a large part of my justification for feeling like I’d be better off dead was that humans are hurting the Earth so much, and I as one person [couldn’t] make enough of a positive impact so it would be better if I were not around to cause any more damage,” Rohrer said.

Even those who don’t have thoughts of suicide can be affected in profound ways by climate despair. Brooke Morrison is a 26-year-old radio host in North Carolina who chatters about pop music enthusiastically when she’s on air. Off-air, her world isn’t so bright. “I feel like I’m already grieving my life and my future,” she said. Even her life plans—she wants to move to Los Angeles—are colored by her pessimism. “I 100 percent believe that the West Coast will be underwater soon, and I’d like to experience it while there’s still time left,” she said.

There are various “levels,” as she calls them, on which she struggles with the coming ecological horrors: “Feeling as if I’ve already lost. Feeling out of control. Feeling like I can’t start a family, so I talk myself out of wanting one or to even get married. Just giving up. Then still trying to maintain a will to keep moving forward. Trying to hold on to some form of hope.”

But when she says “hope,” she doesn’t mean hope for the planet. She told me in no uncertain terms that she does not place any value whatsoever in humanity’s attempts to mitigate climate change: “I think it’s too late.”

These feelings can be powerful, but they aren’t grounded in hard science. Michael Mann, the Penn State climatologist often credited for helping bring the public’s attention to the historical trends that are central to our understanding of climate change, calls this perspective “doomism,” and he wanted to make it clear the evidence doesn’t support it. “Unfortunately there’s some bad science behind much of the ‘doomism,'” he said. “There is no need to exaggerate or misstate what the science has to say.”

Here’s what the science has to say: Models that use the status quo — a.k.a. “not changing anything” as a baseline — show that we’re headed off a cliff in terms of planetary habitability. But these models are probably overstating humanity’s inaction. Entire (small) countries have no-bullshit plans to decarbonize quickly, and larger ones are making no-bullshit progress, just not nearly fast enough. Following these trends, it’s possible to imagine humanity will achieve relative climate stability, even as the already-baked-in effects of our greenhouse gas emissions — some of them horrible — keep rolling out, perhaps for thousands of years.

AOC isn’t the only Idiot or Nut in town. It’s very troubling to see just how stupid and/or deranged at least a third of America has become. Calling Dr. Freud: help!!!

2 Responses to “Hint: it begins with an I or N”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    The Church of Global Warming has always been a doomsday cult, always predicting the end of the Earth. If one is devout, how can one think anything else?

    What’s absolutely mind boggling is that the weather hasn’t changed. Everything that is affecting these people is happening inside their heads. All they have to do is open their eyes.

    The human race may well go extinct. After all, the sun is going to eventually burn out. Is that reason for despair today?

    There is a lot going on in the world that can cause one to despair, but the weather isn’t one of them.

  2. feeblemind Says:

    Policies have consequences department:

    Progressive pol’s unpleasant surprise: Handcuffing the cops means trouble

    From the article:

    Yuh-Line Niou, who represents lower Manhattan in the state Assembly, had an unpleasant experience getting off the subway at Bowling Green the other day.

    “I was just threatened,” she wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning, “by several of the ‘Statue of Liberty ferry’ ticket sellers who were blocking entry and exit from the train.” These hawkers are notorious for preying on tourists around the Battery, even going so far as to “sell” tickets to the Staten Island Ferry, which is free to ride.

    Assemblywoman Niou reported her harassment to nearby NYPD officers, who “did nothing even when they were watching,” she complained on Twitter. “I went over to tell them, and they said that the city is choosing to doing [sic] nothing. They literally said, ‘Nobody cares. The city doesn’t care.’” Shocked by this disregard for maintaining public order, Niou identified herself as an elected official, but this, too, made no difference. “They said that the city doesn’t care. @NYCMayor told them not to do anything.”

    Niou thus faced what many New Yorkers increasingly encounter on the streets and subways of our city — creeping disorder, antisocial behavior and a prevailing sense that “the city doesn’t care.” She was verbally assaulted — in vulgar terms — by scammers blocking pedestrian traffic, and the police stood and shrugged. We can only feel pity and anger for her plight.

    Except Yuh-Line Niou has — ironically or not — campaigned, supported, and voted for all the policies that have led us to the point where aggressive, ugly and even criminal behavior is tolerated in the name of social justice.



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