resources for climate nihilism
we can do better than "of course young people are depressed"
Is my only option existential dread? That was the question a student posed to my nonfiction seminar last fall after reading David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”—a commissioned essay for Gourmet magazine, in which Wallace turns a travel piece about a summer lobster festival in Maine into a meditation on the ethics of boiling sea creatures alive. My student was asking a question about Wallace’s writing but more about her own thinking: Wallace doesn’t arrive at a “side,” and what was she to do? She was left without a persuasive case to either accept or reject. This was new for her. New for her and a professor’s dream—the chance to elucidate why it matters that we think alongside the writer, tracking the deliberation itself, without resolve. This writer is offering us a faceted view of ideas, I told her: a guide who is turning the jewel of an idea slowly in one hand, examining and narrating as she goes. Writing as accompaniment—and bracing solvent along the way—for the reader’s blinkered parochialism, tribal assumptions, lazy logic.
No topic begs for reading as accompaniment more than the topic of climate change. I find it alarming to hear so many people resign themselves to the abject despair of young people with a kind of intellectual shrug. When you think about what’s going on in the world, the planet—who can blame them, etc. There’s always a knowingness, a self-consciously sage omniscience in this expression. They accept this state of affairs as inevitable, even as evidence of a clear-eyed sobriety among the next generation. But the hyperobject that is climate change requires the very kind of deliberative and slow thinking that my (perceptive, nearly-graduated) engineering students deserve. The kind of thinking-in-writing they don’t seem to know is out there—a fact that is equally alarming—but that they really are hungry for.
Maybe you also spend time with young people in this state of affairs. If so, let me offer a roundup of good writing on climate that might mitigate the creep of nihilism that colors so many conversations about this topic. [And here’s the requisite “to be sure” proviso]: The urgency is real! And each one of these writers knows that. These pieces accept and name the urgency of climate corrosion. But they also go on to address what the environmental artist Natalie Jeremijenko calls the “crisis of agency” in the face of overwhelming data. How would we understand our lot in a more historically situated way? And what do we do on a given Tuesday? Several of these are paywalled, alas—but, as I also tell my students, smart writing needs paying for.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Habits of Highly Cynical People.” Here Solnit takes on the self-appointed experts in climate conversations whose trump card is always fait-accompli language. As Solnit says, it’s hard for most journalists to characterize the irreducible uncertainty of any particular aspect of the issue: “‘We don’t actually know’ is their least favorite thing to report.” And she takes on the temptations of cynicism as a sinister vice:
Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.
Solnit has been an active part of climate mitigation efforts for a long time, and she’s asking all of us to be as disciplined and specific as we can about the unknowability of our situation. It’s a love letter to people “who love the world more” than their own certainty:
What is the alternative to naïve cynicism? An active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses. Such an attitude is bolstered by historical memory, by accounts of indirect consequences, unanticipated cataclysms and victories, cumulative effects, and long timelines.
Meehan Crist’s “Is it OK to Have a Child?” Crist’s essay in the LRB is a tour de force of structural issues, with the narrowest visceral thread of her own pregnancy and childbirth. She doesn’t shy away from any of the challenges here, and the zoom-out, zoom-in writing rhythm is beautifully high-contrast. Young people dwell on childbearing as a big index of climate seriousness (they earnestly wonder if “the world will even be here in 25 years”), and it’s worth putting this piece in their hands:
‘I watch climate change happen every day on a computer,’ the climate scientist Kate Marvel said recently,
on a fake planet that I can do experiments on. But climate change doesn’t happen on a fake planet; it happens on our planet, in the world that we’ve built. You can’t put Bashar al-Assad in a climate model. You can’t put the legacy of colonialism in a climate model. The drying trend we’ve seen in the Levant region interacts with the world we’ve actually built. Climate change is ... not something you can remove from the complexities of human society.
Those complexities may alter the nature and the extent of catastrophe. All of which means that the consequences of the heating climate are extremely difficult to predict. Pessimism may be warranted; fatalism is not. The future is not written.
Ezra Klein’s shorter piece called “Your Kids Are Not Doomed,” tackling the same topic as a meditation on climate despair, reframing the entire matter with lucid and succinct reasoning, and again quoting Kate Marvel:
To decarbonize society is to embrace a better world, for reasons far beyond climate change. “The immediate benefits of climate mitigation actions are spectacular: better air quality, better health outcomes, reduced inequality,” Marvel wrote to me. “I want these things. I also want reforestation and peat bogs and coastal restoration and rewilding. I’m excited about (but not counting on) awesome new tech like cheap carbon removal and nuclear fusion. I’m more excited about boring but effective tech like heat pumps and transmission lines.”
This is a vision of more, not less.
Wen Stephenson’s “Carbon Ironies.” Stephenson is a similarly wise guide, including in this book review from a number of years ago, taking on William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies. I re-read this every six months or so to remind myself what he says: that “there won’t be any climate justice, or any justice at all, no matter what the global temperature may be, if we lose our democracy”:
So, yes, Vollmann and other doomists are right that it’s a no-win situation—depending on what you mean by “win.” If you mean “stopping” or “solving” climate change and preserving the world as we’ve known it, then the climate fight was “lost” a long time ago, maybe before it began. And yet science also tells us that, even at this late date, some versions of “losing” could look far worse than others. We can still lose less badly! Not the most inspiring battle cry, perhaps, but when you understand the stakes—human survival—still a cause worth lifting a finger for.
(I see that Stephenson worries recently that there’s an “optimism problem” in climate circles. I’ll pay attention to this—but Wen, have you spent time with undergrads lately? I’m not yet convinced.)
At the most macro and existential level, I recommend Tara Isabella Burton’s book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Burton does a masterful job at synthesizing the proto-religious underpinnings of widely varying socio-cultural phenomena in the last several decades, including far right and far left politics but also forms of “remixed” spirituality in the middle. She doesn’t take on climate politics explicitly, but she lays out a precise and measured assessment of the way social justice language is sometimes imbued with a religious zeal in secular environments like the modern university—one that meets the deep human need for moral structures but can get in the way of deliberative, evolving scientific policy:
[A]s a religion, social justice works. It works not merely in the sense that a lot of people take it very seriously and react angrily when people misuse its sacred terms … but also in a much more fundamental and potentially constructive way. It has done what so much of anodyne, classical liberalism has failed to do. It has imbued the secular sphere with meaning. It has reenchanted a godless world.
Like its Marxist antecedents, from which it draws much of its imagery and inspiration, modern social justice culture has managed to create a thoroughly compelling, eschatologically focused account of a meaningful world, in which every human being has a fundamental purpose in a cosmic struggle, all without including, well, God.
Why include this here? I think Burton helps us see something that may explain some of the resistance to careful climate discourse. A dying planet can take on the liturgical power of sublimity: an experience of awe and terror that subs in for any other explanatory transcendence. The tragedy itself can be—reassuring somehow? Or at least the language of we-have-a-short-window has a ritual effect. It’s a strange attractor.
But Burton is no reactionary. The book has a textured and sympathetic view of all social attempts to locate a grounding metaphysics for our lives. So—while we’re taking very seriously, never seriously enough, the structural scale and mystery of an earth that’s in need of strong stewardship—it’s worth asking the question: does the human conundrum beg for the sublime? And if so, where is it to be found?
Thanks for reading this newsletter, and happy 2023. I’ve got several shorter writing projects in the works, plus newer creative directions that are brewing. I’m starting over, seems like? I look forward to your notes and responses along the way.
Dear Sara, Thank you for your much-needed therapeutic comments. They suggest to me Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire and her commentary on the Hellenic philosophers' stances on life. I think we are in dire existential straits right now and we need strong metaphors and images to keep us from despair. Ironically, something that I found profoundly moving in this regard was the way that Paul Kingsnorth ended his novel Alexandria about how the last humans (and an AI) coped with their imminent demise. As the waters surrounding their small island inched ever higher. One of the characters, a little girl named sfia has the last words: "we stand joined now, joined in light and Waters all around./ ...all are smilin, sound and light. all are smilin./we are all smilin now." Our demise is not a foregone conclusion, but avoiding it is going to require a great deal of enlightened effort. We are animals for whom metaphors are a part of our ecosystem. Let's use them wisely now that it seems that so many of the efforts of governments, etc. are just not enough or have ended in failure. So many seem not to care, but the climate crisis has indeed vouchsafed the notion that we are all one. Much love and many blessings, Randy
So grateful for this post and the trails it points us towards. I was particularly struck by this quote: “Pessimism may be warranted; fatalism is not. The future is not written.”