I was chairing a Zoom event last week about carbon bombs, and how to defuse them. All over the world, as governments broadcast warm words to a warming planet, corporations are planning and lobbying for fossil fuel projects, which, if they get off the ground, will sail us casually past our carbon targets – almost as if democracy itself were just a beach-body diet that everybody talked about and nobody intended to stick to. How to stop this nihilistic corporate greed? Legal avenues, direct action, political routes, or everything all at once?
As I was doing this, a message popped up in the chat from Kjell Kühne, an academic and activist and one of the panellists: “Stop biting your nails please.” “Huh,” I thought, “weird thing to say to 846 people. How does he know they’re all biting their nails?” Then I realised it was a private message just to me. I considered messaging back: “Chum, when you stop making this incredibly compelling case about the climate apocalypse, I’ll stop biting my nails.” Then I remembered I was supposed to be chairing and got my head back on task.
Climate anxiety is associated with gen Z. They have grown up learning about the crisis from primary school; by the time they get to secondary school, they’re frequently doing back-to-back disaster scenarios in previously sober subjects such as geography and design and technology . In their downtime, they take to TikTok to make droll content about their anxiety disorders. Really, the anxiety is universal, it’s just that older heads will try out any old bullshit to pretend not to feel it. When there’s a week like this one – everyone melting in their homes while five pitiful lightweights vie to run the country, all on the same “net zero so long as it costs nothing” ticket – the effort of pretending to be fine, fine, fine is, finally, greater than the discomfort of admitting you’re petrified.
Climate-crisis denial is just a titchy chamber of delusion now, not so much a political stance as a refuge for people who aren’t coping. Climate-crisis anxiety denial, though, is everywhere. It must be, or we’d all be hiding, or rioting, or in a perpetual pendulum between the two. I will do anything to find a displacement emotion. I can lose hours raging against Brendan “green hysteria is out of control” O’Neill, even while I have my doubts that he’s a real person. And, even if he is, truthfully, what does one contrarian matter? I can roam around Twitter watching pile-ons against people who are not taking the heatwave seriously enough. I will happily do a deep dive on how to keep a dog cool, and what proportion of Dubai energy use goes on air conditioning, and all the words there are in Darwin for “driven mad by heat”. No diversion is too small.
I noticed something during the carbon bomb discussion, though – and, sure, it is hard to see inside another human’s head, especially over Zoom – but people who are constructively fighting the climate crisis seem to be a lot saner. One might think, intuitively, that full-on immersion in environmental politics would be a recipe for a nervous breakdown, and certainly those who are closest to the data are the least likely to make idiotic Panglossian remarks. But a steely calm settles over people when they know they’re doing everything they can. Across a huge range of personalities – off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Rupert Read, one of the early “Extinction Rebels”; Tessa Khan, who is a climate lawyer; Greta Thunberg, who really doesn’t enjoy being mobbed and is mobbed wherever she goes; Vanessa Nakate, one of sunniest people I’ve ever met, who is in round-the-clock discussions about mass starvation – there’s a common thread, a sense that they have found peace through purpose. The answer to terror, and I’m not preaching, I’m just saying this to myself out loud, is to do more.
July 18, 2022 at 10:24PM Zoe Williams