Collapse terrifies and fascinates us at the same time. Beyond the data and scientific predictions, the emotions that appear when confronted with climate change are complex and unsettling. But, in the midst of a bleak present, perhaps there are strategies for coping with eco-anxiety.
My brother always liked catastrophes. When he was little, he used to build dams just to let them overflow, and he’d build towers of coloured blocks just so he could subject them to major earthquakes. Like many children, my brother did all these things, but he also went a bit further. When he thought no one was looking, he turned into a weatherman. Standing on his mattress, with a map-of-the-world poster behind him, he would talk to an invisible camera about approaching cyclones and hurricanes, using a radio antenna as a pointer. If our street started to flood, he went crazy with happiness. He’d stay out on the balcony, binoculars in hand. He seemed to wish that the situation would become uncontrollable, that our house would break away from its foundations and start sliding down the street. My brother’s plans for the future always included building a bunker, a kind of egg-shaped capsule that he planned to install in the small bathroom, and where he envisaged hibernating in the event of an apocalypse. “But…do you want the world to be destroyed?” I asked him once. “Not all of it, but a little bit, yes,” he replied.
A few months ago, at my grandmother’s house, I overheard my mother and brother talking about the rising gas and electricity bills, about the possibility that we might not be able to pay them in the future. “Don’t worry,” said my brother, “we’ll build a heating system and we’ll make a fire in Gran’s back yard”. There was that suicidal smile again, the one that means we never know whether he’s joking or serious; that apparent enthusiasm for a challenge thrown up by nature that would force us to live an uncomfortable and feral life.
I wondered how I took it in as a child, the fact that my brother dreamt of being buried under an avalanche or the partial destruction of the planet. Our parents were hikers and we spent all our holidays in the mountains, both in winter and in summer. I knew it was normal for children to be more rebellious than their parents – it made sense for my brother to love nature at its most adrenaline-fuelled. This was my conclusion, my conscious deduction, for what it was worth, because on the subconscious level I always understood my brother.
I first felt a first twinge of concern about climate change the day my father told me the Aneto glacier was melting. He’d climbed the peak several times, and for me it was the sign that something was disappearing, whether it was the landscape of my childhood or my own father. My anguish over the desertification of the Pyrenees became mixed with nostalgia and grief, and now I’m the one checking online to see how much the glacier has shrunk this year.
For most of my youth, the climate crisis was little more than a dilemma that I liked to bat around in my head. I remember the day my friend Carles convinced me to get up early on a Saturday morning. I was studying journalism and Carles was studying physics. For weeks he’d been going on about me meeting one of his university lecturers who had blown his mind, so one Saturday morning we went to the village of Antonio Turiel so he could talk to us about peak oil – the maximum global point of oil extraction – after which there will be more scarcity and, consequently, problems.
Turiel struck me as a burly, affable man, too gentle to be a scientist. I later realised that this gentleness was a way to help us take in his words. Turiel made me understand that it’s not possible to save the planet – it’s not possible to undo most of the impact, or to regenerate finite resources – and that achieving mitigating measures is urgent but improbable, not only because it would require the global renunciation of a lifestyle associated with wellbeing and development, but also because it would mean doing so in favour of an uncertain scenario. Turiel’s scientific mind pushed him towards pessimism, but his sense of ethics – and perhaps the fact that he was a father – led him to continue fighting for a meaningful life, to engage in activism with two young people on a Saturday morning. On the way home my mind was buzzing. We were facing a horizon that was suicidal but also complex and human at the same time. The end of the world began to excite me in a way that was theoretical and perverse – it was like sucking on a never-ending sweet.
Years later, I started working for a digital publication. There I saw how climate change became the perfect sensationalist content, as it brought together scientific data, impactful images and tons of terror. The idea was that all that worry would be transformed into public pressure, but something was going wrong. Neither did art have the desired effect: all those sculptures depicting bureaucrats up to their eyes in water while talking away without ever reaching meaningful agreements, all those hourglasses indicating that time had run out, were part of the self-conscious groove of passivity into which we had settled. They provided us with the guilt needed to feel a minimum level of wellbeing within the permanent discomfort.
Even the year I spent in South Africa was not enough to make the ecocide sink in. I saw what a drought could do in a grossly unequal society. Cape Town became the first city in the world where the inhabitants of a luxury housing complex had to queue up to fill water bottles from a tanker truck. I wrote that South Africa was an oracle of the future, of a future that concerned and interested me, and of which I was still, unknowingly, a mere observer.
In 2020 I signed up to the first world congress on eco-anxiety amongst children. It was to be held in London, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic and held as an online event a year later. In lockdown as I was, I felt the subject had lost interest. I listened to random snippets of talks that chewed over the same idea: eco-anxiety is a problem because it affects children’s learning and development, but it’s also a problem because children are right, or at least they have much more reasons than adults to worry about the planet becoming uninhabitable. Given the multitude of unthinkable data floating around – if all countries were to meet their emissions reduction targets, emissions would increase by 13% in the next 7 years – was it simply a matter of learning to live in peace at the micro scale and ignoring the macro scale? Was climate change, too, a mental problem? Little by little, all these questions started to leave my mind and settle in my body.
Our perception of the world depends very much on our personal situation. I’d even go so far as to say that it depends on our situation right now, at this very moment. I’m writing this text in January 2023, in the house of a retired couple. I’m wearing a thermal T-shirt, a jumper, two pairs of socks and a scarf wrapped round my neck. I don’t want to put the heating on – I mean, I really want to, but it so happens that just this morning one of my main clients told me that this year they expect their orders to go down by 70%. Not so long ago I lived in a big, sunny flat, I could buy fish and travel. Now I’m self-employed and spend a large part of my day in a room with no windows. The mountain seems like a luxury, or at its most accessible, a free resort for stressed-out urbanites. Somehow, I’ve come to feel like part of the pollution. When I can’t take it anymore and I get out of Barcelona, it takes me too long to slow myself down, and as soon as I start to feel better it’s time to go back.
It’s not just that things are getting worse, it’s that the gear wheals of hope and sacrifice have got jammed: I push myself too much and there’s no improvement, or if there is, it doesn’t last for long. Having a job or lots of clients doesn’t guarantee a dignified life in a context of real-estate terrorism. Success seems to require that you disconnect from yourself, and happiness increasingly coincides with a disconnection from reality. If you stop striving, it’s like you want to leave the world of the living, the healthy. If you stop believing, we don’t know what happens.
When my brother said not to worry about the cold, that we’d make a fire in the back yard, I felt a strange emotion: I wanted it to happen. I suddenly pictured all of us around the fire, drinking a hot drink and rubbing each other’s backs. Then I thought that I probably wouldn’t have written any copy or attended any online meetings that day. Maybe I would have gone around the city looking for fruit trees and aromatic herbs. Maybe an unknown dog would have tagged along, and we’d have suddenly realised we’d walked all the way down to the sea. I’d have dirty nails, strong legs and a straight back. I’d have more freckles on my nose.
Wait a minute – “am I romanticising poverty?” I thought, and as if someone had flicked a cigarette but into a fireworks shop, ideas lit up one after another, and everything was filled with an accusing white light. Maybe my brother is a collapsist, I thought, one of those reactionary nihilists who want everything to go down the drain so they can use homemade traps and live off squirrels; one of those people who need to have a bad time to feel good. Then I thought, maybe I’m a collapsist myself, and remembered with dread one of my talismanic books. It’s called Desierto, manifiesto postecologista (Desert, post-ecologist manifesto) and it’s anonymous. All that’s known about its author is that he or she is a nature lover and an anarchist.
What Desierto says is that hope is capitalist: trusting in the “positive transformation of the world” is the lullaby that shuts our eyes and allows us to continue dreaming within a system that generates more and more suffering. We tend to think that despair only leads to darkness, but this time it may be the only thing that can set us free.
My attitude towards climate change is based on a principle of love that I started to put into practice after the Bermuda Triangle – the short period of my life in which my father died, I was made redundant and my longest-term boyfriend left me in the middle of the Amazon forest fires. I call this principle “brutal honesty” and it sprang from being sick of those boyfriends who avoid telling you that they want to break up with you with the excuse of not hurting you. At first I thought it was simple cowardice, but then I realised there was something more to it, since these boyfriends, by avoiding conflict – by avoiding bringing pain out into the open – are reaffirming their good sense, their emotional stability: they truly believe they’re doing what’s best for you, that they’re looking after you. What really happens is that by avoiding the breakup – or by camouflaging it – these boyfriends avoid feeling bad and manage to continue living their fake lives. Those of us who have fallen into the arms of such caring men have learned that the truth, however raw, is always a gift: the dagger pierces your flesh and gives you the cold freedom of knowing what’s happening.
I want to know the forecasts for rising temperatures and sea levels, not because I’m able to adapt to them, but because for the first time I feel a kind of synchronicity, I feel the disaster inside me, and the disaster is more lucid and real than any slogan of hope. It is now, when everything is going wrong for me, that I feel closer to an intimate and catastrophic freedom, that a flashing light indicates that yes, I want to stop. It’s easy to say: accept the predictions, imagine the scenarios, change your wishes and your idea of wellbeing. But how can we do all this while we live in a reality in which, in spite of everything, we continue to love, to have hope?
These days there is a battle going on against romanticisation, as if romanticising were just a way of fooling yourself. The fact is that we prefer to romanticise about some things and not others depending on whether or not they’re of use to us. I could say that I’m an independent professional based in a Mediterranean city that ranks among the best in the world in terms of quality of life. And that would be an act of romanticisation, a distorted idea that helps me to stay optimistic and keep working to achieve increasingly unattainable goals.
That’s why I think we should romanticise other things, things that are ugly to romanticise, like living in the countryside with the bare minimum, like when my brother and I were little and a storm blew over the campsite where we were holidaying, and we could hear that the thunder was too close for the altitude and because unlike our neighbours, who were staying in caravans, our family was living in a tent. When the rain started pouring down, my father would tell us to get into one of the canvas rooms with a plastic floor. We would stick our heads out of the zip and hug each other, because the danger was real and fun and it allowed us to hug each other. We would watch the shadows of our parents running around the tent to save all our stuff from the rain, and we would hear their little grunts and giggles, and my brother and I would look at each other. Sometimes the flaps wouldn’t hold the rain out and the floor of the tent would turn into a river, and our parents would hold them back with pegs to let the river through. That made an impression on me, and it made me feel infinitely peaceful to see my parents calmly adapting to the destruction. When the rain eased off, they would start to clean the mud off the tent and the furniture without being angry, they would even laugh at the jokes of the neighbours who said “you Catalans like to live like gypsies”, and we knew our parents had felt the same emotion, it was as if for a few brief moments we had seen children living inside their bodies, and we felt happier than ever.
When we think of the end of the world, we think of the end of our life as we know it, and these days, that doesn’t seem so bad to me. My brother is not a collapsist, and neither am I. We would just like to spend more time standing than sitting, to breathe fresh air and forget about money for a while, to feel awake, to feel useful and not alone. Perhaps we should change our blind hope for some enthusiasm, and to this end perhaps we should pay less attention to the data and more to our emotions, to our bodies, these bodies that are telling us that we’ve already collapsed, that this wellbeing hurts and that the apocalypse may be a welcoming place.
Josep Lluís S.P. | 08 March 2023
M’ha agradat molt aquest article.
Moltes gràcies Alba.
M’apunto el teu últim paràgraf que és genial.
Et citaré, amb el teu permís!
Leave a comment