It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”
Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.
For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.
It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.
Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.
If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.
Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.
To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.
It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?
Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.
Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”
There is much to discuss, after all.
Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.
Attention influencers and avid instagrammers—the days of having to squander exorbitant amounts on one-time statement outfits are over, as companies have launched virtual clothing lines that could be purchased online for a reasonable price and be edited right onto your photo.
The pioneer of this technology is the Norwegian company Carlings, which launched its first digital clothing line back in November in response to a swelling number of influencers purchasing one-off outfits exclusively for social media purposes. Their collection, titled ‘Neo-Ex’, derived its style from video games such as Tekken, and featured bright neon colours and futuristic looks. Influencers and instagramers could purchase one of the 19 outfits on offer for £9 to£30 and submit a photo of themselves to Carlings’ 3D designer team, which would then digitally tailor the clothes onto the buyer’s image.
The digital-clothing trend caught on like wildfire, and now companies around the world, such as Moschino, The Fabricant, and Nike, have been dropping their very own virtual designs.
Aside from being financially accessible (at least for the time being), virtual clothing offers a solution to the polluting habits of the fashion industry— currently responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon footprint and the second-greatest contaminator of local freshwater around the world.
In an interview for Elle, Kicki Perrson, brand manager at Carlings Sweden, said, “By selling the digital collection at £15 per item, we’ve sort of democratised the economy of the fashion industry and at the same time opened up the world of taking chances with your styling, without leaving a negative carbon footprint”. Persson further stated that due to the incredibly positive responses Carlings is expected to launch its second virtual clothing line this summer.
Naturally, influencers seem enthused at merging fashion with the virtual realm. Daria Simonova told Elle, “I really love this idea because firstly, it’s environmentally-friendly and secondly, clothing nowadays is more like an art form for social media. Digital clothing is super convenient, and the design potential is huge because it’s way cheaper”.
Overall, digital clothing seems to be a fairly promising innovation. It is eco-friendly, affordable, and allows for uninhibited creative freedom. Yet, the ultimate impact of virtual fashion will depend on the future of this rising technology and its application.
Virtual clothing currently exists as a social-media-centred enterprise, and its main function is to be worn online for promotion purposes and likes-mining. It seems, however, that the majority of fashion-industry waste isn’t generated by influencers, but by the masses whose lives don’t revolve around Instagram and who gain more satisfaction by touting their outfits in the real world. And so as long as virtual clothing is trapped within the confines of social media, its ability to scale-down fashion induced pollution would be limited.
Digital fashion could prove far more environmentally friendly if it is ultimately used as an augmented reality feature that replaces real clothes. Furthermore, if clothing-design softwares became a household product it would enable millions of people to run wild with their imagination while spending zero resources on attire. True, augmented reality isn’t likely to penetrate the mainstream market in the immediate future, but it isn’t light-years away from us either, and we would greatly benefit from beginning to visualise its potential contributions to society—as far as fashion is concerned.
Virtual fashion is on a trajectory that can only be expected to accelerate and expand over the next few years. It remains to be seen whether it will live up to its ideal of rendering the fashion industry more sustainable or simply fuel the social-media inferno of brand and image-building.