If 2018 ended on a panicky note, 2019 terminates in a mildly more subdued manner. Not because the world is any less crazy (on the contrary, it gets nuttier by the second), but because in the frenzy of global insanity we’ve grown rather numb and undeniably dismayed.
When we glance at our phones and scroll through the news, when we step out into an unseasonably hot February morning, when our closest friend tries to sell us crappy protein supplements on their insta—we can’t help but look at life somewhat cynically. It’s as if things had lost meaning and consequence; as if accountability and reason were cast aside as relics of an obsolete past, like Fergie and iPods and cable television. President Trump couldn’t have expressed it more accurately when, right as Congress was voting to impeach him, he shouted in a stadium full of supporters, “It doesn’t really feel like we are being impeached.”
But what lies beneath these festering sarcasm and indifference? A sense of bewilderment. Of helplessness. Of crippling isolation. And how could we not feel those things? The world around us is shifting in such extreme ways, no wonder we feel paralysed.
Our planet, for one, continues to face an existential threat due to human activities. This isn’t only a climate crisis, as is ingrained in our minds by mainstream culture, but rather a complete collapse of our ecological systems. From pollution of water sources and deforestation to damaging agricultural and ranching methods—our actions perpetuate an orgy of environmental destruction and an over-exploitation of natural resources.
This chaos is evident in politics, too, with our institutions and governing systems rapidly disintegrating. In the US, divisions along political lines have grown so deep, and the onslaught on the rule of law and pillars of democracy by corporate and self-interest have become so overwhelming, that promoting any agenda effectively has become an impossible task. In Europe, the stability of the EU and the UK is under threat by a looming Brexit (among other causes), which reflects a global trend of rising nationalism and separatism. Meanwhile, wealth gaps widen, poverty continues to plague communities across the world and global migration becomes more prevalent due to violence, changes in climate and depletion of resources.
And what about our daily lives? It seems that a great many of us collapse into bed after a day replete with swiping and posting and shopping and listening to a million new tracks and meeting hot strangers on Tinder dates feeling… well, unfulfilled. Globalisation and the digitisation of a growing number of sectors seem to be opening up a trove of new career paths for millennials and Gen Zers, and yet over-saturation of the market, rising costs of living and the concentration of wealth at the hands of major corporations render many of us unemployed and bereft of reliable prospects for financial security. The advent of social media exposed us to a new realm of social interactions, trend-building and methods of self-expression, and yet it seems that we are more lonely and insecure than ever, and that our worlds grow smaller and smaller with every year that passes.
It appears that we are simply overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of changes and events concocting around us. As Jia Tolentino put it, it feels as though we are swept along a current toward “an inexorable future”; one that we have no control over or the power to shape. And while push-back is happening—as people endeavour, for instance, to raise awareness of mental health issues exacerbated by online culture and more movements emerge in order to tackle the ecological crisis—such efforts often prove to be divisive and fractured, and attempt to rectify grievances while feeding into the very systems that created them in the first place.
What keeps us trapped in this vicious cycle of paralysis is our tendency to view major issues, such as climate change and gun violence and mental illness and unscrupulous corporate behaviour, as isolated, external problems. We fail to recognise our role in perpetuating such trends through the illusion that our being ends at the edge of our skin and that the way we lead ourselves through the world bears no ramifications on the trajectory of our collective story. In other words, our detachment from ourselves leads us, in turn, to detach from our surroundings; from earth itself. It inspires in us the notion that we can consume without consequence; that we can nose-dive into the race-to-the-bottom of extracting resources and fighting for scraps of attention and be okay as long as we win our own portion of wealth and comfort (and to hell with the others). After all, nationalism is but an external manifestation of our own state of being. We can clamour against the injustices of capitalism until our throats crack, but will never transcend or perfect this model if we see ourselves as separate beings whose thriving comes at the expense of others.
Once we delve inside and revisit what is at the core of our dissatisfaction and anxiety, and once we begin to perceive ourselves as connected beings who impact one another, we may notice that the future is, perhaps, not so inexorable after all. It is completely within our ability to choose how we wish to conduct ourselves in the face of these changes, and explore what patterns in our daily lives we can either break or adopt in order to live more authentically and in a more conscious manner—be it the way we consume media, the effort we make to converse with those who disagree with us, or the way we engage with our immediate environment.
As we herald a new decade, we’re faced with the opportunity to wake from our slumber and choose to be proactive in shaping our lives. Starting with minor choices and careful introspection, we may generate a shift in attitude and consciousness that will gradually reverberate. And while it seems as though we sink deeper into our isolated echo chambers and are splintered off in myriad directions, our paths have, in fact, never been more intimately intertwined.
Therapy is no place for a lie, so I had better begin with truth. The new year will demand that the media output is accordingly hopeful. The first theme of this inexpert climate therapy column was supposed to be “hope”. New year, old problems but with a chipper twist of enthusiasm for wrenching out our bad habits and saving the planet. In 2019 you will be met with a screen full of tips for wellness and newness. Few column inches will be consecrated to the fact that last year you did not solve the environmental challenges humanity faces. Few media outlets will remind you in the first fortnight of 2019 about the problems we didn’t leave behind in 2018.
I tried to start the new year on a positive note like the rest of them but I’ve a drone in my bonnet. The week before Christmas some pesky, “brainless” (The Sun), “eco-warrior lone-wolf” (The Sun again), “fat idiot” (WTF, Jeremy Clarkson) was zipping around the fringes of Gatwick airport. My family was scheduled to fly out and join me in Norway for Christmas, so we collectively held our breath for the lone-wolf to stop driving through the sky (drone, not Santa) in time for Christmas.
While the cat and mouse palaver unfolded, I happened to be on the phone to Liam Geary Baulch, an Action Coordinator at Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is an activist organisation which practices non-violent civil disobedience to protest inefficient government action against climate change. Geary Baulch is an artist and activist who focuses his research on the mental health of activists and climate scientists. He was pleased to talk to me about the feelings that climate change brings up but which we push deep down and have allowed to fester beneath our social conscience for decades.
Climate scientists and activists have written in the press for a number of years about their climate change related distress, and yet little has been done in the way of a public therapy session. Geary Baulch and I talked about the trauma of losing our planet’s biodiversity. We discussed hope and how to mobilise the public through emotive campaigns. I wondered if it was fair to condemn one group of people for deploying emotionally charged public speech and praise the other when it suits my agenda.
And then I asked, “it’s not you guys behind the drones is it?” A selfish question to a person already carrying the weight of emotional labour for another. Geary Baulch graciously corrected me, letting me know that Extinction Rebellion puts their name to their actions. Extinction Rebellion did have reporters ring in that day with the same question, though. Doing something is more hopeful than sitting ducks. A tale of hope and action is attractive.
People find Extinction Rebellion’s emotive language and approach to climate action comforting. Geary Baulch explains that the Extinction Rebellion talks across the country have created crucial support systems for members of the public who need to talk about their emotional responses to climate fear. “That human, emotional level of dealing with this is how we have grown. Whenever we’re doing actions physically on the ground, with people on the streets, that’s when our reach expands massively. I think there is something inspiring about it.”
On April 15 of 2019, Extinction Rebellion will stage their International Rebellion Week. I hope this year the media will make more space to cheer on a growing number of climate activists demanding systemic changes against climate inaction.
Phone call with climate activist over. Try to write about hope. Drink a beer and take a nap because it’s December 20 and no one else is replying to emails. Most of my writing takes on shape in the moment between wakefulness and napfulness anyway.
The image of the drone followed me into my lull. Was an “eco-warrior” out there making a stand against people like my family who were pumping carbon into the air to join me for a Christian festival of pretending? Still now the drone mystery has not been settled, but people were excited at the prospect of someone taking radical action against polluting infrastructures. It is like an arty b-list film where the plot is never resolved and instead it is the unfolding of the protagonist’s self-awareness which takes centre-stage.
I could not write about hope without addressing the reality that I have not changed my consumer habits enough this year. I still take planes, buy plastic, recycle sloppily, eat meat and fund H&M’s natural resource depletion. I feel the familiar dredge of guilt rather than a wave of fresh hope.
Guilt can root itself so deeply in ourselves and our relations that we barely notice it is there, and this prevents the actions for change that we urgently need to take. We are caught in our own systems and things and systems of things. Is it unreasonable to expect us to identify that beneath the noise, we feel desperately guilty about our environmental inertia? Lots of us are not doing enough, aside from refusing a plastic straw in our gin and tonic, to prevent the climate catastrophe rearing up on us.
We feel guilty before we achieve change. Guilty for not quitting, or starting, something we should. We do feel calmer once we start our homework, our tax return or begin an overdue, difficult conversation. Until we talk about our collective and individual culpability we cannot begin to dig up the insidious guilt that steels us against progress. We should begin the new year backwards, by addressing the old lies we tell ourselves: that it will be ok, that science will solve it and that the human disposition for pretence has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis.
Humans made this mess, some humans more than others. A human approach to understanding the emotional complexity of inaction is worth a run. My top 2019 tip: a novel public resolution to solve a sticky problem is all the newness we need this year.