The other day the wheels came off and I went from being a globe-trotting, planet-saving impact investor to being a small ship on a dark sea, a barely visible presence for whom getting up in the morning was out of the question and getting up at all was an achievement. To borrow a line from the singer-songwriter, John Grant: “I wanted to change the world but I could not even change my underwear.”
The purists will insist that a depression that is caused by something isn’t a true depression. The real stuff drops on you from nowhere like a toxic mudslide carrying off a village, or a biblical rainfall of frogs. Maybe they are right and certainly brain chemistry has a role to play. But this separation between one’s internal state and one’s external influences strikes me as unnecessarily strict. Yes, one can get depressed on a sunny day when everyone else seems happy but one can also get depressed in the depths of winter after months immersed in environmental activism. Mass extinctions, 12 years to save the world, climate induced famines, forced migration... climate is a gloomy area in which to work. It can make happy people sad and if you already tend toward the blues you might find those blues shifting to black.
There is a far greater willingness to talk about mental health issues now than there was five or ten years ago. This is a welcome development and I hope, in some small way, that this article can contribute to that discussion by looking at the intersection between climate and one’s own state of mind. And helpful not just for those currently suffering or at risk of suffering in the future but potentially helpful for society as a whole. In the same way that there are certain negative feedback loops that risk making climate change even worse there is also a negative feedback loop that can tip those who are most actively involved in researching and fighting against climate change into despair and hopelessness. The people we need the most will end up unable to act while those who are in denial and blithely destroying our common home will carry on with insouciance. As W. B. Yeats famously put it: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
“I wanted to change the world but I could not even change my underwear.”
I don’t claim to have the answers to this broader question but one thing that helped me emerge from my own bleak mood was accepting it. This might sound heroic or give the impression that I have reached some state of Zen enlightenment but in reality I didn’t have much choice. The pain was so crippling and the fatigue so heavy that fighting wasn’t really an option. I would love to have pushed through, pulled myself together and carried on with life, but the wave that broke was so strong that swimming against it would have used up what little strength I had. So I just let it break and went underwater for a while. When I had strength I did things — made a cup of coffee, sent a few emails, saw a friend — and when I didn’t, I didn’t. There was a fair amount of lying in bed, sitting on the sofa, going the wrong direction in the metro, staring at computer screens and walking very slowly down the street.
It was frustrating not to be able to get on with my work — the clock of climate change was ticking, the icecaps melting — but I really didn’t have a choice and one thing that this period of greatly reduced activity taught me was that inaction needn’t always be the opposite of activism. I didn’t take any planes or trains during this period. I attended a bare minimum of meetings and when at home I barely even turned the lights on. Our pet rabbit was more active than I was and my own carbon footprint was probably the lowest it has been for any comparable stretch of time.
By accepting that there will be periods of greater and lesser activity in our own lives we would more closely align ourselves with our pre-modern past and help prepare for our post-fossil fuel futures. Before we started digging up coal and drilling for oil almost all our energy came in the form of flows: windmills, watermills and animals that needed to be fed and watered and rested. Even the energy sources that looked like stocks were, in reality, closely tied to the rhythms of growth and death: the stack of firewood was recently a tree. These flows were, by definition, intermittent: when they were there you worked, when they weren’t you didn’t. Fossil fuels changed all that and gave us energy that could be stored, transported and used whenever we wanted. The city that never sleeps, the empire on which the sun never sets.
When those fuels run out or we choose to stop using them, what will human society look like? I don’t think we will go back to a pre-modern existence since we have techniques for storing intermittent energy flows that we didn’t have before. But I suspect that the rhythms of our existence will be closer to the ebbs and flows of the “natural” or pre-fossil fuel world. The stocks of energy we will have in the future will be more like the water trapped behind a dam — it is held there by force and is always trying to break free and return to its fluid state. Fossil fuels were a one-off wonder that we have come to consider as the “natural” way of things. But the natural way is actually flows, and you can never step in the same river twice.
When politicians or businessmen talk about the transition from fossil fuels to renewables it often sounds like a positive and painless process but in reality there is something destabilizing and scary hiding behind this message. We all tend to feel things long before we can formulate them in words and I think an unconscious awareness of this fact — that the transition will be difficult — is one of the contributing factors behind the outbursts of anger we are seeing in many countries.
When my own personal energy supply disappeared and I was stuck in bed, I could hear police sirens and smell burning tires in the streets of Paris outside my window. The gilets jaunes movement has no leader and no manifesto and as a result is hard to pin down or analyze. Politicians of all stripes from the far-left to the far-right have tried to co-opt the movement and it is not clear what exactly it will turn into. But I don’t think it is a coincidence that the straw that broke the camel’s back and triggered the protests was a proposed increase in the fuel tax. Nor do I think it is a coincidence that one of the core constituencies that swept Donald Trump into power were the coal miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Or that former mining and industrial cities in the North of England voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
The new system that is emerging — a world of flows and intermittence — will be very different from the old one so it is only natural that those people whose lives and identities are intrinsically or symbolically linked to the old order will want to hold onto the past, particularly if they are already in an economically precarious position. This is more than just nostalgia, it is an attempt to stop time and to stave off a scary and uncertain future that, at some inchoate level, one acknowledges as inevitable. In such a context who wouldn’t want to believe the message that we are going to take back control, that climate change is a hoax and that everything will be alright?
Things might be alright in the future or they might not be. But what is certain is that they will be very different. I think it is better to acknowledge and accept this sooner rather than later, and seek to move beyond denial and rage as we process our societal grief. “We but mirror the world,” said Gandhi. “All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.” It wasn’t pleasant while it lasted and was undoubtedly difficult for those around me too but in some paradoxical way I am grateful to this recent bout of depression for helping align me with a world of ebbs and flows and intermittence. In the depths of depression there is no future or, if there is, it is a dark and threatening place. But now that the wave has broken and subsided and I am back above the surface of the water, I find myself looking with a new form of serenity at the world which is to come.