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In the 14th century, the Italian poet Petrarch wrote a letter to a friend in Avignon describing his sense of “foreboding” after an earthquake shook the foundations of Rome’s churches. “What should I do first, lament or be frightened?” he asked. “Everywhere there is cause for fear, everywhere reason for grief.”
The earthquake was only one in a series of calamities endured in the poet’s lifetime to that point: floods, storms, fires, wars and finally, “the plague from heaven that is unequalled through the ages,” the dreaded Black Death, which would eventually kill more than a third of Europe’s population.
In his letter, Petrarch was distressed by the suffering of the present, but he was equally worried about what it meant for the future. His fears were “not only about the quaking of land but its effect on minds.”
Six hundred years after Petrarch grappled with the apocalyptic tremors of his own time, the effect of catastrophe on minds is the subject of several new articles published in the last few weeks by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New York Magazine, all of them concerned with the end of the world as we know it. They’re tackling a question at the heart of our collective (in)ability to confront an existential threat: How should we think about — and through — the global disaster that is climate change?
After years of rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and mass extinction, why has this question bubbled to the American cultural surface now? For one perspective, I asked Elizabeth Weil, whose essay How to Live in a Catastrophe appeared in New York Magazine. She believes the flurry of writing on the topic is connected to the increasingly devastating extreme weather of the 2020s. “The idea that we weren’t already in the middle of the climate crisis just fell away,” she said. “You couldn’t deny it anymore.”
Since 2020, the Doomsday Clock has ticked ever closer to midnight. We are in a moment that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls “both perilous and unsustainable,” listing among its reasons for alarm the fallout from the climate crisis, fears of nuclear war in Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic. On climate change, the scientists’ verdict on humanity’s response is “lots of words, relatively little action,” an assessment that negotiations at COP27 have done little to prove wrong.
Ranking climate change as number 2 on his list of “Top 10 Existential Worries,” Joel Achenbach confesses in the Washington Post that he is “cautiously optimistic,” positing that how you think about existential threats comes down to your faith in humanity — or lack thereof. “Do you believe, fundamentally, in the human race?” he asks.
Writing Beyond Catastrophe in the Times, David Wallace-Wells also finds reasons for optimism in 2022. With the aid of newly cheap renewable energy and a “truly global political mobilization,” Wallace-Wells envisions “a new climate reality” for humanity and the planet that will make true neither “the most terrifying predictions” nor “the most hopeful.”
How should we think about the end of the world as we know it? #ClimateChange #ExtremeWeather #GlobalWarming
In her essay, Weil consults activists and scholars, searching for strategies that others have deployed when confronted with the cataclysms of the past. “This isn’t the first time in human history when the world has been completely overwhelming,” she said, of her reasons for writing the piece. (Petrarch would agree: he describes the late 1340s as a period of such misery that “new forms of evil are inconceivable.”)
Weil’s piece considers the “intelligent sabotage” advocated by thinkers like the Swedish eco-Marxist Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, as well as the “tools of religion” advanced by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, and the “ritual comfort” of performances like a glacier funeral staged by anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer in Iceland in 2019. They installed a plaque, titled “A letter to the future,” with this message:
This monument is to acknowledge
that we know what is happening
and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.
Knowing what needs to be done is one thing; having the will to do it is another. We are not experiencing this catastrophe in the same way or at the same pace. Some of us are still in the anger and bargaining phases of climate grief, while others have moved well past acceptance.
On a trip to Iceland this August, I stood on the edge of an aquamarine lagoon that is fed by the melting Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Icebergs — glittery fragments broken off from the dying glacier — floated by, banded with volcanic ash, a record of Iceland’s ancient eruptions. I asked a few of the Icelanders who were working there as tour guides how they felt about this place. To me, the scene was both transfixing and tragic; the lagoon exists like this because of climate change, and for all its dazzling beauty, it is also a disturbing portent. But the Icelanders didn’t see it like I did, maybe because in their country, it has long been impossible to ignore how rapidly we are shredding the fabric of the natural world. They do not have the luxury of shock. Watching the crowds of tourists snapping photos of seals frolicking in the water, their response was stoic. “This is just how it is,” one of them said.
The truth about catastrophe is that even in its tumultuous midst, we mostly forge ahead, sloughing off our terror. We adapt, we rebuild, and we convince ourselves that the fates of our neighbours will not befall us. When everything familiar is crumbling around us, our first instinct is so often to cling to any scraps of normalcy that remain. You could see this instinct clearly in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic; around the world, panic soon gave way to grim routine.
On the other hand, as Weil points out in her piece, there is nothing irrational about catastrophizing when you’re living through a genuine catastrophe. “Yes, it’s a catastrophe,” she writes. “And no, you would not be better off if you continued to tell yourself otherwise.” In order to avoid the pitfalls of denial and despair, we will need to chart a practical path through the ambiguous abyss that lies between optimism and doom. “We’re going to have to live with hope,” Weil said. “And we’re going to have to live with a lot of fear.” To safely evacuate a burning building and put the fire out, you need to communicate the urgency of the emergency; you also need to project confidence and encourage calm.
This is another way to think through catastrophe: seek solace in the clarity of action. Weil recounts Günther Anders’ reimagining of the Great Flood, where Noah appears before the people in mourning dress, telling them that they have already died because total catastrophe will soon be upon them. That night, a carpenter comes to his workshop and offers to build an ark so that Noah’s terrible vision “may become false.” A future that seemed preordained is altered through work.
Anders’ story is like the common proverb that warns against the folly of relying only on faith when you are in danger. “Call on God, but row away from the rocks” is one version in English, though similar warnings exist in other languages and cultures. Faith in the human spirit might be a necessary balm to the mind in catastrophe, but balm alone can’t save us from ourselves. Hope without action is just a wish.
In another of Petrarch’s letters, he comforts his correspondent with a quotation from Virgil. “Hold on,” he writes, “and find salvation in the hope of better things.”
Our hopes for the future should not be pinned on preserving the tattered, unequal status quo. “Change is scary, and big change is really scary, but our world is not perfect. It’s very, very, very far from it,” Weil said in our interview. “What if change truly does bring us to a better place? Even though we’re terrified?”