On a bright fall day in 1991, Chris Foster left his differential equations class at the University of California, Davis, bypassed students lounging on the quad, and headed toward the Domes, an on-campus co-op housing development. Although it was November, he was wearing his usual uniform: pink shorts, no shirt, no shoes. At the Domes, he harvested mesquite in a grove of trees and picked wild radishes and mallow in a nearby field. He then walked three miles west to Village Homes, another co-op, which he knew would be a scavenger’s cornucopia: full of late-season figs, apples, nuts, and wild grapes. Chris harvested only fallen fruit—he felt this was less invasive than picking from trees, and his aim was to tread lightly on the earth, to be almost invisible, in order to cause as little harm as possible.
Chris was a philosophy and math major, and he liked to think of himself as the Diogenes of Davis, a reference to the fourth-century BCE Cynic philosopher who renounced wealth and slept outdoors in a large ceramic jar. Chris had made a habit of trying to last the night outside without a sleeping bag. “I couldn’t accept the privileges of humanity when I didn’t want any part of humanity,” he told me. Eating fallen fruit and sleeping outside, however, didn’t provide him relief from his feelings of guilt and foreboding. He began to feel a dread that was inescapable and all-consuming. A devastating depression that he had suffered a few years before that fall semester returned. Normally a math phenom, Chris started failing his tests. In his apartment, he would sit in the dark—he didn’t want to waste electricity—listen to records, and cry. “I felt like I was slowly dying,” he said.
A few months later, Chris left Davis to pursue a PhD in philosophy at the University of Kansas. But his condition didn’t improve. After having subsisted on scavenged persimmons and radishes for the entire fall term, he’d lost a dangerous amount of weight. His mother paid a visit to campus and, horrified by his appearance, immediately drove him to the grocery store to buy food. At home, Chris’s family had a hard time understanding the intensity of the self-denial that governed his life. His father and sister blamed his breakdown on abuse that Chris had suffered as a child; they believed his desire to escape society was a projection, an act of taking responsibility for something that wasn’t his fault. But Chris had a different explanation. When he was fifteen, his father had taken him and his sister on a trip to Mount St. Helens. Halfway up the mountain, they had passed clear-cut land. As Chris recalls, one moment there was only evergreen forest and the next moment there was nothing—just bare ground and stumps as far as he could see. A word came to his mind: evil. From that day forward, something shifted in him. He didn’t want any part of such destruction. By his senior year in college, this conviction had grown into a personal mandate to renounce participation in human society altogether. He was offended by his family’s attempts to find explanations in his psychology for problems he thought of as external to him. “Why does my grief have to be because something bad happened to me?” he told me. “They made it sound like I had a psychosis or a mental breakdown and that this is just the form it took, when really, shouldn’t anyone who is ethical and compassionate also choose to opt out of this society?”
I met Chris in 2004, when he was a professor at Brigham Young University, more than a decade after he left Davis. He had converted to Mormonism; I had been raised in the church but was on my way out. The first time I saw him, he was giving an animated anti-hunting lecture, bobbing up and down in front of a whiteboard scribbled with exhortations on animal rights (this in an avidly pro-hunting, conservative state). I was wearing a shirt that said My name is Ashley Sanders—something I thought was hilarious, for reasons that now elude me—and when I walked through the door of the classroom, Chris stopped his lecture to say, “Hello, Ashley Sanders.” We immediately became friends.
In 2009, discouraged by the failed climate talks in Copenhagen, Chris told me he believed it might already be too late to stop catastrophic climate change. “The old world,” he said, “is gone.” It was a torch-passing moment. Chris was paralyzed by a conviction in his own failure. He had become complacent, he felt, and addicted to television: the sort of person he used to despise. But I was just beginning my own journey into environmental despair. I was full of guilt and anxiety and anger and fear about a future filled with loss and death. I began to draw my own elliptical lines through the ethics of the climate crisis. I turned off the heat in my house, even during the bitter Utah winters. I was late everywhere, determined to take a bus to another bus to a train. I obsessed over plastic bags and Styrofoam plates, and insisted on bringing my own plate to a local sandwich shop. I carried my garbage around for a week and roped my friends into doing so, too, each of us hauling a stinking reminder of our consumption from class to class, clearing rooms as we went. I joined a direct action climate justice group; I planned blockades of city streets and got arrested. I joined with Utah Valley farmers to organize against urban sprawl. I camped in the high deserts of western Utah, trying, with my body and the bodies of others, to physically stop construction on a tar sands mine. I lay down in front of the federal building in Salt Lake City, in the rain, to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a poster draped over my body disintegrating in the downpour. I went to Earth First! direct action trainings, where I learned how to lock myself to fences, pipelines, and other people. When I became devastated by the fact that nothing was happening, I joined radical anti-civilization listservs and groups, where people talked seriously about destroying electric, gas, and internet infrastructure and bringing down industrial society.
I was working fifty-hour weeks, mostly unpaid. My mother, concerned, suggested that I take a break. But I refused. There was no pause button on climate change, so why should I get a break? On some days, Salt Lake City, where I lived, had exceptionally bad air quality, a thick soup of pollution settling between the mountains and the valley. The corridor between Salt Lake and Provo, where I’d gone to college, had been completely converted from farmland to strip malls in just ten years. To the south lay one of the biggest open-pit copper mines in the world, to the north was an industrial warren of refineries, and to the west was nuclear waste buried in clay-sealed chambers, reeking of death. That was just the local stuff. Coral reefs were collapsing, ocean ecosystems were overfished, and people in island nations were trapped between salted well water and the swallowing sea.
Meanwhile, everyone around me was fine. Most of them weren’t climate deniers, yet none of them seemed disturbed by what they claimed to know. When I talked about how I really felt, environmental leaders cautioned me. “The key is to be positive,” they said. “Nobody likes doom and gloom.” For me, though, eight years of overwork, stress, and anxiety had taken a toll. My partner and I fought constantly. I had nightmares when I fell asleep and daymares when I read the news. I was sick all the time. I came to hate humankind, its happiness and calm. I went to therapists who stared at me quizzically. I was sad about what? “The end of the world,” I said, again and again. Finally, at a loss, they diagnosed me with depression.
Eventually, I left it all. I retreated with my girlfriend to a cabin in upstate New York: no email, no news, no crises. I knew what I wanted. I wanted a world that would last through the century. I wanted a world where my existence didn’t mean the end for others. But, barring that, I really wanted just one thing: To grieve. To say, This is unbearable, and to have people to try to bear it with.
My burnout lasted five years. I still read the news before going to bed—I couldn’t help myself. Then, as my partner slept next to me, I’d watch videos of endangered species: a North Atlantic right whale mother swimming with her calves—3 of only 411 left; a free diver swimming with a great white shark, her hand placed gently on its side. I watched as the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea released a giant Pacific octopus called The Dude back into the wild to live his final days at sea. The Dude trundled along the ocean floor, his eight legs whirling. He played with the divers’ cameras as they filmed him. Watching these videos felt like a ritual. It was my way of saying goodbye, I suppose, to creatures I had never met but would miss anyway.
The night I watched The Dude’s oceanic return, I happened upon an article on the Permian extinction. Two hundred and fifty-two million years ago, the article said, a series of volcanic eruptions spewed plumes of carbon into the atmosphere, turning the world into a hothouse in a geologic blink of an eye. In response, 96 percent of animals on earth went extinct. Insects were wiped out completely. It took the earth ten million years to recover. And then there was the kicker: now, for the first time in hundreds of millions of years, the article said, we are seeing a trajectory toward Permian levels of carbon in the atmosphere.
So this is it, I thought. This is how it will end. I wanted to act. But I was afraid of becoming shrill again, afraid of my urge to grab plastic bags out of people’s hands and force my partner to turn down the thermostat and try to fit animal extinction into casual conversation. I was afraid I would become a purist and a martyr, taking all the sorrow and all the suffering on myself because I didn’t know how else to reconcile my smallness with the hugeness of the problem.
I wasn’t immune to social cues. I knew I was supposed to agree that biodegradable cups were helping or that the empathy of the next generation would pull us out or that—a common response—not all life would be lost, and that humans, resilient, would go on. In each of these conversations, there was a subtext: This is where you nod and agree. This is where you choose this friendship over party-pooping facts. This is where you stop.
Sometimes I could do it. Other times I got combative, desperate, contrary. Meanwhile, Chris got married and had two children. When we hung out, he was happier. But he was different too. In his purist days, he’d let his lawn go to seed, refusing to use scarce water resources to keep it green. Now he was living in the suburbs, putting in Kentucky bluegrass. “Why don’t you just keep your lawn the way it was?” I said, too urgently. “Because I’ve been sad my whole life,” Chris said, “and sometimes I just want to sit on my green lawn with my wife and feel love.” I knew it was just a lawn, but it upset me anyway. Chris had been the one person who understood me, who didn’t make me feel crazy or as if I was extreme for what I believed. We argued; I left. I knew I’d hurt Chris’s feelings, and I felt terrible for it. I also knew I meant what I’d said. But it went deeper than that. Chris had chosen happiness over constant stress. Was this the ultimate choice: Caring for yourself or caring for the world? If it was, I didn’t want to know.
I quit climate activism for a time, but I’ve kept going to therapy, and I keep confusing my therapists by talking about the end of the world. As it turns out, I’m not alone. A report released in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation warned that climate change is creating a mental health crisis. The climate scientists, psychologists, and policy experts who authored the study estimated that two hundred million Americans will suffer from mental illness as a result of natural disasters, droughts, heat waves, and economic downturn. Recent disasters bear this out. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster on record, there was a 7 percent spike in PTSD among the children who survived. In the year after Hurricane Katrina, the suicide rate in New Orleans tripled, and the number of instances of depression and PTSD grew to what health experts described as near-epidemic levels. Even people who aren’t directly impacted by climate disasters can be affected. According to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association, merely acknowledging the reality of climate change and its consequences can trigger chronic fear, fatalism, anger, and exhaustion—a condition that psychologists are increasingly referring to as eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety can manifest in other serious ways. In 2008, in the midst of a severe drought in Australia, a seventeen-year-old boy refused to drink water because he was afraid that doing so would lead to the deaths of millions of people. Doctors diagnosed him with “climate delusion” and prescribed antidepressants. When they asked him why he took such drastic action, he said he felt guilty. Since then, his doctors have treated other young people with climate-related psychosis, as well as children with recurring nightmares about climate disaster. In Delhi, a pile of skulls near India’s Parliament serves as a reminder of the country’s nearly sixty thousand farmer suicides, which experts say were connected to drought and rising temperatures in the region. (More than twelve thousand farmers killed themselves in India in 2015 alone.) Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish girl who inspired the growing student climate strike movement, says that learning about climate change—and seeing adults’ inaction—contributed to a severe depression during which she stopped eating and drinking.
In the United States, a group of twenty-one young people filed a lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, that argues that the government’s inaction on climate change will cause psychological damage to future generations. (The Trump administration has fought the suit at every step, and it is currently on hold.) Still other activists are turning the violence of climate change on themselves—like David Buckel, a human rights lawyer who in 2018 lit himself on fire in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, to call attention to the scale of the climate plight.
The emergent understanding of the psychological harm caused by climate change is at the root of a new field known as ecopsychology. According to one of its founders, historian Theodore Roszak, the purpose of the discipline is to define “‘sanity’ as if the whole world mattered.” Ecopsychologists view the Cartesian separation of mind and body—an outlook taken for granted in mainstream medicine—as antiquated and harmful, and argue that it can lead to people viewing themselves as separate from the planet they live on. Because traditional psychologists limit their examinations to individuals and their internal maladies, they stamp a “sick” label on patients like Chris and me in an attempt to treat the person instead of treating the problem. Within ecopsychology, the solution is not to pathologize patients but to help them restore their sense of control by reconnecting them with the natural world.
Bruce Levine, a self-described dissident psychiatrist, believes that forces like climate change have real consequences for the human body. But he thinks it’s problematic to consider this sort of anxiety and depression a mental illness. “When you start labeling those problems as a sickness,” he said, “political awareness starts to drift away.” For example, he told me, PTSD was a diagnosis in vogue after the Vietnam War. The effects of PTSD are real, he said, “but in retrospect, were we not better off calling this problem ‘being fucked-up by war?’” To Levine, situating sickness only inside the individual is a way for the psychiatric profession to ensure its viability. “It’s how we support the power structure,” he told me. “We take problems that financial and political assholes created by being uncaring, and now we feel good about solving the problem.”
Critics argue that ecopsychology is a flabby discipline without clear boundaries or time-tested methods. They accept recent studies showing that exposure to nature can have positive effects on human health, but they don’t necessarily believe the opposite—that the destruction of nature can make people sick. Robert Salo, the doctor who diagnosed the Australian boy with climate psychosis, was careful to note the boy’s other symptoms (long-term depression, suicidal thoughts, and hearing voices) and the disproportionate sense of importance he placed on his own actions (believing that his own small water usage would lead to widespread deaths). Other critics have pointed out that climate delusion usually afflicts people who already suffer from other mental health maladies, and that the triggers for psychotic episodes generally take the form of the dominant political or cultural issues of the time, from nuclear holocaust to Cold War–era fears about the spread of communism. These critics might argue that people like Chris and me are predisposed to guilt, compulsion, or a grandiose sense of our own importance based on our past experiences and our chemical makeup, and that if climate change hadn’t set us off, something else would have. They might point out that our beliefs endangered ourselves and worried others—so, practically speaking, we were sick, and we did need traditional treatment.
The critics are right about two things: Chris and I are sick, and we need treatment. But they’re missing a critical perspective. If we are sick because our society is sick, shouldn’t society be treated alongside the patient? Ultimately, a lot of the disagreement over climate-induced mental illness boils down to vocabulary. We have words to describe the flu, or depression, or the common cold. We know the contours and symptoms of these illnesses. But when it comes to climate grief, the experience can be hard to define, and thus harder to understand and demonstrate. If climate sickness exists in the overlap of the physical and the emotional, we need words for those feelings, a dictionary of sorts that allows us to see patterns in the experiences of individual people. Fortunately, that’s exactly what a group of motley philosophers, artists, and doctors are currently working to devise.
In the nineteenth century, the Upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia, was called the Tuscany of the South for its landscape of rolling hills and winding rivers, trees, and savannah. In the ’80s, when Glenn Albrecht arrived there to write a book about two ornithologists, he was confronted with an entirely different vista: a massive clear-cut coal mine, soon to be the world’s largest. He returned regularly to the valley over the years, and by the ’90s it had been gutted, with more than 15 percent of the valley floor exposed. The homes in the path of the mines had been bought and bulldozed; those remaining, on the edge of the pits, were covered in soot. Dust and grime hung in the air. Klieg lights lit up the sky twenty-four hours a day. Birdsong had been replaced by the noise of detonations. It felt, Albrecht said, “like walking into an apocalypse.”
Between visits, Albrecht returned to the University of Newcastle, where he was an environmental studies professor. Even among the town’s sun-soaked hills and beaches, he couldn’t shake the feeling of distress that the mine had provoked in him. Eventually, after he’d made many trips to the Upper Hunter Valley, locals began calling him. Their homes were being destroyed by the mines, they said, and they asked for his help. Albrecht was an environmental writer and advocate, and he was accustomed to people asking for his advice, but the desperation, sorrow, and panic in these voices constituted something different: palpable grief. The mines could and did make people physically sick, with asthma and cancer, and led to high rates of birth defects. The mines also destroyed their houses. But it was apparent to Albrecht that the residents’ pain was emotional as well as physical. It seemed they were not losing just their homes but their home, their sense of belonging to a place. He started to see a relationship between environmental and psychological distress, between the health of the land and the health of its people.
As a philosopher, Albrecht determined to identify and name this condition. The word he came up with was solastalgia, a portmanteau word of the Latin solus, which means “abandonment and loneliness,” and nostalgia. Nostalgia has not always had the warm and fuzzy connotations it does now. When it was first used, in the seventeenth century, it described a diagnosable illness that afflicted people who were far from home but could not return. Soldiers were particularly susceptible, as were people forced into migration by conflict, colonization, and slavery. The cure, it was thought, was simply to return home and be soothed by familiarity—
otherwise, the sufferer’s distress would continue, even to the point of death. To Albrecht, if nostalgia was a sickness caused by the displacement brought about by seventeenth-century globalization, solastalgia was its twenty-
Once he had a name for the condition, Albrecht set out to record its existence. In April 2003, he returned to the Upper Hunter Valley with a team of social scientists. He conducted interviews with residents, asking them about their families, their houses, and their history in the valley. Meanwhile, his partner, Nick Higginbotham, conducted statistical research. Higginbotham used the Environmental Distress Scale to compare the health of Hunter Valley residents to that of a control community that had not been exposed to mining. He mailed out surveys to residents in both communities asking them to rate the frequency of environmental disturbances they had witnessed near their homes; how threatened they felt by them; the emotional, economic, and physical impacts they felt; the actions they’d taken to address the situation; how much they trusted government and industry information; and the degree to which loss of place, or solastalgia, had affected them. People living in the hardest-hit mining areas reported more environmental disturbances, higher levels of threat, and greater emotional and physical effects than the control group. Most important, though, they reported acute feelings of solastalgia, agreeing strongly with phrases like “I miss having the sense of peace and quiet I once enjoyed in this place” or “I am ashamed of the way this area looks now.” After nearly two years of exhaustive qualitative and quantitative research, Albrecht and his team were able to define solastalgia as not just a word or a concept but an empirical reality.
Albrecht’s study on solastalgia was the first of its kind. Since then, additional research has demonstrated a connection between environmental and psychological distress. Meanwhile, the word has traveled far; Albrecht has sparked something of a movement in art, politics, and philosophy, as more and more people search for a way to describe their feelings of grief and loss about climate change and environmental destruction. In October 2018, when I spoke to Albrecht, he was in Sweden, talking with the Sami about the effects of forest fires on their land and psyches. Albrecht worries about his fame, however. “The fact that the word is gaining traction means we’re in deep shit,” he told me. “I want it removed from the English language as quickly as possible.”
Lise Van Susteren, a practicing clinical psychiatrist in Washington, DC, has developed her own words for climate grief. Van Susteren started reading about the health consequences of climate change in the early aughts. After An Inconvenient Truth came out, she signed up to be a climate educator through Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Her scientific training gave her valuable insight into the consequences of climate change, but it also led her to place too much faith in data. “I was unrealistic about the human mind and our capacity to deny,” she told me over the phone. “I honestly thought, We’ll look at where we are, we will see we have to get carbon emissions down to 350 parts per million.” She led classes and waited for change to happen—but things only got worse. “We were not only not bringing numbers down—they were accelerating,” she said.
Van Susteren started having trouble sleeping. After getting into bed and closing her eyes, she would be ambushed by intrusive images. She would see refugees surrounded by barbed wire, animals trapped in the path of a hurricane, people stranded in floodwaters. The worst image was of a child. It wasn’t any child she knew, but a sort of representative for all children. The child looked at Van Susteren and asked the same question again and again: “Why didn’t you do anything?”
As a psychiatrist, Van Susteren recognized her symptoms. The stress, the insomnia, the intrusive thoughts—they read like PTSD. And yet the trauma she was imagining hadn’t happened yet, or at least it hadn’t happened to her. How could she feel trauma before the cause? But her stress was undeniable, and it was debilitating. “You can breeze through the newspaper and try not to read about insect Armageddon, the glacial ice sheets melting, wildfires, climate refugees, and storms,” she said, “but it registers on your psyche. Whether you like it or not, it does.” Van Susteren coined a new term for her condition: pre-traumatic stress disorder.
I have had symptoms of pre-TSD for much of my adult life. When Van Susteren told me about the disorder, I thought of the night I learned about the Permian extinction and the argument I’d had with Chris about his lawn. At the time, I’d just felt frustrated and confused. Now I had a word for these feelings. The sleepless nights, the obsessive YouTubing, the tendency to place huge importance on everyday decisions—they were rooted in a fear of the future. I was picturing all the small decisions across the world and multiplying them by time. I was grieving the future in the present, and—since there were so few people who wanted to talk about it—I was grieving it alone.
If we accept the emergence of solastalgia, pre-traumatic stress disorder, and other climate-induced ills, what’s to be done about them? How do we confront the reality of climate change and convince others to do the same? The environmentalist Alan AtKisson calls this predicament Cassandra’s Dilemma, named after the princess of Troy who appears in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. Cassandra is blessed with seeing the future, but her gift is accompanied by a counterbalancing curse: no one believes her prophecies. AtKisson connects the myth to climate action: the more a person knows about environmental destruction, the more they will try to warn others, and the more others will, in fear and defensiveness, resist them.
The environmental movement has been collectively trying to solve this problem for years. Its solution has been to gather more data. It hasn’t worked. In the wake of environmental inaction, many activists have started to shift the emphasis toward emotions, not facts. A key strategy is to name those emotions and normalize them.
To find out more about this approach, I visited the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, in San Francisco, in 2018. The bureau is tucked into a corner of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. At the time of my visit, elsewhere in the city, indigenous activists were blocking the streets in protest of California governor Jerry Brown’s climate policies. I was there during the Global Climate Action Summit, a convergence of world leaders, politicians, and environmentalist bigwigs determined to compensate for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords—
a noble goal, but one that many don’t think goes far enough. In a corner of the center, behind a small table, I found Alicia Escott and Heidi Quante, the two founders of the bureau. They were dressed in military greens and covered in patches of the starburst from Carl Sagan’s golden record. Next to the table were posters propped on easels that read: shadowtime; gwilt; casaperdida.
The mission of the bureau is to create a dictionary for the Anthropocene—not a dictionary of scientific terms, but a lexicon of words to describe the destabilizing experience of living through mass climate change. Escott and Quante conceived of the project during an unusually sunny San Francisco winter, when they confessed to each other that they felt joy at the warm weather (they could wear sundresses) but guilty about what it meant. They wanted a word for that feeling, something that captured their ambivalence. They came up with psychic corpus dissonance. Other words include ennuipocalypse: the idea that the end of the world might not be a Hollywood Armageddon, but mundane and almost normal; and NonnaPaura, the desire to have children or grandchildren, mixed with a fear about the world they’ll inherit. The bureau’s mission combines philosophy (because words forge the way we see the world) and politics (because new words create new possibilities for action). But it’s also absurd: the military uniforms, the game of making up new words to describe highly specific feelings, the free patches they give out. They look like experts from another planet, reporting on their interactions with sentient life on Earth. The strangeness invites curiosity, said Quante. Instead of throwing data at people, the bureau invites the public to reflect, feel, and collaborate. “I noticed that the approaches of the environmental groups weren’t effective with people who didn’t already agree with them,” she said. “So obviously talking at people and telling them what to do doesn’t work.”
When I walked in, I noticed that Escott and Quante had placed a sign near the museum entrance announcing Word needed followed by a definition: The misdiagnosis that an individual’s depression or mental illness is derived from something wrong with them personally, when the depression may actually be induced by living in a society that is ill or broken. The bureau doesn’t usually provide a definition in need of a word, but so many people had talked to them about this feeling that they’d decided to crowdsource it.
The definition immediately made me think of Chris. Escott and Quante related to it too. After the failed Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, Escott hid out in her studio in the Castro, broke and devastated, and started a strange experiment: she wrote letters to extinct animals like the desert rat kangaroo, which disappeared from Australia in 1994, and filled the animals in on what they had missed in the intervening years. Quante told me that one of her earliest memories was learning that so many things around her were alive—the trees, the grass, the frogs. It terrified her to realize the harm she was capable of. One day, after it had rained, her mother made her walk along a worm-strewn sidewalk, and she screamed as she was dragged along. “We’re killing them!” she said. “We’re killing them!”
When Quante debuted the bureau at the Paris climate meetings, a woman from Haiti approached her, almost in tears. The fact that other people were talking about feeling grief, the woman said, made her feel less isolated and crazy. An environmental lawyer came by later to look for a place to sit. When he learned what the bureau does, he confessed to Quante that his job weighed on him heavily. Every day, he told her, he went to court to fight against environmental destruction, but as a lawyer, his only tools of expression were the languages of rationality and law. He could never say what he actually felt. As he spoke to Quante, he began to cry. “No one has ever asked me what I felt about this before,” he said.
“There’s such a suppression,” Quante told me. “Our artwork is showing that almost everyone is experiencing solastalgia. A lot of people are depressed. They’re not alone.” Quante believes that this shift to people realizing they are part of a greater collective can lead to social change.
Throughout the day I visited the bureau, people walked up to the table with looks of excitement or relief. “I’ve got a word for that depression thing,” said a young woman. “How about socioppression?” It was clunky (many of the bureau’s words are), but Escott and Quante were game to discuss it. The woman, an actor, told them that her job was to make people feel things. Why, she wondered, would we stamp out feelings about the most devastating problem? “It’s like people create all these diagnoses to diminish the larger existential reality.” She paused, thinking about what she had just said. “What about distrance?” she said. “Like a mix of distance and distraction?”
The rest of the day brought requests for a word describing the jaded feeling of constantly receiving bad news; a word for experiencing generations of environmental trauma; a word for the way that ash and smoke from a forest fire turn the sky purple and the trees a bluish gray. (Two months later, when California was engulfed by forest fires, the bureau created another word, brokenrecordrecordbreaking, for the feeling of déjà vu experienced when reading that this year’s catastrophe records are the highest ever.) One woman approached the table uncertainly. She had a bristle of gray hair and Hello Kitty tattoos on her arms, and she wanted to suggest the word eco-pooper. “You know,” she says, “like that person who brings up some depressing environmental thing every time you talk?” Then she turned to me and asked what word I would invent. I wondered if I should tell her that I was an eco-pooper: her worst nightmare. Instead, I said, “Maybe something about repressing the desire to talk about climate change at parties.” She looked at me and shrugged. “Well, yeah, no one likes that. Like, The world is ending. Pass the cheese puffs!”
Today, Chris lives in a gingerbread-style house in downtown Salt Lake City with his wife and two kids. It’s a life his Davis self never could have imagined. But although his life may look normal, he’s still devastated by the state of the planet. When I called him in late 2018, he was stewing. He’d just been to Utah Valley University, in Orem, to see a mutual friend of ours named Ben present his latest climate research. After the panel, while they were talking about some of the grim news, Ben declared that he considered himself an optimist, and that if Chris kept talking pessimistically, things would never change. “He didn’t say I was factually wrong,” Chris said. “Just that I felt wrong.” Chris likened optimism to a boat headed toward the edge of Niagara Falls. “It’s not the guy who says we’re fine that changes the boat’s course,” he said. “It’s the guy who says we’re all going to die.”
Chris acknowledged that this quality doesn’t make him easy to be around. Last year, he informed his ethics class that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere was at 400 ppm, and that there was no hope of getting it down to 350. In the back of the class, a student started crying. “If I didn’t have hope, how could I live?” she asked. Chris had an urge to say: Exactly. But he felt bad about making her cry.
Chris’s depression sometimes makes his life feel unbearable, but attempts to feel better don’t sit well with him, either. He keeps busy writing papers, attending activist events, staging protests. He often feels like a failure. He suffers from nearly constant intrusive thoughts. When he goes to bed, he sees the faces of billions of animals—bears, mountain lions, factory-farmed cows and pigs—all suffering, all staring at him. He tries to imagine what extinction must be like. “There’s starvation involved and there’s horror and betrayal and there’s no recourse,” he told me. “You just have to go on until you die. Until you’re all dead.”
After I hung up the phone, I thought about Chris for days. I thought about his feeling of never being or doing enough—I both admired and worried about it. I thought about his insistence on pessimism in the face of the pressure to be optimistic. Research favors the optimists, I had to admit. Most humans respond better to manageable, hopeful amounts of information tied to concrete, doable actions. But I wondered if, in the end, what is important isn’t choosing optimism or pessimism but honesty with oneself. It seemed to me that for his entire life Chris has battled for the space to vent his rage and anger and sorrow, to be given a place to grieve and people to grieve with. And this, more than anything else, is what I needed in him and what he needed in me.
I thought about this again one bitter day in January 2019, while lying on my back on the Rockefeller Center skating rink in New York City. That morning, I’d met up with a dozen activists from a climate group called Extinction Rebellion, and we’d laced up our skates, held hands, and wobbled onto the ice. At exactly 2:30 p.m., we dropped to the rink and formed the image of an hourglass. Above us, another protester climbed from the mezzanine onto the giant golden Prometheus statue and hung a banner from its arms reading Climate Change = Mass murder. On Fifth Avenue, more protesters blocked traffic; others staged die-ins representing the victims of the climate crisis. After five years of paralysis, I was back. I was still afraid: afraid of more burnout, afraid of caring, afraid it wasn’t enough. But I’d come because I’d read the group’s principles. Number one: This is an emergency. Tell the truth.
We lay on the ice for half an hour while tourists from Texas, Florida, and California skated around us. As I shivered, I thought about climate grief. Ever since I’d learned about climate change, I’d wanted to believe that people could stop it. In order to stop it, I knew we’d have to be honest with ourselves about it—to have the courage to face its true size and consequences. But all the advice I’d ever gotten, all the social cues, all the role-modeling, had told me to lie and pretend. For years, I had wanted to find a place where I could be honest, because I wanted to believe that we—humans, people, myself—might still be able to act meaningfully in the face of our own extinction.
Around the time of the protest, I told Chris about the bureau’s dictionary for the Anthropocene and asked what word he would add. Chris teaches philosophy of language, and I knew he’d be into it. But he got even more excited than I’d expected, rattling off a long list of possibilities. Ultimately, he settled on one to describe both others and himself. He called it ignore-ance, or “returning from a state of consciousness to a willed state of not knowing.” That’s where he was now, he said, and where so many people insist on being. He was surviving, but he didn’t admire himself. “You do it by pretending,” he said, as if teaching me how. “You pretend that this life is OK, that college football is fun, that driving is normal. You pretend to justify living a lie.”
Chris feels daily that he’s not doing enough. In reality, he is accomplishing more than almost anyone I know. But he’s had to make certain concessions in order to stay alive. He’s happier now that he’s not sleeping in the hills outside of Davis, subsisting on boiled wheat and self-loathing, but that also means he spends more time in a place of willed not-knowing. In the language of Bruce Levine, the dissident psychologist, Chris is sick not because he is inherently anxious or depressed, but because he lives in a sick society in which both his belonging and survival depend on inaction.
Maybe the word we need is not one for a sickness. Maybe we need a word for a difficult truth: that when the world is ending, our health depends on closing ourselves off to awareness of this fact. Where you choose to draw your boundaries is arbitrary, not rational. If you draw them wide—if you include trees and refugees and animals and whole nations—you will be sick from overwhelm and will be seen as crazy. But if you draw them narrowly, you’ll suppress more and admire yourself less—which is its own sort of sickness.
I decided to ask Chris. Was he sick? He thought about it for a long time. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “But I know this: if your heart is breaking, you’re on my team.”