Illustration by John Kazior

Personal Hell | The Climate Anxiety Novel

Rithika Ramamurthy

In March of 2017, the American Psychological Association officially announced that feelings are valid: climate anxiety is real. In a sixty-nine page primer on therapeutic practice in the era of ecological decline, experts identify a range of negative emotional reactions including ecoanxiety (“a chronic fear of environmental doom”) and describe the psychosocial links between these states of mind and the state of the climate. The preface to the report explains that beyond stress and depression, the psychic responses to climate change include “fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation.” To combat these symptoms, the authors prescribe individual solutions such as practicing mindfulness and proactive preparation. Having identified the deadly and deleterious effects of climate change (and merely thinking about them) as sources of severe mental distress, the leading experts of psychological health in this country recommend “resilience”: toughening up, fostering optimism, cultivating self-regulation, and other strategies to keep your cool. 

The focus on self-care as a solution to climate anxiety tracks with the decades-long effort by global oil conglomerates to make climate change your problem. The “carbon footprint,” an insidious invention of BP’s PR consultants in 2004, centers individual consumptive practices in the fight against climate change: recycling plastic, driving electric, and going vegan are all voluntary choices that contribute to lowered emissions. Investing every single personal act with planetary consequences chimes with self-care strategies for controlling and changing individual behavior — the very approaches the APA pitches as climate anxiety solutions.

In September of 2019, as bushfires ravaged Australia and environmental activists staged climate strikes worldwide, online searches for “climate anxiety” peaked in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Flooded with relentless reporting about rising sea levels and diminishing biodiversity, inundated by coverage of forced migration and unprecedented heat, many citizens in parts of the world not yet aflame or underwater logged on to access their personal feelings about global disaster. Within the last decade, popular media — Reddit forums dedicated to the subject of climate feelings, online publications outlining the therapeutic process within global warming, and especially literary fiction exploring the emotions of the end-times — has also centered the fraught phenomenology of private experience. 

Many of the critically-acclaimed novels written in the past five years — My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh, Crudo by Olivia Laing, and Severance by Ling Ma, to name just three — seem anemic, as though the novel itself has exhausted its point of view in an era when autofiction has taken center stage. These books feature disaffected young women grappling with apocalypse, breakups, unemployment, profound ennui, or all of the above. Depleted detours into the quotidian diary, they read more like one-woman shows than realist novels. Their worlds are austere, with sparse prose and insubstantial narration. Cleaving to similar narrative conventions, Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020) and Madeleine Watts’s The Inland Sea (2021) set themselves apart as specifically about climate anxiety. These two books tell stories about white women in the Global North who confront the psychic weight of eco-apocalypse, working overtime to think through the climate catastrophe. Enclosing the calamity of extinction within the cloistered space of the first person, these novels represent alienation as an inescapable fact. Within their worlds, there is nowhere to turn but inward.

 

Sometime around the dawn of the era of extractive capitalism, the novel as we know it became a privileged form of cultural production. As Georg Lukács put it, the realist novel “thinks in terms of totality,” doing the difficult work of coordinating individual singularity with a collective social imaginary. About two centuries have passed since the novel’s sprawling and serialized heyday, and during that interval we’ve experienced the long industrial revolution and its atmospheric aftereffects. Given that the past four and a half decades of environmental exhaustion have far outstripped the pace of damage of the previous two hundred years, it can seem like contemporary fiction has begun to absorb the precipitate of accelerated extinction. “Stuck inside the capitalist realist world of carboniferous catastrophe,” critic Anna Kornbluh writes, “the conditions for literary possibility mutate,” causing literary novels to all but succumb to the “suffocating totalizations of capitalist realist depression.” In an age of capitalist domination on a global scale, in other words, the literary conventions of realism — creating a point of view, constructing a social world, coordinating plot and describing setting — have changed: the fact of oligarchic ecocide and the psychic enclosure of personal experience correspond with the claustrophobic narrowing of literary perspective. Faced with a planet’s worth of problems, climate anxiety novels only give us one person’s perception of how bad things make her feel.

Both Weather and The Inland Sea approach writing as a kind of coping strategy. Weather splices together jokes, wellness questionnaires, medical definitions, and moody observations made by Lizzie, its narrator, that force readers to take in every last piece of her desperate documentation. The book’s smartphone size and self-help cadence makes the experience reading it even more like scrolling through “a particularly literate Twitter feed,” as Lauren Oyler put it. The unnamed narrator of The Inland Sea transcribes material from her part-time job as an emergency services operator for the largest telecommunications company in Australia. The notebook holds “certain types of information, unattributed fragments I wrote in from other texts, interspersed with my own thoughts and diary entries, as though by leaning into the fragmentation of my workday experience I might somehow conquer the sense of disarray and poor attention I felt daily on the phones.” She even thinks of her distressing job listening to screaming voices as going “undercover in the real world, reporting from the front lines of my own experience.”

Recording information is not just a way to deal with the dull trauma of a day job; writing it all down also allows the narrator to “employ the experience” as material for a future book, possibly the one we are reading. In an essay in The Irish Times, Watts explains that she actually held a job in an emergency call center, where she transcribed climate events in order to register the profound disconnect between melting ice caps and personal meltdowns. Writing down feelings and writing a novel are efficiently combined into one act. The tendency to treat the observable phenomena of everyday life as analogical with the horrors of climate emergency elevates the personal perspective. The novel-as-record turns the act of writing into an attempt to counter the dizzying scope of environmental devastation by documenting it, and the act of reading into the affective absorption of the objective fact of the calamity to come.

But documenting the ordinariness of apocalypse is an exercise in helplessness in the face of horror. The depiction of work in climate anxiety novels figures this passivity. In The Inland Sea and Weather, work is framed as an assault on personal well-being, as it is a place where one encounters a limitless sense of social suffering. The protagonist in Weather has a second job writing emails to “crazy or depressed” respondents to a climate apocalypse podcast. For Watts’s unnamed narrator, likewise, intensifying paranoia is a direct result of her work in emergency services. The work causes her to “take everything personally,” imagining that she is the object of every element of danger in the world. To take something personally is to interpret an action or a remark as directed against you, and to be upset by it. To take everything personally is to interpret the entire world as a place full of indiscriminate hostility towards you in particular. In these novels, the work of sustaining everyday life is the only thing that vaguely connects the protagonists to the miserable masses living through climate catastrophe, but it does so at an untraversable distance. Encountering others through telephones or email, as these protagonists do, only underscores how powerless they are to help. These novels reflect the reality that for many workers in a growing economy of climate disaster management, labor is nothing but the steady confrontation with an ungraspable totality of distress. Beyond representing this alienated labor, the climate anxiety novel presents total alienation as an inescapable fact, both in labor and in love.

Connecting with others is a difficult task even outside of the workplace, because other affective bonds are not a source of comfort. In Weather, we see that the simple act of asking for a playdate from another mother who speaks a different language is too daunting for Lizzie. She ducks a different mother whom she feels is snobbish, but then realizes that this woman has been avoiding her all along. She is crushed by the exhausting and ever-present demand to care for too many others: her son, her addict brother Henry, her mother, her husband, her favored but failing driver service, her dog — the list does not end. Meanwhile, Watts’s narrator spends very little time outside of work with other people she knows, preferring sex with strangers or her cheating ex-lover, and occasionally seeing friends who are never exactly close. Most of the dialogue in The Inland Sea happens between the narrator and whomever calls in on the phones, and comprises her rote questioning and their tense responses. Both women are incredibly lonely. To mitigate the feeling, they practice meditation or swim, activities that require turning inwards or seeking solitude. But there is also an undercurrent of fear, or perhaps a sort of disdain, of other people that keeps collectivity at bay. When Lizzie and her husband Ben go to a Unitarian Universalist event, she leaves embarrassed despite her desire for community: “But not so much. Not like that. All that eye contact. ‘Not my tribe,’ I tell him.” On the first day of work at the call center in The Inland Sea, the narrator siloes herself from her four new co-workers, remarking that one of the women who got the job with her failed the spelling test and needs to ask whether studying literature means “books.” While Watts’s narrator intends to flee her hometown of Sydney for American academia, Lizzie makes elaborate lists of supplies for her doomstead bunker and plans an escape to New Zealand.She briefly considers absconding to Israel — though the political unrest makes it “even worse.”  

The dependence on individual resilience, the cruel trap of personal responsibility, and the dysfunctional and dissatisfying relationships are a closed circuit that reflect a fundamental loneliness and social distrust within these novels. Their sense of fragmentation is encapsulated in a paraphrased outline for a novel spelled out by a character in The Inland Sea: “Take a call, someone dies, and you stop on the way home at McDonald’s drive-through. That’s the real stuff of life.” The descriptive scarcity of these short clauses echoes the larger reality of a fragmented and monotonous existence where another person’s death barely registers on your radar. 

In the climate anxiety novel, the reader is trapped within an emotional atmosphere where the endless fact of cosmic hardship looms over the insignificance of personal life. This sublime point of view sits squarely within the scope of individual terror, recasting climate anxiety as both a problem of unsolvable ecological proportions and of private emotional torment. Humans in Weather are a mostly ineffective species, and the natural world is a passive site of deterioration, where birds eat antidepressants from the sewer and lose the will to mate, while marine life is brutally sacrificed: “First they came for the coral, but I did not say anything because I was not a coral…” Narrative asides about rising sea levels or transcriptions of meditation practices are interspersed with depleted social lives and distressed personal thoughts, making it totally unclear where the personal grief ends and terrestrial ruin begins. In The Inland Sea, we occasionally glimpse the long arc of ecological destruction: stories of irrigation projects that killed entire species and agricultural mistakes that spawned deserts told in terms of a universal “we.” Even when Watts’s narrator steps back to offer her reader “much-needed distance” outside the time-space continuum, the sudden omniscience emphasizes its own staggering sense of scale: “Crank the dial and you can speed through the years by the million. Watch the sky fill with debris, blocking out the sun…Watch the years peel forward. Watch the oceans recede.” These imperative clauses seem to force the reader into a kind of voyeurism, witnessing centuries of warming happen in real time. There is nothing to do but watch. 

 

In his 1915 Reflections on War and Death, Freud ventured a theory about why certain civilians seemed psychologically impacted by war: he describes a type of individual who “feels bewildered in his orientation, and inhibited in his powers and activities.” Such a state of mind, in this case, is not caused by a physical or psychological disease, but by the external reality of war; Freud saw this kind of disillusionment as a psychic crisis of political proportions. For Freud, cataclysmic events like war are disorienting because they spoil the fantasy that the state is something other than a collection of ordinary people making flawed and often incompetent decisions. But this crisis of authority also has emancipatory potential: if the rules of social organization can break down, they can also be rewritten.

Climate anxiety novels dive deep into the initial sense of political disillusionment that Freud describes. Disorientation and disappointment are not in short supply, neither in these fictions nor in our reality. But the first person point of view in these novels does not move beyond this depressive frame of mind to explore the possibilities that Freud identified. Without the breathing room of other perspectives or the struggle between them, without a distanced or distributed viewpoint, the novels cannot present the climate crisis as anything but a private affair. Instead, they extrapolate one kind of discomfort as a universal experience.

The emotional geography of the contemporary climate crisis is the outgrowth of centuries-long colonial organizations of extraction and apartheid, and its current emotional geography is not unlike the one described by Freud amid the first World War. It is well known that while the corporations and governments of the Global North hold an outsized responsibility for our predicament, the people of the Global South will bear the worst consequences of their mistakes. Climate anxiety arises from the specific set of political-economic conditions within which personal existence and planetary survival are finally forced to correspond in the Global North, meaning that it has a class character. We can understand it as a symptom coinciding with the elevation of personal life as the primary rubric by which to gauge the causes and effects of ecological collapse, the global disproportion of wealth inequality, and, as philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has noted, the ongoing rule of climate apartheid. Climate change is an uneven phenomenon, but writing about the climate crisis tends to concentrate on the inner life of white women living in wealthy countries, for whom the traumatic fallout of climate apocalypse is still a distant nightmare. 

Nonfiction writing about the climate, like contemporary climate fiction, can also disproportionately emphasize emotional responses to earthly destruction in the Global North. Both forms of writing have the tendency to be totally terrifying. David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 The Uninhabitable Earth, for example, attempts to outline every aspect of mass extinction, turning up the heat in the very first line: “It is worse, much worse than you think.” What books like The Uninhabitable Earth assume is that the affective goal of climate writing is to inspire fear in the individual: the reader needs to be shocked by the scale of the crisis in order to care, or care enough to act. The force of the book is to stoke panic. Detailing disaster and death is meant to counteract decades of inaction and a perceived complacency and ignorance. But on whose part? Everyone’s. “That so many feel already acclimated to the prospect of a near-future world with dramatically higher oceans,” Wallace-Wells writes, “should be as dispiriting and disconcerting as if we’d already come to accept the inevitability of extended nuclear war.” Most Americans are insulated, Wallace argues, from the worst effects on the world so far, but the next few decades will bring horrors that no amount of money will mitigate. The “we” in Wallace-Wells returns the burden of responsibility to his audience, even as it acknowledges outsized culpability from the fossil fuel industry and capitalist extraction. Climate journalism of this sort both rhetorically constructs a reader that needs a good scare, while also insisting that everybody is at least partly to blame. Nonfiction writing need not offer policy solutions or quick fixes, but fear mongering alone cannot provide a theory of how to move from singular distress to social transformation.

There’s something analogous in contemporary novels that try to capture the dreadful uncertainty of life with climate catastrophe on the horizon. These novels not only incorporate research and reporting on ecological death, but also try to replicate the emotional experience of reading climate journalism. The first-person perspective is constructed through reportage; narrators become aware of the crisis as the story goes on. Reflecting on her own writing, Offill has said that her research into psychology and sociology is a way of working through her passivity in the face of the climate crisis. More recently, Watts has explained that she emulates the mode of nonfiction, aiming to reflect the experience of “inhabiting the end of the world and carrying on with everyday life.” Within this project, reading a novel becomes something like reading an alarming thinkpiece: it will leave you more aware of how bad everything is and less certain about how any of it can be otherwise, let alone how someone unlike yourself may feel about it. 

Because climate change is an existential problem, it is an essential subject to be worked through in fiction. But it may be that the claustrophobic first-person narrator is not up to the task. A different kind of novel might deal with climate emotions in a way that could synchronize, for example, the slow pollution of a local lake with the draining exhaustion of daytime laborers, mediating the affective sensibility of the extraction circuit in ways that represent the uneven experiences of extinction. Such a novel might need to take up some old tools of omniscient narration in order to call up a range of disparate points of view, to conjure the totality of social relations in the extraction era, to coordinate conflicting lives in far-flung places. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020), which shifts between protagonists, points of view, and parts of the world, is a useful example. Opening with a cataclysmic heatwave, the novel moves from third-person omniscient narrator to eyewitness accounts to the perspective of a single atom. Robinson’s commitment in this novel and several of his others to “polyvocal” perspective, as he puts it, gestures at the political insight that humans are fundamentally cooperative. Social life already contains within it the principles of solidarity required to rebuild the world along more distributed and equitable lines, and only some modes of narration can tackle the multiplicity of the struggles required to win a better future: between people and their governments, within communities, and among nations. 

Yet the affective subject of climate anxiety fiction cleaves closely to the privatized depletion of everyday experience. It reflects back the conditions of isolation that make each of us feel that the only way through the crisis is to look out for ourselves. But surviving the apocalypse in a doomsday bunker or fleeing one nation’s fires for the floods of another are personal solutions to planetary problems. Taking climate anxiety seriously as a political feeling means understanding the relation between your distress and someone else’s death. Facing the unevenness of these fates, as we confront rapid ecological destruction, will be key to any project of global transformation. Another type of climate anxiety fiction could construct a version of collective plenitude, could help us grapple with this problem of other people who we may never encounter. There is only so much one person can do.

Rithika Ramamurthy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Brown University and the President of the Graduate Labor Organization.

Copyright © The Drift 2021