Cracks in the Veneer
The people killing our planet would prefer that we simply not think about it. Ideally, we would just let ourselves be carried along lazily on the river of endless consumption, allowing them to continue going about their business wholly unburdened by anticipation of accountability.
It used to be fairly easy for many of us to tune out in this way. Guy Debord once fretted that the ideological façade of capitalist consumerism—the “spectacle”—was like a “sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity,” covering the entire surface of the planet and “endlessly basking in its own glory.” But if that sun has not yet set, it has begun to take on an unnerving blood-red pall in the haze of a thousand contemporaneous fires, threatening our frictionless user experience with the intrusion of darker thoughts.
These days, it’s almost inevitable that some ecological unease will seep through from time to time. Like continent-spanning wildfire smoke, such disquiet has become increasingly pervasive and can no longer be avoided entirely. Climate anxiety is thus the buzzword of the day, with psychologists scrambling to understand it and a proliferation of thinkpieces and listicles offering up ways to combat it. These discourses sometimes suggest that we should consume less and organize more for the sake of our mental health, and therefore make the planetary arsonists a bit uneasy. However, climate anxiety can generally still be accommodated. It might disturb the slick surface of the spectacle somewhat, but it can nonetheless usually be contained, channeled back into circuits of consumption or directed inward. I think: Climate change is getting pretty bad. Maybe I should learn how to grow my own beans and medicinal plants. Or maybe I’ll actually just browse Zillow for land in Vermont, give up, have another hazy IPA, and re-watch Battlestar Galactica.1[To be clear, the author has nothing against beer, beans, or Battlestar— on the contrary./mfn]
Slightly more dangerous is climate grief, felt in those moments when the unthinkable horror of it all comes partially into view (given the scale of the catastrophe, such apprehension can only ever be partial). This more acute affect is already ubiquitous among natural scientists, who say they are starting to feel more like coroners. But the rest of us feel it, too. We might notice that beloved creatures we used to see as children are no longer around, or accidentally scroll onto a video of wildlife fleeing the flames and find ourselves, for a moment, unable to swipe away. In such moments, the wheels grind temporarily to a halt, and returning to the normalcy of one’s daily routine seems not merely difficult but obscene, absurd.
Yet, although it’s harder to immediately shake off or push aside, on its own such grief is not a direct threat to the climate killers. Often, in the face of intractable political decadence, grief simply turns to despair, depression, and fatalism—all of which suit the suits just fine. The real danger, to them, is that our grief could turn to anger.
The Climate Criminals
It is, of course, right and necessary to mourn our losses. There is a real possibility of simply becoming numb to the atrocities of our “new normal.” When you see enough headlines like “Humans Wiped Out Two-Thirds of the World’s Wildlife in 50 Years” and “Rising Seas May Lead to Extinction of Small Island Nations,” they begin to blur together and our capacity to fully absorb such information is finite. Taking time to grieve in the face of tragedy, however relentless, is a practice that helps to keep our humanity— and our sanity—intact.
Yet our biospheric breakdown is not a tragedy in the classical sense. The death and destruction and displacement are not machinations of Fate, inscrutable acts of God, or the inevitable apotheosis of human nature (just try selling that story to the world’s Indigenous peoples). What we are witnessing is, rather, a crime—a crime genuinely unparalleled in history, far beyond any state’s codified legal statutes. It’s a crime so horrific we lack the vocabulary to capture it. Indeed, “crime” does not quite do it justice, precisely because it is impossible to think what justice would entail for its primary perpetrators—the punishment of Damiens the regicide seems lenient when weighed against the miseries of their manufactured ecocide.