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.1To be clear, the author has nothing against beer, beans, or Battlestar— on the contrary.
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.
Can we really call climate breakdown a crime? Ecosocialist thinkers have correctly argued that the root of the ecological crisis is capitalism itself and its inherent compulsion to expand, extract, and productively consume. This might seem to indicate that “crime” is an inappropriate descriptor, as it usually picks out harms caused by individuals rather than institutionalized social orders. But we should not take the structural character of the problem to mean that everyone is equally responsible by dint of participation in these structures, or that individual actors are blameless functionalist avatars of the system. In the Lorax, the Onceler is likely correct that if he didn’t exploit the truffula trees “someone else would”—yet he is not thereby absolved.
It is important for us to remember that capitalist society is not some fixed metaphysical entity. It’s constituted, in large part, by the actions of the fossil executives, of those they pay to lie for them on cable news and in Congress, and of those they pay to brutalize, arrest, and kill people (often Indigenous people) defending the land. All of them have names and (often multiple) addresses.
“Your Anger Is a Gift”
Anger is a perfectly appropriate and rational response to such an unspeakable wrong. Yet we tend to see anger as something negative, to be avoided. This message is so deeply culturally encoded (from Harry Potter to the liberal fantasy version of Dr. King) that we reflexively reject or disavow our anger. Yoda taught us that anger stems from fear and leads only to the Dark Side, and politically we now associate it with the inchoate rage of Trump’s white America (where Yoda’s schema is at least partly accurate).
But climate anger is actually quite different. It is a defiant fist raised in the face of injustice and inhumanity, stemming not from fear and bigotry, but from solidarity and the conviction that we must defend ourselves and our home against the world-consuming nihilism of capital. The truth is that we should be angry, and setting aside our justified anger is both politically and personally unhelpful. We’re often told to let go of anger for our own sake, but research has found that feelings of climate anger predict “better mental health outcomes, as well as greater engagement in pro-climate activism and personal behaviors” compared to those suffering from eco-anxiety and depression. More importantly, channeled toward appropriately radical action, our anger is key to our prospects for a habitable future. As Audre Lorde argues, “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”
Of course, climate anger is not a panacea. When it is not sufficiently generalized, it can still be deflected or dismissed by the partisans of the status quo. Greta Thunberg, for instance, became a meme for the American Right when she, visibly outraged, asked of those who have pawned our collective future for mansions and parties at Martha’s Vineyard, “How dare you?” Black people and women in particular are accustomed to having their reasonable anger mocked and dismissed as irrational in this way. It’s a tactic that is effective in part because it is so infuriating.
Nonetheless, it’s not our anxiety or grief, or even our love, that will keep ecocide’s beneficiaries and apologists awake at night. We can see in the lavish doomsday bunkers and the militarized police, in the increasingly unhinged propaganda machine and the increasingly punitive penalties for protesting, that they are worried we might soon put down our phones and pick up our pitchforks. They are rightly afraid of the moment—and it must come, surely—when enough people become appropriately angered at the casual pillaging of our collective future to do something about it together. This is not merely wishful thinking. Two-thirds of young people worldwide feel “betrayed by their governments,” and even in the heart of the global North, seventy-five percent of people under the age of thirty-five correctly discern that capitalism is at the root of climate catastrophe. Younger people do not have the luxury of melancholy or fatalism because they are now in a fight for their lives and as such are increasingly unappeased by the usual ideological maneuverings and conciliatory half-measures.
Climate anger can be overwhelming. If it fails to find an outlet, it threatens to poison us. It’s reasonable to be concerned about the personal and planetary consequences of such frustration; it should be clear enough by now that the Democrats and the Labour Party are not going to rescue us, and that we will never get justice from the political or juridical institutions of the existing order. We will have to tear much of it down if we really want to “build back better.” This is a daunting prospect, but the alternative is unacceptable and we should not accept it (whatever the proponents of “radical acceptance” may tell us). Instead, we had better start creating durable and democratic mass political organizations that are up to the task—while we still have a world to win.
As a wise man once said, your anger is a gift. Use it.