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Into the Disaster-Verse

Climate optimists often directly contradict what they elsewhere preach—that the scale of the problem is pervasive—with a strange Pollyannaish turn to hope as a cure-all. At best, it is an unfinished thought.
12 Mar 2024


I am sorry for every mistake I have made in my life.
I’m sorry I wasn’t wiser sooner.
I’m sorry I ever spoke of myself as lonely.
Mary Oliver
Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Amy Hempel

Rapture. July 2017.


Some months back, at work, I daydreamed about disappearing. I felt invisible regardless, and the world did not seem quite right for me. It seemed not quite right because it rarely isn’t for anyone at all. A plot hatched. A plot to be raptured.


It was something of a lark, but not really. At the time, the final season of The Leftovers was airing, and I found Evie Murphy’s hoax to be aspirational. It was easy to imagine. My friend Chris would ordinarily be the most likely to notice my absence, but we’d fought months earlier and had since been avoiding each other. My roommate would probably assume—if he wondered—that I was sleeping at some boy’s place.


“I think I’m coming down with something,” I said out loud in lab the next day. Everybody in the lab told me to go home, as expected. Once home, I booked an Airbnb for two weeks. I’d considered Milwaukee, which I’d passed by once, but landed elsewhere. It was a house overlooking the lake. It was cheap. It was beautiful. I’d have it all to myself. It was meant for four or more.


I packed lightly. I bought a new toothbrush and razor, split my medications into separate bottles, and put unread books on my nightstand. I did the dishes, threw out the trash, folded my clothes, and got to the train station early. All on my own!


It was the first time I’d been punctual in months. See, for the past two years or so, I’ve tried to kill myself several times. Some were not at all intended as cries for attention, but it was fine. I made peace with them being seen as such. Thrice, I stockpiled an increasing number of benzos, along with increasing amounts of alcohol, and went to sleep. Each time, I woke up in the afternoon, befuddled. The third time, I could no longer make sense of my body’s ability to metabolize a month’s worth of prescription pills. And that was that.


Others were indeed intended for attention, and I reliably got caught. I became good at pretending I meant it, at the tearful apology administered while thinking unspeakable things. But what I never said—because no one wanted to hear it—was that though my friends and family did a great deal for me, they also greatly exaggerated their importance. And, honestly, how could sixty 2 milligram pills of clonazepam be so unsatisfactory?  


Then when I was gone, they never found out. I wanted to keep up the disappearance, like a character in a spy novel you let yellow in your bathroom. I’d fake my identity! Become the ghost of some much-lauded novel! I knew, of course, that any such story would end with deportation, but still. It was a nice daydream.


Things were different on the train back home, two weeks later. Everyone who wanted me alive had gotten lucky, they wouldn’t know just how much. I knew that most ways of narrating the story would elicit some proclamation that I was “burned out!” and I needed to get away. Which was fine. But it wasn’t true. A strange new axis of time snuck in. Any time before, I would’ve gotten caught. Once, years ago, my sister had called the police when my flight didn’t land on time. Now, I was perfectly capable of life in whatever narrow sense it meant.


The day after I got home, Chris walked over to my desk in lab, frowningly. “Where have you been?” he asked.


“Just seeing someone,” I said. “Probably not anymore. Why? What’s up?”


“So you weren’t sick?”


“No. Well, I was, but nothing major. I needed a break.”


I don’t think he bought it, but he didn’t push it. I’d missed him, he’d missed me. The following Sunday we watched the new episode of The Leftovers, as we had the two years before. Laurie Garvey went scuba-diving, possibly to commit suicide. It was marvelous.


I spent two weeks at that lakefront house, armed with Diet Cokes, pre-made deli sandwiches, cookies, and a carton of cigarettes. I watched old seasons of The Leftovers. Then Lost. Then The OC. I kept my phone on silent. I didn’t hear from anyone. My greatest act of attention-seeking got none at all.


I slept till mid-afternoon each day. After a week, I thought I had bedsores. Then I got restless. I fumed, as I still do, about society’s extreme moral judgment of suicide, which I consider—if I’m honest—just as much a human right as any other. We cannot, we must not, ask anyone to live if they do not wish to. We mustn’t ask for them to relinquish that right, no matter how terrible it may be for the living.


It was odd, I thought later, how the future returned. Privately, reflexively fuming about moral beliefs much bigger than me was an old sensation, but more than that it was a new one. An idea whose absence I had not noticed rustled back to me. A knot tied loose.


Passively, I began to make decisions. A sprinkling of the still “so much to see, so much to do, so much to read.” For a little bit there, I remember thinking very hard about time and the world in the way I imagine Bill Bryson must, like an unfinished picture book freshly encountered. It was chronological.


That’s one way of narrating it, which makes it sound very triumphalist, if it weren’t for how funny it was. Forced solitude cures suicidal ideation—hurrah! But then there was something else too. I learned about a very strange people. During my little Eat, Disappear, Bon Iver retreat, I read only one book I’d pulled from the bottom of my to-read pile that I assume I bought because I used to have a morbid fascination with libertarian culture: Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture. A suicidal person and a peakist walk into a bar. Someday, there’ll be an audience for a very niche joke.


Between 2005 and 2011,  the particular subculture of “peakism” emerged in American society. Peakists believe that global oil production, in particular, had either already peaked or was about to. So is everything: food supply, energy, topsoil. Things are about to get dire. The global economy is on the brink of collapse, as is capitalism itself. As a group, peakists are left-leaning and white; they hold graduate degrees; they’re pessimistic about the possibility of political change.


Peakists are survivalists, but ordinary. They stockpile resources, grow their own food, ride bicycles, compost, and try unsuccessfully to convince their friends and family to buy into this impending doom and gloom. They make fringe websites, write books, and become YouTube stars: like “Oily Cassandra,” who preached peakist dictums while performing a striptease.


They do not often meet: they become hermits. The more pessimistic amongst them foresee apocalyptic scenarios, like in The Day After Tomorrow, The Happening, and Mad Max. Warfare over scarce resources. Famine. Epidemics. Billions dead. The slightly less pessimistic see a post-peak world with more self-sufficient communities.


Yet, they live, despite having all the makings of a suicide cult. These are people who had seemingly answered Camus’ famous dictum that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” On the heels of the Great Recession, the burst of the housing bubble, Occupy Wall Street, peakists are, by their own definitions, convinced not of the resilience of capitalism but its imminent collapse. Perhaps the strangest thing is that very few of them (28 percent) have ever been involved in formal or political activities related to energy or environmentalism (most who made up this figure had only attended a meeting or so). They see the apocalypse coming not by way of radical Christian millenarianism or eschatology but as an extrapolation of what we all know.


To foresee the end of American imperialism or global capitalism: if only. And, of course, of course: it’s a shame to have so little hope—which must be what their friends tell them, making them want to gouge their eyes out. But at the same time: how much evidence do we really have, at that guttural, searching level, that peakists are irrational? I can’t imagine believably pathologizing such beliefs or compartmentalizing them into “religious fervor.”


If a peakist dies by suicide tomorrow, won’t we do what we always do—ascribe it to mental illness instead of seeing it as a reasonable conclusion of their own ideology?


I can’t say why, but peakists have been crowding my head, fuming in it, ever since. I found the forums, the books, and Oily Cassandra. I want to hold onto that. They’re in this “category” I can’t quite name, a resolution that I know has many more forms. I want to find enough things to fill this category, to figure out what it really is.


I won’t be trying to kill myself again anytime soon. I’ve been reassuring my friends and family that I’m no longer suicidal for a while now. I reassure them that I’m no longer suicidal because I sense that the things that feel suicidal seem to be expanding.


They don’t yet know I actually mean it now. Which is fine. Chronology still matters little to me. Even the possibility of all this newness peakists see coming feels woeful.


But there is something about this time, in forward motion, that feels unanswered. Into this computer screen bubbles the thought, I know these people, don’t I?

Team Sweet Meteor of Death. May 2023.


If this is dying, death sure is noisy. It’s all gotten a bit much, see. All this anticipation of extinction. Almost as if we’ve all signed some collective suicide pact, waiting in the wings to be euthanized. Almost none of us have any ability to change things, which has ossified into an excuse for some very loud resignation. Almost as if Stoicism has finally prevailed as the most wise tradition in moral philosophy.


Montaigne once praised the tranquil nature of peasants who had been ravaged for war, plague, and destruction, and remained stoic above it all. Perfect little saints, those peasants. The ones who paid no mind to the horrors they endured. They accepted it all willingly, and quietly.


But we’re not those peasants. We’re certainly not quiet. We seem perhaps a little too willing. I’m talking, of course, about the apocalypse and that all who anticipate it do so with such wildness. Despairing with such hedonism, we herald autumn upon a single fallen leaf.


Every moment in time brings cultural affirmation of an infinite number of responses to climate change ranging from the gleefully optimistic to the pessimistic, and now we are at its most abyssal ebb. Everywhere, there is a feverish variation of that Larkin verse: Most things may never happen: this one will.

And that faint hint of the absurd, an inner voice insists, for the sake of completeness.

More than a faint hint. Recently I spotted an issue of Harper’s in an airport harboring a cover story about the apocalypse. Subtitled “The Sense of an Ending,” which I reckon is less of an editorial choice than the wave of a white flag to imagination, the story is mostly a long list of apocalyptic trends. One could conclude that it is about reaffirming Giovanni Arrighi’s idea of late capitalism’s impending “systems collapse,” but mostly, it’s a lengthy primer of, and thus more about, Christiandom’s long history of thinking about the end times. I couldn’t say.  It’s horribly imprecise.


In the most recent editorial of the Real Review: “If every summer is the worst on record, then all summers are one summer, an identical experience; disaster as inevitability.” Alas, alack: we are going to die.


Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious deconstructs apocalyptic tropes in culture: the match cut montages in films and television shows, the attempts towards making the apocalypse ridiculous, the consumer demand for hours upon hours of television shows about the world after the Big Thing happens.


At some point in the early days of The Pandemic, I realized just how homogenous my to-read pile of books, recently or imminently published, really was. Disaster. Catastrophe. Death. Precarity. Crisis. Extinction. Apocalypse. We could quibble all day about each of their different meanings, but boy, do they blur together nowadays.


I started keeping a list of all this apocalyptic stuff when the pandemic began (like Riley on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I feel an urge for the plural—unhappy with the real one and doomed by all possible choices, I proffer a gluttony of apocalypses). The list kept me from feeling too useless, but soon it became so long I started using tally marks. Before I stopped counting entirely, I had a tally of seven pieces in the New Yorker, with the annotation “somehow mostly about Trump?!” I do not recall any of them, but the note sounds plausible. I did, however, write a generous paragraph on Amanda Hess’ piece “Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll” in the Times. Then other lists of lists. Philip Lehmann wrote about climate engineering: he began by listing recently-published books Generation Dread, The World as We Knew It, and Global Burning.


As I read, I got caught up in a series of semantic dilemmas. Has the meaning of “late capitalism” changed, I wondered. Late capitalism today seems to mean the phenomenon of a system going extinct because humanity is too. It’s not just a pyramid scheme anymore. It’s not just about the gig economy. It’s just late, as if to a party.


There was also Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, a technocratic tract that put me off reading for weeks. Climate Change Apocalypse: A Young Engineer’s Travels into the Science and Politics Behind Global Warming, of which I received two advance copies. There was The Apocalypse and the End of History, which I did not read and did not seem to me to be about climate change at all, but the title reminded me of Rancière's idea of “endism,” a phrase used to describe the post-Soviet trend for historians and philosophers to declare something major had ended: whole eras of history or culture.


There was a truly startling number of opinion pieces on climate depression, a mental health issue to which I’ve become quite indifferent because it seems to depend on “bad news”, of which we’ve never had a shortage. I begrudgingly watched The Last of Us. Bella Ramsey’s thirteen-year-old Ellie quipped: “People are making apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.” I chuckled, then thought: if only.


Used to be that whenever I read the testimony of survivors of tragedy, I retracted in anguish: accounts from bushfires in Australia, post-nuclear Japan, witness accounts from genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh, or the numerous accounts in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions reports from South Africa, El Salvador, and many other countries after years of unspeakable horror. People who have befallen no such tragedies talk like that now; they use millennial therapy-speak. Why bother calling it “climate anxiety”? Let’s call it what it is: climate nihilism.


Usually, when a friend needs to vent and starts with the disclaimer that it’s “not that bad/first world problems,” I reassure them that nobody will be ranking their problems. But in this case, scale really is the nub of the issue. Whose climate nihilism are we hearing from nowadays? Who comprises all these storied authorial voices? The survivor of a flood that’s claimed countless lives writes an obligatory column or two. Quasi-simultaneously, American East Coasters, in presumably their first heat wave, tie themselves up in knots, and that’s all one hears or reads about until it’s over. Climate nihilism is very de rigueur. Like buccal fat removal and crop tops in the men’s section.


With the apocalypse all around us, it's hard not to keep thinking of Rancière. Endism was not about climate change, but that tendency he saw—to proclaim an end to History or Politics or Ideology—is easily extended to Humanity. On endism, Kristin Ross wrote in 2009 that “philosophical activity undertaken under the sign of urgency is a new version of an old phenomenon: the heroicizing of the philosopher’s voice, the philosopher as prophet who can see ‘the end’ that others cannot see.” Endism is a viral meme now. There are TikTok stars who may as well all be named Francis Fukuyama.


But, I insist, if we’re going to die, let’s at least take a moment to find the right words. The placement of the stress matters.


We are going to die. We are going to die. We are going to die. (We are going to die. Too far?)


Or we could defer to a YouTube commenter who wrote, on the partially unrelated subject of social media: “I’ve been on Team Sweet Meteor of Death for at least six years.”


It’s a bit derivative, but it sounds fun! Apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow, indeed.

Climate Psychiatric Alliance. July 2023.


In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about “climate anxiety” and how psychology and psychiatry conduct “climate therapy.” Her sources are in unison that “climate anxiety” is a legitimate pathology peculiar to our time. “Climate anxiety,” writes Tolentino, “differs from many forms of anxiety a person might discuss in therapy—anxiety about crowds, or public speaking, or insufficiently washing one’s hands—because the goal is not to resolve the intrusive feeling and put it away.” It’s an awfully pedestrian way to think of anxiety: there are any number of things that are unresolvable, but sure, I suppose, we can sigh and pretend this “new” pathology, too, is believable. Halfway through the piece, Tolentino pivots, pondering her own luxury to pontificate about climate change. It's a welcome pivot, to be sure, but it seems designed to be surprising.


A young Filipino woman, Isabella, skewers the Western tendency to be “thinking about the Earth, and journaling about it.” Isabella survived Typhoon Ulysses; she experienced more immediate emotions of panic and grief, with little time to process them. Later, a Native American fisherman impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill confesses to living and organizing through a sense of vengeance.


None of this is surprising, of course, but it allows Tolentino to end ambivalently. For whatever reason, the story’s surprise element is conveyed most through Tim, a Floridian millennial with whom the piece begins, a man whose journey is meant to seem epiphanic. Tim majored in mechanical engineering. He later traveled to Indonesia, where he felt “dazed by grief” upon the news that orangutans were going extinct. He traipsed around the Sumatran jungle, returning unable to stop thinking about polluted water and carbon footprints, and with a viral case of climate anxiety. He went through a breakup during the pandemic and spiraled into a deep malaise. He then improved through therapy through the Climate Psychiatry Alliance.


When we return to Tim at the end of the story, we discover that he had undiagnosed A.D.H.D. “He’d come to suspect,” Tolentino writes conspiratorially, “that he’d sometimes used climate anxiety as a container for his own, more intimate problems.” Well, duh. That’s obvious for the same reason this essay may feel obvious: humans are self-indulgent. That is fucking banal.


Not so for Tolentino. Save the global pandemic, Tim suffered no natural disaster. He did, like many of us, suffer more prosaic disasters. Breakups. Intense isolation. An undiagnosed condition. In the meantime, psychiatry constructed a whole new pathology to ascribe to his fixating mind. Tolentino unfurls it like some freshly discovered ancient scribe.


I may be a formerly suicidal person, but I’d like to think I’ve never thought of myself as uniquely grappling with anything at all. This is what everyone deals with. Isn’t climate anxiety, or even active crisis, always simultaneously in the domain of the intimate and the global? The notion of “climate anxiety” can support a plausible story of a fixating mind. But it cannot support a plausible story of disaster-induced anxiety: a brand-new thing!


The neat story can ascribe anxiety to climate change, even pathologize it. An unrelated diagnosis can undo it entirely. Pathologies are often fragile and fictitious. And that’s fine to admit! My own woe led me, rather inexplicably, to study the very thing breeding peakists and nihilists—climate change—and I insist it’s fine to admit to all the conflation. The Climate Psychiatric Alliance cannot possibly be “holistic”; there will always be something greater one will attempt to perceive. And that’s fine! It would not be cruel to deny its categorization, which, I suspect, might be what the Climate Psychiatric Alliance might argue. Yes, I find the pathologizing of “climate anxiety” simplistic and ahistorical. That doesn’t mean that I dismiss the psychic toll of impending disaster. Relationships or careers crumbling as orangutans go extinct? Depressed because you lost your job at the same time as islands far from you are sinking? Therapy’s great for that.


Disaster is always personal, always omnipresent. It’s a given. Not the apocalypse—disaster. The kind that reaches into our lives. The kind that is never unique because it lives in skies, seas, selves, and cheap similes. It patiently grows until we can see it. Like any life lived, it aches. Elsewhere, it blazes across scales.


In every part of our being and everything else too. Disaster, like life, is all-encompassing; let it be so. Carbon footprints cannot assess pain, for pain is comorbid with far too much. So is disaster.

Twin Bed. October 2017.


I’ve just realized that I’ve lost another of my closest friends, a friend from college. I’ve sent her so many texts I feel like I’m in a Taylor Swift song. She loves Taylor Swift. I hope she listens to more of her music and gets back to me.


“You will lose people!” Zoya is telling me very gravely. Zoya is one of my childhood best friends. She does not tolerate self-sabotage. “And you need to grow up about it,” she continues, because, of course, she does. “I know you’re really bad at letting people go, but you need to get better because this shit happens. People lose friends.”


My friend hasn’t gotten back to me. She never will. I’m really not quite sure why the end of a friendship is so much more emotionally gutting than most everything else in life. It’s confounding. Once, my mother didn’t speak to me for six months, and I spent them with no knowledge of how long it would last. I have lost romantic partners. Friends, though—those are some real disasters. They have so little cultural weight. You can’t use them as excuses.


The last time I met my friend, I was staying at her apartment in New York. As usual, we shared the bed. One night, halfway to sleep, she told me about the moment she was certain we’d be in each other’s lives forever. A year or two earlier, we’d had a very big fight on Christmas in Chicago. Drunk, we went to a CVS together because we needed to pee. Outside the bathroom, we happened upon a corkboard where the store’s staff had pinned wish lists for a Secret Santa party.


That’s so sad, I said. That’s so fucking condescending, she said.


It was a glorious fight. I argued that it was really sad because the things they asked for were really cheap and for family members: "$7 airplane model for my son,” “$4 bar of chocolate for my mom.” Wasn’t it enough that they had to work till 2 AM over the holidays? She argued that regardless of my insistence on some sort of solidarity, I was looking down on them. We yelled at each other for twenty minutes, fumed all the way back to my place, and didn’t speak for two days. Neither of us apologized, and then one day, I needed her help, as the only fellow biologist, for an important presentation, and without noting what had happened, we were friends again. Such things happened with many of my friends. But she and I rarely fought because when we did, it was terrible. We once cleared a roomful of drunken partiers dancing to EDM music. Our fights required resolution, or else.


The night she recounted our sole unresolved fight, she told me that that was when she realized that no matter how angry she got with me, I was too much like family to her. When I remember that fight and its desperate need for resolution, I return to something about respect. I still think I had a point in that fight, but she did, too, because she has a strong moral compass. Even if I was sometimes at odds with it, I respected it. It was close enough to mine that I could understand it. We didn’t need to say anything that time, I noted in bed. We trusted in each other’s goodness enough to know it was just about the yelling.


I don’t understand how we got from then to now. Sleeping next to each other in a twin bed like only significant others and best friends can, we went to sleep cozy and loved. That’s gone now. No fight took place, but I must have done something morally unconscionable because I cannot imagine her having any other reason.


I don’t know why it hurts so much, but I have a strange feeling it has something to do with how common it is. Other situations garner far more sympathy. The loss of a friendship is devastating—and banal.


People talk about how time heals all wounds, but I am not a paper cut, I am not a severed salamander capable of regeneration, I am not a time-traveler with something other than now. Now, I am indicted for reasons I do not know, and I believe I never will.


But Zoya’s right. I’m too old to pretend these things do not happen.


I’m walking home as she tells me. There are times even the most romantic amongst us must master moderation. The air was misty when we started talking. It seemed so wispy and idyllic. But now it’s snowing quite heavily, and I must be more pragmatic. My jacket has a hole in the back, and there’s snow wedged near the bottom of my spine. There are more urgent concerns.


There is no such guarantee against such losses. A moral compass is no match for the bigness of this world, its ability to keep us separated for the rest of our lives, and its agility with turning fickle decisions to certainties.


How much of disaster resides here? In a lost friendship. In days and nights. In the anhedonia of the mind. Do people sit back and wait for the end of days because they’re afraid of losing things or because they already have?

Always-Time. November 2019.


I’m co-presenting in a session at an Environmental Humanities seminar on “Futurity.” At my suggestion, we've started with a clip of the cold open from the first episode of The Leftovers’ final season.


The clip shows 19th-century Millerites in white robes, standing on the roofs of their houses. They’ve been told a date for the apocalypse. On that day, a husband, wife, and their child climb up onto their roof and wait for it all to end. The day passes, and another date appears; one date after another, they wait, but the apocalypse never comes. The number of believers dwindles; only the wife continues to have faith, and still it does not come until finally, the crushing ignominy makes her a village pariah.


The clip ends, and I want to say that now, all of a sudden, a scene I have cried over seems stupid. I’m struggling, really struggling, to figure out what to say next, to move past the Millerites, to find something to say about our future, let alone our “futurities.” Why did I suggest this clip? I’d felt it was relevant to faith, the apocalypse, disaster, change, something—but now I have no idea what I was thinking. Suddenly, I feel it’s a bit irresponsible to equate climate change with apocalypse when, instead, it’s just the same old disasters, except many more and faster. That contraction of time may make it feel like the same thing, but it most certainly is not. And what the fuck is “futurity” supposed to be?


I start talking about death instead. About new historical literature on death in the Anthropocene. The collapse of the self in the face of climate change. This happens reflexively, desperately, because as luck would have it, I’m well-versed in the philosophy of death, and remixing snippets of my greatest hits fills up the necessary space. After, there’s a good minute or two of silence, and soon, we’re taking a break for food, piling hummus and tahini and pita onto disposable plates.


I’m spending most of my days through gritted teeth. I’m quite exhausted. Look at us, Ivy-Leaguers reading esoteric expositions that are all different ways of saying how our children and grand-children will face the consequences of climate change if we let the Earth warm 3 degrees or more. Our children? If?! How can I emphasize this enough: I have zero idea what exactly I’m supposed to feel when anyone with half a mind knows that we careened off the face of a cliff a long time ago, but is finding ways to avoid admitting that they’re always looking down. Am I missing something here? Am I the only person stupid enough to feel this way?


Greta Thunberg is sailing across the Atlantic. The Argentinian artist Nino Cobre—sponsored by an environmental nonprofit that seems to have nothing better to do with its money—paints a mural of her on the side of a building on Mason Street in San Francisco. A friend active in the Sunrise Movement tells me she’s exhausted, and her words are all collapsed together with the frustration of her novel-in-progress and the stress of medical bills. I walk out of a class and watch students marching across campus protesting Yale’s lack of action on divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Bernie Sanders details his Green New Deal, and it is the most ambitious set of policy proposals by any candidate.


Along comes Jonathan Franzen. “You can keep on hoping,” he writes darkly, “that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” Franzen writes that a kind of denial of climate change catastrophe is present in progressive politics and climate activism. He disparages the “climate activists [who] argue that if we publicly admit that the problem can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking any ameliorative action at all. This seems to me not only a patronizing calculation but an ineffectual one, given how little progress we have to show for it to date.” This is the last straw. Here we have a writer who has put down in plain terms the defeatism I feel so often, and I dislike him for it. Luckily, everyone else seems to as well.


Why? The easiest part of the answer is that Franzen belittles the Green New Deal with elitist disdain, thumbing his nose at people with bold plans of action. But beyond that, I struggle. Maybe we’re angry because, although there is more than a kernel of truth embedded within the argument, our cynicism and his are keeping us from the work. Sure, I can admit a lot of the work of idealism just isn’t needed. But nobody needs to hear that all we have left to do is to sit back and wait for the apocalypse either.


In truth, what we’re all really annoyed by, I think, is the conflation of the affective response of defeatism with righteousness. I may be entitled to feel defeated, but that does not mean it is the right thing to be. Obviously, I’ve felt all along that there’s utility in not admitting what I really believe; why else would it be so much harder than admitting it?


But let’s face facts. In a matter of a year or two, climate pessimism will be everywhere very soon, and though we’re fighting for mass action, we’ve really had no good antidote to climate pessimism while we wait.


I feel like many of us like to think of climate catastrophe as wholly unique, a real apocalypse. Which it is, but it also isn’t. All the disasters in history have made it so that what we will get is not totally unique. Climate pessimism is what we get when we start to pretend as if nobody’s studied disasters at all. As if people haven’t witnessed them and lived to tell the tale. As if people from the Alaskan Arctic to earthquake-prone island-nations have not been preparing for decades. As if war hasn’t paralyzed peoples for generations, and armies and bombs haven’t obliterated them; as if drought didn’t spark the tinder box of civil war in Syria, and hurricanes haven’t already ravaged New Orleans and Puerto Rico and earthquakes haven’t already devastated Indonesia and Haiti and Kashmir—and oh look, Puerto Rico again too. Climate change isn’t one seismic wave that knocks us all out, and we all know this, but we talk like it is.


It will be like it is: a patchwork of storms, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, droughts, wars, genocides, civil wars; now here, then there, just much faster, then simultaneously, and many more at an unprecedented scale. Is that better or worse than the apocalypse?


What I tell myself is: if humankind had never faced disasters before, then perhaps I could sit around being righteously defeated. It’s a very strange time to be a historian of disaster, which I’m beginning to think of as synonymous with the environmental historian. Yet somehow, alas, I am ardent that this is what I meant to do. I chose this, very actively, this second doctorate, which I realize everyone finds outrageous. And my choice is more confounding because what is it that I am doing?


Looking? Yes, looking.


Looking at disaster is paralyzing. Hasn’t that always been the case? Would that be a good reason to stop doing it? Of course not. But the short answer is too short, and the long answer is too long.


Sitting here, typing in Bass Library in the extremely peculiar town that is New Haven, inside an empire hell-bent on its own destruction, I want to say it outright: around the time an appropriate arrangement emerges, we will all be dead. But anyway.

Simultaneity. November 2022.

On a summer afternoon in Colombo, at one of the protests urging the ousting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, I found out that Roe v. Wade had been definitively struck down. I avoided social media, for I was in another place just as afraid.


The aragalaya in Sri Lanka had been ongoing for much of the year. With economic collapse came power cuts, inflation went rampant, making all essential goods unaffordable for most. At the same time, I was in the archives, poking my head out every so often for an oral history interview. I was speaking to one diver and reef biologist. At some point he discussed a particular site that has long been a tourist hotspot. His voice cracked, and he began to speak at a lower volume. That site in particular made him sad. I paused to ask him how it felt to be there. “Nothing’s there,” he said. “All white.” We parted ways. I mulled for a long time why it was that the death of coral reefs is often a synecdoche for climate change catastrophe, and not the far better one: sadness.


Rajapaksa crept out of the country in the middle of the night. Ranil Wickremasinghe, an equally troublesome man, became President, cracking down on the aragalaya with an abrupt zeal. Something broke between the day before and the days immediately after Rajapaksa’s departure. Those days, people talked how it all now felt a bit pointless, if I asked. They had no fuel in their tuk-tuks, no electricity at home, food was being rationed, shops were shuttering. Then the floods in Pakistan began.


Before anyone quite knew the scale of it, I had been on the phone with our co-worker in Karachi who apologized for not having gotten back to me; she’d had no internet or electricity for a week. I told her there was no need to apologize. A question sat momentarily in my mind before it slipped away.


That was in July. It is now November in New Haven, and the simultaneity of crises continues to reverberate, as I assume it must for everyone.

Recently, SAAG began fundraising for the Women Democratic Front in Pakistan. I read Ibrahim Buriro’s dispatch from his village of Sabu Khan Buriro in Sindh. I was ashamed, because the catastrophe he described sounded quieter than the din in my head, but it felt worse. I didn’t know how to picture it: what losing that many people looks like. There was none. Only centuries-old paintings of the deluge painted by those who predicted the end times. I read the late K Za Win’s poem, written in protest of the military coup in Myanmar, and tried to picture it. I could only see the first row of protesters at a march. Should we resist the urge to project our imagination onto such disasters, as long as we do not not fail to attend to them?


The question that had popped into my head before I knew about the floods was: “How bad will it be?” It’s like wishing for the gift of prophecy, even though it would likely cripple us. I wish I could go back to other moments of writing my essay where I was less incredulous of the scale of disaster. Where I can sense myself searching to know what it feels like, to truly relate. I’d like to know if being a witness to the simultaneity of all this is at all useful. I want to know when I’m old enough to stop pretending such things do not happen. I want us to prepare better, together. I want it so badly.


Today marks first snow. It’s snowing quite heavily, and I know I must be pragmatic. We may distract ourselves.


We may take a moment, and only that. We may distance ourselves, and not only that.

A Bunch of Plinys. May 2020.


Why on earth did I turn to a second doctorate—to history? I get asked this almost every day. What all those faces say is: this is a crazy person.


I answer truthfully. I knew this is what I wanted my life to be, to mean. It is what I want to do.


But why? I’ve taken stabs at a number of answers over the past few weeks in this document. They became more and more obscure. Like a tawdry poet, I first went to the Romantics and the sublime. That ambivalence in the face of destruction: horrific, godly, cosmic, perhaps beautiful. But I don’t need any more fucking ambivalence, I am fat with it.


I went to the Stoics. To Seneca and Epictetus; to Montaigne, who is not a canonical Stoic, but for me cannot be seen as anything but. But as comforted as I often feel by Stoics, they are revelatory to me almost entirely because of their rhetoric. They are patronizing.


I went to Heidegger, with his grand notions of Dasein. Dasein is a human who can only be if they have the foresight to see death coming. Dasein orients towards death as it barrels towards them, with the knowledge of their past. Your futurity—to butcher Heideggerian ideas of “being”—is a state of being in which the future of you is not an unknown. It is not even in the future, really. It is already coming towards you. That was somewhat useful, but it also felt like an elevated version of the Marvel multiverse. I didn’t know what to do with him: emotionally, that is, not epistemologically.


“Why does the history of disaster matter to me?” I ask, to explain “in my own words.” Well, perhaps because I feel that familiarizing destruction is key to understanding it. It’s an inexplicable moral sense. There’s a category of things I want to put my finger on, and it pivots on humans, on us; on me, and back on us. It matters because I am not special.


Walter Benjamin is famous for his idea of the angel of history. The idea of the angel is simple: The angel looks back and sees catastrophe. A storm hits. The angel cannot help but be swept along into the future while his back is turned. The storm is progress.


Benjamin’s oft-cited notion, shorn from context, often loses some of that ambivalent, essayistic quality that makes him so brilliant. The angel of history was a way for Benjamin to recognize what the human is; “to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction.” Benjamin projected his ideas onto a Paul Klee painting in a rhetorical struggle, approaching history like a critic, or even a novelist (earlier in Theses, Benjamin used the more colorful metaphor of a chess-playing puppet to connote "historical materialism." The narrative arc of the angel is clean and thus, perhaps, more memorable). But he was insistent on a "secret agreement" between the past and the present. When people look upon destruction, what can seem feckless, even inhumane, can be the opposite. One needs to look back to move forward.


I, too, found succor not in dictums but stories and images . They rang more new and true. For one thing, there’s something odd about the very sources of disaster history. I quickly began to suspect that humans have not historically been good at leaving first-hand traces of the horrors they’ve survived. Most of it happens via proxy. It seems sensible to think that some kind of “instinct,” visceral memory, or closeness would create our corpus of disaster stories, but strangely, none of it seems to push people towards storytelling. Not for that purpose, anyway. First-person accounts from survivors are often obtained, less so offered; often against their will and rarely in a setting of their choosing.


Here's one story. The great naturalist Pliny the Elder was a man of his time: he ascribed devastation to providence. He saw Mount Vesuvius explode in 79 CE, and ventured into it. It was the first thoroughly-documented volcanic eruption, a watershed moment for volcanology. He died there.


Years later, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who was with Pliny the Elder earlier on the day of the eruption, related what he knew to the historian Tacitus.


On the day of the eruption, the younger Pliny’s mother drew her father’s attention to a strange cloud. Pliny the Elder saw it and asked his nephew if he wanted to join him, but the younger Pliny refused (apparently, he needed to study). Pliny the Elder ventured by boat. “In likeness and form,” Pliny the Younger wrote in his letter, “[the eruption] more closely resembled a pine-tree than anything else… and then spread out into a number of branches.”

"Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 A.D." Angelica Kauffman (1785)

Pliny the Elder, his nephew claimed, journeyed towards the volcano on a small ship. Before he arrived, a woman begged him to save her, and the old man instantly hopped into the role of rescuer. Having saved many other people as well, the older Pliny moved “towards the place whence others were fleeing, and steering a direct course… utterly devoid of fear.”


Let’s pause here to note the implausible. Pliny the Elder was notably fat. Most likely, he dictated his observations to an amanuensis from the deck of his ship.


Having witnessed presumably enough, Pliny the Elder dined, slept, and died soon thereafter.


Pliny the Younger closed the letter with a self-pitying proclamation that his own experience, in Misenum, was of no import. It was an invitation, sort of an “Oh, don’t ask, it was terrible!” And Tacitus asked.


So Pliny wrote another letter relating the post-eruption scene in Misenum, where the skies blackened, the streets overrun with “people crowding in masses upon us” to escape the city. Everybody feared death. Pliny’s mother begged of him to leave her to die, for she was old and she did not want to slow him down. He insisted he would not leave her. At nighttime, they returned to Misenum where everything was layered with ashes, in ruin.


Pliny the Younger’s second letter is more emotional and evocative than his first. There is a sense that the details making up the knowledge of the eruption—the ash, smoke, the pine tree cloud, the wreckage, the ships, the woman who called for help, the amanuensis who noted what the naturalist saw—are veiling an emotional experience Pliny still shies away from. But he ends this second letter by warning Tacitus menacingly: “You will not read these details, which are not up to the dignity of history, as though you were about to incorporate them in your writings.”


We don’t know if Pliny was writing from an impulse of ancient egotism or genuine self-deprecation. But I find an unsettling believability to his warning to Tacitus: even clear-headed observers who survive catastrophe and look back at it feel incapable of the act of doing history. There seems to be a too-authentic closeness that digs a trench, on one side of which a survivor will always be paralyzed, and the job will have to go to someone else. It is like, or perhaps is, post-traumatic stress disorder.


Volcanoes took a long time to be figured out; time we do not have. Pliny’s letters about Mount Vesuvius brought volcanology into vogue for a time.


And then it's almost as if there was an enormous gap in volcanology from the ancients till seemingly the sixteenth century. Vesuvius erupted again in 1631, and Etna in 1669. Suddenly everyone from Hooke to Newton, Cuvier to Goethe had some opinion. Controversies in volcanology bedeviled philosophers, natural historians, and geologists alike. Well into the nineteenth century, scientists debated ideas of volcanology that could be traced at least as far back as Lucretius.


Of course, it's not as if volcanoes went on recess. I can't quite explain the gap, except by way of my own ignorance, but it seems to me that volcanoes, as a concept, are defined by modern science. Thus, perhaps for too many, Pliny the Younger's experience, and the ideas of many others, truly were not up to the "dignity of history." One scholar blames the many lost years squarely on the resurgence of Christian premillennialism, i.e., end-of-days thinking. But premillennialism also coincided with postmillennialism. What with Christian missionaries invading new lands for people to convert, there was also growing optimism for a great era for Christian prosperity; a Golden Age Millennium of greatness before the end was nigh.


In this circuitous way, I ended up where I never wanted to be: Christian eschatology, where apocalypse writing always begins. I understand why. The stories are indelible. The Christian view of volcanoes for much of the early modern period does not seem too dissimilar to that of the ancients: both associated volcanoes with punishment and the fires of Hell. Just as Virgil proclaimed that the giant Enceladus was buried under the eruption of Etna by the goddess Athena for defying the gods, Christianity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond proclaimed the upswell of lava as the manifestation of the wrath of God and a damning indictment of the societies inflicted by them.


Earthquakes and other disasters, even war, generated similar responses for much of recorded human history: they were all indicative of the wrath of one god or many. The ancient Greeks often blamed earthquakes on the god Poseidon. Japanese folklore blames a great catfish named Namazu. The Book of Revelation chronicles the “seven bowls” of God’s wrath, the bowls poured by angels, each one causing a catastrophic event foreseen in a vision. After the bowls of bodily sores, mass extinction in the oceans, the rivers turning to blood, a literal firebombing by the Sun, and more—finally, there is a giant, world-ending earthquake.


“No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth,” the Book of Revelation says, in one of its more modest moments. A rather anticlimactic denouement.


Disasters have a way of creating vacancies for moral exhortations—though not necessarily theological ones. All that godsplaining needs somewhere to go. That is familiar to me. I was raised Muslim, and now whenever climate change comes up in the company of elders, all I hear about is qiyamat, or Judgment Day. It’s a busy day.


Now that’s new. Growing up, people said all sorts of things were indications of qiyamat. A scandalous billboard. A particularly brazen female news anchor. On one baffling occasion, it was the way my friend’s cat meowed. Peevish uncles often used qiyamat as a nationalist, anti-India sentiment. But it’s so big now. Those uncles now know that the flood and the cat’s meow do not sit in the same category. Like scholars, they invoke human blunders.


Qiyamat is a prophecy foretold centuries ago. It’s history; it’s up to the dignity of history. We may be up to the dignity of history. It depends on what we do with ourselves. I wish to dignify people through history; that is my only answer to explain my crazy decision to turn to it. That does not mean I am special. None of us are.

The Ruin and the Volcano. November 2020. 

For Benjamin, “he who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” W.H. Sebald did that literally. I said earlier that environmental history may well be the history of disaster. But Benjamin and Sebald take this one step further. When the question is strictly material, one could rephrase it: is the history of the disaster the same thing as the history of the ruin?

Sebald was born and grew up on the outskirts of the Bavarian Alps in 1944. His father, a prisoner of war until 1947, was part of the Nazi armed forces. Images of destruction and the ruins of postwar Germany were the first things he recalled when he felt like he was returning “home.” In a famous essay, Sebald the child and the adult, reveals himself to be totally confounded by just how little there was to see of all this destruction in the lives of people:

It is true that the strategic-bombing surveys published by the Allies … show that the Royal Air Force alone dropped almost a million tons of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the hundred and thirty-one towns and cities attacked, some only once and some repeatedly, many were almost entirely flattened, that about six hundred thousand German civilians fell victim to the air raids and three and a half million homes were destroyed … but we do not grasp what it all actually meant … It seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness.

So many people all just carried on as if nothing had ever happened. That so much of it occurred after Hitler was long gone, after war elsewhere had ended, did not matter. For Churchill, Solly Zuckerman, and Arthur Harris, the strategy of total destruction was to achieve “wholesale an annihilation of the enemy, with his dwellings, his history, and his natural environment, as can possibly be achieved.”

Rendered by Sebald, it is devastating, perhaps even sublime, the extent to which the destroyed environment was just as much a part of the architecture of human habitation as a city or a dwelling. “How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin?” he asked. There is no answer, not in Sebald’s novels, not in his essays. There are simply things going on unfolding: things decaying, ruins existing. He walked along the millions of bricks left behind from the air-dropped ordnances and the fire-storms and the collapse of apartment buildings, surveying the postwar city landscape excavating brick-by-brick, and found no answer as to what need there was for such destruction except for the whims of a few men.

What we should fear the most is not the hurricane but when people are failed. In his “nature-history” of Paris, Benjamin merges uncontrollable disaster with a proletarian mob—it’s a possibility of great potential.

The potential wobbles, though, in his words. In some places, in many places, revolution may manifest as mindless destruction—what if it’s so boundless, there is not enough potential left?

There are many who covet the safety provided to many of us; they’re not wrong. The very geography of disaster, we all know, is unjust. And to me, the white-hot anger of a people wronged is more terrifying than a volcano.

It is conceivable that a situation arises where it won’t matter who is seen as culpable; it is conceivable that powerful actors make it so. If we remain paralyzed for too long, repeating mantras of anxiety or the denial of its existence, it will not be a hurricane that tears us limb from limb.

My friend Meg recently wrote to me about this essay. “I think sometimes you use your brain as a way to step away from the most uncomfortable parts of yourself because you are more comfortable with the realities of global disaster than you are with the personal ones,” she wrote.

She’s right, but that also describes most academics. They say to write the book you want to read. Unfortunately, I can’t, for this one cannot be written alone.

Now-Time. August 2023.

Now somehow, now somehow, the people in the worlds I inhabit most closely—that of academia, environmental humanities, global history, energy history—don’t actually look at apocalypticism, endism, whatever you may call it, straight in the face. Even though the works that define these fields, and those continually published, are painstaking in deepening the scale of the problems climate change poses, the problem of all this pessimism is not spoken aloud, and if it is, the responses are so very trite. There are exceptions—I admire the work of Bedour Alagraa and Anna Tsing, among others—but the hush is deafening.


Over the years that I have brought up climate pessimism to various scholars, I have only ever received one answer, delivered in dismissive, patronizing fashion. It is always the same answer everyone has heard many times: about the necessity of hope, rarely justified in any real or specific terms insofar as having reason to hope, but simply an expression of it. As if we haven’t heard that old canard before. As if people are incapable of holding things simultaneously. As if ambivalence or serious engagement is a step too far for academia.


Any other answers are mere quibbles disguised as serious responses: “It won’t be an apocalypse,” “We need to organize.” In the very vocation set out to define the problem, to demonstrate how we got here, the people populating it have no answer to how many are responding affectively to climate change, or to the many alarming cover stories and books and articles producing their doom-scroll, or even what all those alarmist signs are a symptom of. Here, in hallowed halls, climate pessimism is verboten.


The most generous version of it I’ve heard is by AOC in a recent Instagram Live. After spending half an hour outlining how climate change impacts every aspect of human life, she was in a bit of a hurry. “I am a big believer in ‘climate optimism’, she said. “You ever notice that it's easier to imagine everything going to hell than it is things actually working out and getting better? People are reactive, and the challenges that the climate crisis presents to us are going to require a reorganization of the parts of our society. And people don't like being proactive… I just really believe that climate doomerism and cynicism in general leads you down a very dark path.”


There’s the chastisement on moral grounds, and then there are things that, frankly, sound peakist. The chastisement is typical. The biggest part of it is the idea that cynical people are necessarily doing nothing. Then there are the things at odds with the core ideas AOC has long espoused. It’s not the fault of the vast majority of people. Individualistic action will not be enough. Power, capital, and political systems are resilient. The imminent collapse roars back. “[Systems] are simply going to collapse, and we can make a proactive decision about that,” AOC argues. “Certain things collapsing doesn't mean doom. It means we need to make space for a better way. … We should not have to move heaven and earth to save these things that are collapsing under their own weight because they never made sense.”

What does this mean? What silent majority is moving heaven and earth to save systems, and what exactly is collapsing again? What proactive decisions were the vast majority of people on this planet supposed to but failed to make? Is the argument that there is some sort of absence of global protest, or do we, as usual, just mean America? There is no shortage of calls for revolution; there is so much uncertainty as to its imminence despite centuries of vociferous argument. But let's run with AOC's premise anyway. If all that is true, perhaps we should also not lose many things that are precious: lives, primarily. How can anyone be sure that “systems collapse” and “death” won’t happen simultaneously? They might! A Marxist education allowed me to understand that acceptance of lives lost is at the heart of the idea of revolution. Is climate optimism too shy to admit into its arena that horrible, uncertain trade-off?


For me, climate optimism is denialism that there is logic to pessimism; a relegation of pessimism to the emotional, supposedly illogical. It requires recourse to very dubious things: that imagining utopia is difficult, that our imaginations can incite action, that our actions are sufficient, that doomers are uninformed, that systems are tottering. Climate optimists often directly contradict what they elsewhere preach—that the scale of the problem is pervasive—with a strange Pollyannaish turn to hope as a cure-all. At best, it is an unfinished thought. Like mine.


The overwhelming majority of peakists express views that are far-left. And of course, it should be said that some of what peakists believe doesn’t justify their survivalist thinking. They’re largely anti-capitalists who believe capitalism is short-lived, and that oil production will peak soon, or it already has. To me, either of those seems like a reason to hope—I just don’t quite believe them. Different people take the same evidence to mean radically different things. The human brain is not internally consistent in its own logic, and in this peakists are not unlike climate optimists.


Peakists also believe the state has not done anywhere near enough for racial minorities. They express the belief that the US is an oligarchy, they disdain both political parties, and electoral politics in general. They sound like almost everyone I’ve met in the US who identifies with the left. Doomers, as a group, may well be overrepresented on the left. They are many of the people we are looking to recruit. Some have been pathologized with “climate anxiety.” Climate optimism would have us shame it out of them. Validation of what another might be feeling cannot exist here. To which I must ask: are we trying to lose?


Then, that canard—that being pessimistic is unethical and dangerous. It’s a slippery slope argument. Like most slippery slopes, it’s facetious and determinist. It’s a finger wag—one might say “~vibes~”—as a statement of belief based on illusory evidence. Lynne Segal in the Boston Review argues that “such pessimism can dangerously align us with a form of reactionary conservatism, merely gawping at the dire state of things, apparently helpless before impending disaster.” Segal mentions the dystopia of The Hunger Games as a fantasy that obliterates utopian visions. For Segal, what combats pessimism is collective action and solidarity which produce care and joy. It is a lovely thought, but again: we have and continue to do all of this, and there is no magic threshold Segal or any theorist can come up with. Which makes it all just hoary preaching to the choir.


There is no reason to believe pessimism should necessarily make one a reactionary conservative. Emotions are not partisan objects. I’ve been a pessimist, and I persist with my work. I believe it very important. As I see it, most people who dedicate time to understanding and combating climate change feel a great deal of pessimism actually: it’s perfectly natural to feel several things all at once. And while solidarity is joyful, organizing is exhausting. Ask anyone organizing a union: most of the time, it feels like we’re on a giant hamster wheel. I see no reason why my most doomer self would spurn collective action in perpetuity.


It feels strange, yes: why bother fighting when you feel so defeated? But that’s precisely it. So many things are not unique about this time. Humans fight unwinnable battles all the time; chastising pessimists with variations on the same cliché is not, in fact, a solution. And neither Logic nor Rhetoric have ever been the wisest antidotes for depression, though they’ve been deployed for much of recorded human history. And also: excuse you, The Hunger Games is excellent. There is no evidence that its audience slipped into reactionary conservatism upon its end. Why would it? It ends by dismantling the dystopia.


My point in all this, my reason for vacillating so violently seems plain to me now. I want admission. Our own private disasters collide with global ones, and we feel terrible. If we want to organize, surely part of the “care” of solidarity is to recognize the thing climate activists and scholars seem loath to admit: we’re not feeling good about it. And that’s fine. Sure, it will make the slogans harder to write, but it’s better than deluding ourselves that our comrades truly believe that we can pull off fossil fuel divestment and break pipelines by the end of the year, and if we do so, we’re saved. But most of us don’t believe that’ll happen, any of it. Sign us up anyway.


In 2017, Ashley Dawson argued that global capitalism now is not so much about uneven development but about uneven disaster, even if Western media scarcely covers disasters in developing countries. Spectacular, record-breaking heat waves struck the Pacific Northwest, on the heels of of all those elsewhere in the Americas. Then the catastrophic wildfires devastated Hawai’i, with thousands dead, injured, or missing. I suspect those were the things we all heard about. Meanwhile, Typhoon Khanun hit the Korean Peninsula, where there have only been five typhoon-level storms since 1945, and Russia, destroying farmland, killing and injuring hundreds. Typhoon Doksuri killed approximately sixty people in Fujian province, China. The El Niño phenomenon causing drought in much of East Asia has villagers in Indonesia digging up river beds. 8,000 evacuees are stranded as the wildfires in the Canary Islands continue to rage. Wildfires rage in Greece. These are just some natural disasters. I’d wager every country is plagued by problems we parcel as political or economic that are exacerbated by climate change or energy in some way.


I intend this match-cut exposition to situate us, at the very end, not so much in time but in banality. None of us know how to simultaneously obtain the stories, persons, and sentences of disaster, let alone the planet.


Disaster resides. In the now-time, as in the everywhere-time, always-time, and to-be-time. It seeps. It sets up house. The doomer is Cassandra. Some may suspect she is telling the truth. They all treat her as if she is insane.


In John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Gena Rowlands’ Mabel, supposedly a manic psychotic, is stranded in an aggressive family who do the opposite of what they say. They all keep insisting they must have a good time, but they never even try. All they do is caterwaul. Mabel knows how to have a good time. She reacts, she loves, she dances, she sings. She seems to know precisely what’s going on. She demands someone tell her the truth, but they never do. Six months pass in a mental hospital, where she is treated with electroshock therapy. When she returns, her husband asks her at the dinner table what the hospital was like, her eyes dart around. “Everybody’s here,” she says tentatively, like someone learning to speak. “Seems like a party.” Later, when she mentions the hospital routine, she is chastised.


The cruelty of this fait accompli is immeasurable. The sane peck and pick away at you until you howl in pain. “Aha!” they’ll say in unison.


Mabel asks tearfully of her father at the crowded table: “Dad, please stand up for me.” He stands up. She says no, not that, sit down. “Please stand up for me.” He stands again. “I don’t understand this game,” he says.


“Good times from now on,” Mabel’s husband yells.


“Things are gonna get better and better and better, and then they’ll get better than that and then they’ll get better.”


I do not endorse this ridiculous notion that this is how we should treat pessimists. I do not endorse it because oftentimes, I agree. Oftentimes, I don’t. So what?


What are we so afraid of that we can’t admit how afraid we are? What’s the worst that can happen? That with their last breath, the doomer turns to smirk and say: “Told you so”?

At the Sentence. December 2022.

It is the day before 2023. I don’t know what I was yesterday, but I am a pessimist today.


Not so long ago, believing in climate change at all was the strangest kind of inversion: we, the believers, were equivalent to the Millerite pariah; the deniers the apocalypse-skeptics, all the people who rolled their eyes at religious zealots. Now it feels that axis has spun, bewilderingly pitting optimists and pessimists at opposite ends. Of course, we all have our reasons. We think they are good. But is there an axis at all if anyone can be of two minds?


Recently, I pulled up my list on the impending apocalypse, and instead of alarm, I felt inadequate to actually work on climate change for a few reasons. The first is embarrassing. In the beginning of the 2020, I fell into a deep writing slump, and aside from the words on these pages—which I considered diary entries—I have written nothing since.


That is until two days ago when my friend Sarah read this draft and forced me to complete it as an editorial. What’s worse, I’ve lured you into reading about disaster, but I still don’t know what it means. What is it? As far as I can tell, the disaster we chronicle does feel more like ruin. Like Sebald, that’s the only way I can really picture it, and the picture is after the fact.


Not writing had an interesting effect on my brain. For the first time in my life, the closest I can come to original thought is in visual art. Six months ago, I bought some fancy artist papers and a canvas, acrylic paints, India ink, and I started to paint something I’d sketched out. I’d learned to embroider over the pandemic so every time I just didn’t know to make something, I’d correct it by using thread. Not to give anything form, just to fill space. I tell myself they’re supposed to be columns and I let the stitching falter, to make myself feel better. I’m making an old ruin. So, in other words, I learned how to embroider, paint, color, and flounder solely to attempt at making a point. Isn’t that something?

"Untitled" Acrylic, india ink, thread. By the author (2022)


Two things bubble out: aesthetics and death. In recent years, I’ve become a particular fan of Derrida, which is surprising, because for quite some time, he was more impenetrable to me than even Heidegger or Foucault were. Then just the other day, I read Brian Dillon on the subject of Derrida. Dillon writes:

I see now why Theory was so attractive to a young man, a boy really, who had lost both parents within five years. These writings seemed to confirm not only that disaster was real, and general, and happened even at the smallest levels of language, but also that catastrophe could be turned. Art was nothing but an acknowledgment of this moment when you realized the cracks had been there all along… I fell in love with such moments of collapse. “Aestheticizing,” we’d learn to say of such love; I hate the word to this day. As if there was anything available, anything left, except aesthetics, except an effort to frame the wreckage in the aftermath, at the last.


The way Dillon links Derrida’s personal history to disaster and language makes my heart skip a beat, as does the defense of the aesthetic. It would be wise to use every thinker or theorist in this crisis this way. Trying harder than we have before to humanize one another, a prosaic thing to say, but what tactic could be sounder?


What is it about the aesthetic that can feel like it might just save us, save everything, even if not in the literal sense? In an earlier draft of this essay, I’d written: “Nobody, not even Greta Thunberg, needs a mural of Greta Thunberg.” I really believed that at the time, very deeply, like I believed all things. But whenever I’m sure, I begin to suspect myself more. The whole premise of my woes on disaster are linked to the aesthetic, particularly the avant-garde. I, too, hate the word “aestheticizing.” The aesthetic is the one realm instinct has yet to fail me. I cannot explain why I love something aesthetically: I do or I don’t.


That’s how it is with language. The thing I’d missed about disaster for a long time was how banal it is. I’d failed to keep up with where it was—which was everywhere. When I stopped writing, for example, it was as if there was a crashing. A compaction of words occurred, and words began to slip away from me, as if a whole era’s trace in the geological record had just collapsed in on itself.


That is a ludicrous analogy, but I wanted to make it, and so I did. Because I am not required to be equivalently important to the geological record. I did not sign a legal document or swear an oath, “I will never use language that may imply that two things are equal in importance even if I do not mean it.” I made the analogy because language and aesthetics are battlegrounds. They shift. We try to keep up. We fail. We try to specify them. We fail. And we will always fail because they make up the “we.”


We fight this losing battle so hard. We even pretend we’re winning. We play with things that seem very real all the time. Right now, we’ve fixed time on terms that are wholly mine. The world outside is moving faster than us. It doesn’t care. That may lull you into thinking that what is happening does not matter, but we do this all the time. We fix borders, even though we know they do not exist, which is why what our brains somehow seem incapable at holding many things at once. We foreclose the simultaneity of disaster. For no good reason, and against our principles, even the best of us hold onto borders for dear life.


Floods devastated villages, towns, cities, and peoples across Pakistan—and actually, Afghanistan, and this omission does actually matter. Border disputes and lynchings occurred so close to us that some of those killed may even have popped up on your Tinder at some point. In Sri Lanka, economic and political collapse may have seemed joyful in what it brought forth—the mass protests—but in truth, the disaster crippled the whole island-nation’s well-being, health, ability to work, to heal, to move. In the Maldives, an archipelago not far away from Sri Lanka, a brutal Islamist government has cracked down on the most benign of citizens, all whilst a drug epidemic and gendered violence continue unacknowledged. There are some luxuries some places have: its writers do not need to write anonymously, for instance, as I do not. It’s only occasionally even crossed my mind. But we know just how many places this is not true for. We all accept how little agency we have over the climate crisis individually. But we do have agency: over time, over our minds, over our language, over our aesthetics—all places disaster will reach into and hollow you out unless you grab ahold of it.  My own agency is in these words; if there’s something other than ideas or a shoulder to cry on to offer, I haven’t found it yet.


Has all this been about politics? That’s the wrong question. In The Origins of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri writes: “That word, “about”, is a key term in Anglophone literary discourse, and is meant to enforce a dichotomy between creativity and thought, writing and event.” The “about”, he says, “may be dispensed with in a way that allows poetics and politics to flow into each other.”


I want to return to the category: that question I asked myself many years ago. What is it that I have been writing for all these years? It reads like a diary. Slowly, it became an essay. Thankfully, I saved the original drafts because as I read back, I sensed continuity. It is being published as an editorial. It’s all a category problem I bring up because my insistence that this be seen as an essay, not a declamation, is characterized by doubt, by my inability to give you direct answers as a form of mimesis for the mind.


The problem with doubt is the insolubility it creates with myself. On the one hand: I am not pertinent here. I am not at the center of the point I am making. None of this has anything to do with me. But maybe: I am pertinent here. I am at the center, and although I do not like it, I chose it. It is self-centered. It is all about me. And everyone’s pertinent here: the individual and the collective need not be at odds.

Queen Bed. June 2023.

I spent a few nights at my friend Nur’s place in Brooklyn just before I left for Colombo earlier this month. It was good for me. No, it was necessary.


The night before I left, I awoke abruptly at 3am. I’d had a dream about my lost friend, the one I hadn’t heard from in years. I didn’t even know where she lived anymore, though I assumed she still lived in New York.


On a lark, I searched on Instagram and came across a montage from a few months earlier. She’d gotten married. I watched it over and over. I sat up, elated, pausing the video to look at her face. She was happy. She was mid-laugh in every photo. I could hear it, that laugh that was like if Phoebe Buffay was a cartoon witch. I recognized other faces from college. They were adjusting her hem, holding her hands, or stiltedly smiling.


I was so happy; she deserves nothing less than such joy. I didn’t even notice that I was crying. My simultaneous reactions were extreme. It felt so strange to catch myself in the process of feeling them. I felt guilty the next day when I asked Nur the next day as she got off a work call if I could talk to her. I told her how the two sentiments were completely separate: my genuine happiness for her and my self-pity. I remember them differently, even. I’d pored over every frame because I was desperate to know if she was happy, and she was. I’d cried for a long time, before I called Zoya. Whether I schedule my confiding or not, I feel guilty. Neither Zoya nor Nur had any advice for me; they just listened.


Until this time, I thought I’d gotten quite good at letting my friend go. I thought of her now and then. When I read the melodramatic letters of Pliny the Younger, I remembered thinking how funny she would have found them. I remember this one time years ago when she, too, had gone somewhere alone: Paris. I don’t know if she “disappeared,” only that, as she told me later, secretively, that she’d had a grand time. I didn’t pry.


Speaking to Zoya and Nur was an admission of defeat. Turns out, I’m still not good enough at letting people go. But it also turns out that nobody expected me to be. Maybe what Zoya had wanted to do was permit me to think I could. Maybe she changed her mind. Either way, she did not say, “told you so.” It was kind. Kinder still to admit that it doesn’t work.


Then I knew something else. The problem was considered fixed. For some, it’s easier when a problem can be marked “complete.” I cannot control other people, only myself. A knot tied loose is two or more threads dangling in the wind.


Different friends see different hues in us. Those hues don’t disappear just because they aren’t perceived. They’re still there, but it doesn’t feel like it, which is the problem. I hope to reunite with them my whole life. I’ll hold candles for them, like Kevin Garvey in The Leftovers. “People hold candles, Nora,” he tells an old lover, presumed dead for decades. It’s unfathomable to me that people live with regrets they know they will carry.


Kindnesses were done. Then they were over. Things were accepted, and with yet more friends, I receded into the black. Which is nowhere at all, or so it feels. This time I’ll tie a different knot.


A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making
A Premonition; Recollected

The Ruin. Acrylic and gouache. By the author (2021).

The Editors
Disaster History
Environmental History
The Leftovers
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
Peak Oil
Apocalyptic Environmentalism
Libertarian Culture
Late Capitalism
Giovanni Arrighi
Mark Bould
Anthropocene Literature
Kristin Ross
Environmental Disaster
Jia Tolentino
Climate Psychiatric Alliance
Climate Anxiety
Avant-Garde Form
Disaster & Faith
Martin Heidegger
Jacques Derrida
Nino Cobre
Green New Deal
New Haven
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa
Ranil Wickremasinghe
Floods in Pakistan
Walter Benjamin
W.H. Sebald
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Younger
Christian Eschatology
The Book of Revelation
Geography of Disaster
Bedour Alagraa
Anna Tsing
Environmental Humanities
Energy History
Popular Culture
Climate Pessimism
Climate Optimism
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Oil Production
Lynne Segal
The Hunger Games
Fossil Fuel Divestment
Ashley Dawson
The Local and Global
Intimacy & Disaster
John Cassavetes
A Woman Under the Influence
Gena Rowlands
Visual Art
Brian Dillon
Disaster & Language
Greta Thunberg
Amit Chaudhuri
Anglophone Literary Discourse
Mary Oliver
Amy Hempel
Essay Form

Kamil Ahsan is an environmental historian at Yale, a Franke Fellow in Science and the Humanities, and the founder of SAAG. He is also an essayist and critic based in New Haven and Lahore.

12 Mar 2024
The Editors
Bibi Hajra’s Spaces of Belonging
Jul 3, 2023
Experiments in Radical Design & Typography
Mar 12, 2023
A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making
Feb 22, 2023
Exhaustion & Emancipation
Mar 10, 2021
Fictions of Unknowability
Feb 28, 2023


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