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Sick and Tired

Against resilience

In 1971, Aaron Antonovsky, an Israeli medical sociologist, led a small team conducting a survey with over one thousand participants concerning how women cope with the effects of menopause. A question on the survey asked, almost as an afterthought, whether the women were concentration camp survivors. In reviewing the findings, Antonovsky was astonished. “How the hell can this be explained?” he exclaimed to colleagues. What he had discovered would prove foundational not only to Antonovsky’s career but to an entire new field of research. Of the 287 women who reported that they had survived the camps, over two thirds qualified in the category of “breakdown”—still suffering from “the horrors,” as he termed it. Unsurprisingly, this was a vastly higher number than for the women who had not experienced the camps.

“What is, however, of greater fascination and of human and scientific import,” argued Antonovsky, “is the fact that a not-inconsiderable number of concentration camp survivors were found to be well-adapted . . . What, we must ask, has given these women the strength, despite their experience, to maintain what would seem to be the capacity not only to function well, but even to be happy?” The answer was nothing less than a set of psychological dispositions that produce an understanding and acceptance that external stimuli reflect a coherent world; that one has the internal resources to meet any demands from these stimuli; of an optimistic disposition that such demands are “challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.” With these it might be possible for a person to withstand life reduced to the absolute degradation and deprivation of the camps and still remain functional by existing social standards. Antonovsky would eventually call his science “salutogenesis,” but what he had really discovered is what we now call “resilience.”

Earlier, in 1955, the psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith began a vastly influential forty-year longitudinal study of children on the island of Kauai. Initially the investigation focused on how structural conditions such as poverty affect both pregnancies and subsequent childhood experiences. Although Smith and Werner found conclusive evidence that structural and environmental factors were strongly associated with negative outcomes, they were, in an eerily similar story, shocked to discover that about one in four of those exposed to several severe structural risks “developed, instead, into competent and caring young adults.” Smith and Werner dubbed this group, “the vulnerable, but invincible.” Werner later reported how their observations confirmed Antonovsky’s initial propositions: a set of beliefs, attitudes, and capacities—what Antonovsky called a “sense of coherence”—could facilitate “health” under even the most adverse circumstances. It was these—the well-adapted Auschwitz survivor and the vulnerable but invincible child—who would become the ideal types of resilience; the docile inhabitants of this exhausted world.

“Resilience” appears some 3,970 times in the IPCC’s 2022 Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report. Many of these are citations to natural scientific studies building on the 1973 ecological definition: “Resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb change of state variable, driving variables, and parameters, and still persist.” Much research under the ecological resilience rubric accurately describes assessments about, say, a given urban environment’s inadequate deployment of resources for climate adaptation; or a technical evaluation of a coastal region’s threshold for ecological stability; or in modeling geophysical climate change probabilities.

Attachment to the ideal of resilience only maintains a world which demands it.

Resilience in these senses is not some mirage; a monoculture ecosystem is far less technically resilient than multispecies diversity. An agroecological and agroforestry system is far more resilient to extreme climate events—and far more efficient—than industrial petrofarming. Refinements of this definition cast resilience as “the capacity to adapt or transform in the face of change in social-ecological systems, particularly unexpected change, in ways that continue to support human well-being.” Even with such augmentations, the term is acknowledged as murky and its social application highly debatable. Transformation often slides back into preservation or modest modification even when the broader research calls for nothing less than radical change across all aspects of society. However, such uses are only a part of those three thousand or so IPCC references.

Resilience, “resilience theory,” and “resilience science” are interested in how “stressors” affect specific systems, in how systems can persist and simultaneously, in social and individual capacities, absorb ever greater risk, crisis, trauma, and stress. Resilient ideals are now ubiquitous. Between 1970 and 2021 some eighty-one thousand academic articles were published focused on resilience, more than 80 percent of which were in the last two decades. As a concept, resilience barely registered at the mid-century. “Resilience science” is found in risk modeling, vulnerability assessment, disaster management, sustainable development, urban planning, physiology, epidemiology, security, health, and more. Antonovsky’s “sense of coherence” and variations have become a common bridge concept between social-psychological and ecological definitions. This is particularly visible in the vast “grey literature” between government agencies, think tanks, and consultancies.

In its common use, resilience is easy to understand. It is the capacity of ecosystems, individuals, communities, or societies “exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.” Resilience is therefore about risk-shifting, minimum resource levels, and “bouncing forward.” Resilience emphasizes some of the stickiest, socially destructive ideals of our time: the hardy survivor, the endlessly flexible and adaptable worker, and the self-reliant community, all of whom continue to function within even the most corrosive socioecological conditions and deprivations.

This is part of why resilience is so beloved by policymakers. In a crisis-ridden world, it counsels quiescence and parsimonious austerity. Even in its most generous formulations, it looks for just how little some unit—a body, a region, a population—might need, while avoiding the possibility of significant external change entirely. Resilience is a management strategy and apology for the status quo, for global capitalism with all its constitutive social and socioecological relations. In resilience thinking, chaos, disease, and stress are omnipresent and often unavoidable—naturally. Resilience thinking teaches the absolute limit of risk or stress that can be shifted onto individuals and communities, like a Victorian viceroy counting calories for coolies. And simultaneously, it shows that should such a limit prove too much for these poor souls, it is a failure of internal capacities. Nothing could be done; they were perhaps, in the phrasing of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a “disposable population” to begin with.

Resisting, absorbing, accommodating, and recovering—all socially passive and politically inert— rely, as two resilience specialists summarize, on the cultivation of “optimism, intelligence, creativity, humor, and a belief system that provides existential meaning, a cohesive life narrative, and an appreciation of the uniqueness of oneself.” This is quite literally the prescription of ideology. As Theodor Adorno once quipped: “There is humor because there is nothing to laugh at.” Optimism in a world that is failing; intelligence in knowing it is the best, because it is the only possible world; creativity in adapting to that world; a belief system and cohesive life narrative that affirms the world as it is and asserts the value of each and every individual even as it prepares many for mass death.

Resilience thinking is always reactive to exogenously described disasters, shocks, and stressors. Even when it is preached prophetically as prophylaxis, it ignores the empirical realities of phenomena endogenous to “the present dominant socioeconomic system . . . based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use.” Sociologist Sarah Bracke reads resilience through Lauren Berlant’s cruel optimism: “An attachment to resilience . . . effectively prevents us, as individuals and collectively, from going there. Here resilience becomes a symptom of the loss of the capacity to imagine and do otherwise, and cruelty is one of the more politically cautious names for such a condition.” Of course, it is a political reality that emancipatory movements—and left-wing climate realism—act from a place of “significant stress or adversity,” but resilience as a principle sublimates a temporary challenge into a goal itself.

Performing or enacting resilience becomes the cruel proof of strength, of commitment, of rugged self-reliance. Attachment to the ideal of resilience only maintains a world which demands it. The achievement of resilience marks the horizon of “success.” Failures of resilience—individual or collective—demand an inward turn and reckoning. Where did individual capacities or “social support” systems fail? Positive commandments of unbridled optimism, personal adaptation, and meaningful affirmation—which are found not only in resilience theory but in positive psychology, cheap exhortations to mindfulness, and many of the faddish, self-help pseudosciences of the neoliberal era—are completely incoherent with the catastrophic climate change that is already here. They are not just apolitical, but anti-political. Resilience is the all-consuming preparation for life (or death), as Walter Benjamin once wrote, in a hell “which is this life, here and now.” For some, resilience is the categorical imperative of business-as-usual; it is crisis managers buying time. For others, resilience is exhausting.

Against resilience then, against the atomizing prescriptions to internalize stressors, hazards, crises, and other structural phenomena, the political possibility for a left-wing climate realism depends on externalization. That is to say, politicization. Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre—The Wretched of the Earth, taken from the verses of the “L’Internationale”—are today’s Exhausted of the Earth. Climate change is not the byproduct of contemporary capitalism; your exhaustion and that of the global human ecological niche are fuel for the fire. Our niche has a case of the Mondays. This life, this civilization, is above all exhausting. Business-as-usual promises only to accelerate your and this world’s exhaustion; it can afford to take a leisurely, piecemeal approach. Neither you nor this world can afford that. Neither can you nor this world wait for “the revolution.” Neither you nor this world can abide by liberal admonitions to propriety, to civility, to patience, or compromise. Exhaustion is not some rhetorical gesture, discursive fiction, or new theoretical fantasy. Exhaustion outlines the historical bloc, the mass political subject of this conjuncture.

Spread out a map of the world and push pins into every location that is figuratively or literally on fire. Just as these are zones of extraction, exploitation, and expropriation, these are zones of exhaustion. And like wildfires, they proliferate. Connect each pin with a wire and suddenly you see the outline of the world of exhaustion, the extractive circuit, capitalism in its full socioecological expression: it quite literally crisscrosses the world. In a necessarily expanded understanding of value extraction, the extractive circuit extends from geophysical realities to psychosocial “optimizations.” It organizes a global human ecological niche for maximal profitability—no matter how difficult to maintain and at whatever cost.

By recent counts there are well over three thousand “ecological distributional conflicts” in the world right now. The concept of ecological distributional conflict attempts to capture the incredible range of social conflict—in terms of class, race, gender, and more—that occur around the production and distribution of material, ecological goods. Far from the shockingly persistent image of environmentalism as a principally “middle-class,” “elite” (or, in the bowdlerized cant of the know-nothing left, “PMC”) concern, looking at these actually existing conflicts reveals a picture in which struggle is widespread, more frequent in the Global South and among the poor, North or South.

Extending and accelerating productive time as far as possible not only generates profitability but in the process specifically destroys the time for politics.

In some cases, like with the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, struggles are explicitly connected to a systemic ecological critique. In others, such critique is absent. But both can be described in the terminology first proposed by Joan Martinez-Alier and Ramachandra Guha: “environmentalism of the poor.” However, others with even less likely bedfellows—Murat Arsel, for example, discusses anti-coal coalitions in Turkey between peasants and former leftist intellectuals and officials—can have multiple motivations converging on what Arsel calls, tellingly, the “environmentalism of the malcontent.” The explosion of ecological distributional conflicts—95 percent of all conflicts occurring since the crisis of the 1970s and 50 percent just since 2008—and their occurrence precisely “along local and global commodity chains, from cradle to grave”—tracks the acceleration and social metabolism of the extractive circuit.

One might describe these as among the initial “spontaneous” outbreaks of global exhaustion, with all the shortcomings and strengths that thinkers from Gramsci to Fanon ascribe to spontaneity. It is not only ecological distribution conflicts that are on the rise. Across the exhausted world, social unrest is increasing dramatically—only exacerbated by the pandemic, itself just another of the complex socioecological phenomena of climate change. An amplification of long-existing trends, current unrest is comparable not only to the social upheavals of the 1960s, but to those of the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is not just a casual inference, though the spread of social and political crises that ripple across the world in our moment can be easily observed. Recent data from the Mass Mobilization Protest Database marks an approximately 58 percent increase in such events worldwide by 2019.

Although the concentration of upheavals is greatest in middle-income countries, it is increasing everywhere, including in the Global North. As a team led by sociologist Sahan Karatasli observe, the current wave of social unrest is at least comparable if not greater than the mid-century breakdown of British imperial hegemony. In fact, such extended periods of unrest are always associated with “periods of major economic and political crisis for global capitalism.” Across studies, causal explanations are murky, although persistent themes are encapsulated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s report “From Protest to Progress?”: inequality, deteriorating conditions despite income, worsening labor conditions, and, of course, “the climate crisis.” Adding current “megatrends” of globalization and technological acceleration, forced migration, and other similar conditions to those “key” factors only underlines “the existence of this generalized discontent”—and as we’ve seen, each of these trends is linked to the others and to worsening climate catastrophe.

The OECD report notes that “rising stress levels and deteriorating mental health further attest to the difficulties people face today.” This stress, this exhaustion, is also contagious. “Evidence of contagion of protests between countries and the emergence of global protest movements suggest that people in societies around the world are finding common cause.” Here we begin to see the lineaments of the Exhausted; this is the foundation of a genuine political subject of left-wing climate politics.

There is a crucial difference between today’s wave of unrest and previous ones. As Karatasli observes, today’s wave lacks the organizational structure to “boost and spread the spontaneous and creative energy of the masses from below.” The decidedly non-radical authors of the OECD report note the same difference: declining unions, parties, and social institutions and associations more broadly. When Fanon observed that “one can hold out for three days, three months at the most, using the masses’ pent-up resentment” before such spontaneity splinters, it was in an era of mass parties, politicization, and mobilization. In contrast, today we are only beginning to emerge from an era of mass depoliticization. While left-wing politics has always faced something of a time-bind, an under-examined aspect of neoliberalism is the way it colonizes the time for politics. Extending and accelerating productive time as far as possible, well into supposed non-working hours, not only generates profitability but in the process specifically destroys the time for politics. This makes the scale of contemporary social upheaval all the more striking and the imperative for organization all the more urgent. Part of the politics of exhaustion is stealing back time, securing space for ever greater intensification and politicization.

There is no need to wait. The reservoirs of emotion are already finding their outlets. In mapping layers of disease, environmental conflict, and general social upheaval on top of one another, we can see these reservoirs and begin to outline the Exhausted as the mass political subject of left-wing climate realism. This is not complete, and, as with all social experience, it is not determinative. Nor is this already a subject or even a cohesive movement, as some might suggest. There may even be some groups and conflicts which fall away and others which are eventually drawn in. In laying this map over that of the extractive circuit, we begin to see mass externalization in proliferating if still disjointed conflicts. We begin to see what the Exhausted can be.

Exhaustion should be understood not only in the sense of ecological exhaustion, of running past, beyond, or through planetary boundaries. Although in that ordinary environmental sense, the ecological conditions conducive for the mass flourishing of human life are indeed at the point of exhaustion. Nor only in a sense of bodily enervation, of individual physical fatigue. Although in this sense, too, the labor regimes enabled by the extractive circuit have left many physically exhausted. But more than these, exhaustion is the experience, the sense, the feeling of how this global ecological niche is spent. We’ve already seen the social and ecological exhaustion of the extractive circuit. But this hardly captures the totality and particularity of exhaustion in this moment.

Rather, exhaustion is an affective matrix—a “general affectivity,” as Fanon once wrote, a particular “structure of feeling” in Raymond Williams’s phrasing—where these types of exhaustion are also bound up with the exhaustions of political forms; of and with whole ways of life; the exhaustion of living or resisting the 24/7 world; engineering, technical, and even aesthetic exhaustions. In ecological thought there is often a Malthusian impulse—intuitive yet fundamentally flawed—that materials will simply “run out”; that there is too little for too many; that resources will be exhausted. But capitalism today, the world of the extractive circuit, is characterized less by this kind of running out—of fossil fuels, of “rare earth minerals”—than the overabundance of such resources and the social and ecological exhaustion that lies in the wake of their accelerating exploitation. As Marx already observed in the mid-nineteenth century, capitalist progress is “the art of not only robbing the worker, but robbing the soil.” Exhaustion traces the outline of a politics, of a broad agenda, and a struggle whose goal is the flourishing of a sustainable niche. Exhaustion proliferates; it is ubiquitous and yet it is specific.

The most prosaic way in which exhaustion has long been discussed is as a kind of pathology. In many epidemiological literatures, exhaustion is often treated as an extreme form of fatigue or, in more common parlance, “burnout.” In turn, these are all classified as syndromes related to the inability to work, to “cynicism or negative feelings towards one’s job,” or “reduced professional efficiency” (WHO definition). There is a long history of this kind of analysis of exhaustion as essentially a labor management problem—on the factory floor, in the family, or on the battlefield.

Probably the earliest pathologization of exhaustion was as “neurasthenia” or “nervous exhaustion” by the American physician George Miller Beard in the 1860s. Although ideas of exhaustion certainly predate the modern period, “before 1860 almost no medical or scientific studies of fatigue are recorded. By the turn of the century, the U.S. Surgeon General’s index listed more than one hundred studies of muscle fatigue as well as numerous studies of ‘nervous exhaustion,’ ‘brain exhaustion,’ and ‘spinal exhaustion.’”

It is not only wealth and power that runs through the extractive circuit. Feelings flow through it as well.

The worker impervious to fatigue was a kind of utopian aspiration stretching from the dawn of “scientific” management to today’s prescriptions to ease “burnout” with “compassionate” approaches that emphasize “recognition,” “positivity,” or “invite all the things that make us human to work.” That managerial utopianism—which, as Anson Rabinbach reminds us, mirrored the fantasy of the “endless productivity of nature”—becomes yet another imperative to resilience, to internalization rather than externalization.

Workplace fatigue, the exhaustion of workers, as broadly conceived as possible, is a fundamental part of the equation. However, exhaustion is not simply synonymous with exploitation. In the extractive circuit, we already saw exhaustion in the “mental health plague” concentrated in lower- and middle-income countries but stretching to majorities across the world. At perhaps the broadest and fuzziest levels, we glimpse exhaustion today in International Labour Organization reports and Gallup surveys describing 76 percent of the global workforce as suffering from “burnout,” less than 33 percent describing themselves as “thriving,” and a mere 21 percent marking general engagement with work. But beyond formal labor, we see a broader exhaustion in the vast “Global Emotion” surveys reporting 42 percent of the global population as anxious, 41 percent as stressed, over a third in physical pain, another third simply tired. (Such statistics are overlapping and partially additive.) Next to a cheery photo of Gallup CEO Jon Clifton, the 2022 executive summary begins:

The world broke a lot of records in 2021. Corporate profits, venture capital funding, CO2 emissions and the temperature of the oceans all reached record highs last year. But there is another record the world broke that hasn’t yet made headlines—and it has to do with how everyone feels. As you’ll read in this report, in 2021, negative emotions—the aggregate of the stress, sadness, anger, worry and physical pain that people feel every day—reached a new record in the history of Gallup’s tracking.

Such surveys—in their methodologies, in their interpretative gloss, and in their inherent limitations and assumptions—generally produce as rosy a portrait as possible. For example, many try to pin such findings on the Covid-19 pandemic despite data showing, as Clifton admits, the long-term nature of such trends. As problematic as this kind of inquiry can be, Global Burden of Disease estimates highlight both the general epidemiological prevalence of disorders from depression to OCD across geographies. These and related conditions are globally prevalent, as common in Malawi or Kenya as in Germany or France. Rates of increase are remarkable in how they map almost exactly onto existing and projected global geographies of climate impacts. Exhaustion—usefully for climate politics but confounding for some traditional researchers—seems to escape a precise medical definition, just as pathologies like depression are noted by medical researchers to defy strict definition and to exist on a broad spectrum. As the editors of one interdisciplinary collection put it:

Our age, it seems, is the age of exhaustion. The prevalence of exhaustion—both as an individual experience and as a broader socio-cultural phenomenon—is manifest in the epidemic rise of burnout, depression, and chronic fatigue. It is equally present in a growing disenchantment with capitalism . . . in concerns about the psycho-social repercussions of ever-faster information and communication technologies . . . and in anxieties about ecological sustainability.

This description is closer to the mark for understanding exhaustion as vital to the politics of left-wing climate realism. Exhaustion absolutely contains phenomena like burnout, depression, or fatigue, but also socioecological exhaustions—the reality of them and their feeling. The exhaustion of capitalism as we know it is conveyed in concepts like “zombie neoliberalism” that have permeated even mainstream business discourse. The exhaustions in existing social life and with that life; the exhaustions with, as Berlant suggests, “conventional good life fantasies.”

In a kind of strange harmony, the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Risk Report highlights “rapidly accelerating risks clusters—drawn from the economic, environmental, societal, geopolitical and technological domains, respectively” and not only presents a comprehensive, literal mapping of what we might term “general exhaustion”—from individual disease (chronic conditions, mental health), to irreversible economic decline, exacerbated social crisis, and climate change—but emphasizes their fundamental interconnection at a macro-level, borrowing Adam Tooze’s “polycrisis” concept. From this broad map of interconnected crises, they map the intersection of human health and ecological degradation in particular. They essentially draw, from the point of view of crisis management, the outline of the extractive circuit and all the nodes of exhaustion it produces. As the pre-pandemic trends accelerate, measures of global exhaustion become more volatile, more difficult to measure, but in all cases greater.

As the Brazilian hydrogeologist Bárbara Zambelli wrote in an exasperated essay at the height of the pandemic: “The ethical system we live in trivializes the exhaustion of the lives of some so the lives of others can, in fact, be produced and reproduced. The hierarchization of peoples, ecosystems, and knowledges enable a certain ethical subject to prevail over the others.” What she so acutely observes in the system of exhaustion is not only an ethic, requiring an ethical response, but that this connection, this synthesis, demands a politics of exhaustion.

As the joke goes, there’s a German word for everything. Zeitkrankheit describes a disease particularly characteristic of the times. Exhaustion is our Zeitkrankheit. A literal translation of Zeitkrankheit would be closer to “time-sickness.” Speed-up, acceleration, 24/7, always-on, lean, just-in-time; these are integral to the world of business-as-usual. People are sick of the times and sick from the times—“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as Fannie Lou Hamer once said. As with every other aspect of exhaustion, this is a genuinely transnational phenomena: “a highly prevalent globalized health issue, present in all countries, that causes significant physical and psychological health problems.” “Emotional exhaustion,” when a subject feels “drained of emotional and physical resources,” is one of the most common cross-cultural phenomena. And, as expected, this is found in other extractive, sacrifice, and adjoining “zones” as well: migrants and refugees, native communities in Bolivia, Indian women in domestic adversity. These health trends are explicitly tied to the globalization already described in the extractive circuit.

It is not only wealth and power that runs through the extractive circuit. Feelings flow through it as well; they pool around it. Such feelings and affects are not arbitrary or purely discursive. Nor are they politically determinate. They are informed by social position, but they do not constitute political subjectivity. What courses through the extractive circuit, alongside ever-accelerating extraction, expropriation, and exploitation is, for the vast majority of people, exhaustion in all its forms. Exhaustion may be the connective tissue between existing ecological and social upheavals across the world. Exhaustion can be the foundation for externalizing what are still too often individualized experiences of the relentlessness of the extractive circuit, for uniting and radicalizing. Exhaustion can be more than a “prism” through which to view debates regarding social and ecological reproduction; it can be a potent point-of-view and starting position for the politics of left-wing climate realism.


Excerpted from The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World. Copyright © 2024. Available from Repeater Books.