Skip to content

Tropical Depressions

On climate change and human futilitarianism

“I don’t know how to be human any more.”

On a wretched December afternoon in 2015, as raindrops pattered a planetary threnody on grayed-out streets, five thousand activists gathered around Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, hoping to force world leaders to do something, anything, that would save the future. Ellie was there. But what she remembers most from that afternoon during the UN’s Climate Change Conference wasn’t what happened in the open, in front of cameras and under the sky. As they took the Metro together, activists commiserated, briefly, before the moment of struggle and the need to be brave, over just how hopeless it could sometimes feel. People talked about bafflement, rage, despair; the sense of having discovered a huge government conspiracy to wipe out the human race—but one that everybody knows about and nobody seems willing to stop.

Twenty meters beneath the Paris streets, the Metro became a cocoon, tight and terrified, in which a brief moment of honest release was possible. Eventually someone expressed the psychic toll in words that have stuck with Ellie since. It was a chance remark: “I don’t know how to be human any more.”

Climate change means, quite plausibly, the end of everything we now understand to constitute our humanity. If action isn’t taken soon, the Amazon rainforest will eventually burn down, the seas will fester into sludge that submerges the world’s great cities, the Antarctic Ice Sheet will fragment and wash away, acres of abundant green land will be taken over by arid desert. A 4-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would, within a century, produce a world as different from the one we have now as ours is from that of the Ice Age. And any humans who survive this human-made chaos would be as remote from our current consciousness as we are from that of the first shamanists ten thousand years ago, who themselves survived on the edges of a remote and cold planet. Something about the magnitude of all this is shattering: most people try not to think about it too much because it’s unthinkable, in the same way that death is always unthinkable for the living. For the people who have to think about it—climate scientists, activists, and advocates—that looming catastrophe evokes a similar horror: the potential extinction of humanity in the future puts humanity into question now.

Strange Weather

It’s safe to say that we’re already living amid a general crisis of humanity. Little fragments of the coming barbarism slip backward in time. Climate activists can feel dehumanized by the pressures facing them, but there’s also an inhumanity in the mass tendency to simply ignore the pressures facing everyone. When the first refugee boats started sinking in the Mediterranean, killing sometimes thousands of people who only wanted a better, safer life for themselves and their families, people already comfortable in Europe were aghast. When it kept happening, the stories slunk further and further away from the front pages. Many became hardened in their comfort.

In January of this year, a young Gambian man drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal, while tourists in their gondolas laughed and filmed him on their phones. This was inhuman, and it suggests that the most immediate collapse of humanity might come from those places that will feel the physical brunt of climate change least directly. In the UK, which is more likely than most countries to escape desertification and mass famine, official and unofficial plans for the future are informed by the idea of a “Lifeboat Britain.” This ugly diction isn’t meant to suggest that this island could use its relative safety to rescue some of the hundreds of millions fleeing from a brutalized south. Rather, the lifeboat evoked here comes from the grim, self-preserving logic of “lifeboat ethics,” which holds that everyone will be jostling for a place on the raft, and some must not be let in. If the last dying navies start firing on refugee boats, if the tide of corpses reaches the North Sea, will there be any humanity left worth saving?

Climate activism is hard. Its communities are spaces of joy and friendship and common struggle, but it can also be dispiriting; humans against the tide, flesh against weather. Some activists drop out under the pressure of state surveillance and mental exhaustion. Friends and comrades talk of experiencing a kind of grief; grief for the transformations in climate that have already happened, grief for those who will suffer in the short term regardless of what action is taken in the future. Depression can be immobilizing. It can be depleting. But it also forces us to face the question in its most brutal and basic form.

“I don’t know how to be human any more.” Did we ever know how to be human? And as humanity self-destructs in slow motion, wouldn’t knowing how to be human just accelerate our general disintegration?

An Empty World

Many of the climate scientists and activists we’ve spoken with casually talk of their work with a sense of mounting despair and hopelessness, a feeling we call political depression. We’re used to considering and treating depression as an internal, medical condition, something that can be put right with a few chemicals to keep the brain swimming in serotonin; in conceptualizing our more morose turns of mind, modern medicine hasn’t come too far from the ancient idea that a melancholy disposition arises from too much black bile in the body. But when depressives talk about their experiences, they describe depression in terms of a lost relationship to the world. The author Tim Lott writes that depression “is commonly described as being like viewing the world through a sheet of plate glass; it would be more accurate to say a sheet of thick, semi-opaque ice.” A woman going by the pseudonym of Marie-Ange, one of Julia Kristeva’s analysands, describes a world hollowed out and replaced by “a nothingness . . . like invisible, cosmic, crushing antimatter.” In other words, the inward condition of depression is nothing less than a psychic event horizon; the act of staring at a vast gaping absence—of hope, of a future, of the possibility of human life. The depressive peeks into the future that climate change generates. Walter Benjamin, trying to lay out the contours of melancholic experience, saw it there. “Something new emerged,” he wrote: “an empty world.”

Freud diagnoses melancholia as the result of a lost object—a thing, a person, a world—and the fracture of that loss repeats itself within the psyche. It’s the loss that comes first. We do not think of political depression as a personal disorder, the state of being depressed because of political events; rather it’s the interiorization of our objective powerlessness in the world. We all feel, vaguely, that our good intentions should matter, that we should have some power to affect the things around us for the better; political depression is the hopelessness that meets the determination to do something in a society whose systems and instruments are designed to frustrate our ability to act.

Climate change means, quite plausibly, the end of everything we now understand to constitute our humanity.

But it’s not that, like Kafka’s heroes, we’re facing a vast and inscrutable apparatus whose operation seems to make no sense, trembling in front of a machine. What’s unbearable is that it does make sense; it’s the same logic that governs every second of our lives.

At times, the climate movement has insisted on burying this crushing truth under a relentless optimism: the disaster can be averted, all that’s needed is the political will, and we simply have no time to luxuriate in feeling sad. And all this is true. But as activists have begun to acknowledge, there needs to be room for sadness. As the veteran activist Danni Paffard—arrested three times in climate protests, once narrowly avoiding prison after she shut down a runway on Heathrow Airport—puts it to us, “the climate movement has recognized that this is an existential problem and has created spaces for people to talk things through,” to exist within the sense of grief, to work with political depression instead of repressing it. After all, as the writer Andrew Solomon says, “a lot of the time, what [depressives] are expressing is not illness, but insight, and one comes to think what’s really extraordinary is that most of us know about those existential questions and they don’t distract us very much.” There’s a substantial literature on “depressive realism”—the suspicion that depressed people are actually right. In one 1979 study by Lauren B. Alloy and Lyn Y. Abramson, it was found that when compared to their nondepressed peers, depressed subjects’ “judgements of contingency were surprisingly accurate.’”

The depressive is, first of all, one who refuses to forget. In Freud’s account, while mourning is the slow release of emotional ties to something that’s vanished, melancholia is a refusal to let go. It’s not just that climate change is depressing; the determination to stop it has to begin from a depressive conviction: to not just forget that so much has been lost and more is going every day—to keep close to memory. Or as Paffard puts it, “You need to hold what’s at stake in your head enough to remember why it’s important to take action.”

La-La Land

In April this year, the Australian marine biologist Jon Brodie made headlines with his widely publicized despair. In an unprecedented tide, severe coral bleaching had destroyed much of the Great Barrier Reef; for Brodie, what had once been a worst-case scenario took horrifying form. “We’ve given up,” he told the Guardian. “It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed. Even though we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve had no success.” Brodie had spent decades warning the Australian government—which also funds his efforts—that something like this would happen if serious action didn’t take place, and being repeatedly disappointed as politicians refused to listen.

What do you do after the worst has already happened? He sounds stoic over the phone when we speak to him, as if he’s not fully aware of just how awful everything he says really is. “If you want to see the coral reefs,” he tells us, “go now. It’s got some good bits, but you have to see them now, because they won’t look like that in ten years’ time.”

Hope is difficult. “I work with young people,” Brodie explains. “Even up until five years ago, I felt I could inspire them. But now I have PhD students—I have trouble giving them a feeling that they can still do something. We’re in an era of science denial.” It’s not the inevitability of climate change that’s depressing; rather, it’s precisely the realization that it can be prevented—together with the day-to-day reckoning with the pettiness of what stands in the way. “When I was younger,” Paffard tells us, “I would walk through the City of London and look at people living their everyday lives and think, ‘We’re all just continuing as though everything is normal, as though the world isn’t about to end.’ And that used to freak me out and make me angry. But now it just makes me sad . . . it’s the moments where you let yourself think about it when you get overwhelmed by it.”

For Brodie, political stupidities blend seamlessly into the apocalypse that they create.

When I contrast what we had eighteen years ago to the idiots [in government] today, I feel sad and angry. They keep positing coal as the solution to our energy needs. They’re living in la-la land. In the end, [biological] life will go on. Maybe humans will go on a bit longer, but the Earth will still be here.

For Simon Lewis, an author and climate scientist at University College London, the trigger was palm trees. He had to stop doing fieldwork in Southeast Asia, he explains to us, because it was simply too depressing. “There is very little forest remaining. In Borneo, most of it has been converted into plantations. You fly over the same crop for hours in a plane, and it’s just too depressing to work there. The idea is to just cut down the forest, grow palm oil, and invest the profits; existentially, I just don’t want to have to deal with that.” He now works in the Congo instead. “People ask me why—‘isn’t it really depressing?’—but you feel like it’s all to play for. People [still] have a relationship to the natural environment there.” Lewis tries to account for the lack of meaningful action on climate change: it’s not that people don’t care, but “if we put it out of our minds, it’s not happening . . . we know that society is built on the soil for food, and we know there’s a crisis of soil erosion. But we don’t talk about it.”

Brodie seeks to cope with the loss of the coral reefs by creating an ecosystem within his control: “There is a sense of loss, but I do other things to compensate. I live on a large piece of land and I am growing a forest on it, so that gives me a sense of satisfaction—there are birds and butterflies.” You step back; you find other things; the moments we still have. Faced with the vastness of climate change, people reach for what’s smaller. “I keep myself so busy,” Paffard says, “so I don’t think about it on an existential level.” Lewis, who notes that “it’s very hard to plan long term because we live in a capitalist economy,” and that “people hedge their bets by consuming now and worrying about the future later,” says he resorts to similar strategies of full cognitive immersion in the many shorter-term tasks at hand.

Climate activism is hard. Its communities are spaces of joy and friendship and common struggle, but it can also be dispiriting; humans against the tide, flesh against weather.

“People on the outside of science think we sit around all day worrying about these big questions, and we don’t. Scientists are thinking about where their next grant is going to come from. You find intellectual stimulation in your work without thinking about the big picture. Recently I caught myself thinking, when the El Niño happened over the last couple of years, which gave us abnormally high temperatures—brilliant! I get to see what abnormally high temperatures do to the tropical forests I’m studying.”

With this response, Lewis says, he shocked himself. There’s an impersonality to the processes that are destroying our planet. He even has a kind of sympathy for fossil-fuel lobbyists: what they do is evil, but it’s hard to separate from the evil that’s everywhere around us. “A lot of people go in trying to change it on the inside and then end up adopting the culture, and don’t change things. Because it’s very difficult . . . There’s all sorts of psychological tricks people play on themselves to allow them to do things that are incredibly antisocial.” It’s difficult for anyone to change things, and the prospects for substantive change can be as hard for government-funded scientists and battle-hardened campaigners as for anyone else. “Would I want to live like someone in Papua New Guinea to avoid climate change?” Brodie wonders. “Probably not.”

Political depression means staring into a vastness, but one without grandeur or the sublime, one that’s almost invisible. When we wake up with every morning, it’s just there, seeping into our bones. “I am amazed,” Paffard tells us, “by our inability to engage with things that are scary and bigger than us. It’s the minutiae that keep us going . . . it’s too big for us to hold in our minds.” What can we do? We’re only human.

All Too Human?

We’re living in what’s been called the Anthropocene. The name is supposed to describe an era in which humanity—the anthropos—is no longer just another biological presence on the surface of the Earth, but a geological force inscribing itself in the ledgers of time. Human forces distort the climate and the biosphere on multiplying levels; every living thing in the deepest untouched woods and the sunless pits of the oceans is shaped, in some way, by human activity. Whatever happens next, good or bad, the Earth will record our existence for billions of years in a layer of mulched plastic and the detritus of a mass extinction. But the name, Anthropocene, is an uncomfortable one: it implies a humanity triumphant, finally emerging into its destiny as a force among worlds and stars. What it actually means is different: a humanity in excess of itself, a humanity recklessly spilling over beyond its own bounds, at risk of wiping itself out entirely. As soon as this thing called the human fully articulates itself, it threatens to vanish.

Some time in the fourth century BCE, a man threw a plucked chicken onto the floor of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Plato had claimed, to the delight of almost everyone, to have finally discovered a definition of humanity, one of the first in the Western intellectual canon: the human being is described—drum roll—as a “featherless biped.” Diogenes the Cynic, throwing the dead chicken, announced: “Behold! I give you Plato’s man!” In response, Plato updated his definition: the human is “a featherless biped with broad, flat nails.”

You can see the problem: unlike other creatures, the human has a shapelessness to it, at turns admirable and infuriating; as soon as you set down the rules for what it can and cannot be, there will be someone out there disproving them.

There’s an absence within the concept of the human, a silence inside the word: “human” is a crutch, propping up a creature that doesn’t really know what it is. This is why so many definitions of humanity privilege its formlessness: the essential quality of having whatever essential quality. The most influential comes from Plato’s student Aristotle: in his understanding, what sets humans apart from other creatures is their possession of a “rational soul.” Plants are vegetative, knowing how to feed on sunlight and drink from the rain, and animals are instinctual, moving and acting according to the designs of nature. Humans are different. We can create our own designs, and plan for the future; where an animal simply acts, a human first decides what it wants. But there’s no limit to what we might want.

Marx echoes Aristotle: he writes in The German Ideology that “men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like.” But there is a real, material distinction: “they themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.”

The first thing to go extinct from global warming was Aristotle’s rational animal.

In Marx, the Gattungswesen—species-being or species-essence—is not a prescriptive set of categories to which something must conform to count as human; it consists in production, the transformation of the world, the open-ended mutability of subjects and objects.

Our essence, in other words, is that we have none—but can fabricate one as we go along. Derrida makes a similar move in The Animal That Therefore I Am: there are animals that have sentience, there are animals that talk and parrots that speak English, there are animals that use (by his measure) writing; we may as well say that the real distinction between animals and humanity is that an animal can never really be naked or clothed. “The list of properties unique to man always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that reason it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept.”

In the Anthropocene, that silence and that nonfinitude finally takes on form: its silence is really the destruction of everything else. For a popular and vulgar Darwinism, humanity is the point where biology reaches its apotheosis and becomes something qualitatively different, in the same way that life itself is the apotheosis of chemical processes, the transformation of chemistry into something that calls for a new set of rules. The notion of the Anthropocene stands as a twisted mirror in front of Darwinism: humanity comes into its full being only as a geological process, a fossil. Not life exceeding itself, but the agent of the annihilation of all life—the point where it turns back into rock.

But clearly something is wrong with this view. After all, the first thing to go extinct from global warming was Aristotle’s rational animal. We do not think about things and then do them afterward; we do not think at all. We are plunging carelessly and catastrophically into a world created entirely by accident.

The Enemy Within

What’s most dismal about climate change is that absolutely nobody wants it to happen—it’s being engineered by cynical propagandists, frenzied manufacturers, and careless states, but the destruction of billions was never the goal. The future is taking shape out of a grim alliance among the fragility of the earth, the profit motive, the dominance of short-term thinking, and the chaos of complex systems. As everyone we spoke to pointed out, one of the most frustrating aspects of the struggle against climate change is how centerless the opponent is: “there isn’t a single node of power that we can capture and then change,” says Lewis. It lives in office buildings and the halls of government, but also inside our own heads. It’s an inhuman thing residing within humanity: our inability to save ourselves from our own actions.

The most common objection to the theory of the Anthropocene is that this era of collapse isn’t the result of humanity as such, but of the capitalist mode of production, something that emerges out of human activity but not for human ends. This age should be called something else: the Industriocene, the Economicocene, the Capitalocene. Maybe one of those names should take—but it’s still significant that humans are the ones instrumentalized by the necrotizing apparatus of capital. There is, in Marx’s terminology, an Entfremdung, an estrangement or an alienation. This term is most commonly used to discuss the more specific alienation of capitalist production, the way in which workers are ripped from their own labor-power, but it’s undergirded by a far broader form. Alienation is, at root, the alienation from our own species-being—that ability to reshape things according to our desire. Under conditions of alienation, we’re sealed off from the possibilities of what we might become by the brute fact of what we already are. This is why humanity can be so dangerous: it wouldn’t make much sense to think of a rabbit or a whale being alienated from itself; it’s hard to conceive of a way in which a pangolin or a parakeet could be somehow less than it is. Only humans can recede from the brink of themselves. But only humans have a brink to reel back from.

The problem, it turns out, is not an overabundance of humans but a dearth of humanity. Climate change and the Anthropocene are the triumph of an undead species, a mindless shuffle toward extinction, but this is only a lopsided imitation of what we really are. This is why political depression is important: zombies don’t feel sad, and they certainly don’t feel helpless; they just are. Political depression is, at root, the experience of a creature that is being prevented from being itself; for all its crushingness, for all its feebleness, it’s a cry of protest. Yes, political depressives feel as if they don’t know how to be human; buried in the despair and self-doubt is an important realization. If humanity is the capacity to act meaningfully within our surroundings, then we are not really, or not yet, human.

Nothing is assured. Marx locates his vision of an unalienated humanity beyond time; it’s a conceptual state, a possibility buried deep in all the injustices of existing conditions; it doesn’t need to have ever actually happened. Genuine autonomy over ourselves and our actions isn’t waiting for us, already somehow existing in a sunlit future; right now, what lingers over the horizon is death. It’s not a matter of waiting for the inevitable, or assuming that the human spirit will, at the last moment, suddenly shine through. It’s a question of learning. To stop climate change means finally, at long last, learning how to be human—for the first time.