The climate crisis is constantly present in our lives, whether we choose to confront it or not. I’ve chosen academic pathways that lead me to face the realities of the emergency head-on with increasing frequency. Every week I write a story for Earth to Berkeley. I go to a class about climate change in California four days a week. I spend hours pondering various topics related to the Earth and climate justice, to the point where it’s overwhelmed me.
When reading the news, looking at social media and even just looking outside, we are constantly inundated by the fact that the Earth is drastically changing, and not for the better. This type of exposure can understandably compound to the point of breakage. At times, this dread of catastrophe sends me into a tailspin, wishing I could disassociate and ignore climate change, opting for a utopia of blissful ignorance.
That’s environmental nihilism, an acceptance of the effects of climate change and a belief that there’s nothing we can do to change or reverse this impending doom. A hyper fixation on the negative in a way that immobilizes the people and shuts down our ability to collectively organize.
This fear isn’t unfounded. Our systems have already begun to fall apart, which is evident in the increase in endemic diseases, the intensification of weather events and the disruptions in the supply chain. And that just chips the surface. Especially as a part of the younger generation, being handed a world in this state of shambles is terrifying. I’m instilled with numbing rage and dread that the necessary changes to preserve our ecosystems aren’t being acted upon.
This default to nihilism isn’t coincidental. Corporations would instead overwhelm the media with sensationalized and overwhelming accounts that individualize the crisis, placing the burden on each person to single-handedly stop climate change. So understandably, we’re going to get scared and feel that there’s no point because how can one person reverse deforestation or create enough forms of alternative energy to cleanly power an entire city?
Destabilization of our social movements, of collective power, is what shifts the blame away from the place it should be directed, our capitalist systems. Combating the climate crisis can theoretically be easy when the vast majority of emissions come from a select few industries and businesses, to make the necessary shifts to a green economy. Yes, our individual lifestyles must adapt to mitigation techniques, but the vast majority of the transition must come from the systems that hold the power to effectively reduce, or even eliminate, greenhouse gas emissions and other drivers of climate change.
Capitalism will continue to benefit from our nihilism, will continue to profit off of our fear of disaster, without making the structural changes that actually make said ruination preventable. We must work outside of the structures to force these systems into making an environmental transition as the pre-existing framework will continue to weaponize environmental nihilism against us.
I’ve spent my entire life immersed in the natural world and the majority of the past six years involved in environmental activism. A big reason for this is because I had the privilege of growing up with socioeconomic stability and the freedom from financial support to go on camping trips and invest energy in the climate crisis. In tandem with these prerogatives, I can step back from my participation if it becomes too much and continue to live in complacency with climate change, as I’m currently in a position where I won’t bear the brunt of the negative effects.
However, many people are unable to remove themselves from the climate crisis. It’s at their front door, in the health crises of extreme heat, the flooding of rising sea levels, and the toxicity of industrial plants colocated with neighborhoods of color. Climate nihilism can’t be afforded in their lives, as the negative impacts of our degrading environments directly hinder their abilities to support themselves and their families and, even more drastically, to live.
Fending off environmental nihilism takes active effort, but in this paralysis, we conform to the ideas of climate change that are forced upon us by those who don’t want to make the adaptations necessary to move the world towards a green future. They’ve put us in a position of discomfort, and now it’s our turn to place this unpleasantness back upon them. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to enact this transition.
So instead of being bogged down by fear, let it fuel you. Find communities of support in which you can openly talk about your anxieties and take steps to heal the damage of denial. Collective action is a beautiful movement. Through our communal effort, preventing the brunt of climate change is possible as we pressure systemic change. Respect and love of neighbors and the land will give you solace. Know that you aren’t alone in fighting climate change, that your actions matter and that it’s only as a unified front that we will be able to move to a sustainable future.