Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll
From Dont Look Up to Greta Thunberg videos to doomsaying memes, we are awash in warnings that we are almost out of time. But the climate crisis is outpacing our emotional capacity to describe it. I cant say precisely when the end began, just that in the past several years, the end of the world stopped referring to a future cataclysmic event and started to describe our present situation. Across the ironized hellscape of the internet, we began and blogging the Golden Globes ceremony and streaming Emily in Paris . Often the features of our dystopia are itemized, as if we are briskly touring the concentric circles of hell rising inequality, declining democracy, unending pandemic, the financial system optimistically described as late capitalism until we have reached the infernos toasty center, which is the destruction of the Earth through man-made global warming. This style is but it has migrated to , to Netflix, to books. Lauren Oylers coolly funny novel begins in this mode (Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon) and Bo Burnhams depressed drama-kid Netflix special ends in it, as Burnham shrugs off the rising oceans and sings, You say the world is ending, honey, it already did. And it is darkly inverted on the Instagram account , where new-age positive thinking buckles under the weight of generational despair, and serene stock photography collides with mantras like I am not climate change psychosis and Humanity is not doomed. Ours is a banal sort of apocalypse. Even as it is described as frightfully close, it is held at a cynical distance. That is not to say that the rhetoric signals a lack of concern about climate change. But global warming represents the collapse of such complex systems at such an extreme scale that it overrides our emotional capacity. This creates its own perverse flavor of climate denial: We acknowledge the science but do not truly accept it, at least not enough to urgently act. This paralysis itself is almost too horrible to contemplate. As global warming cooks the Earth, it melts our brains, fries our nerves and explodes the narratives that we like to tell about humankind even the apocalyptic ones. This end of the world does not resemble the ends of religious prophecies or disaster films, in which the human experiment culminates in dramatic final spectacles. Instead we persist in an oxymoronic state, inhabiting an end that has already begun but may never actually end. Faced with this inexorable decline, the fire-and-brimstone fantasies grow ever more appealing. The apocalyptic drumbeat of social media gestures at the hopelessness of our situation while supplying a kind of narcotic comfort for it. Some plead: to the premise of Adam McKays end-of-the-world comedy that he has said is an allegory for inaction on global warming. In it, an American astronomer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a Ph.D candidate (Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling toward Earth. More chilling than this cosmic snowball is the fact that no one seems particularly concerned by its approach. Comet denialists hold rallies instructing people to dont look up, but even those who accept the situation only gesture lazily at trying to stop it. A pop star (Ariana Grande) stages a grotesque benefit concert; a daytime television host (Tyler Perry) jokes that he hopes the comet takes out his ex-wife; his co-host (Cate Blanchett) is more interested in bedding the astronomer than heeding him. As she paws at him in a hotel corridor, her subconscious death drive becomes manifest, as she purrs: Tell me were all gonna die! Dont Look Up fails as a climate change allegory, because climate change resists metaphor. Even though I count among the films villains (all its journalists are bad), I do not feel as implicated as I should. For one thing, humans didnt make the comet. Global warming is not approaching from space but oozing all around. My attention is diverted not only by shiny pop stars but also by taxing responsibilities and traumas, many of which are themselves related to ecological collapse. I am terrified of how global warming will affect my sons generation, but when I learned we would need to travel regularly to a hospital as Covid spiked in New York City, I bought a car. But the greatest liberty Dont Look Up takes with its source material comes at the end: The comet hits Earth at its appointed time, at which point nearly everybody dies. It is final, dramatic, easy to understand. So, nothing like our present situation. Global warming is what the ecophilosopher Timothy Morton calls , a concept that is too large to be adequately comprehended by human beings. (McKays production company is called .) Its scale is not just world-historical but geological, and though it is already very bad, it will only fulfill its catastrophic potential many lifetimes from now. Its effects are distributed unequally; what I experience as an ambient stressor may cause strangers to suffer or die. Global warming suggests that humans are powerful enough to destroy the world but too weak to stop it. Though we are driven toward world-changing innovation, we are inflexible, fearful of abandoning the destructive comforts we once saw as progress our cars, our meats, our free next-day deliveries. Knowing all this, isnt it about time we do something? Hmmm. Dont Look Up turns on one of the most vexing aspects of the crisis: Stating the data, shouting it even, often fails to move people, though the film is largely incurious about why. One of the stories we tell ourselves about global warming is that we need only listen to the science. When this does not work, we are supplied with more science more glacier drone shots, more projections of soaring temperatures, more scary stories about dead bees. In the book Being Ecological, Morton calls this ecological information dump mode, in which an expert commences shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts. But even this seemingly rational approach stokes an irrational fantasy: that we have a certain amount of time left to stop global warming just as soon as we get our heads around whats going on. The word apocalypse is for revelation, and our current predicament draws out the irony of that double meaning, as we mistake obsessing about the end of the world for acting on it. Lizzie, the narrator of Jenny Offills 2020 cli-fi novel is an information person: a Brooklyn librarian who assists the host of a cult-hit global warming podcast called Hell or High Water. The podcast is soothing to me even though she talks only of the invisible horsemen galloping toward us, Lizzie says. The more Lizzie doomscrolls about climate change, the more she turns away from the outside world, lurking on survivalist forums and planning her family doomstead. Weather sketches a scene of intellectual preppers, hoarding information about global warming as if cramming for a cosmic test. But the more information they find, the more they are able to tailor it to satisfy their own egos. In Weather, a podcast listener waves off talk of melting glaciers and asks: But whats going to happen to the American weather? A parable unfolds along these lines in the final season of Search Party: The shows crew of millennial narcissists found a Brooklyn start-up called Lyte, which manufactures an enlightenment pill with the unfortunate side-effect of turning people into zombies. As the groups craven pursuit of consumerist illumination inadvertently hastens the apocalypse, the egomaniacal imp Dory ( ) tries to explain that she just wanted to help people, but all that comes out is this: I just wanted ... fully comprehend global warming, but we can feel it, and not just in the weather. A whole lexicon has arisen to attempt to describe its psychological impact: . A of young people, released last year, found that more than half of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty about it, and believed humanity is doomed. In the 2020 Hulu documentary the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg explains how knowledge of global warming nearly killed her. After watching a film in school featuring starving polar bears, flooding, hurricanes and droughts, she says, she became depressed and anxious, stopped speaking, and almost starved to death. We are getting accustomed to the idea that global warming feels bad, and this provides its own sense of comfort, as if our psychological distress proves that we are taking the problem seriously. Civilians love to panic, says an epidemiologist in Hanya Yanagiharas novel which is partially set in an unbearably hot, totalitarian future Manhattan ruled by blinkered scientists. Survival allows for hope it is, indeed, predicated on hope but it does not allow for pleasure, and as a topic, it is dull. In our response to global warming, we resemble the frog who does not hop from the heating water until its too late. Except we are aware that the water is boiling; we just cant imagine leaving our tumultuous little pot. Perhaps one of the many creature comforts we must abandon to address global warming is the anesthetizing stream of global warming content itself. As David Wallace-Wells writes in his 2019 book climate-themed disaster films do not necessarily represent progress, as we are displacing our anxieties about global warming by restaging them in theaters of our own design and control. Even YouTube can slip into this role. As we frame an activist like Thunberg as a kind of celebrity oracle, we transfer our own responsibilities onto a teenager with a preternatural command of dismal statistics. We once said that we would stop climate change for the benefit of our children, but now we can tell ourselves that our children will take care of it for us. The internet is often criticized for feeding us useless information, and for spreading disinformation, but it can enable a destructive relationship with serious information, too. If youre a person who accepts the science, how much more do you really need to hear? The casual doomsaying of social media is so seductive: It helps us signal that we care about big problems even as we chase distractions, and it gives us a silly little tone for voicing our despair. Most of all, it displaces us in time. We are always mentally skipping between a nostalgic landscape, where we have plenty of energy to waste on the internet, and an apocalyptic one, where its too late to do anything. Its the center, where we live, that we cant bear to envision. After all, denial is the first stage of grief. is a critic at large for the New York Times. She writes about internet and pop culture for the Arts section and contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine.