The Luxury of Dread: Feelings about Climate Collapse
There’s a lot of talk in the environmental space about luxury goods – which ones are most ethical, what materials are most sustainable, what companies are most eco-friendly or support workers’ rights, or whether we should even be buying luxury goods at all for the sake of the planet. But what about luxury emotions?
Classifying emotions as “luxury” might seem kind of weird. Also, perhaps you are wondering if this article is yet another moralizing screed that tells you to watch yourself and your own thoughts lest you have the wrong ones, like some Orwellian propaganda straight out of 1984. That’s not what this article is doing at all – please read this less as a dictate of what you should be doing and more of an invitation to consider and reflect on this aspect of our collective responses to catastrophe.
This article is mostly going to focus on dread as the luxury emotion of the day. Why dread? Well, it’s topical, for one – I doubt that anyone interested in living sustainably can deny having experienced at least a bit of dread about what is currently happening to the climate. And second, it can actually spur us to action that combats climate anxiety.
Theoretical Background: Mary Manjikian
I am pulling mostly on the work of literary theorist Mary Manjikian for this, by the way. In her book Apocalypse and Post-Politics: The Romance of the End, she observes that it’s those who tend to have the least to worry about who are fixated on and fascinated by disaster. She draws this conclusion from her research on end-times anxiety in Victorian England and post-9/11 America, two empires at the height of their powers, challenged by an encounter with other political forces that managed to disrupt what they thought was a stable status-quo.
Dread, Manjikian argues, is a luxury emotion because it is afforded to the privileged who can anticipate the loss of their privilege, in order to cope with the possibility of system failure – political, economic, environmental, etc. If you’re currently living through a disaster, you don’t generally worry about it coming; it’s already happening, and now is the time for action, and feels can be felt later. I agree with her.
Climate change as a hyperobject: everywhere and everywhen
Climate disaster is really strange because it moves so slowly and is spread so unevenly around the world. It’s what Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” – it’s simultaneously far away and in your face, caused by forces that happened in the past, but experienced right now and with effects that reach far into the future.
The example that comes to my mind as a Canadian are the wildfires that we’ve been experiencing for years now, but which became catastrophically widespread this summer to the point where no part of the entire country was untouched by flame or smoke. So, while the worst fires were in BC, Alberta, and Northern Ontario, the smoke blanketed much of Ontario and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The fires are a hyperobject also in that they are rooted in the past: not just the burning of fossil fuels that caused the springs and summers to be hotter and drier here, but also in the advent of colonialism and the banning of Indigenous practices of cultural burns of the forests to keep naturally-sparked fires from having too much fuel. The fires of 2023 wouldn’t have been possible without a century of fire suppression techniques.
The Canadian Wildfires: Example
The fires themselves are burning catastrophically hotter and more intensely than ever; many forests on Turtle Island have coexisted with fire for time out of mind, and the ecosystems have evolved to rely on the periodic burning and clearing of the forests to make way for new growth. However, the fires this summer have been consuming root systems underground, cooking the earth and rending the soil dead and devoid of any life, burning not just the sick, weak, and young trees but killing off the mature, healthy trees that usually would remain after occasional burns.
The fires themselves are weirdly protracted in time, as there are “zombie fires” that keep burning under the ground for months even though all flames above ground have been extinguished, so they pop up in new places once the seasons change, to burn more.
What to do about dread?
As someone living in a place that is miraculously not on fire this summer, I can still experience dread that perhaps the fires will come for my area next. I can still look at the news and anticipate disaster. I can breathe the smoke and grimly assume that this means that destruction is imminent.
In fact, all of this means that I’m revelling in a luxury that isn’t afforded to the evacuees of the fires in the rest of the country. And I should probably take that seriously as a call to action.
My ever-present climate anxiety is a thorn in my side, yes, but it’s not one that I should let be to scar over and eventually become just an uncomfortable reality that is an inevitable part of living my life.
Dread as a call to action
Because I have the luxury of dread, that means that I also have the luxury of time and the ability to act. Climate disaster hasn’t hit me yet. I’m not reduced to a fight-flight-freeze state by a physical event that is happening around me, or not yet. My brain might be interpreting the threat of climate disaster this way, but that’s because it has evolved to fight off physical threats, not existential and as-yet vague ones. Dread can actually be very useful, once I examine it, to galvanize me into action. I can use the thorn in my side as a goad, like a spur in a horse’s side, to wake me up to do something.
Experts say that the best way to combat climate anxiety is to take action in a meaningful way. For me, when I first had this revelation, that meant volunteering at my local food bank. Being of service to other humans in need* was, perhaps, one of the most helpful methods at my disposal for taking the dread I felt and moulding it into a useful tool.
I’ve since moved and modified my climate action: I support municipal initiatives to green the way citizens live, I try to be as low-waste as possible, I buy ethical goods as I am financially able, I go out to rallies for the environment and workers’ rights. I’m not able to everything perfectly all the time, and I’m very aware that my actions aren’t going to avert climate disaster – but maybe, acting on my dread means that my networks and the people around me can be a bit more resilient, when the time for luxury feelings is over.
*Food bank use in Canada has been surging in recent years, and the advent of climate refugees (many forced from their homes due to conflict over resources) who do not have much in the way of anything to support themselves is only going to put more pressure on charitable institutions in the future.
About the Author
Ariel Kroon is a scholar of crisis (especially as expressed in western post-apocalyptic science fiction), a recovering PhD graduate, a part-time research assistant, thinker of thoughts, and one half of Solarpunk Presents podcast.