I’ve always liked to think I’d know what to do during an apocalypse.
I read exclusively dystopian novels growing up — Divergent, Delirium, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The City of Ember, The 5th Wave, Station Eleven, The Handmaid’s Tale — so I figured I was well-read on the subject. Through these books, I thought I already knew how it felt to experience societal collapse — the rush of surviving the initial fall, defending myself with a weapon I found on the street, running from the zombies or possessed humans or crazed religious extremists, the secret escape plan, the group of unlikely friends, the inevitable unknown. It was interesting, traumatic, exhilarating.
At least, I thought this was how it would unfold. Then I learned about climate change.
The real-life apocalypse doesn’t happen all at once; instead of using gas and a lighter, we’ve set the world on fire with a single spark that’s grown too large for us to escape. It’s just subtle enough that it’s never urgent or breaking news. We think we can sweep it under a rug, turn around to focus on something else, and before we know it we’re trapped in the flames.
I recently tried rekindling my love for dystopian novels with a book called "History of Bees", which describes a future after our bees become extinct. I would spoil it and say it doesn’t end well for humans, but I couldn’t even get through the first chapter describing a woman pollinating crops by hand to survive. Just thinking about this not-so-dystopian future felt like its own act of labor.
The book still sits on my shelf as a reminder, or maybe a threat. It’s hard not to feel personally responsible for climate change when I know humans are the direct cause. Today, extreme weather is the most common way people experience climate change, but the under-the-rug crisis could arguably be more alarming. We’ve killed 50 percent of the world’s coral in the last three decades. Sea levels are rising. The Arctic is rapidly warming. We rely on bees to pollinate crops for 90 percent of the world, but environmental changes are making them die faster.
While we’ve been policing ourselves to do better with our vegan diets and sustainable clothing brands, 71 percent of global carbon emissions since 1988 are directly linked to just 100 firms. Climate activists are quite literally carrying the burden of the world on their shoulders, shouting at each other at rallies to do more and do better, when the biggest culprit of climate change is systemic greed. It’s the CEOs who refuse to sacrifice revenue for sustainable practices, the government officials who make it easier for firms to pollute with minimal consequences, and the universities (including the University of Michigan) that still have over $1 billion invested in fossil fuels despite students calling for action.
Climate change will affect younger and minority populations more than it will affect the older and richer, who are typically the drivers of the crisis. Those in power have no reason to limit carbon emissions this year, or any year before the crisis is irreversible in 2030, as they will either be gone or rich enough to still live comfortably. The rest of us become fighting crayfish in an aquarium, while the culprits watch us drown from the other side of the glass.
Thinking about all of this on a daily basis really does feel like drowning. Is the crisis out of my hands, or is it my responsibility to somehow hold those in power accountable for their actions? How do I even do that?
Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, calls for us to be angry, to skip school and fight, while others say to start preparing for our inevitable indolence. It seems like everyone and no one is talking about it simultaneously — climate change wasn’t mentioned once during the Democratic presidential debate in October but it’s all I see when I open my Twitter feed or talk with my friends.
@ScottWesterfeld tweeted on March 20, 2014:
Plot idea: 97% of the world's scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires & oil companies.
@StephenAtHome tweeted on November 19, 2014:
Global warming isn't real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate.
I tweeted on January 31, 2019:
me during the 2014 polar vortex:
*snowflake emoji* it’s too cold outside for angels to fly *music notes emoji*
me during the 2019 polar vortex:
OUR RESOURCES ARE DIMINISHING, THE GOVERNMENT IS IN SHAMBLES, AND CLIMATE CHANGE IS MAKING THE SEASONS MORE EXTREME. WELCOME TO THE APOCALYPSE!
I made a rule with my roommate that we can only have “nihilist hours” after midnight. Every night, we go through the same routine: she comes home from class, I put on Maggie Rogers and scratch her head while she lays in my lap, and one of us usually has an existential crisis to discuss. Which, without fail, will bring us to climate change.
We both have a bad habit of referencing the issue at inappropriate times. “I’d love to travel more when I retire. Too bad we’ll all be gone from climate change,” she’ll say. “I wonder what my kids would be like, you know, if we actually had time to raise kids,” I’ll say.
“Bringing another human into the world is the worst thing you can do for the environment,” we both joke. But it isn’t really a joke.
To save our mental health, I made a rule that we could only save this mindset for after midnight. Neither of us obey it very well.
The more I learned about climate change, the more I felt myself subconsciously dissociating from things that brought me joy. I convinced myself that because I wouldn’t have a future, I didn’t need to form new relationships or continue my passions. I regretted trying so hard in the past. The threat surrounded me so frequently that I believed the world would start burning at any given moment, and the only way I could cope was making dark, nothing-matters-anymore comments in person and on social media that concerned everyone around me.
I thought it would be better this way, to protect myself from forming close relationships or finding a new passion or getting married and having kids. After all, the more you have before the apocalypse, the more you have to lose when it hits. (Or at least that’s what happened in The Handmaid’s Tale.)
But it’s possible that climate change won’t affect our generation until the end of our lifetimes, so why was it bothering me now?
I’m not alone in feeling this “eco-anxiety” — young people all over the country are choosing not to have kids because of climate change. Some are dropping everything to become climate activists and others are somewhere stuck in the middle, like myself and my roommate.
She expressed to me recently, “I have nowhere to relieve my anger, my sadness, my disappointment, my dread, and my fear. We don't have systems set up to help us process that.”
Other students at the University of Michigan feel similarly — Music, Theatre & Dance senior Alissa Martin feels a looming guilt that she must constantly be learning about and working against climate change.
“It feels like my generation’s responsibility to turn the crisis around, but it’s a responsibility none of us asked for, and the stakes are so high that the pressure can be truly taxing,” Martin said. “To be completely honest, when I start thinking about the future of the planet, I often shut down the thoughts because it’s overwhelming — and then immediately feel horrible for doing so. It feels like avoiding the elephant in the room in favor of smaller, more immediate stressors.”
But even those who do make the effort to learn about the crisis are still burdened with the same anxieties; Martin considered dropping her environmental studies class this semester because the depressing statistics were so mentally exhausting.
Learning about the end of the world can be especially draining for those majoring in environmental studies and are faced with this reality every day in and out of their classes. Evan Hammon and Camilla Lizundia, both seniors studying Program in the Environment, agreed they found it difficult to stay hopeful for rapid change. Yet, despite it all, they’re both able to cultivate love and joy.
“My mind can often spiral,” Lizundia said. “But with darkness, there is light. The irony is that if our world was not in peril, I wouldn’t seek to see the beauty that still exists. The trees speak to me, and their voices give me hope in my moments of despair. They cleanse my soul and restore my power to persist in achieving positive climate action.”
Hammon remarked how important it is to him to look for the beauty in his friends, the earth and strong leaders that are working to make a positive impact.
Other students expressed similar methods of healing: LSA senior Alexandra Niforos said she tries to maximize her time doing the things she loves. Hailey Martin, a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago, decided to stop feeling guilty and channel her fear into making a more sustainable lifestyle. Veronica Stafford, a senior studying chemistry at Stanford University, has started to focus on her appreciation for the resources we have rather than what we’ve lost.
Hearing from these students has made me understand something my existential dread wasn’t ready to grasp: You can’t stop living because you’re afraid of dying. In fact, it just might be the reason to lean into love more than ever.
What I loved most about dystopian novels wasn’t experiencing the apocalypse itself, but the intense passion the characters found despite the complete inversion of society. Every book had a love storyline: Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, who chose each other when they were supposed to be hunting each other; Lina and Alex in Delirium, who hid their relationship from a society where love is prohibited; Evan in The 5th Wave, who falls for Cassie despite being possessed by an alien who wants to kill her; Kirsten in Station Eleven, who pursues her passion for theatre by performing Shakespeare plays even after the flu wipes out the population.
Though reading these novels didn’t tactically prepare me for how to survive the apocalypse, they did teach me the importance of love and relationships in unsettling times.
My roommate once told me we need to be around people who are just as confused as we are to survive. I think she’s right. Love is what’s left even after everything else is gone, and cultivating that joy in the age of climate change is in itself an act of resistance.
This resistance is just as much about relationships as it is about self-love. Our practices should be sustainable both for the environment and for ourselves; in the same way eating red meat isn’t sustainable for the environment, nihilistic thoughts aren’t progressive for our well-being. It only distances ourselves from the real impact we could have if we could recognize ourselves as more than just a crayfish in a tank.
I’m inspired by the incredible youth advancements in climate activism. In addition to Greta Thunberg’s huge impact, Liza Goldberg, a high school senior, is working at NASA to map out the global effects of climate change. Young activists of color are fighting climate change and advocating for marginalized communities: Jamie Margolin, a queer, Jewish, Latina activist is working for indigenous rights and against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest; Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old daughter of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minneapolis, is working as the co-executive director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike; and Mari Copeny, a 12-year-old activist from Flint is bringing attention to the water crisis and the systemic effects of environmental racism. These are just a few names of hundreds, if not thousands, who give me hope.
For the rest of us who can’t completely devote our lives to climate activism, education will make us more powerful, despite how difficult it is to digest the information. We can change your actions on a small scale. Nature can heal us while it’s still here.
I often find myself saying I’m “burned out.” Burned out from imagining a hopeless future, burned out from not knowing how to fix things, burned out from scrolling through Twitter until my thumbs are sore.
But the sensation of “burning” is one rooted in passion. As the ethereal witch goddess and singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers sings in “Burning, “And if you're giving up, would you tell me? / I'm gonna keep this love if you let me. In the chorus, she belts, Let me help you open up / I’m in love, I’m alive / Oh, I’m burning.”
In a time when everything seems to be on fire, it is healing to focus on the good kinds of burning. The burning passion. The burning love. The burning hope. Even burning discomfort can be a sign of growth.
So, if you’re going to be making any lifestyle changes because of climate change, make sure you harvest this sustainable burning. Keep that love and hold it close. Lean into your relationships and the things that bring you joy. Plant the seeds now and watch them grow while they’re able.
And if the apocalypse really does come, someday, then let it come knowing you’ve loved — and lost — as much as you possibly can. Because that will be the only way to prepare.