Some viewers may find the following images disturbing

Thoughts on climate collapse

One. Futuring as usual

I am just back from a conversation with a group of students that is working on an exhibition that tries to communicate the impact of climate change in Amsterdam. The invitation reads “A Visit to Emma, a speculative climate future”. As you walk down the corridor of the gallery a few posters pitch to potential buyers, property in Nieuwe Driemond. A glass-tower town just outside of Old Amsterdam, built between a complex of dams to keep the sea out of the newly founded city. Nieuwe Driemond projects itself up to the sky in tall glass sky scrappers, in what these students imagine as the vertical future of the Netherlands. In a country where soil disappeared long ago under fifteen meters of water. In this world they speculate about, Amsterdam is a flooded ghost town where tourist boats still roam the city, but now chug along rooftops instead of canals. While speculative, this scenario is not an implausible stretch of the imagination.

Their scenario of a civilization in the midst of climate collapse is strangely appealing. As I was looking at their work, I sometimes wished I could live in Nieuwe Driemond, in many ways they have managed to make this scenario of climate collapse desirable, even marketable. Even their ideas for those who are better off, like companies that allow richer people to move to Mars. This idea rather than being painted as terminally dangerous or a horrific exile, seemed gently appealing. In their visual recreation of this scenario you see a couple of people in astronaut suits holding hands in a red planet. This seemed to me the scenario that required the most elastic imagination.

Their rationale for such an appealing speculation was that during their research they came across a lot of papers that stated that people do not like to hear about climate futures in catastrophic terms. People blocked such attempts and this made efforts at communicating the impending disaster and the urgency of the situation as dead-in-the-water ineffective. They seem to see this human reaction of looking away from death as a problem that needs solving.

Two. A narrative cage

I find all these creative scenarios of possible futures to be locked up in a kind of cage of the imagination. One shaped by the fictions that we are exposed to as children, superheroes that rescue the planet in the nick of time, interplanetary travel in science fiction, punishment and end of the world scenarios from bible stories. These stories continue to co-mingle and hybridize as part of the future narratives that Hollywood, my own students and academics instrumentalize to frame the problems we face and frame the behavioural change that we think we need. All of these stories configure western thought into a narrative cage of which we are finding it increasingly hard to break free from.

I struggle to believe the cataclysmic scenarios and as we ricochet into an epoch of climate change, I see these biblical flooding scenarios as a lack of imagination, we can’t seem to fathom a future with a changing climate without resorting to clichés. I see the catastrophes that are depicted in the typical climate change imaginary as already happening, but as Douwe said, just not evenly distributed yet. But they might never become evenly distributed. Complex systems tend to become chaotic when equilibrium is broken, even distribution is not a quality we should expect to observe in a disrupted climate system.

By rendering climate futures as cataclysmic events of biblical proportions we also belittle the disasters that are already happening. With the expectation generated by this frame of reference of the cataclysm. We allow ourselves to look at fires blazing in western Australia as a mere uptick in our levels of climate anxiety, not yet as the big one, the one cataclysmic event horizon, the one that will wipe out civilization, or at the very least transform Amsterdam into a seemingly peaceful underwater tourist haven. The one that will transform your direct environment forever.

Three. Creeping normalcy


<sub>Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea, 2019 (performance view, Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2019). Photo: Andrej Vasilenko</sub>

In their piece Sun & Sea at the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, create an image of a crowded beach where sunbathers enjoy a day in the sun. It is only as they sing lyrics about climate change, that we observe a stark contrast between the banality of the scene and the bleakness of what they sing about. The events that we normalize range from the disastrous to the catastrophic, but the true cataclysm is our banality in the face of our own inadequacy to face the world we are hurtling towards.

> My boy is eight and a half

> And he’s already been swimming in

> The Black

> The Yellow

> The White

> The Read

> The Mediterranean,

> Aegean seas…

> He has already visited two of the world’s great oceans,

> And we will visit the remaining ones this year!

<sub>excerpt from The Wealthy Mommy’s Song by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea, 2019</sub>

I like that Sun & Sea doesn’t pretend to be a future scenario. It’s a courageous decision that makes the work all the more pungent. In using a day at the beach as a scene, the opera connects the past with the present with the future in a way that is deeply relatable. We see children play at the beach, youngsters playing frisbee and grandparents walking the dog. It’s a cross-generational ensemble of actors that mirrors our own stages of life, or own lived experiences by the sea. It is also an apt metaphor to frame the cross-generational challenges of the struggle in a climate crisis. What one generation experiences as comfort the next generation experiences as scarcity. The safety and convenience of ones is the uncertainty and vulnerability of others.

Sun & Sea does not postpone the collapse by turning it into a future, it shows us that we are already in it, that our children will also be in it and that we will also be in it in our old age. 

Four. Viewer discretion is advised

Our current approaches to communicate climate collapse are now steered not by science but by a focus group mentality. The goal of such mentality is to persuade people, but to persuade them of what? If the narrative that inaction in the climate crisis will lead to a terrifying future causes rejection in people. What are we trying to persuade people of exactly? What are the actions needed? Is it about overcoming that fear? Is it about buying reusable cups or recycling? The question of climate change inaction is not anymore a question of lack of awareness, it is primarily a question of courage. Instead the focus group mentality offers a palatable way of communicating an altogether different message, the message that we can shop our way out of this one too. Buy reusable cups, refillable steel water bottles, biodegradable plastic containers, save the planet through vegetarianism, etc. Keep buying, buy different, vote with your wallet and the market will take care of a sustainable future. That word again, future, persuading to postpone.

> Will you cover my back with it, please?…

> I bought us some new sunscreen…

> What does it say?…

> …let’s read it…

> It should be good enough…

> Hand me my glasses…

> Look in the other bag there…

> Protection for hypersensitive skin… 

<sub>excerpt from Sunscreen Bossa Nova (2) by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea, 2019</sub>

A person that cannot be persuaded to accept that their children will live a notably worse life than they did because of the changes in the climate that are taking place right now, will hardly have the courage to block a road in a major city as protest, and deal with the consequences of being arrested because of it. The mindless culture of convenience that contemporary capitalism couches us on does not automatically beget courage. Nor will a focus group mentality about modulating the message.

Dealing with the courage question also means to stop criminalizing and disparaging those who at the present time do have the courage to do something about climate change. We need to stop seeing members of XR as a nuisance to be rid of and accept them as the vanguard of the fight for political change against climate collapse, and not only XR but also other collectives as well as politicians, journalists, teachers and public figures that are taking concrete steps to change the global inaction on climate collapse. The courage they show now is the one the rest of us lack and therefore, just like soldiers are respected members of society, so should we regard climate activists of all stripes. Their toils and struggles increase our odds for survival.

It is the political class that needs to be persuaded to take unpopular action. That too takes courage. They are by and large the ones that seem most tone deaf to the abundance of evidence of climate change, and they are the ones with the power to actually set in motion the sweeping societal changes needed to address it.

Five. No passengers on spaceship Earth

“We don’t want you to look away now, this is your future on climate change. What do you feel? How bad can it be? Let’s talk about it.”

That is, I suspect, what my students mean when they say that people tend to reject extreme scenarios when trying to persuade them to act against climate change. The realization that we can all normalize the catastrophic as long as it doesn’t happen to us and as long as we don’t get to feel too much personal blame and can shift blame to systemic rather than personal failures. We would rather hope for another day in the sun before the big one comes.

We need new ways to think about this, we need a new imaginary of collapse that includes somewhat manageable gradual levels of disaster and slowly increasing levels of chaos. Because the big one, as shown in movies, the one of biblical proportion, might never present itself as such. The collapse will look to us as a banal scenario. A tray full of avocados in the middle of winter in a Swedish supermarket. An unusually warm spring day in Amsterdam, enjoying reading the paper in the park, perhaps containing stories about another drought in Ethiopia, or another record flood in Germany. Unsettling crises but increasingly well within our parameters of normalcy. It will be our sense of normal that will gradually expand to accommodate this changing reality. This is already happening, our post-pandemic sense of normalcy has been stretched beyond what most of us could possibly have imagined a mere four years ago.

As the world has gotten more prone to crisis at all levels from the personal to geopolitical, there’s a necessity to cultivate a more conscious crisis mindset.

We are living through a period where crisis circumstances appear to be more common than normalcy, crisis mindsets will increasingly become our default. Heightened anxiety, self-protection and existential dread, as was experienced during the pandemic, seem to be becoming our default mode of engaging with the world and each other. It requires a conscious effort to overcome this mindset, if we are to remain open and civic-minded, we need to cultivate a mindset where we can remain so while living in permacrisis.

Six. Where focus goes energy flows

Digital media and particularly social media with its relentless attack on our attentional integrity heightens our perceptual awareness of ambient crises. We doomscroll from a health emergency, to a coral bleaching event, to record-setting fires, floods and all manner of events that keep us on a psychological predisposition to permacrisis, frayed and unable to find peace. Some of these crises will bear a direct influence on us, perhaps it is our house that is flooded this time, while other crises will bear on us less acutely. There will be crises that we will be able to address meaningfully through our actions and there will be crises where we will not be able to respond at all. To survive in these times will require that we exercise appropriate allocation of our attention and efforts. We need to develop sensible approaches to engage with a world in an ongoing process of collapse so that our labor, efforts and judgment are exercised judiciously while still allowing us to lead reasonably fulfilled lives amid civilizational collapse.

Humans either deal with crisis in effective groups or not at all. The inability of audiences to be confronted with narratives of catastrophe resulting from inaction is a way to not deal with a crisis at all. It is an individualistic and self-preserving attitude, a rejection borne out of fear and an inability to cope with evidence. Pandering to these attitudes will not beget the courage necessary to demand and bring about the necessary changes if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate collapse.

Seven. The refugee next door

I question the construction of the climate refugee. The refugee is a social and political construct that seeks to compel the moral consciences of societies to protect those whose securities have been jeopardized. National policies and media play a large role in shaping the image of the refugee [2]. Populist governments that seek to cut humanitarian aid make emotional appeals and shape narratives of the refugee as a freeloader unable to fend for themselves, or as an unfortunate hapless person that happened to be born in an area of the world unable to set straight their affairs. These narratives undermine solidarity, divide societies making them brittle and less tolerant. Potentiating class struggles.

Climate refugee, by choosing to use these words we give into a form of othering those who have been made vulnerable by climate-induced adversities. Calling them climate refugees makes the rich feel comfortable in that this is something that happens to others, and when those others reel with despair they will come to seek asylum in our societies, they will be refugees. The climate refugee is, the other, it’s someone else and someone else’s children.

In recent times progressive media have changed their language to refer to certain people in terms that are perceived as more empowering. We no longer say victim of gender violence, but gender violence survivor. We refer to people that recovered from cancer, not as former patients but as cancer survivors. Perhaps we could also speak of climate crisis survivors. We can refer to those that having experienced a catastrophic fire, drought, famine or floods, and yet have rebuilt their homes and neighborhoods or have relocated. Those who didn’t perish and whose lives have gone on. We could stop talking of climate refugees and talk of climate crisis survivors instead.

Perhaps the possibility of survival could do more to get people to accept their role in the climate crisis. Not as an irreversible one-way road toward cataclysmic collapse or inevitable premature death, but as an ongoing condition of increasingly challenging survival to which it is worth adapting.

With this I don’t meant to propose a hollow optimism, or superficiality in the face of hardship but an imaginary and a language to prevent defeatism, learning to incorporate crises while remaining human.