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How to Live in a Burning World Without Losing Your Mind

The emotional burden of climate change can be overwhelming alongside the grief and frustration of our own lives.

An aircraft dumps fire retardant as emergency vehicles stand in the foreground.
Oregon Department of Forestry/Getty Images

It was the middle of June, and my mother had just died.

“It’s 112 degrees in Seattle,” someone told me.

“Fuck you,” I recall responding. “My mother just died. I can’t take this shit.”

It wasn’t the first time I had resented the ever-present nature of the climate threat. At the height of the Covid-19 spike in New York City last year, sirens blaring from every direction, locked down at home, hearing news of friends or acquaintances passing and bracing for more, I avoided climate news. I envied the conservatives their denial.

The front page of the paper this week brings reports of floods in Germany, with hundreds of people still missing and at least 164 dead; the lush vineyards of the Napa Valley parched with drought; forest fires in Siberia. (Siberia!) And what the hell is a “fire tornado”? As my teenage son headed out to spend the next 10 hours playing baseball outside in the New York City summer heat, I read that the smoke from the fires in the West had drifted east, adding to our urban haze.

I’m in no condition to receive this news. I can’t tolerate more worry, death, sickness, sadness, or pain—more mothers and grandmothers dying, and maybe even less bearably, children.

I’m not alone.

We are in the middle of another wave of horrific climate news, but many of us are too traumatized to pay attention. The more loss and horror we’re facing in the rest of our lives—whether from the coronavirus and opioid pandemics, economic upheaval, or the ordinary awfulness of cancer and death—the less equipped we are to take it in. Meanwhile, as a nation we are at a crucial political juncture. Our country is no longer run exclusively by right-wing climate denialists, but the Biden administration needs pressure to act. We must somehow make room in our minds for a burning world if we are to save it.

Environmental activists have a word for our inability to engage with climate change: apathy. But as psychologist Renée Lertzman, an environmental consultant, argued in a 2010 lecture, the word in this context is “a misnomer, misleading, patronizing, destructive.” (It’s a testament to the unfortunate marginality of psychoanalysis in public life that it took so long for anyone to challenge the assumption that we would have no feelings on such an important matter.) Rather, she argued, disengagement from the climate issue is far more complicated than that, hiding fear, helplessness, and distress—all of which may be unconscious.

When Lertzman interviewed residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who lived near a Superfund site and considered themselves disengaged with environmental issues, she found not apathy but instead “a surplus of affect. Once they started talking, they couldn’t stop.” She found that her subjects were overwhelmed by the climate crisis. They were also conflicted: Like most of us, the people she interviewed wanted to save the planet, but they also wanted cheap flights and air conditioning. They were mired in guilt over their own destructive desires and actions, a classic psychoanalytic conundrum. They also spoke with premature nostalgia about the natural environment around them; rather than actively visiting, loving, and working to protect the beaches and waterways of their childhoods, they were in mourning for them, as if these places were already gone.

What looked like apathy, then, was a defensive reaction against pain and distress. Eric Bichard, professor of sustainable development at Salford University, remarked at the time that the revelation of Lertzman’s research was that environmentalists had misunderstood disengagement: The problem wasn’t that people cared too little about the environment, but “that they care too much.”

This has important implications for how we approach climate information. Bombarding people with information that will shock and alarm might be productive if people really didn’t care. But since many of us are instead busily repressing big feelings of sorrow and terror about global warming, this doomsaying approach just activates our defenses. We tune out.

Lertzman tested her subjects’ reaction to a 2006 poster that warned people in big letters that, if we don’t take action, “No More Great Lakes.” She found that people tend to tune out messages like this to protect themselves from distress. That’s consistent with findings from other studies. Yet such appeals are still common: This summer, a full-page print ad for the Center for Biological Diversity on the back of the Nation’s July-August issue (the magazine’s audience is hardly unaware of climate change) confronts us with a serious-looking jaguar, his face half in shadow. It reads, “Extinction is Forever.” I feel sad and turn away. I can’t think about this right now.

“We already know a lot about what the conditions are now that promote healing and working through trauma,” Lertzman told The Guardian last fall. “It’s just that, for the most part, we haven’t applied that to a climate trauma context.” It’s instinctive, she said, for our brains to shut out information—even our own experiences, like fire, unseasonable heat, or bad air quality—that’s overwhelming or disturbing. “Frankly,” she said, by fixating on sharing our information and our sense of urgency, “what a lot of us are doing unintentionally is simply retraumatizing each other over and over again.”

The way out of this confusion is neither feel-good solutionism nor submitting to the apocalypse. Instead, we need to learn to make space, in our conversations, activism, and media, for feeling grief, anxiety, guilt, and fear about climate change, no matter how difficult or dark. Where many of us rush into the role of town crier—a Paul Revere shouting out warnings—we may be better off, to use Lertzman’s framing, becoming a guide, helping those around us work through difficult emotions and figure out how they can take action.

I’m not always as sad and avoidant as I am right now. Sometimes I’m sure that we humans can solve this problem. But that attitude isn’t always helpful, either. Positivity can be just as tone deaf as relentless doom-saying, say trauma experts, if it denies us the space for sadness, hopelessness, and despair—emotions we need to acknowledge, work through, and become resilient enough to face.

I’m beginning to realize that my can-do spirit can be just as alienating and annoying to people as the doom-and-gloom of the No More Great Lakes campaigners. Several years ago, when our apartment building signed up for the city’s municipal composting program, a neighbor asked me how it worked. I began to explain.

Composting is so beautiful to me that I’m sometimes in danger of becoming a bore on the subject. (I’ve been known to take a photo of the lemon peel in the coffee grounds and post it to Instagram.) Plus, I’m a journalist: I assume that what people need from me is information. As I prattled on—compost is not too stinky, you can put it out in the brown bin frequently, or you can get a little bucket with a filter—my neighbor sighed. “It’s so hard,” she mused, looking troubled. “No, no, it’s actually pretty easy!” I hastened to reassure her, offering still more practical tips.

I’m learning from Renée Lertzman’s work that I should listen more and talk less. My neighbor was probably not saying that composting was hard in a practical sense, like living off the grid, or traveling by boat rather than by plane (as Greta Thunberg famously does). She meant that changing her habits, thinking more about her garbage, taking in the overwhelming scary reality of the climate threat, and having feelings about it is hard. She might have sensed that in the context of global petrocapitalism, her individual composting efforts wouldn’t make much difference, and felt helpless. Or maybe she was waking up to her own climate impact as a middle-class consumer in a rich country and felt overburdened by responsibility and guilt. Maybe she wanted to talk about all of that, but unfortunately, I shut her down with my perky, mission-driven practicality.

“Yes,” I should have said, “it is hard.” Because it is.