• Michael Burnett

Is a fatalism a valid response to the climate crisis?

The unprecedented Arctic wildfires of 2019

We all know at least one of a certain type of person. You know who I’m talking about – the type of person who, when you bring

up the climate crisis, simply shrugs it off, saying “well there’s nothing we can do, anyway” before blithely carrying on with their day. Such people use this kind of fatalism as the laziest of all excuses for doing nothing, changing nothing, for the good of the planet. It’s possible to argue that this type of response is even worse than that of a climate denialist. These people freely admit that there’s a problem but refuse to take charge of their own guilt and responsibility in relation to it.

At present, this seems to me to be by far the most common form of climate fatalism, at least in the Western, English-speaking world. As the climate crisis worsens, with discussions of tipping points and runaway climate change cropping up more frequently, climate fatalism is gaining traction as a legitimate viewpoint. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks. I’m convinced that there is no place for the sort of smug, self-interested fatalism of the type I’ve already mentioned.

There is, however, another type of fatalism that, though no less pessimistic in its outlook, may be considered less lazy, more dignified and more compassionate. I’m no psychologist, but I also expect that it’s less damaging to mental health than climate anxiety, which seems to afflict almost everybody engaged in trying to bring our political, economic and social systems more in line with the needs of the planet. Those with climate anxiety suffer from a range of adverse psychological symptoms including despair, hopelessness, depression, anger and alienation from others, and there are even new words being made to describe some of the more novel symptoms. The only therapy that works appears to be to fight, to resist, and to defy the societal forces that wreak havoc upon the Earth. The exhaustion that inevitably follows comes with its own psychological pitfalls.

Trigger warning: terminal disease.

I’d like you to imagine a hypothetical scenario, where someone dear to you is dying of a terminal illness. You can see their upsetting physical symptoms when you visit them in the hospital, and you know they’ve not got long left. The doctors have done everything they can – your loved one is slipping away. Perhaps they have weeks left, maybe months. But you only have a limited time left to be with them.

Imagine now that two other family members are visiting the dying person. These people are responding to the situation in their own way.

The first of these starts to treat the sick person terribly, all the while justifying that, because they are dying anyway, it makes no difference whether they abuse them or not. They even begin to steal from their dying family member. This person, clearly being a psychopath, cares little for the condemnation that this invites from everyone else in the family.

The second family member is besides themselves, almost to the point of hysteria. They rant and rage and the doctors, demanding that something, anything be done – that the death of their family member must simply not be allowed to happen. They see death not as inevitable, but as a profound injustice. They simply cannot accept the situation as it is and would do anything to change it.

The first family member closely resembles our ‘climate fatalist,’ who uses the hopelessness of their relative’s situation as a carte blanche to act unethically. Because the outcome seems preordained, they believe that nothing matters anymore in relation to the dying person; they can do what they like without guilt. The only difference between the two examples is that, sadly, there are no real negative social consequences to adopting this approach in the climate crisis context, unless you happen to be standing in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest, shouting your indifference at the top of your lungs.

The jury’s still out on whether we have passed the point where runaway climate change nullifies the effects of any actions we take to avert a global climate catastrophe, although several prominent commentators have expressed this belief already1,2,3. Personally, what I believe is that, until we have incontrovertible evidence that this is the case, climate activism is still a rational activity to take part in. I strongly encourage anyone that can do it to join in without delay.

So, what happens if we reach that point of incontrovertible evidence? What do us climate activists do with all that emotional energy that we’re channelling into saving the planet? I’m not going to lie. I fear for those with climate anxiety if this happens. Like the hypothetical death-denier, fight against the inevitable isn’t going to do any good.

So, returning to our hypothetical scenario – what is the most psychologically healthy response to learning that your loved one is dying? In the case of individuals, the answer comes naturally. You visit them as often as you can. You treat them with respect and dignity. You cherish the life they’ve had, and the life they’ve still got left. You reflect on the value of that life, which will persist even after they’re gone. You grieve, all the while understanding that to cast blame, either on the soon-to-be-deceased or on those who tried to cure them, helps nobody.

And here we come to the second type of fatalism. Imagine that it really is hopeless. Imagine that we have ten years left: in a decade, plants and animals, breathable air, the human race itself, will be gone. Will you spend your last ten years raging and against the inevitable to your own psychological detriment? Will you spend them taking what you can, sitting on your pile of ill-gotten gains like a monstrous dragon protecting its hoard? Neither seem like the right thing to do.

If we had ten years left, I know how I’d spend them. Cherishing the life that still goes on around me, protecting and supporting it. I’d spend my time drinking in life as deeply as I can, reminding myself that those last ten years are precious because of, not despite, their brevity.

To those who use the climate crisis as an excuse to be selfish, flippant, disrespectful and downright destructive towards nature, I have this to say to them:

Earth’s fragility, and the possibility that life may be gone for good one day, is a reason to care more, not less.


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