A Deadly Fart that Will Kill Us All: Week #12 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On fugitive melancholy, soft nihilism, and the end of the world as we know it

This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.


One of the most painful aspects of losing a beloved to death is the feeling that you, and the world, are moving on while they remain forever in a rapidly receding past. I think a lot about how my dear friend Elizabeth will never know that the star of “The Apprentice” became President of the United States of America, and it grieves me that my mom and dad will not get to enjoy my moving closer to home again after they died. Probably there’s a lengthy German compound noun for this phenomenon, but I will coin the English term “fugitive melancholy” to refer to this painful sense of time fleeing away from dead ones left behind.

We can also feel fugitive melancholy, proleptically, for ourselves. We will live to see only a little bit of the future, compared to the sweeping sense of historical scale we gain by contemplating the past. Retrospection gives us the narcissistic sense that we are omniscient observers of human events, and also tricks us into thinking that this moment in which we are living is the culmination of time. We are always in the position of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, his face turned toward the past while history “unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” In the same essay, Benjamin remarks that we do not feel envy for the future, that our idea of happiness is steeped in the time in which we happen to live. Yet I disagree. The melancholy we feel at the prospect of our own deaths is indeed a species of envy, at least of the near future: of those who will witness the outcome of current events. As we grow older we fall prey to a frustrated desire for narrative closure, knowing that we will not get to see how everything turns out.

Fugitive melancholy might help us understand our mass resistance to meaningful action on climate change. Unconscious resentment at the thought of our own deaths leads to an inability to fully imagine—or care for—the world after we are gone. Naomi Klein recently differentiated what she terms “soft denial” from the hard-core refusal to believe the consensus of the scientific community on climate change. Those in soft denial understand that global warming is happening and are even capable of occasionally—briefly—taking in its full implications, “but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget.” Yet in the seven years since Klein coined the term “soft denial,” the problem has mutated, shifted form: “denial” no longer seems to capture our current state of near-constant helplessness and despair.

Here is a journal entry I wrote about two years ago:

Sometimes I fantasize that this journal will miraculously survive the coming climate apocalypse, and some future ragtag remnant of humanity will discover it, eager for clues about what people were thinking, feeling, and doing about their coming doom—and all they will find here is whining about petty work obligations, minor slights, obsessions about diet and exercise and ever-new, futile plans for self-improvement.

Okay, future humanity, here goes: I never, ever, ever stop thinking about climate change or worrying that we’re rapidly approaching our doom. I worry about myself and my corner of the world, but I also worry as much if not more about the poor and dispossessed around the globe, about the drought and famine refugees. I worry about the collapse of civilization, and equally about the rise of fascism. I think about this stuff nearly every minute of the day—well, that’s not quite right. It’s more like it’s a constant low hum in the background of my brain, occasionally flowering into full consciousness for a few minutes or hours. But it is impossible to think about it consciously all the time or we would go mad. 

I know, even as I worry about my teaching or my heart murmur or my next deadline, that this huge thing is looming in the background, making a mockery of plans and hopes and all future-oriented activity. It’s like an asterisk—or like a mocking choral whisper after every thought and utterance: “Ha! What’s the point of that? The earth is dying, and soon.” Or sometimes it slips out as an actual utterance, a not-funny joke that I always wish I could un-say as soon as I’ve said it. At the doctor’s office recently, my new, very young physician said that I was due for another colonoscopy in 9 years, and that he would make a note in my chart. I snort-laughed and said, “Nine years! If the planet is still here then.” Then he laughed sadly, and we both sat there in awkward silence for a moment. It was like I’d called attention to a fart in the room. But worse. A deadly fart that will kill us all. 

My journalistic lucubrations are only one data point of course, but I have been talking about this new feeling of despair with nearly everyone I come across (see above), including my students, and also have been following the recent proliferation of the topic in popular media. Something has changed. 

If we return to the source of the concept of denial in psychoanalytic theory, we discover that Freud differentiated disavowal (Verleugnung) from negation (Verneinung). I think we have recently entered into a new phase of “soft negation”—or to put it more poetically, “soft nihilism.” (I have written about this concept elsewhere.) The particular kind of unconscious envy engendered by fugitive melancholy—the world is mine and it’s not fair that I must depart before it’s over—can perhaps explain soft nihilism. It cuts against our vehement exhortations to act with the welfare of future generations in mind; such protest starts to seem like unconscious denial of our own selfishness. Fugitive melancholy, soft nihilism, climate grief: however it’s named, in recent years it seems that more and more of us are indulging our despair.

To claim, however, that something has recently changed in our orientation to climate change is to make some pretty big assumptions about who “we” are. Indigenous people have been thinking and writing about this topic for a very long time. The Brazilian indigenous activist Ailton Krenak, for example, has excoriated the “myth of sustainability, invented by corporations to justify their theft of our idea of nature,”while academics such as Kyle Powys Whyte and Jenny Pickerill have written extensively about the impacts of the colonial encounter on Native peoples and ecosystems. Meanwhile, scholars of color such as Leilani Nishime and Kim D. Hester Williams have explored the “racial ecologies” that underpin anthropogenic change and environmental harm.

As crucial as it is to recognize and ameliorate the differing impacts of climate change on different populations, it is also important to remember that we all will have to confront grief. The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to refer to the existential anxiety induced by environmental change; he notes that the sufferings of contemporary Americans experiencing a loss of environmental implacement “uncannily resemble (albeit in lesser degree) those of displaced native Americans, whom European Americans displaced in the first place. These natives have lost their land; those of us who are non-natives have lost our place.” In many cases, the prescriptions of Western eco-philosophers echo those of Krenak and other Indigenous thinkers: in his recent extended essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton argues that in the face of the imminent collapse of civilization we are “going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality ... a new way of thinking about our collective existence.”

Increased recognition of ecological mourning has given birth to movements dedicated not only to dealing with the emotional fallout of ongoing habitat devastation, but also to supporting those grappling with dread about the future. Some groups fully accept the imminent extinction of human beings, and others assume that we will survive long enough to have to deal with widespread societal collapse. The Facebook group Near Term Human Extinction Support, for example, announces that it is “for people who have accepted that HUMAN EXTINCTION IS INEVITABLE IN THE NEAR TERM due to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and the consequences, based on trends determined by scientific research. This could be a few years to a few decades from now.” The Deep Adaptation movement, on the other hand, takes as its point of departure a 2018 paper by British academic Jem Bendell entitled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Members of the movement assume not that human extinction is necessarily imminent, but that we will soon need to deal with “the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning”; they explore methods of “inner adaptation” (emotional, psychological, spiritual) and “outer adaptation” (practical, policy-oriented, community-based) to widespread societal collapse.

In this wide range of possible responses to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change (leaving aside the non-response of “hard denial” that it is even happening), the utopians have changed place with the realists. Technology advocates like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who stake our future on “green” energy and geo-engineering, seem like pie-eyed idealists chasing after a gossamer dream—and that dream is that everything essentially stay just as it is. Those who are resigned, mourning, circumspect in their expectations are the ones who advocate a radical change in how we orient ourselves both to our attenuated future and to our planetary home. In her absolutely devastating essay “Facing Extinction,” Catherine Ingram writes, “Living with the grief of facing human extinction may be akin to how a person with a terminal diagnosis might experience his or her final phase, the awareness of death undeniable, and the magnificence of life ever more obvious.”

Relatively rich residents of the global North are probably always going to feel more optimistic about the future than those in areas of the world that are already being deeply marked by climate change. I’m also starting to wonder if responses to climate change are not intractably generational. (This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it’s actually surprising how reluctant most people are to admit that their soft nihilism and their fugitive melancholy are determined by their position in the arc of the human life cycle.) A Boomer like Catherine Ingram (born in 1952) has the luxury of elegantly and gracefully letting go of hope, but her prescription might feel grotesque to someone under the age of 40 who feels they have no choice other than to keep fighting and to hold onto some shreds of optimism. As a middle-class, middle-aged, medium-optimistic person, I personally feel like I’m caught on a sandbar between the two tides, one rushing in and one ebbing away: the Boomers who are giving up because they’ve already sucked the marrow from the planet and are tossing away the bone, the Gen Zers and younger filled with rage and energy.

This intergenerational dynamic was mined for laughs a few years ago on the sitcom “Black-ish.” The relatively youthful (early 40s) father on the show, Dre Johnson, was having a conversation about climate change with his tween children Jack and Diane:

“Look, Father, we know you’re not gonna be able to take care of this.”
“Huh?”
“You sweat when you chew gum.”
“You wear a different belt when you drive.”
“I’ve seen you quit halfway up the stairs.”
“I got bunions!”
“You just getting by day-to-day means a lot to us.”
“Really does.”
“And the weather stuff—we’re gonna figure it out.”
“Yeah. It’s our future. We wanna fight for it.”
“Yeah.”
“You just enjoy the time you have left.”
“Which, at your current rate is five years, tops.”

While the (pretty funny) joke is that young kids always think their parents are ancient no matter how young they are and are usually pretty annoyed by their cluelessness, the deeper joke (maybe not so funny) is that this current generation of kids has more reason to be angry with their elders than any generation that has ever lived. It’s one thing to be justifiably enraged at being shipped off to fight an unjust imperialist war; it’s another thing to face the snuffing out of the entire planet during your lifetime. While Boomers, Gen Xers, and even Millennials might be experiencing fugitive melancholy and soft nihilism in the face of impending disaster, our kids and grandkids are picking up the standard we’ve dropped, thrusting into the hands of Greta Thunberg, and storming the (metaphorical) barricades.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to get through the rest of my life. For real. And I’m already in my fifties—I can’t imagine what it must be like to be 20. Although I guess when you’re 20, you have a lot of optimism that things will get better or somehow be okay. People in their 70s and 80s can probably take comfort in the fact that they won’t have to see the worst of it. It’s the Gen Xers—folks in their 40s and 50s now—who have several more decades to get through and yet also feel the melancholy, loss, sadness, and cynicism that comes from being older. Knowing how bad things can be, already tired and burnt out, too set in our ways to make huge pivots, longing for comfort and peace and just coming to understand that we might not get to have that kind of old age. I suppose every generation has its particular sadness, though: I assume the Boomers must feel robbed of their “golden years.” Everyone has their own pain.

What to do? Your humble author refuses to decide among this range of possible reactions to our crushing predicament. My own response changes day by day, even minute by minute. At times it feels appropriate to write to my representatives demanding concrete action on climate change and environmental justice. Why not carbon futures, subsidies for solar panels, emissions targets, tree-planting programs? Why not let Bill Gates cheerlead us to a green, sustainable capitalist future? At other times the despair strikes and the task becomes to sit with sadness; to dwell in non-hope; to go have a brief lean against Amos, a hundred-plus-year-old oak tree who lives in my neighborhood; to check on a neighbor or just stare out the window at a cardinal couple snacking at the bird feeder. Sometimes I comfort myself by imagining, along with Roy Scranton, that a fragile sliver of humanity will cling on in our new jungle-hot planet, in “new cities on the shores of the Arctic Sea,” tenderly curating the “cultural arks” containing the relics of the past. When I was a teenager my favorite movie was My Dinner with Andre (1981), largely because of its discussion of utopianist communities like Findhorn in Scotland, which the character Andre Gregory characterizes as “reserves, islands of safety where history can be remembered and the human being can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a dark age.” 

Here’s hoping we get to have a dark age.