How to Embrace Despair in the Age of Climate Change

This story is adapted from Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, by Britt Wray.In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Charlie Glick, a musician in his late twenties living in California, was strolling through LA’s Atwater Village neighbourhood, thinking about work. Music was all he had ever wanted to do with his life, and before the pandemic, playing with his band had been starting to stabilize into something that looked like a career. Covid-19 upended all that, though. Lockdown and social distancing measures meant the band couldn’t go on tour or play live shows for who knows how long.Charlie had always loved camphor trees, and on that day’s reflective wander, a remarkably large and friendly-looking one, rooted at a corner on Edenhurst Avenue, beckoned him over to it. He walked under its arms as they rustled in the breeze, and the shade the tree cast over him conjured a sudden intuition that made his blood run cold. “I just had this instantaneous feeling like, oh, the rest of my life is going to be this series of increasingly dire crises,” he told me.It was in that moment, under the camphor’s leafy dome, that Charlie understood what many public health officials have said about the pandemic: It is a sign from the Earth that we are rubbing up against ecological limits, and a warning of much worse things to come. Whereas experiencing the climate crisis often meant processing warnings about ecological breakdown, living in a pandemic caused by a zoonotic virus was the ecological breakdown that climate rhetoric warned about. Whether the tree whispered this to him or it all clicked in that moment for a more rational reason doesn’t really matter; the result was that the pandemic and the climate crisis ceased to be separate concepts in his mind. One all-enveloping hazard foreshadowed the other and yet was simultaneously indivisible from it. Realizing this sent him spinning down a rabbit hole of grief and anxiety, where he imagined the gritty pain of climate disasters, dwindling energy supplies, political turmoil, and even more pandemics that would punctuate the rest of his life. He felt himself collapse—emotionally and physically—in the shelter of the tree.“My whole idea of my life was gone. It was really traumatic and everywhere I looked, I would just see fossil fuels. I would see myself, literally, as a product of fossil fuels,” he told me. Charlie’s hope of being a successful musician relied on tour buses and planes and the countless gas tanks they’d empty, and imagining the pollution from each gig quickly took the shine out of that dream. And the more he thought of himself and the people around him as fleshy fossil fuel products, the more intolerable it felt to live in American society.

Charlie spent the entire summer of 2020 reading, thinking, and talking about ecological and societal collapse to anyone who’d listen. The idea of being a rock star felt absurdly unimportant in a world on fire. He told his bandmates that he needed to take an indefinite break to radically rethink his life.

Charlie’s turning away from the band right as they were finding success was an inexplicable move to everyone who knew him. It was cause for real concern. His personality seemed to have changed overnight, and although his bandmates were very angry with him for pulling the plug on their project, they were equally worried about his mental health.