Finding joy on a dying planet: failing to act as psychic self-defence and how to overcome it

I’ve been reluctant to write this blog post for some time. This reflects a certain unwillingness on my part to self-disclose past a certain limit; I’m happy to share my thought online but I rarely share my life. There’s also a certain unwillingness to grapple with the underlying question I intend to address here. In fact that unwillingness is exactly what I’ve intended to write about, even if I’ve put it off over the months I’ve been thinking about writing this post.

The question itself is straightforward yet bleak: how do we find joy on a planet that feels broken? How do we find joy on a planet that is dying? By this I mean the sense of a world spiralling towards chaos in which the prospect of cascading failure seems ever closer, as the outgrowths of the climate crisis (desertification driving conflict, accelerating zoonotic transmission, internal displacement driven by weather events) intersect with the collapse of the neoliberal order and the struggle over what replaces it in a world where cheap food and cheap energy are unlikely to return, raising the prospect of mass immiseration for a generation which has already lived through three epochal crises. This is how David Wallace-Wells describes the impact of two degree warming with the evidence suggesting we are likely to see substantially more than this:

At two degrees, the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. There would be thirty-two times as many extreme heat waves in India, and each would last five times as long, exposing ninety-three times more people.39 This is our best-case scenario. At three degrees, southern Europe would be in permanent drought, and the average drought in Central America would last nineteen months longer and in the Caribbean twenty-one months longer. In northern Africa, the figure is sixty months longer—five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple, or more, in the United States. At four degrees, there would be eight million more cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone and close to annual global food crises. There could be 9 percent more heat-related deaths. Damages from river flooding would grow thirtyfold in Bangladesh, twentyfold in India, and as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom. In certain places, six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously, and, globally, damages could pass $600 trillion—more than twice the wealth as exists in the world today. Conflict and warfare could double.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, by David Wallace-Wells loc 408

How do you find joy under these circumstance? One possibility is simply to deny the facts of the matter, either through the intellectual embrace of explicitly or tacitly denialist doctrines. The other is to simply refuse to look at the wider picture, made easier as life gets harder and more demanding, with more work being required simply to slow the rate at which your living standards fall. This is what I’ve often done because I intuit an ocean of despair waiting for me if I dwell too deeply on the likely outcomes of the coming decades. The tendency to use phrases like ‘the coming decades’ is an example of exactly this because it projects it into the future, even as I know intellectually this is happening now. I can grasp the enormity of the crisis at a distance through an abstract lens, through a notion of ‘system’ trending towards ‘entropy’, but I can’t sit with it in any meaningful sense.

This matters because it prevents knowledge from leading to behavioural change in a classic example of the value-action gap. Individual steps I can take to mitigate my own contribute to this breakdown manifest themselves as abstract injunctions which compete with the countless other demands of life for my attention, rather than urgent responses to an experienced reality. Collective steps become murky when filtered through the political weather of actually existing parliamentary democracy, leading at most to me being an intermittent activist for political parties who are committed to climate action. Even in my most active phases the climate still felt somehow distant to me as a concern, at least compared to the social and economic issues which the Green Party and Labour prioritised between 2015 and 2019.

It is increasingly obvious to me there’s a form of psychic self-defence at work here. An impulse to think round the issue rather than feel it, coupled with a determined tendency to avoid thinking about it where I can. To do otherwise is to risk a cybernetic black pill, a splintered sense that we’ve come too late to a party which is now over. This matters for many reasons but I’m increasingly aware of how this has been a fault line in the most important relationship in my life which has tended to cut through everything else, particularly when the shared hope of a socialist transformation died in the election of 2019. That raised the prospect of a world without hope before the pandemic battered what had previously been a deep seated inclination towards optimism, forcing me to recognise how that was little more than the “predictability of a middle-class English childhood”.

It feels like the psychic self-defence is necessary in order to find any enjoyment in life under these circumstances. This is why Kate Soper’s project of an ‘alternative hedonism‘, an imaginary of pleasures beyond capitalism, resonates with me so much. It is an attempt to develop a “a more seductive vision of the very different forms of consumption and collective life we will need to adopt if we are serious about ecological sustainability” (loc 241). It suggests a route beyond psychic self-defence to find a pathway towards shared joys on a dying planet, not least of all in the action we might take together to avert that death. I’m still in the early stages of thinking it through but it feels like a potential resolution to what had increasingly felt like a knot in my reflexivity which I was unable to resolve. Exactly what this means in practical terms remains to be seen but it opens up the possibility for hope, beyond the comforting flow of my daily life and the immediate satisfactions that it brings.

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