In this essay at The Believer, Ash Sanders considers the heavy psychological cost of climate change and society-at-large’s strangely dismissive view of those who routinely make personal sacrifices in order to help the planet survive.
On a bright fall day in 1991, Chris Foster left his differential equations class at the University of California, Davis, bypassed students lounging on the quad, and headed toward the Domes, an on-campus co-op housing development. Although it was November, he was wearing his usual uniform: pink shorts, no shirt, no shoes. At the Domes, he harvested mesquite in a grove of trees and picked wild radishes and mallow in a nearby field. He then walked three miles west to Village Homes, another co-op, which he knew would be a scavenger’s cornucopia: full of late-season figs, apples, nuts, and wild grapes. Chris harvested only fallen fruit—he felt this was less invasive than picking from trees, and his aim was to tread lightly on the earth, to be almost invisible, in order to cause as little harm as possible.
Chris was a philosophy and math major, and he liked to think of himself as the Diogenes of Davis, a reference to the fourth-century BCE Cynic philosopher who renounced wealth and slept outdoors in a large ceramic jar. Chris had made a habit of trying to last the night outside without a sleeping bag. “I couldn’t accept the privileges of humanity when I didn’t want any part of humanity,” he told me. Eating fallen fruit and sleeping outside, however, didn’t provide him relief from his feelings of guilt and foreboding. He began to feel a dread that was inescapable and all-consuming. A devastating depression that he had suffered a few years before that fall semester returned. Normally a math phenom, Chris started failing his tests. In his apartment, he would sit in the dark—he didn’t want to waste electricity—listen to records, and cry. “I felt like I was slowly dying,” he said.
But when it comes to climate grief, the experience can be hard to define, and thus harder to understand and demonstrate. If climate sickness exists in the overlap of the physical and the emotional, we need words for those feelings, a dictionary of sorts that allows us to see patterns in the experiences of individual people. Fortunately, that’s exactly what a group of motley philosophers, artists, and doctors are currently working to devise.
Maybe the word we need is not one for a sickness. Maybe we need a word for a difficult truth: that when the world is ending, our health depends on closing ourselves off to awareness of this fact. Where you choose to draw your boundaries is arbitrary, not rational. If you draw them wide—if you include trees and refugees and animals and whole nations—you will be sick from overwhelm and will be seen as crazy. But if you draw them narrowly, you’ll suppress more and admire yourself less—which is its own sort of sickness.