I remember the first time I felt despair in the face of the climate crisis. In fact, I can remember it right down to the outfit I was wearing.
One of my closest friends and I used to go to a movie once a week after work. We took turns choosing what to see after flipping through the reviews.
There was a week in September that he couldn’t come, so I decided to go alone to see First Reformed at the Irish Film Institute. I pulled the sleeves of a well-worn sweater as I watched and towards the last third of it I sat completely still.
Without giving any disturbing spoilers, I’ll give you a quick recap: Ethan Hawke plays a struggling priest who is asked to counsel a depressed environmentalist in his community.
When I left the cinema that night, I felt dizzy. I barely slept that night and the next day left work early with a pounding headache
That was in 2018, just weeks before the publication of the now infamous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on 1.5 degree warming. I knew climate change was a problem, but I thought it was only a matter of rising sea levels that we could adapt to with a piecemeal approach over the centuries.
I was able to think about all of this because as a middle class white person in a wealthy country, overall, the climate crisis may have cast a shadow over my door as a looming future threat, but she never hit her through the frame.
This film, also featuring a middle-class white person in a wealthy country, shattered those mistaken assumptions. The main character is grappling with palpable grief over the state of our climate. The unfair nature of how we got to this point is emphasized. The question of how we continue in the face of this is reflected in backlit shots of calm kitchens in upstate New York. The violent common thread throughout the film, which didn’t resonate with me at all, is particularly nerve-wracking and makes one last appearance near its end.
When I left the cinema that night, I felt dizzy. I barely slept that night and the next day left work early with a severe headache. I had just started in journalism and had not yet found a rhythm that I wanted to cover. Until there.
Now, three years later, I’m a climate journalist. I sit on the relevant committees, I study the reports, I document the demonstrators who are arrested for their cause. As a big consumer of information, I see daily how uneven this crisis is and how those less responsible for it bear the brunt of it, both at home and abroad.
How the climate crisis shows up in the culture we consume can be crucial. Sometimes it comes in the form of “cli-fi,” which is fiction that deals explicitly with the climate crisis. The list is exhaustive, but Jenny Offill’s weather is the one that stood out for me as a woman deals with the scale of the problem by raising her child in real time.
There’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, a novel where a real ministry is set up to protect all living creatures that can’t speak for themselves in the face of climate catastrophe. I also have Parable of the Sower on my desk, an apocalyptic masterpiece by Octavia Butler that contains chilling observations about the climate and the inequalities between its pages.
Many films explicitly deal with strained relationships with our natural world, including the late 1990s cinematic masterpiece Princess Mononoke. An animated medieval Japanese epic, it features talking wolf gods and forest goblins and my all-time favorite ending shot from any movie I’ve ever seen.
While some have predicted the ever-growing rise of cli-fi as the crisis itself worsens, some note that the genre tends to attract people already affected. So the argument made by many before me is that in order to attract a new cohort, the climate crisis must be imbued with a culture that is not uniquely created to deal with it.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You brilliantly explored the relationship between the climate movement and systemic racism. Min Hyoung Song made the astute point in the Chicago Review of Books that the haunting 2019 South Korean film Parasite exposed the disparity between classes when it comes to dealing with extreme weather conditions.
As someone whose full-time job is dedicated to this crisis, I’m often asked what gives me hope. Truth be told, I hate this question
Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, contains multiple references to the climate crisis dotted throughout. Bo Burnham’s latest musical special had specific references to a burning planet and rising seas.
In all of these examples, the climate crisis is a pervasive presence that is wreaking havoc to varying degrees. To put it more simply: they often give us jagged pieces of a puzzle that we are all still trying to figure out.
As someone whose full-time job is dedicated to this crisis, I’m often asked what gives me hope. Frankly, I hate this question. It may sound like an abdication of responsibility on the part of the plaintiff or, depending on which day you ask me, a grueling mental exercise – and I’m not even at the forefront of the worst of climate degradation.
When I need something to continue in this line of work, I think of an episode of one of my childhood staples – Avatar the Last Airbender. An animated fantasy series with a complex world filled with spirituality, magical abilities and ongoing warfare.
At a particular moment, the main characters find themselves lost in a desert. Their normal mode of transporting animals has been kidnapped, so they are on their own. One character responds with rage, another by accidentally ingesting a liquid that makes him hallucinate.
Katara, a key protagonist, then takes the metaphorical reins and decides they will find a way out.
She moves the group forward and suggests potential solutions to their difficult situation. She suggests sailing by the stars and stays put to plan a route while the others rest before the relentless heat returns.
She is determined, but she has no guarantee of success. She traces her fingers over pockets of light on a map, hoping it might work as a way to avoid the worst. She’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because she knows it will work.
And for a quiet moment as night falls in the desert, she looks at her friends tired and without knowing what to expect, says, “We are coming out of this desert. And we will do it together.