Two days after I joined the gym for the very first time (on New Year’s Day 2020), #WorldWarThree started trending on Twitter. It was an unusual thing to wake up to: the news, told via memes, that Donald Trump had ordered an air strike that had killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, escalating tensions between the two nations. Somehow, I couldn’t quite bring myself to go the gym that day. Is it worth committing to a New Year’s resolution when the world might be about to end? On the one hand, life is now surely too short to do a single chest press. On the other, strong triceps will be a useful asset in the upcoming fight for resources.
OK, you’ve got me, I’m probably looking for excuses not to work out, but the optimism of the new year and the pessimism of the news cycle have left me confused this January. What’s the correct way to behave when an apocalypse isn’t just impending, but has arrived? While reports of #WWIII might have been overblown, we have, in recent months, seen the destruction of 15 million acres of Australian land after unprecedented bushfires. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and a billion animals are estimated to have been impacted, leading experts to warn of a potential extinction crisis.
Beyond being a waste of time, it seems wrong, somehow, to dedicate my time to improving myself when the world is literally on fire. Why are we all still so self-indulgent in a time of crisis? But short of monetary donations, there’s very little I can do to save any koalas. I’m stuck: it’s wrong not to care, but caring also seems fruitless. I may be suffering from what climate change activists call “apocalypse fatigue” – a sense of hopeless apathy in the face of never-ending doomsday stories. I feel certain we are hurtling towards destruction; I feel less and less certain that I can do anything about it.
The experts say Australia’s bushfires have been exacerbated by global warming – the politicians deny it. Despite Australia experiencing its hottest and driest recorded year in 2019, and evidence that greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere allow less heat to escape, Australian MP Craig Kelly has claimed there is “no link” between climate change and the fires. October will mark two years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have 12 years to stop a catastrophe that would put millions at risk of climate-related poverty. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” IPCC co-chair Debra Roberts said at the time. Global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2019.
Why am I wasting time worrying about my actions when those in charge refuse to do the same? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still wash out my tomato tins and use any bicep gains to wave placards. And yet I’m compelled to add another resolution to my New Year’s list: consume less news. Looking away might feel wrong, but dedicating my time to despairing at the burned corpses of kangaroos isn’t necessarily right either.
The term apocalypse fatigue was coined in 1992, as was the phrase “compassion fatigue”. After observing nurses in emergency situations, the writer Carla Joinson wrote in Nursing Magazine about the emotional burnout suffered by those exposed to trauma. There is now widespread evidence that being constantly exposed to traumatic imagery can lead us into a stupor – the more we know about the world’s concurrent crises, the less equipped we are to act.
Perhaps, then, I need to accept that despairing is just as self-indulgent as looking away (and going to the gym). A 2018 study in the journal Climate Policy found that “the belief that climate change is unstoppable reduces the behavioural and policy response to climate change and moderates risk perception”. Being fatalistic can actually hinder, not help, the fight against climate change.
Writing about the guilt we feel for participating in consumer culture in the Guardian in 2014, Slavoj Žižek said that, “We like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, it all depends on us.” He argued that recycling paper and buying organic food helps us avoid feeling like passive observers, despite our influence being minimal. I think the same is true when we read or watch the news; we feel as though we’re doing something even though we’re engaging in a passive act.
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, every day is an eternity on the internet. The things that capture our attention at 10.30am are rarely the same things we’re outraged by at 10.30pm. Consequently, fatigue like mine is on the rise. A Pew survey conducted in 2018 found that almost seven out of ten Americans suffer from “news fatigue” and feel “worn out” by the news. If it’s a choice between consuming so much news that we end up hopeless and consuming less but feeling a little guilty about it, I think the latter is preferable. The serenity prayer first popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous and now beloved by mums on Facebook might be useful: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
On 9 January, less than a week after fears ignited about World War Three, journalist Gabriel Sherman tweeted, “There’s something super-disconcerting hearing NPR anchors talk about Trump in that soothing NPR voice. Normalises Trump in a way that he shouldn’t be.” In response, NPR correspondent Sarah McCammon wrote: “What are we supposed to do exactly? Scream ‘F!@#$ F!@#$ F!@#$ the universe is on fire’ every time there’s a distressing story in this wild world we live in?”
Unfortunately McCammon didn’t provide an answer to her rhetorical question. I think the solution may lie somewhere between screaming “F!@#$ F!@#$ F!@#$” and going to the gym.
This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing