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Living with dystopia



Do you ever feel as though you are living in the early scenes of a dystopic film? I have to confess that I do.

Anthony Perkins, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire in the 1959 dystopian movie On the Beach.In the background, the audience is being shown hints of the coming catastrophe. We hear the news radio mention increasing numbers of extreme weather events and related disasters. We see newspaper headlines declare, 'We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe' and '1 million species are facing extinction'. And yet our heroes appear to be carrying on with their lives normally.

As the film progresses, this apparent normality is punctuated by signs of anxiety, despair and resistance. Parents sit up late quietly discussing their fears about the future. Colleagues share a bleak joke about the upcoming apocalypse. Grandparents start becoming radical. School children walk out of school.

Soon it becomes clear that the looming disaster has already arrived, and people react in a range of predictable ways. There are, of course, those who continue to deny the problem — either because they benefit from the status quo or because it is just too confronting to face the truth.

Other people fall into despair, believing (or understanding?) that it is too late to avert collapse or that the structural change that would be needed is simply too difficult to achieve. This pessimism leads some to inaction, while others seek out distraction or the nihilistic pursuit of pleasure. In contrast, there are the more optimistic people who double-down on their individual or community efforts to reduce their ecological footprints by reducing, re-using, recycling, growing food, restoring local habitats, and building resilient communities.

And, finally, there are those who are motivated, angry and courageous enough to fight for structural change.

If this was a Hollywood film, our hero would fall into this final category. We would cheer her on as she confronts complacent world leaders and vested interests in her campaign for a new world order. She would encounter many setbacks, but ultimately, she would prevail.


"This state of paralysis is often mistaken for apathy, but many researchers have been keen to emphasise that while it looks like people don't care, the problem is that many actually care too much."


Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel like this might be a French film or something similar to On the Beach. In response, I find myself swinging wildly between despair, optimism and action. And, it turns out, I'm not alone.

I casually asked people on Twitter whether climate change and mass species extinction are affecting their daily mood and am still being inundated by the response. Many people wrote about feeling overwhelmed by a pervasive feeling of despair and powerlessness. Some described living with a constant sense of doom, a 'permanent heavy wet knot in the pit of my stomach' and of being regularly close to tears. Others reported feeling angry.

Fear and anxiety around the impact of climate change on future generations was a particularly common theme. People spoke of feeling sick with worry when they thought about their children or grandchildren. As one person commented, 'it adds daily sadness and anxiety to even the most innocent moments with my daughter who is three. I don't know how I will tell her about the world she is inheriting.' A surprising number also mentioned that climate change is the most significant factor in their decision not to have children.

When I looked into this issue further, I found that researchers and psychologists have been documenting the rise of what they call 'eco-anxiety' or 'eco-angst' for some time, and these feelings of despair and powerlessness are common. Finnish scholar, Panu Pihkala, argues that 'for many people, the roots of the existential and spiritual crisis that climate change posits go very deep into the core of being mortal humans'.

In the face of our own mortality, humans have long relied on the knowledge that after our death we will 'live on' through our children, our work, our creative outputs, our religion, and (most significantly) our part in the wider natural world. Now climate change and other environmental devastations are threatening almost everything we turn to for this 'symbolic immortality' and it is leading us to a state of 'ecoparalysis'.

This state of paralysis is often mistaken for apathy, but many researchers, such as Glenn Albrecht, have been keen to emphasise that while it looks like people don't care, the problem is that many actually care too much. When people find themselves unable to process the emotions and existential questions raised by climate change, they shut down — leading to denial, avoidance or outright despair. And it is this ecoparalysis that best explains why more of us are not marching in the streets in the face of the existential threat of climate change and mass extinction.

Rebecca Solnit argues that in the face of this overwhelming threat our only real option is hope — which she emphasises is 'not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine.' Instead, she argues for a hope grounded in critical thinking — one that acknowledges the current state of affairs and the grief and rage that it provokes within us, but that nonetheless inspires us to work towards an alternative vision.

So, I guess this means that we need to become the heroes of this dystopic film plot. Somehow, in the face of all our anxiety and despair, we need to locate our capacity for hope and our courage to take action.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Anthony Perkins, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire in the 1959 dystopian movie On the Beach.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, dystopia



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This is not a review of an imaginary science fiction movie but an excellent summary of the effects of what science undeniably tells us and what we have done with that knowledge and truth. We live in a world foreseen by Aldous Huxley in his fictional brave new world which he described in a society living five hundred years from now. Huxley's brave new world coloured by hallucinogenic drug addiction and self-indulgence free of any direction from a moral compass, particularly in relation to sexuality, has arrived in our time and is not science fiction anymore. Like Huxley's society, we have not found the utopia we seek but rather the dystopia you describe, Christy. Time to take stock of ourselves and get rid of the 'WHAT ABOUT ME ETHIC" that defines most of those in the 25 to 55 or so age group on this planet and epitomised by some of the older demigods like Trump. To change things will be hard, however, and demands sacrifices be made, something the modern world simply can't or won't countenance. I suspect that the revolutionary cycle that has been a feature of threatened peoples since time immemorial has, like most things over the last century or so, sped up considerably and the next revolution can't be far into the future because those with power and wealth simply won't listen and don't care for anyone but themselves. Let's hope the new age revolutionaries have some humanity and true sense of justice unlike the French hoi polloi and the Bolsheviks.

john fraw;ey | 09 May 2019  

In the face of the environmental and social depredations of the Industrial Revolution and the imagination of disaster it encouraged, Hopkins took heart and hope from the vision faith inspires: "And for all this, nature is never spent/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things/And though the last lights of the black West went/Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -/Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

John RD | 10 May 2019  

Thanks Cristy! The world environment is in really bad shape and climate change threats loom large and clear. But rather than lose hope, let's take action ourselves! I suggest the following: • Plant native trees • Install solar panels • Practise the 6 R’s for Sustainability: Recycle, Rethink, Refuse, Reuse, Repair and Reduce • Vote for politicians who have the best sustainable energy and environment policies • Join an environment organisation • Donate to one or more of Australia’s major environment organisations, e.g. Australian Wildlife Conservancy (Ph. 0414 879 864,) World Wildlife Fund for Nature Australia (Ph. 1800 032 551) and Bush Heritage Australia (Ph. 1300 628032873) It is not only humans that are at risk. Animals and plants are too. It is the natural environment that has cradled us into life. • Read and live Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. And reflect on this quote: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” (L. Si’. 161)

Grant Allen | 10 May 2019  

John RD. Thank you for reminding me of Hopkin's declaration of faith and hope. If all people believed as he did, then we would have our Utopia! The greatest mystery of all is why god created such a beautiful natural world but somehow buggered up making mankind appreciative of that world but rather, it seems to exploit it to its own ends. I've heard that it has something to do with a fallen angel. Pity that mankind has to bear some of the blame and suffer for the angel's very human hubris and disobedience!

john frawley | 11 May 2019  

A thoughtful and interesting perspective on this vitally important global issue. Thanks for your contribution to the unnecessary debate.

Pau Cullen | 11 May 2019  

It's heartening to see that Anthony Perkins appeared in movies other than "Psycho". That fact alone certainly gives one hope! The environmental crisis facing us today can appear overwhelming. An awareness of our complacency and dominion neurosis is a good place to start. As W. Churchill said: We shall fight them on the beaches. If Winston can win, so can we.

Pam | 11 May 2019  

The problem RD is that we are 'spending nature'. Homo sapiens have gone feral, we are in plague proportions, and we are trashing our spaceship more than ever. What might have appeared to Hopkins in 1918 as simply confined to our dysfunctional species is now, 100 years later, ruining all around us.

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2019  

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