life after warming

How to Live in a Catastrophe

In search of a way to think clearly about the planetary crisis.

Photo: Dennis Hallinan / Getty Images
Photo: Dennis Hallinan / Getty Images
Photo: Dennis Hallinan / Getty Images

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Hello, excuse me, are you lost? Not in physical space or in your personal life — just kind of cosmically unmoored? It seems like we’re in a catastrophe. I mean, obviously we’re in a catastrophe.

Our clown-car democracy. Our warm embrace of surveillance capitalism. Dobbs. Just days ago, Elon Musk bought Twitter and the fascists openly rejoiced. Six months ago, a teenager killed 19 kids and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, while hundreds of law-enforcement officers stood around. Plus the big granddaddy catastrophe of them all, the planetary crisis. The planetary crisis … what a term. Your life is still stable enough that you’re reading magazine articles. You’ve got that huge lucky fact going for you. But even so, how could a person possibly stay sane and oriented? How could a person think straight and well in a moment such as this?

You try. You really do. You’re an A-minus person, maybe B-plus. You sweat out the record-high temperatures this summer in Shanghai or London or Anaheim or Salt Lake City or Sacramento.

You watch CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward reporting from the floods that cover one-third of Pakistan. There she is, in her pink tunic, blonde hair pulled back, getting bumped by oxen; interviewing dazed, desperate families streaming down the road to get to higher ground; visibly baffled by her own journalistic relationship to non-interference. And you see she’s doing her best, too. Working with what she’s got. “What is so pronounced here, John … is you don’t see any aid workers,” she says to her anchor back in his air-conditioned tower in New York. “It’s interesting when you talk to people. There’s a lot of resentment, too … And they’re asking for reparations — money.”

The term of art for that money is loss and damage. When the U.N. convenes in September for Climate Week (week, ha), your brain keeps tripping on that awful, poetic phrase: loss and damage. We live in an era of loss and damage. We need to address the concept of loss and damage. Yes, yes. But how? Our brains: They’re good, but they’re not great. In their default setting, they’re unable to hold what’s going on. You know the basic menu of options for individual action. A sampler, in ascending order: bike, vote, buy a heat pump, organize, stop flying, go full ’70s hippie and live in a yurt; go back to school, earn a law degree, work to put ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods and/or Chevron CEO Michael Wirth in a dock at the Hague (which may be underwater by the time you succeed); set yourself on fire on Earth Day on the Supreme Court steps.

But we know none of it is enough, really: not the science, not the news, not the paths for individual action nor the tens of thousands of people assembling right now in Egypt for COP27 (officially the U.N.’s Conference of Parties, intended to broker global climate action; unofficially an international sleight-of-hand performance full of shiny non-binding agreements). Even the climate-justice movement’s heroic efforts in recent years to call out the climate gap, the unequal impacts the crisis wreaks on the rich and the poor — this is not enough. As Amitav Ghosh notes in his excellent book The Nutmeg’s Curse, “It now needs to be considered whether these appeals to the conscience may not have had exactly the opposite of the intended effect. Is it possible that this message has actually persuaded the privileged to think they need do nothing about climate change because they will be insulated from the worst impacts of global warming by their affluence, and indeed by their bodily advantages?”

We’ve got some bright spots: the climate bill, cheap (and growing radically cheaper) clean energy, promises and pledges to move faster toward our climate goals (“promises,” “pledges,” “goals,” yikes); Bolsonaro lost, Lula won; Indigenous-led resistance finally proved to many old-school Birkenstocks environmentalists that tribes who have spent millennia battling extraction-happy settlers are the best ones to lead this fight. We’re not going to warm by five degrees Celsius, which is a relief. But we missed 1.5 degrees and probably also missed two, and two degrees (by which people really mean 2.3 or maybe 2.5) will lead to unspeakable suffering. “If we are not able to reverse the present trend that is leading to catastrophe in the world, we will be doomed,” U.N. secretary-general António Guterres recently said. I’m not talking about your fear that you’ll lose control, your frets that life will get messy. I’m talking about Earth’s ecology losing equilibrium and falling down the stairs. I’m talking about a society that’s simply not built for the weather that’s coming. Has your brain, reading all this, started its self-protective shutoff protocol yet? Do you need a nap?

According to Günther Anders, underground hero of existential philosophers and A-plus catastrophic thinker, we are so lost we don’t even know the year. This isn’t Year 2022 of the Common Era, or shouldn’t be. We’re in Year 77 of the Calamity.

Anders, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for New York and then moved to Hollywood, was sort of a modern intellectual Forrest Gump. He was Martin Heidegger’s student and Walter Benjamin’s second cousin. His father invented the term intelligence quotient. His first wife was Hannah Arendt. He believed that after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, the terms of humanity’s tenancy here on Earth fundamentally changed. Pre-Calamity, we knew (1) all humans are mortal and (2) humans can kill one another. But then a new fact emerged: (3) Humans could annihilate the entire species. Up until that point, our imaginations had outstripped our ability to manifest them. We’d think of a utopia, or a technical hellscape, or a superhero — oh, too bad! We can’t actually make that. Then the dynamic flipped: We couldn’t even really imagine the power and inevitable endgame of what we had already created. To keep ourselves oriented on not destroying the world, Anders believed we needed to reset time. “We live in the Year 13 of the Calamity,” he wrote in 1958. “I was born in the Year 43 before. Father, whom I buried in 1938, died in the Year 7 before.”

Now we’re staring down another cataclysmic fact: (4) Not only is humankind killable, we’re all, at least to some degree, participating in our own death. The fossil-fuel industry and other forces of destruction put us here. But we’re stuck in the machine nonetheless.

Before my nightstand started piling up with such cheerful titles as How to Think About Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying and my reading list included the new, hip twin journals The Polycrisis (featuring academic-crossover hit Adam Tooze) and Apocalyptica (featuring “the Elvis of culture theory,” Slavoj Žižek) — that is, before I fell into the philosophical gravity well you’ve questionably followed me down — I made various failed attempts to remedy my own terribleness at thinking about all this. Most notably in October Calamity 74 (2019) when, new to working full time as a climate reporter (and yes, like a preposterous cliché), I signed up for a meditation retreat. This was at Spirit Rock, in the dry hills of Marin County, and when the week of the event arrived, those hills were a pyrophile’s paradise: high temperatures, single-digit humidity, winds gusting to 60 mph. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning: THIS WILL BE A LONG DURATION AND POTENTIALLY EXTREME/HISTORIC EVENT ACROSS THE NORTH BAY! Spirit Rock sent out a “Dear Dharma Friends” email informing us that PG&E might be shutting off power to the area to try to prevent a wildfire.

Still, I drove up and joined my 150 fellow meditators in a room with Buddhist monk and legacy guru Jack Kornfield, listening to his worn jokes, breathing all together, trying to watch our thoughts. I needed this. At night, the sea level rose inside my cranium. I was still reeling from the Muslim ban, the Paradise fires, Elijah McClain’s murder, “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” But by the 11 a.m. walking meditation, the air-quality index was 100-plus. By the 12:30 p.m. go-sit-by-yourself-in-nature period, I snapped. The air smelled like a hayride in Hades. “Smoky AF,” I texted my family. “Driving home.” They made fun of me relentlessly, which I deserved. (You try telling your teenagers and Buddhism-dabbling spouse that you got too anxious to stay at a meditation retreat.)

For the next three years, I put aside the whole project of trying to figure out how to think better in a catastrophe and just kind of drowned in the COVID-Trump quicksand. Then this past summer, I found psychoanalyst Susan Kassouf’s paper “Thinking Catastrophic Thoughts: A Traumatized Sensibility on a Hotter Planet.” This validated the idea that naming the monster was not only emotionally healthy; naming the monster was the real means to keep that monster from unleashing its full destructive power. So let’s start there: Yes, it’s a catastrophe. We need to catastrophize. And no, you would not be better off if you continued to tell yourself otherwise.

Sure, psychology has been using the term as an insult since 1962. But Kassouf argues that the utility of this contempt has expired. Catastrophizing right now is not “turning molehills into mountains.” No one needs to “knock it off.” Just the opposite. “Developing our capacity to think catastrophic thoughts,” Kassouf writes, is what will allow us to “translate thought into long-overdue action and make change in the world.” We have to see and believe in the catastrophic future that seems preordained. Then we can work to prevent it.

Anders believed this too. To illustrate what it means, he recast the story of Noah like this:

One day, dressed in a sackcloth, head covered in ashes, Noah went to the city. A crowd gathered around him asking who had died. Noah replied to the crowd that they themselves were the dead. Confused, the crowd asked when. Tomorrow, Noah said. “The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that has been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed.”

But, Noah went on to explain, waiting to accept this as reality on the day after tomorrow will be too late. “The flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been.” The catastrophe will have occurred. “If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow’s dead today.”

Noah left the city, took off his mourning clothes, and returned to his workshop. That evening, a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him, “Let me help you build an ark so that it may become false.”

There are two primary buckets of thought about how to handle ourselves better now that we’re mid-catastrophe: We need more violence. We need more love.

In favor of violence — more precisely, sabotage — is Swedish activist, eco-Marxist, writer, and professor Andreas Malm. When I spoke to him in August, Salman Rushdie had been stabbed, Russia was eyeing a Ukrainian nuclear power plant to use as a giant bomb, and Malm had just returned from visiting groups of young climate activists camped along a European river that had run dry. Malm is a very smart, very pale, very Swedish, very committed Marxist whose bleeding heart is stanched by Das Kapital. He has been fighting the fascists since he got into a brawl with a neo-Nazi at age 14. As far back as Calamity 50 (1995), Malm was participating in protests at COP, chanting at glad-handing, greenwashing, slow-walking leaders, “Action now! No more blah-blah!” Now, back home in Malmö, his kids couldn’t sleep because Sweden was in a heat wave, and he was yelling at his mother to get them water because, as he put it, he was experiencing a personal catastrophe along with the planetary one. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo is now caving in to the pressure and opening up the peatlands for auctioning,” Malm said, apoplectic on my screen in his white tank top and black skullcap. “Norway, for that matter, is opening up the Arctic for exploration. It’s like a final rush to go after every single ecosystem that’s out there that isn’t yet fully exploited!”

Through the aughts and the 2010s, Malm organized and engaged in a lot of direct action — stuff like ripping down fences around coal-fired power plants to try to shut them down. He wrote academic books that nobody read outside of Sweden. Then, in January 2021, he published How to Blow Up a Pipeline. (His original title was How to Defuse a Pipeline; his editors are not fools.) The world, stir-crazy from quarantine, terrified by Proud Boys storming the Capitol, seized on to it. Pipeline blasted Malm out of the far-left ecotrenches and into the Financial Times and The New Yorker Radio Hour.

His basic argument: If you really think the continued burning of fossil fuels is going to cause this much suffering — and you know, after decades of blah-blah, that people in power are not going to replace the fossil-fuel infrastructure out of the goodness of their souls — isn’t the most moral course of action to take the infrastructure offline yourself? Engage in what Malm calls “intelligent sabotage”? A.k.a. property damage.

Had I seen the news? Malm asked. Saudi Aramco had just posted what might have been the largest quarterly profit in the history of capitalism. (It was $48.4 billion.) Chevron’s profits rose 277 percent compared with Q2 last year. Meanwhile, Spain erupted in wildfires, and Germany reopened its coal-fired power plants but then couldn’t get the coal itself into the facilities because water levels were too low. How could this be happening? “Nothing that has been done so far has reined in the compulsion to accumulate capital by means of fossil fuels,” Malm said, sticky with perspiration and disbelief. “I mean, it’s just like a demonic force. No limitations, no inhibitions.”

We had failed to appreciate the inevitable result of what we’d already created. As Anders put it, we failed to “look into our instruments’ hearts.”

Saint Bill McKibben’s commitment to nonviolence is nice, Malm argues in Pipeline, but what nonviolent movement ever succeeded without the threat of violent backup? Patience is a quixotic virtue. Are we supposed to wait patiently to hold politicians accountable for their 2030 or 2050 climate pledges until 2028 or 2048, when those politicians are out of office? Are you really going to feel good about yourself in Calamity 100 if you’ve been well behaved and little has changed?

Malm’s book doesn’t really tell you how to blow up a pipeline. It educates readers in the much chiller affair of deflating SUV tires, an entry-level form of sabotage that has been gaining traction in Europe and even some places in the U.S. Here’s how you do it:

1. Unscrew the tire cap on a tire. Inside, you’ll see a pin that releases air if pressed.

2. Place, Malm writes, “a piece of gravel the size of a boiled couscous grain or corn of black pepper — or, we suggested, use a mung bean — and screw the cap back on.”

3. Leave a note explaining that this was an act of sabotage: “We have deflated one or more of the tires of your SUV. Don’t take it personally. It’s your gas-guzzling SUV we dislike.”

At its root, the planetary crisis is a race for time between the forces that continue spewing carbon and the forces trying to prevent them. Everyone knows we’re moving way too slowly. (Worldwide emissions are still rising.) Why not consider sabotage? The advocacy group Stop Fossil Fuels crunched some compelling numbers. The 15,000 months of activists’ collective time and the $20 million spent on the Standing Rock and #NoDAPL campaigns slowed pipeline completion by three months. From 2016 to 2017, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, then ages 27 and 35, torched holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline across Iowa. They spent (before their arrests, not counting their six- and eight-year prison sentences) ten person-months and several thousand dollars, mostly on oxyacetylene-torch kits. Their investment delayed pipeline completion two months further.

But violence makes sense only if your primary concern is speed. If your goal is to cut through catastrophe’s fog of uncanniness and make people integrate the fact that we’re in a catastrophe at all, love may be the tool for you.

One swampy September day in Houston, Timothy Morton, Rice University English professor and prominent ecophilosopher, stood in front of a couple dozen undergraduates in Baker Hall (as in James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of State; Rice is awash in oil money) riffing on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience and covertly installing in those students a philosophy for how to unfuck the world.

Morton is 54, British, way too smart, nonbinary, and a master at free-associating. Their brain seems to work like a lava lamp bubbling up iridescent shape-shifting amalgams of Hume, the Sex Pistols, insect desire, and memes. They wrote IN/NOCERE, “not to harm,” on the whiteboard. “A stupid definition of innocence is ‘ignorance,’” they said. “A better definition is ‘weaponized harmlessness.’”

Morton is best known for coining the term hyperobject (noun): things and ideas so vast and slippery and distributed across time and space that we can’t contain them physically or even fully understand them (e.g., all the carbon in the sky, plastics, fake news). In class, they went on to explain how Blake deploys weaponized harmlessness in his poem “The Lamb.” The whole thing reads as childish, a nursery rhyme. This is part of Blake’s point. Knowing God is not complicated. This whole conversation around the divine is so much simpler than you contorted, control-seeking grown-ups want us to believe.

Morton has been thinking and writing about ecology for several decades now, a lot of that time circling the questions, How can we make people hear this message? How can we be Anders’s Noah in the sackcloth — the version of Noah who gets people to see the flood is coming?

“How do you tell people something that sounds just so, so terrible?” Morton asked me after class. Those poor scientists we trot out on TV to explain climate change? As a culture, “we think, Oh, wait a minute, this is a science-y thing, so I should put science-y people on the telly to talk about it,” Morton said. But this is like asking musicologists to comment on Prince. Those scientists start talking about Mod-Act and Cur-Pol pathways and our brains revolt. “Oh my God, no, not another data dump! Please don’t do this!” Morton said. We’ve hoovered up as many people as we can with panic, they argued. Now we need to deploy the dark talk-to-the-id genius of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the father of modern spin. Bernays created millions of new smokers almost overnight by getting women suffragettes to chant, “Light another torch of freedom!”

This is not news to Steve Bannon and the puppeteers of the MAGA right. “Pardon my French: He grabbed them by the psychic pussy,” Morton said of the previous president the next day over a catfish lunch. “On the left, we have shouting and making people wrong.” You look at the front page of the newspaper and you’re stupid. You get to the middle and read that you’re a bad person. We need to stop shouting and lecturing, Morton said: “You’ve got to talk from inside the dream. How do you talk to people in a dream?”

Morton’s answer? Art. Beauty. Love. Kindness. Bypass the harsh communiqués that make intolerable ideas bounce off our brains — the kinds of ideas that made Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter reply when first told about the Holocaust, “I don’t believe you … I did not say that he is lying, I said that I don’t believe him.” For this, we need the tools of religion. We need the energy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech. The ritual calm and comfort of the funeral for the Okjökull glacier that Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer staged in Iceland in Calamity 74. Maybe you remember this plaque?

A letter to the future

Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to
lose its status as a glacier.
In the next 200 years all our glaciers are
expected to follow the same path.
This monument is to acknowledge
that we know what is happening
and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.

Ágúst 2019
415 ppm CO2

The event received worldwide attention. You could think about it and not feel numb.

With this in mind, Morton recently launched Cool America, an agitprop stunt weaponized-harmlessness climate campaign with Björk, Laurie Anderson, Adam McKay, Slavoj Žižek, Kim Stanley Robinson, Olafur Eliasson, and many others (Morton is very collectible and has fancy friends), plus the glacier-funeral team. The project is part public art, part propaganda, an experiment in throwing some potentially planet-saving spaghetti against hardheaded humanity’s wall. One plan is to make billboards with crisp retro graphics that look like Lichtenstein hamburgers. Inside the bun it says MAKE AMERICA COOL AGAIN. Or rip off the Marlboro Man iconography — the chiseled jaw, the Stetson, the typeface, and “Cool America,” an unassailable, quietly subversive two words. Sometimes when you’re talking to Morton, they just start saying, in low, soothing tones, “Cool America. Cool, America, cool america, cool, cool america …” and you can feel it working in your subconscious.

Sitting across from me in a booth drinking an afternoon beer, Morton told me their dream. They want to go on Tucker Carlson Tonight and perform a sort of magic trick. “Someone’s got to go there and try to magnetize people,” they said. Morton’s plan is to tell viewers up front that they’re going to change their minds, and then start saying, “Cool America. Cool, America. Cool America.” Don’t you want to be cool, America? Don’t you want to keep your lives safe and cool, America? Wouldn’t not getting punked be cool, America? And keep at it — “Cool America. Cool, America, cool america, cool, cool america” — until Morton’s neighbors right there in Houston start thinking, Nobody is going to take our future from us!, and then go down the road and citizen’s-arrest the Shell execs, thinking the whole time this was their own idea.

When the waiter came to drop off the check, he said to Morton, “I’m sure you’ve gotten this before, but you have a really incredibly relaxing voice. You’d be great on radio.”

Morton is not a fan of Malm’s sabotage plans: “He’s too Swedish to understand how there are snipers positioned in my hometown of Houston conveniently to shoot you dead if you try any of that shit. But whatever floats your boat, I guess. It’s been tried. Knock yourself out.”

Likewise, Malm has no time for Morton’s airy word salad. “OMG, I am the destruction,” Malm mocks Morton in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. “I’m part of it and I’m in it and I’m on it. It’s an aesthetic experience … The trick is to find enjoyment … by fully inhabiting the catastrophic space.”

Malm and Morton both know the problems with their own approaches. The entrenched forces in power are so huge. Will sabotage ever reach a scale that matters? Will it just turn people away? Morton knows they may sound lost in magical thinking, spinning out pretty sentence pirouettes. “You’ve already pegged me as a quietist who doesn’t want to address the elephants in the room such as neoliberal capitalism,” Morton writes in All Art Is Ecological. “You’d be quite wrong. I’m talking about exactly how to address the elephants, considering that all forms of elephant address so far haven’t worked out so well for planet Earth (and all the creatures, including humans).”

We’ve made ourselves frantic and useless by assuming we need to transform ideology before we can act. “You think future, and you think radically different from the present,” Morton said. “You think, I need to change my mind-set, then I can really start making a difference.” No, no, you don’t. You want a beautiful, stable world for the people you love. I want a beautiful, stable world for the people I love. We’d all do quite a lot to give it to them if we could stay in that headspace.

There’s also the extremely valid third philosophy: Just do the work. Trust the experts.

By experts, I don’t mean wonks, carbon-capture enthusiasts, and Tesla drivers. By experts, I mean catastrophe’s frontline experts. As Ghosh notes, early in our awareness of this crisis, people like former NASA Goddard Institute director James Hansen found themselves out in front, sitting with microphones before Congress in their comb-overs, blue sport coats, and red polka-dot ties, because they were the ones able to command attention in circles of power. But there are a billion other experts out there. The Indigenous activists fighting against the entire colonialist rape-and-plunder-of-the-planet ethos responsible for getting us into this mess. The 33 million displaced people in Pakistan. “People who make their living from the land, or the forest or the sea,” Ghosh writes, “marginal farmers, or women who fetch water.” People heavy with loss and damage. People who understand that the countries responsible for emitting almost all of the carbon have a moral duty to the countries that contributed very little. (This category does not include John Kerry, our country’s official climate envoy, who when asked about climate reparations lost command of his syntax and said, “I’m not going to take a … feeling guilty.”) The people who’ve been in the flood and know it’s coming again. The people of New Orleans.

This past August 29, the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Reverend Lennox Yearwood showed up at the Lower Ninth Ward levees as he does almost every year. Wearing a pastor’s collar, gold chains, big sunglasses, and an END FOSSIL FUELS cap, he spoke to the musicians, survivors, and local media gathered in the Bermuda grass. An older woman in a rainbow tutu, pink sneakers, and a yellow feather boa danced to the bamboula drumbeat. White banners staked into the ground listed the names of hundreds of lost loved ones.

“We cannot not mark this moment,” Yearwood said to the assembled group, his shirt, like everyone else’s, drenched in sweat, his cadences invoking the power of the church. “We cannot not mark this moment because we live. And because we live, we’ve got to fight.”

The climate catastrophe has been framed all wrong, Yearwood believes. It is not, for virtually all humans, a technical problem. On this, he’s with Morton: Please stop with all the jargon. “Why are we still trying to get people into this movement saying you have to jump into the deep end of the pool?” Yearwood asks. This is the earthiest, most grounded, most physical, most universal fight imaginable. The powerful are putting their desire for profit ahead of your life. The rest of us are getting hurt, killed, robbed, sick, punked, and gaslit.

From the levees, the crowd walked in a second line across the city. Essayist Mary Heglar showed up, fearless in writing, gentle in person, watching all. She recently moved back to the South from the Bronx. People understand the planetary crisis better here, away from the impervious-seeming world of wealth and concrete. She’s 100 percent committed to the fight, and she’s frustrated by the state of the conversation, too. “A big problem in this moment is we’re always like, ‘We have to give people hope!’” she told me. “We have this incredibly sunshine-and-roses conversation about the IRA,” a.k.a. the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate bill. That bill, and the $369 billion it earmarks for energy and climate projects over the next ten years, is built on compromise, as all legislation is. But once again, the people likely to feel the pain of that compromise are poor, with dark skin, and live in places like the Gulf Coast, in sacrifice zones. “When I joined the movement” about eight years ago, Heglar said, “people were like, ‘Climate change is this great equalizer. It’s going to be everybody.’”

Plastered on a house we walked past five minutes later was a faded old sign with Brad Pitt’s face and the words MAKE IT RIGHT, BRAD PITT AND ANGELINA JOLIE. FIX MY HOUSE. In 2006, Pitt cast himself as the local hero, very publicly raising money to build 109 affordable green homes, some designed by Frank Gehry, in the Lower Ninth Ward. Those houses are now rotting, filled with black mold, and rife with electrical and plumbing problems.

The racism, the classism, it’s baked deep into mainstream climate activism, which grew out of Sierra Club environmentalism and has not escaped its elitist roots. In Calamity 75 (2019), Heglar wrote a “Dear Climate Movement” open letter:

I’m with you when you say that climate change is the most important issue facing humankind. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s the most important one ever. But when I hear folks say — and I have heard it — that the environmental movement is the first in history to stare down an existential threat, I have to get off the train … For 400 years and counting, the United States itself has been an existential threat to Black people.

Many have argued, persuasively, that climate anxiety — and its inevitable result, climate therapy — is a privilege reserved for white people. Hard as people find it to grok the climate catastrophe, some find it harder still to imagine a planet on which they’ve lost status and power. But refusing to widen our thinking is a losing strategy. The status quo leads to defeat.

As the second line walked through New Orleans, the police blocked traffic at every intersection. Yearwood had made sure that those in power — those who had belittled and disregarded this community in the past — gave the walking band protection and respect. The event ended in Tremé, at Hunter’s Field, with a concert under a freeway overpass that was constructed in the 1960s to shorten the commutes of people who fled the city for the suburbs. The project required razing 326 Black-owned businesses. Flagboy Giz rapped about gentrification in his Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian headdress. A woman sold shrimp and grits out of hotel pans. A man stood and watched for hours, a sleeping toddler on his shoulder. Nothing here looked like climate action. It looked like perseverance.

“Black America has been dealing with climate action for so long we don’t even know we’re doing it,” said Heather McTeer Toney, climate-justice advocate and author of Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions, out in April 2023. “The idea of resiliency is built into us.”

To get through the catastrophe, Toney suggested, we’re going to “need this jazz sense of chaos.” Syncopation. Harmony, not melody. Everyone plays. “I’m playing the flute. Someone else over here is beating drums,” she said. “We need those saxophonists that are going to do whatever the hell they feel like they want to do.” What would it even mean to sit quietly on the sidelines of this?

We’re here in Calamity 77, almost 78. Anders laid out a series of commandments for how to live:

“You have to make the daring attempt to make yourself as big as you actually are, to catch up yourself.”

“Widen your moral fantasy.”

“Widen your sense of time.”

“Don’t be a coward.”

“Say to yourself upon awakening: ‘It is our business.’ ”

“The possibility of the Apocalypse is our work.”

Catastrophe is a test. Of values. Of power. Of faith. Of intelligence. Of the system. We had a bit of a trial run with COVID — and we both rose to the occasion and failed. 6.5 million people died. We overloaded our ICUs; we parked morgue trucks on the streets. We sacrificed our children’s education and mental health. A genuine calamity. But we did run fast enough to bend and fold time. We remade the social infrastructure of work in a week. We invented and produced vaccines faster than anyone thought possible. That catapulting energy, that mythic creative burst, takes a bravery impossible to summon with rational thought. You need a belief in your ability to handle extreme disorientation. You need a belief in your own magic and power. Morton, while teaching his Blake course, talked about God as part of ourselves, as “alienated human beings’ superpowers.” We thought up the divine in all its glory. We hold those superpowers inside. We need to access them now.

After the class, I sat for a long time in the Rothko Chapel, just a few blocks from Morton’s house. The building sits on Houston lowlands. The city has flooded again and again. The sanctuary is eight-sided, and each wall is covered with enormous Mark Rothko paintings, 14 total, all deep mottled purple-black. The de Menil family conceived the chapel in Calamity 19 as a space to catalyze “an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience.” In the foyer is a simple wooden bench. On that bench sit the great books of the world’s spiritual traditions: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Holy Bible, Acharanga Bhasyam, Tao Te Ching, The Lotus Sutra, The Book of Mormon, The Meaning of the Holy Quran. If you let them, the paintings will hold you, allow you to lower your defenses and relax. I sat in the chapel and cried for an hour, for all the loss and damage, for all of us. Rothko wrote to the de Menils while creating the works, “The task … is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me” — teaching him to make himself bigger.

He died in Calamity 25 before his paintings were installed.

Early in the pandemic, Daniel Goldhaber, a young American filmmaker and the son of two climate researchers, approached Malm to ask if he could dramatize How to Blow Up a Pipeline — or really, if he could turn into a sort of Ocean’s 11, but instead of a group gathering to turn over a casino, they explode an oil line.

Malm answered with the most Nordic response possible: “Yeah, okay.”

Goldhaber is 30. He started having climate nightmares at age 9. He has heard the clock of catastrophe ticking his entire life. “People are always like, ‘You’re young! You have so much time.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t,’” Goldhaber told me at the Toronto Film Festival, where Pipeline premiered in September. “It’s more a feeling of being cheated out of a sense of future. And feeling like I have no time. These things that we all think are going to be available forever are not.” He’s got extremely dark predictions about the future. People get crazy and desperate when empires collapse. Pakistan has nukes. “Now their country is being devastated year after year,” he said. “And they know it’s us. They know. This is being actively discussed. Where’s the aid? Where’s the reparations?” At a certain point, we discussed, your country is so fucked, your people are so fucked, you’re going to take dramatic, irrational action. That’s the natural human response.

Goldhaber is full of old-school Hollywood dealmaker charm. He’s working on a script for a “Snowpiercer set inside a giant European nightclub … hedonism in the Age of Apocalypse.” Indulgence and apathy are timeworn responses to catastrophe too. “There’s a little bit of a sense for me that I have to acknowledge, like, I’m going to consume what I can,” Goldhaber admitted. “We didn’t build this” — he waved at the mess of downtown Toronto’s city planning before us, the gridlocked brigade of SUVs and single-occupant cars. “We didn’t ask for this. And also, nine times out of ten, when we try to do something about it, we’re ridiculed and told to sit down and shut up.”

Malm had flown in for the opening. I had too. We talked about our own hypocrisy. Would it really be better, Malm wondered, for him to live “in the forest in far northern Sweden in my hut or something?” If you want to change the society you’re living inside, Malm said at our sidewalk table, “you have to accept a degree of mismatch between what you do in your own life and what you want to achieve.” We all knew we were rationalizing. None of us knew any climate purists who had stayed sane.

In the midst of our coffee, I got a text that my daughter had totaled her car. She was fine, the other driver was fine. The incident amounted to some unplanned, unintelligent teenage sabotage of a 2008 Ford Escape, definitely the fastest way to get that car off the road. The nature of a catastrophe is that there are no comfortable options that move fast enough. The film version of Pipeline ends, pipeline blown up, with one of the main characters’ taped confession-slash-manifesto posted to TikTok: “Destroying this property was a last resort. This was an act of self-defense.”

The day after the premiere, September 11, Sweden held elections. The fascist party Malm had been battling his whole life rose to power as part of a right-wing bloc. The skinheads he fought as a teenager won. I texted Malm to see how he was doing. “Getting stoned with the Marxists to drown all the sorrows,” he replied.

The Swedish fascists’ platform slashes funding for climate action. “The worse the climate crisis gets, the more people obsess about something completely different,” Malm said when I caught up with him the following evening. In Sweden, that something completely different was “a psychotic obsession with nonwhite people immigrating and with crime and social dissolution.” We both knew why. It’s comforting, in a terrifying world, to create political problems you can then pretend to solve without pushing yourself beyond familiar bounds.

In his library at home, Malm told me, a print of the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus hangs on the wall. Walter Benjamin writes about the painting in “On the Concept of History,” which he drafted in the face of personal apocalypse shortly before he killed himself because he could not escape the Nazis. Benjamin imagines the figure in Klee’s painting as the angel of history staring at the endless string of catastrophes that is the past while the winds of paradise blow him toward the future. It’s a vision of realism and wild, irrational belief.

That night, Malm reached for an even more mystical image from the last paragraph of Benjamin’s essay. “Sometimes, you know, I grasp for his lines: that every second in time is the strait gate through which the Messiah can enter, or something like that,” Malm said. “That doesn’t mean you need to put your faith in some kind of pseudo-messianic event, not necessarily literally divine intervention but an unexpected rupture that has an almost messianic quality.”

We are not lost. We are right here at the strait gate. The possibility of Apocalypse is our work.

More on climate change

See All
How to Live in a Catastrophe