The future freaks me out

Wrestling with my fear of the apocalypse.

Climate change, global pandemics, war, religious extremism, the rise of fascism, earthquakes, supervolcanoes — these are some of the things I just can’t stop worrying about. It feels like the world is teetering ever closer to the brink. Is it? And is this a normal worry to have? Am I being rational? I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t know if it’s even possible to know whether or not these are rational thoughts.

Before I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I just kind of assumed that the way I felt and the things I did were just… how life was for everybody. Tough it out! Be strong! Etc. The same goes for when I first realized that I was trans. Oh, everybody doesn’t feel like their skin doesn’t fit on their skeletons and cry at night because they wish they were the other gender? Huh!

I was wrong in thinking that my feelings and thoughts were just a universal part of the human experience in those cases, and now I’m sitting here asking myself the same questions about my fear of the future. To narrow down that fear, let’s talk about one thing specifically: climate change.

I can’t force myself to feel hopeful, but I can leave myself open to the possibility that there may one day be a reason for it.

When I chatted with Eric Holthaus for my weekly podcast, I was really hoping to come away from the conversation feeling some kind of hope for the future, some kind of hope for a path forward for humanity — or rather, hope that a path forward for humanity would emerge. Maybe it will!

This isn’t to say that our conversation wasn’t helpful. On the contrary, I think it was amazingly helpful, and Eric’s words were reassuring in their own sort of way.

The Present Age
Climate journalist Eric Holthaus believes in a better world [podcast + transcript]
Listen now (30 min) | Welcome to the Present Age podcast. I’m your host Parker Molloy. Joining me this week is meteorologist and climate scientist Eric Holthaus. Eric operates The Phoenix, a Substack about humanizing the climate emergency. He’s the author of The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming…
Read more

It's just that everyone has their place. I know it's all depressing and hard to understand and happening too fast, but it's just like COVID, I think, that we were faced with this really shocking, striking change to every aspect of our lives and then we just rolled with it as people were dying around us, we were grieving that, we were loving each other, we were doing all of that work that was necessary as well as learning how to buy the right kind of mask and learning all that stuff. Climate change is that, but for the rest of our lives. It's going to be very hard but it's also very important to understand that we're not doing this just for ourselves, we're doing it because it's the biggest justice issue of our time. It ties in together everything, food, housing, racism, all of that stuff.

This is one way that intersects all of it and supporting each other through that. If you're listening to this, you're probably that climate person in your friend group. You are asked these difficult questions and it's okay to not have the answer, and it's okay to struggle through all of this because I do and this is my job. The only thing I would say is that just ask for help when you need it. Send me a DM if you have to, I'll try to chat with you and encourage you. If you're on any path, then you're on the right path.

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to grapple with my fear of the end by reading books that I’d hoped would have assuaged my worries a bit. By understanding the threat of human extinction, perhaps I could make sense of it. I read Bryan Walsh’s brilliant End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World and Mark McConnell’s Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, among other books in hopes of finding something that would help me snap out of my biggest fears.

It didn’t work. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s even normal. I don’t know how to really tell.

If we can’t do the little things, how are we supposed to tackle the big challenges?

As I said during my interview with Eric, the way society has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic has siphoned away a lot of the hope I had for our ability to survive the climate emergency.

Here’s Eric:

We have to really unlearn that climate change is an inevitable disaster and that we're all going to die, and instead think about it as a justice issue, just like other justice issues, and get angry. And that comes with the realization that a better world is possible, that there are systemic changes that need to happen in every aspect of society anyway, and that's literally what the climate scientists said this week was we have to change every part of human society at a rapid scale in order to get down to the emissions goals that we need to do to preserve the habitability of our planet. What's more important than that, than being able to live on a planet, right? We don't have anywhere else to go. We have to do this.

Trump supporters hold signs protesting the current administration at the "World Wide Rally for Freedom", an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally, at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, May 15, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I find it really difficult to come to terms with the idea that humanity is going to be able to “change every part of human society at a rapid scale” when there are millions of people (along with one of our country’s two main political parties) who have made their refusal to endure even the tiniest of inconveniences to help bring an end to a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans central parts of their personalities.

I want to feel hopeful. I really do. I want to feel the comfort in knowing that the world — and humanity — will carry on long after I’m gone. But at the moment, I’m having a lot of difficulty with that.

Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work here at The Present Age. Every share, every comment, every like, every new sign-up — I appreciate them all. Stay tuned for some great new stuff I’ve got in the works these next few weeks. Some great guests are coming to the podcast, and there are some more research-heavy newsletters I’m in the process of getting wrapped up.

Have a nice weekend, everybody.