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It’s OK to Look Away: Green-Gloom and Capitalist Realism | Mental Health Awareness Week | Jack Smith

Images from the film They Live (1988). Dir: John Carpenter. Alive Films & Larry Franco Productions

“I’m getting sceptical in my old age Jack...the idea that climate change is going to ramp up and up, we're going to blow through 1.5 and we're going to smash past 2 degrees and we're well on track to 3. I'm sorry, but I'm getting older and jaded and increasingly scared. Been living with this for a long time...a simple way to say it is 2 degrees is dangerous climate change, 3 degrees is catastrophic climate change, so catastrophic”

I’m currently in the middle of expert interviews for my PhD and when one of my participants – an environmental economist – said the above in an interview recently it made me wonder about the emotional and psychic burden of environmental knowledge. To hear the despondency in the voice of someone of intelligence and privilege, and therefore someone assumed to be in a position of relative power and optimism, brought home the sobering reality of what many of us as environmental researchers, to greater and lesser extents, must grapple with: the properly understood consequences and intimate details of some of the greatest threats to ever face the species. To state that this necessarily affects the mental health of those who hold such knowledge is, of course, to state the obvious.

But what is the effect of this affect? What is it that this knowledge does to us to press on our delicate psyches the way it does? I myself have found comfort in applying my analytical eye (following someone else’s) to the question; seeking solace in understanding. To this end, the seminal work of the cultural theorist and philosopher Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) – provides insights that have helped me to explain, and somewhat counter, the phenomena of what I’ll call “green-gloom”.

The main thrust of Capitalist Realism is that the dominant political economy of the age – Neoliberal Capitalism – is so pervasive, adaptable and successful that we have stopped being able to see past it. As soon as we think we’ve clapped eyes on it, it morphs into something new, assimilating its critique (think Che Guevara t-shirts or Karl Marx fridge magnets); like trying to grab a handful of sand, it sifts through our fingers. The book leads with the famous Slavoj Žižek quote: “it’s now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. This is the “Realism” of the title: that the dominant political-economy is the only conception of reality that makes any sense, we struggle to imagine an alternative to such an extent we imagine Armageddon instead.

Fisher states that Capitalist Realism has some very important weak points, what he calls “Reals” – aspects of reality that it cannot adapt to nor deny. The first and obvious “Real” is environmental degradation:

“its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system”, yet who is tasked to look, in granular detail, at such implications?

To greater and lesser extents, it’s us.

As evidenced by my interview participant, the data and conclusions that many of us deal with as our day-to-day bread and butter are fraught with implications that beg to be imagined by those who work with them. The understanding that many of the Indian subcontinent’s underground aquifers are rapidly running out invites, demands even, the imagined picture of over a billion people unable to irrigate their fields, parch their throats or put aside their (many) differences amidst a situation that would be characterised by chaos and desperation. The data that tell an oceanographer that the world’s coral reefs will vanish within a generation, taking with them a sizable percentage of the world’s biodiversity, evoke a heartache and grief at the loss of genetic and biological variation that took millions of years to develop, snuffed out in the relative blink of an eye.

The natural world is being killed and we have placed ourselves in such a position as to bear witness to the gory murder. Just as first responders to horrific car crashes or house fires often need counselling and support, so too can our work place a heavy mental burden that frays the edges of our sense of security in the future – something human beings need as central to their welfare. In contrast, lay members of the public are able to read an article about, say, climate change but then can immediately turn their minds to something else. The film maker Adam Curtis touches on this with a short film called “Oh Dearism”:

Curtis links “oh dearism” to the diminishment of democratic politics and the inability of the media to convey complexity without losing its audience. You can watch his 7 minute film below. At the end, he states “it’s like living in the mind of a depressed hippy”, which sounds very similar to green-gloom: an “oh dearism” that we struggle to contend with because we feel we have no power to confront it. This links to Fisher’s work in that it can be said to be a symptom of capitalist realism – meaningful change is impossible so let’s just sit and stupor in the gloom of it.

It has become a cliché when discussing this topic to reference the film They Live (1988). Eminently meme-able, there is a famous scene in which a character puts on sunglasses that reveal the true messages behind billboards in the city:

Green-gloom should be understood in terms of the truth-revealing sunglasses: whereas most people may put the glasses on some times and catch glimpses of the depressing reality that lies underneath the veneer produced by the capitalist realism of our times, the environmental researcher must put the glasses on far more often and for much longer. Whereas others have the luxury of tutting “oh dear”, we must continue past the tut, and that is, essentially, an act of mental endurance, the toll of which we should not underestimate.

Personally, every time I read a headline such as this, I have found myself letting out a big sigh and then I purposefully avoid reading the article, as if I can’t put the sunglasses on that day because I don’t have the strength. In such a case, I am doing what I think I need to do to avoid a bout of green-gloom; I am, in essence, protecting myself.

But as much as this endurance is a burden, it’s also a privilege. There is a nobility in being the ones who sacrifice some of their psychic-wellness on a worthwhile goal and there is a solace to be found in such nobility. It’s important not to overstate things, mostly our research adds little pieces to an overall jigsaw puzzle of environmental insights, but each piece is important and not obtained easily. Capitalist Realism has helped me interpret what’s happening and although it may engender green-gloom, there is also hope – I believe Fisher is correct to say the “reals” (one of which he identifies as the mental health crises itself) will eventually bring this structure down and force us to develop a new common sense. The prospect of which is as exciting as it is uncertain. In the meantime, we need to continue to work hard to make sure it happens sooner rather than later, we need to look after one another whilst doing so, and remember that it’s absolutely fine to take the sunglasses off now and then to catch a break, ground ourselves, and find our sanity.