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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Are we there yet? Beyond Apocalypse Fatigue and the New Normal

26 May 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, environmental ethicist, Jacob Erickson, looks at recovery fatigue and how creativity might move us beyond pandemic grief.

Dr Jacob J. Erickson, School of Religion, TCD

In the last weeks, the days from my window have begun to blur together a little bit. Where I’m sheltering in place, my partner and I recently mistook a Saturday for a Tuesday. While we keep a somewhat organized working schedule, a sheer malaise of time and space is beginning to set in. In the midst of the actual grieving for the loss of loved ones, in the grief of the disruption of daily lives, and the anxiety of future unknowns—in the midst of all of this change—a bit of weariness is hitting as well. We’re living in an odd space of simultaneous urgency and fatigue.

As an environmental ethicist, as knowledge of and governmental response to COVID-19 emerged, I was entering a sabbatical dedicated to the diversity of emotional responses associated with the climate crises of our day. Reflections on the phenomena of eco-anxiety and anger, climate grief and environmental despair, denial and fear filled my research notes as I began to ask how the energy of emotional affects shapes, empowers, or subverts ethical action for the sake of our common planetary life. We see these affects in politics, in questions about whether or how to raise kids, in last year’s climate protests, or in our everyday anxieties about the ecological future of earth. I’ve been calling such things the “ethics of planetary feeling.”

Climate affects, emotions, and feelings present us with a lot to process, but the experience of what scholars of climate grief call “apocalypse” and “recovery” fatigue is pressing in my mind. Climate researcher Per Espen Stoknes popularlized the language of apocalypse fatigue, arguing that rhetorical strategies which attempt to motivate climate action by pointing out the facts of environmental losses or potentially bleak futures actually overwhelm us into feelings of powerlessness. And in the wake of the effects of the present crisis, apocalyptic-turned-recovery fatigue continues to inscribe itself in our bodies as important decisions are made about what comes next. As clinician and climate emotion researcher Leslie Davenport points out, recovery fatigue can inhibit our ability to act. This kind of fatigue makes it difficult to make the most ordinary of decisions. We feel unmotivated, we can’t concentrate on everyday realities, and forget daily tasks or facts. One may feel even further disempowered to make decisions by spiralling moral complexity or feel like action doesn’t matter much anyways. Ethics becomes exhaustion. Sound familiar?

Recovery fatigue is in need of ethical and energizing communal storytelling beyond doom and gloom. Indeed, such stories might highlight and create political resilience to navigate the weighty fog of these emotional atmospheres. Most importantly, we have to tell a different story about the creativity of time. Recovery from loss or a fundamental change of life is a creative process of grieving full of contradiction that advances into the future and not a one-time fix or clear event. There will be no time when society is back to “normal,” and normal wasn’t good for everyone anyways. What is considered normal is just an economic or political story told, and many other more stories might be recalled, crafted, and remade for this time and place. The process of remaking ourselves personally and politically in new ways will continue for a while.

 Image created by Catherine Cordasco. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19

Secondly, we’ve been given a powerful vision of what it looks like when society radically invests in a different material story to tackle large-scale ethical problems head on. Not all current changes are desirable, of course, but we know that change is possible and doable. That change might empower us to think and act together to respond to, say, climate change for the sake of a smart and sustainable planet. We’ve been given a glimpse of a different world. Difference is possible, and that’s actually, remarkably exciting. What kind of historical lessons, visions, and new forms of ethical society do we wish to invest in to motivate a reimagined future? How might we rethink our political orders, democracy and economy for the sake of a liveable planet?

At the end of the day, scholars of climate grief turn to one of the most powerful ways that our human species bears with uncertainty and learning—we play, seriously. Humans engage in forms of creative practices that help us work out the ironies and contradictions of the moment. We create works and stories that uncover injustice, respond to violence, and tend to vulnerability. We imagine together, with all the difficulty and messy human baggage that brings, of how better to be part of this planet. Sometimes, in the midst of fatigue, creativity offers us agency. Humor can be profoundly revelatory, point out absurdity, and instigate profound change. Play is what artists, storytellers, and humanities scholars do remarkably well. We need to think about what serious playfulness means amidst the seriousness of this crisis. In the face of perceived dead ends, that playfulness might help us bear our planetary feelings, as the old Psalm says, from “mourning into dancing.”

Further Reading:

  • Leslie Davenport, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017.
  • Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. T. Roszak, M. Jones, and A. Kanner, eds. New York: Sierra Club Books, 1995.
  • Per Espen Stoknes, “How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming” Ted Talk. September, 2017.

Jacob J. Erickson is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin, and Coordinator of the School's innovative undergraduate degree in Religion. A constructive theologian and ethicist, Erickson's research focuses on the environmental humanities, the intersection of religion and ecology, and ecological theologies in the wake of global warming. His has most recently, with Prof. Lisa Dahill, guest-edited a special edition of the journal Religions on critical plant studies. And he's a contributor to the recent volumes Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (Fordham University Press) and Meaningful Flesh: Reflections on Religion and Nature for a Queer Planet (Punctum).

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Prison and the Pandemic with by Ciara O’Connell, Sarah Curristan and Sophie van der Valk (26 May 2020)

Literature and the Pandemic with Eve Patten (13 May 2020)

Distress and Disease at Sea with Killian O'Brien (30 April 2020)

Adapting in a Time of Crisis with Melanie Ní Dhuinn (28 April 2020)

Power in the Name of Emergency with Róisín Costello & Conor Casey (21 April 2020)

Human Rights in a Time of Crisis with Donna Lyons (14 April 2020)

Solidarity in a Time of Crisis with Rory Montgomery (6 April 2020)

Art in a time of Pandemic with Rita Duffy (1 April 2020)

Leadership in a time of Crisis with Mary Doyle (25 March 2020)

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