By Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies
Pick your doomsday headline: climate change will destroy the world in 12 years; authoritarianism is spreading all over the globe; systematic inequality is on the rise; future generations are condemned to unlivable conditions; a nuclear war could wipe us all out. The Earth is on fire and we’re being told that we’re destined for destruction. Total catastrophe. Inevitable apocalypse. Fated doom. One way or another, we’re going down.
We all love stories of mythical catastrophe. Yet the end of the world is no longer a prophecy or myth. Gone are the days of fearing alien invasions and robots taking over the world. These days, we don’t fear one singular catastrophic event that will end us all – in fact, that would be kind in comparison to the agonizing deterioration of our climate since the Industrial Revolution. We have real reason to believe the world is headed for a bleak future. But to push for global change, we need to change the way we talk about disaster.
Apocalypse narratives do more harm than good. The highly emotive language used to report global disaster is supposed to scare us into action – but this fear can be counterproductive. This immobilising apathy is often called ‘apocalypse fatigue’. Science journalist, Jasper Hamill, describes apocalypse fatigue as a phenomenon in which ‘we become so hardened by endless disastrous predictions that we stop paying attention to them.’ We freeze in the face of inevitable doom and end up dismissing the possibility for change because ‘we’re all going to die anyway’. It’s easier to distance ourselves from the situation by adopting a fatalistic mindset that protects us from the dread of accountability. Hopeless fatalism becomes a cause for celebration, as we surrender to the disaster of the world and choose acceptance over improvement. Ignorance is bliss, and bliss is just what we need to enjoy our final days. Yet, while ignorance protects us from existential burnout, it also prevents us from engaging – it prevents us from pushing for real change.
“To push for global change we need to change the way we talk about disaster.”
Apocalypse fatigue is also the reason behind so much of the cognitive dissonance we feel when it comes to changing our lifestyles for the greater good. The tension between what we do and what we know is clear – from our views on the meat industry to transport methods to single-use plastic. And even when we take a step in the right direction, it feels like any personal improvements we’ve made are insignificant in the face of the macro-level institutional reform we truly need. It’s completely demoralising. We either feel guilty, powerless or burnt out. All three effects lead to us feeling overwhelmed and often uninspired when it comes to pushing for change. In order to improve engagement and morale over global change, we need to frame ‘disaster’ narratives less disastrously.
Believe it or not, it is possible to frame disaster narratives in a positive way that will motivate change. Per Espen Stoknes, a Norweigian Parliament representative with a background in the psychology of reactions to catastrophic climate change, suggests that the easiest way to flip our mindsets when it comes to disaster is by focusing on how global change will improve our lives – both personally and as a society. For example, we can encourage people to improve their carbon footprint in order to improve the health and wellbeing of their loved ones. We can frame sustainable living as an exciting opportunity for technological developments that can only continue to improve our standard of living. Rhetoric is powerful – it can make us feel powerless as an individual, or inspired as a collective. If we adopt a community approach, fighting for radical improvement will become the social norm. By sharing the burden of responsibility, we will all feel less ‘fatigued’ by the apocalypse.