Climate collapse as hyper-object
Climate collapse is an example of a class of phenomena the philosopher Timothy Morton calls hyper-objects.i These are phenomena so massively distributed, so powerful and so totalising that their complexity defies both denial and comprehension. For example, human cognition cannot comprehend the fact that radioactive isotopes have half-lives that vary from the tiniest fraction of a second—Neptunium-223 has a half-life of 2.15 on the scale of 10 to the minus sixth of a second—to millennia (Uranium-238’s half-life is 4.5 billion years). Both these numbers are incredible—literally beyond our ability to apprehend.
We have been intellectually socialised to assume that items and events are located in time and place. But hyper-objects—in this case climate collapse—transcend localisation and temporal fixedness. This state of unbounded distribution and temporal non-specificity defies common sense. Deepening the intellectual difficulty is the fact that climate collapse involves the loss of an embedded pattern. In climate terms, that pattern historically involved what Anthony Wilden calls a steady state—a quality of homeostasis that existed between regular features (the pattern of seasons) and an expected distribution of irregular events (droughts, storms) that occurred, broadly speaking, at an expected and acceptable frequency and intensity.ii This state was assumed to be permanent, and was naturalised as our frame of reference.
Anthropocentric inputs over the last 200 years have disturbed this state, leading to accelerating entropy and a resulting loss of organisation in the key patterns that sustain amenable existence. In this complex system with its cascading effects and consequences, the only regularity is non-regularity—that is, a steepening rate of deregulation. One-in-a-hundred-year events are clustering; droughts are defying seasonal averages; pyrocumulonimbus cloud conditions are propagating fires.
Even given extended inspection, this seems like crazy talk. To intellectually comprehend the emerging situation requires the thinker to jettison the received practices that allocate probability. To repurpose an idea from the renowned architect Christopher Alexander, such a disruption could even be said to sunder the grand ‘pattern language’ that structures experience and imagination.iii
Again, this seems like madness. What has evolved, and become embedded, over the length of human history cannot be dismissed, even as the fact of climate collapse is indisputably upon us. Perhaps we are hard-wired to mis-recognise this reality, as Helen MacDonald argues in Vesper Flights.iv
But of course, the key issue is not intellectual. The deregulation of the material conditions in which life on earth has prospered—including but not limited to human life—is not an abstract matter. This introduces the symbolic-affective dimension of the problem of recognition.
What was always true is no longer so
Seasonal rhythms have endowed human life with structure and meaning over millennia. These patterns are encoded in the calendar of blooms and fruits, sowing and reaping, cold and heat that have given shape and purpose to both agrarian and nomadic life. Although urbanised societies are no longer nomadic or agrarian, modern subjects are heirs to the symbolism that endures from the myths and legends of these once-dominant modes of life and as modern citizens our lifestyles and economies continue to be subject to the vicissitudes of nature for our amenity and material needs.
Seasonal regularity was the muse that elicited the visions of death and rebirth, sin and redemption that animated, shaped and reflected the human spirit. Over time, legends and even parts of cosmologies were passed between cultures. The Adonis myth from Phoenicia was Hellenised as ancient Greece became the dominant power in the Mediterranean; symbolic ‘pagan’ events such as ceremonies celebrated around the spring (vernal) equinox found their way into early Christian worship. Among a far larger suite of gods, Ishtar and Tammuz, Astarte and Adonis, Aphrodite and Jesus’s mother Mary all interbred. James Frazer, perhaps the best known early twentieth-century scholar of comparative religion, wrote in The Golden Bough that ‘in more than one chapel the Cypriote peasants adore the mother of Christ under the title Panaghia Aphroditessa’.v
None greater, this power has been sung to across time, as in Kathleen Raine’s ‘The Goddess’:vi
Some worship her as queen of angels, Venus of the sea
House of gold, palace of ivory
Gate of heaven and rose of mystery
Inviolate and ever-virgin earth,
Daughter of time and mother of Eternity.
Today the seasonal calendar associated with fecundity is being disrupted, and is on the way to being lost. Climate collapse is demolishing the rhythms that have birthed and, until recently, continued to document the cycle of life. More, climate collapse signals that Mother Nature can no longer be relied upon. Of course, in the past this deity may have had her occasional whims and her moments of irritation and disregard, but she could be taken for granted as generally nurturing and benevolent. That her beauty has been spoilt, that her fecundity can no longer be assumed, is too shocking to be countenanced.
There are consequences if you poison your mother
As climate collapse accelerates, and the scale and timelessness of this disruption take hold, there will be massive material effects: forced migrations; tremendous food insecurity; international tensions if not wars. But what are the consequences that will befall inner life?
Broadly speaking, a de-normalised nature can be expected to fold back into, provide content for and play a role in shaping the flow of energies of the unconscious. Witnessing more death, pestilence, famine and flood will quicken core anxieties. It seems almost unimaginable that a radically greater experience of precarity and a more unchecked Thanatos will not infiltrate the deepest workings of the psyche. In this scenario, it can be predicted that grief and despair will be prominent, and confusion and anger, fear and anxiety too.
The situation will also summon attributions of fault and blame. These can be projected out or they can be projected in. Projecting out, Exxon and its public relations company Edelman might be blamed. We know that Exxon cynically funded climate denial programs, while Edelman, the world’s biggest advertising firm, organised ‘astroturfing’ campaigns to set up myriad groups of both grassroots and scientific composition that advocated climate change denial. A serious moral reckoning should hold particular persons, interests and ideologies to account.
Less formally, if climate change is largely the outcome of anthropogenic inputs, in some sense humankind as a species is at fault. Variations on this attribution include blaming elected representatives and media and industry heavyweights, or more generally whole ‘First World’ societies. With investigations conducted, culprits could face jail terms, public castigation, re-education programs, fines and community service orders. How the dark art of fault-finding should be processed is uncertain, even if each of us is likely to have a more or less rational view of what should occur.
More privately, the shadow of doubt incites self-blame. It seems likely that the fantasy of the vengeful, all-powerful mother will be excited in the psychic netherworlds of a climate-deregulated world. Guilt may or may not be consciously denied, but the cold and angry mother figure is a trope that is perennially associated with and evoked by the merest scent of it.
The threatening mother figure takes different forms in particular faiths and cultures, fables and myths. She could be Kali, Medea, a nameless animated gargoyle or the giant predatory Alien in the movie of the same name. Her method of attack also varies. She can be deadly in despising, ridiculing, ignoring or castigating. Vengefully enraged, she can smite with fire or sword, spell or stiletto. Grand in sweep, her aggression can desiccate or flood a whole region, or if the assault involves annihilation, the offending party may be swallowed—taken in, absorbed, engulfed, caused to disappear. And in the event that the party to be punished is male, a particular gendered assault can be occasioned. The victim can be mocked, smacked, castrated, or, black widow-like, fucked and cannibalised.
Deep in the psychic interior, these dark tropes survive as vestigial, embedded images. Such animations are especially likely to be triggered when the past’s dark parts echo the realities, perceived or actual, of the here and now. The material circumstances of climate collapse will cue many instances of this kind of context resonance.
In symbolic, and at times in material, ways climate collapse will make each of us feel vulnerable. This affect resonates with the inner experience of the orphan. In this ego-state, if I think or fantasise that I have done something wrong, or that I might have done something wrong, it follows that I deserve to be unsafe. More, I will feel that I should be hurt rather than be looked after. This one-down position invokes regression. The good mother has been wronged, and is the perfect person to inflict punishment on the offending child.
More generally, it can be expected that, like guilt, experiences of loss, anger and despair will tend to be amplified by pre-existing, unconscious tropes. With regard to the fantasy of the enraged and dangerous mother, a particular hand-in-glove complicity is likely to bring on this spectre in a climate-collapsing world. You know your mother has been poisoned, and you claim you did not administer the toxin. This claim may or may not be credited, but you know that one thing is certain: you will inevitably be found guilty on an associated charge. You are condemned for failing to protect her.
In fantasy, and sometimes in the material world, mothers can be pushed so far that they become vengeful in their grief. This is a terrifying prospect. In the face of climate collapse, the yonic punisher, it can be imagined, may be summoned because it is humankind that has poisoned nature. This culpability carries a terrible psychic charge, a timeless jeopardy that is worse than anything Sisyphus had to manage. Even if some of us have a more obvious criminal responsibility for climate destruction than others, it is ‘us’, not them, who are at fault. We know we could have done better. As with the concept of original sin, at a symbolic if not a behavioural level everyone shares the sin of complicity. Nobody gets to be out of this world.
Misogyny and denialism
Fifty years of denialist campaigning have torpedoed the possibility of the world taking the actions needed to mitigate, if not avoid, catastrophic climate change. These campaigns were motivated by commercial interests and neoliberal ideology, but they also have a strong association with misogyny.vii
The misogynist sensibility is devastatingly split off from source and earth and is horrified at the primacy of the womb. This is why Vladimir Putin refers to Russia as the Fatherland, just as the Nazis did Germany. For haters and for those who fetishise control, the idea that man and his precariously built environment are an epiphenomenon, a puny subsidiary, of Mother Nature’s infinitely grander organic enterprise is intolerable. That this nature can abolish upstarts—that human hubris relies on the indulgence of a higher power for its life—so annihilates conceit it cannot be contemplated.
For ‘male-stream’ thinkers,viii the hatred of dependence is so visceral as to demand that the map be read upside down. This perversity is evident in tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel investing fabulous sums into nature-denying projects such as artificial islands, the artificial extension of individual human life and the colonising of space. These conceits speak explicitly to the subverting power of their aversion: as Reich suggested, they have naturalised an inverted version of reality, a perversion that begets sadistic callousness, even murder, more than it does numb indifference.
The same ideology was evident in early the Australian explorers hot to ‘penetrate’ the continent’s interior.ix Theirs was the mythopathic mission to conquer and dominate—the dream of the phallic triumphant which represents heterosexual sex as the subjugation of the yonic by a more powerful authority. Of course, this reading can be upended; the yonic can be understood to use, to exhaust, to engulf, to swallow or to mock the tiny phallic intruder. The more civilised view understands that there can be a frisson—a dialectic, a difference engine—in the contrast between two energies.
Whatever interpretation of sexual politics might be favoured, the misogynist position entails a fear and simultaneous hatred of the feminine. This ambivalence played itself out aggressively in debates about climate change between the 1970s and the early 2020s, and can be expected to play an even more vexed part in the world of climate collapse. In this context, deniers will be subject to the full force of Mother Nature’s physical ‘derelictions’ and subject to Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’x at the deepest level of their interiority. Thus aggressive projections will be likely, along with an ill-at-ease subjectivity.xi We can see that it would be terrifying to be haunted by an angry and powerful fantasy figure, part Kali, part Medea, part black widow, however disowned; but for life under climate collapse we can expect anger and envy to overflow into social life and radical division.
Psychic health is not synonymous with an absence of diagnosed mental ill health. Just because a person does not suffer from mania, psychosis or some other named state does not mean this person is well. Simply put, ‘mental health’ is not a straightforward construct. In part, this is because it is context-dependent, with a mix of historico-cultural variables always implicated in it. But however it may be defined, to one degree or another climate collapse will have an impact on every person’s mental health.
The degree of impact will be regulated by several factors, not least location. If you live on low-lying ground in Bangladesh or are a farmer in the Midwest corn belt in the United States, your mental health is likely to be seriously affected by climate collapse. Anyone who lives anywhere impacted by sea-level rises, storms, droughts or fires—or, at a different level, anyone impacted by the migration pressures and food shortages that will accompany these effects—is also likely to experience a heightened impact on their mental health. In contrast, as the Climate Council’s 2023 study on the impact of climate disasters on mental health indicates, those whose exposure to the material effects of climate collapse is less severe will tend to face less hazard. With this clear, several general observations might be made.
If left unexamined, fear and blame, grief and helplessness will fuse to form a febrile emotional atmosphere. Depression and anxiety, and conditions like anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), will be stoked. It is logical to expect that keeping one’s bearings in such a fraught situation will be a serious challenge.
This scenario puts the consideration of ‘mental health’ into compelling relief. Several scenarios arise. Confronted by climate collapse, bourgeois psychology and neoliberal ideology will jointly advocate that the self be militarised—that personal boundaries be strengthened, feelings cauterised, behaviours made strategic, and so forth. The attractive error will be to become more asocial, more amoral, more repressed.
Like the trajectory humankind has furthered in its relationships with nature over the last 200 years—strip-mine, stand apart from, be heedless of the longer term impact of one’s actions—being more amoral and more repressed is exactly what Reich identified as increasingly characteristic of human socialisation in ‘advanced economies’ in the Mass Psychology of Fascism nearly 100 years ago. Thicken the character armour, augment muscular rigidities, mobilise the defences:xii in this movement, the face becomes hide-bound, an immobile exoskeleton that should show no emotion. Alarmed and armed, bunkered in a hunter’s cave, the eyes of the repressed are not a window to the soul but an impersonal instrument that is on the lookout for danger or opportunity.
The half-way point, the situation we are in now, is that the industry that has been set up to care for people’s mental ill health is miscarrying its purpose. Rather than steadying, it is overheating the appetites of its potential and actual customers. You are not feeling positive? That is a sure sign you have a mental health issue. But relax! We have the right products for you. Just as citizens are trained to rely on air conditioning to feel ‘comfortable’, the mental health industry peddles the promise of psychic ease.
In simple terms, if the industry continues to pathologise the ups and downs of inner life, if the fashion to be skittish and self-absorbed remains a constant, or, even worse, if this strengthens, this will dramatically predispose the population to having ‘mental health problems’ even before the consequences of living on a darkening planet are materially realised. What is created in this scenario is a pyrocumulonimbus psychic cloud. The self-care imperative, the I-me-my-mine hothouse, generates the lightning and strong winds that ignite and spread more fire.
Like a dog chasing its tail, this is a path to pathology, not ‘mental health’. The alternative is to greet the honest child in each of us and reach towards affinity and ethical relationships.xiii
Can Eros survive?
‘Eros’ is variously understood. In some readings, Plato endows Eros with a non-erotic character, an idea still with us in the notion of ‘platonic friendship’. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, Eros is about romance; this idealisation of dyadic union is still with us too. In more recent theoretical accounts, Eros is distinguished from what Freud terms libido, an erotic definition. Differentiating matters further, Carl Jung considers Eros a ‘feminine principle’, contrasting this energy with Logos, the ‘masculine principle’. Taking Eros into a different register, Herbert Marcuse argues in Eros and Civilization that ‘Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight’.xiv
Here I take Eros to include three themes: life force; the will to live; and the desire for wholeness, for psychic relatedness. This clustering allows the question to be asked: can the life force, the will to live and the desire for wholeness survive the cascading impacts of climate collapse?
In one scenario there is hope. If we can hold out against emotional contagion there will continue to be a viable space for the life force, the will to live and the desire for wholeness. This ‘holding against’ stance is not the same as denying or raging at the tumult; nor is it about bowing down and surrendering. It involves developing what Susie Orbach called the ‘emotional literacy’xv to name and look directly at fear and loss, guilt and anger, in order to make a place for what is loving and bounteous, unwritten and skybound.
In this approach loss needs to be honoured. It will be ongoing, progressive and profound. Collective rituals of grieving, propitiation and gratitude are part of a loving relationship with the earth as our mother. Although it will long remain unclear how much we have lost, mourning cannot be permanently deferred by putting this distressing emotion into an ‘in-abeyance’ status.xvi
In this formulation psychic wholeness is not only about the integration of divergent intra-physic energies. Profound wholeness requires that the anthropogenic world view be de-centred. In other words, psychic relatedness is a holistic aspiration linked to the motif of eco-feminism more than to the narrower images of Eros put forward by Plato, Freud, Marcuse and, in a somewhat different way, Jung. In this sense, the ‘will to live’ is reformulated as affinity: the will to holistically connect and be at one.
In the other scenario, there is only scant hope. In this misogynistic worldview we will continue to beat our mother—to befoul, strip-mine and vandalise her. Disavowed programs of revenge, along with spontaneously erupting individual acts of revenge, will be enacted against her because we are angry that she is wounded and that she will not continue to allow us hurt her without sanction. This is not about the will to live, but its opposite.xvii Misogyny cannot understand that everything that lives exists interdependently. Nothing stands, or falls, on its own.
The existential condition of Eros, like yours and mine, is relationality. The us and the we, if the understanding goes beyond the anthropogenic, are part of, not separate from, a larger ecology. Adonis may have a seasonal life-cycle—a rhythm that climate collapse has disrupted—but he, like all beings, has a life that is in-relation. The grand seasonal tides may be disturbed, but however tragic this is, there will remain a larger living matrix.
Any engagement with the spectre of climate change immediately generates fear, even panic. The reflex is to hold one’s eyes shut rather than be swept into a whirlpool of dangerous feeling: the fear of being ungrounded or set loose from the conditions of life we take for granted.
Because climate collapse is a hyper-object, recognition promises to ‘do your head in’. It suggests a disturbance so holistic, so total—of every aspect of life, now and forever—that it can’t be countenanced. Taking in a fact like climate collapse is not like swallowing a single pill, however big and bitter. Rather, recognition will be an ongoing confrontation better likened to swallowing a hairball: a restless nasty that flexes perennially and sticks in one’s throat, producing a semi-continuous gag reflex and an ongoing feeling of suffocation. It is no wonder climate collapse provokes disbelief. Threatening to impel a jagged new totality, this prospect endangers consciousness. How can one take in the fact that the very conditions of life are metastasising? It is unfathomable that much of what we take for normality is imploding.
If we are to face what is to come we must understand the emotional and psychical effects of this hyper-object. Recognition of climate collapse is not only about the quantum and distribution of information. A complex psychical precondition must also be understood: a tumult of primary emotions—grief, horror, anger, despair, disbelief—entangled with the deepest of our own personal psychic realities and deep cultural frames will have to be accessed, and to a significant degree psychically processed if true recognition is to be achieved. This will be a considerable affective task.
The above is an abbreviated version of ‘Looking for Eros in the long hard rain of climate collapse’: see Paolo Azzone (Ed.) The Wounds of Our Mother Psychoanalysis – New Models for a Psychoanalysis in Crisis (ISBN 978-1-80356-882-9); in press.
With thanks to Michael Green who was especially generous in sharing his curiosity and deep knowledge of multiple theoretical traditions in the preparation of this article.
i Morton T. The ecological thought. Harvard University Press.
ii Wilden A. System and structure: Essays in communication and exchange, 2001, (2nd edition). Routledge.
iii Alexander C. A pattern language: towns, buildings, construction. Oxford University Press.1977
iv Macdonald, H. Vesper Flights. Grove Press, 2020.
v as quoted in Thubron C. The Hills of Adonis. Random House. 1968 p. 39
vi Raine K. The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine. Faber & Faber.
vii Furlong M. Denialism and misogyny. Arena Magazine (Fitzroy, Vic). 2015 Aug (137):35-6.
viii O’Brien M. The politics of reproduction. Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1981
ix Plumwood V. Feminism and the mastery of nature. Routledge. 1993
x Freud S. Moses and monotheism. Leonardo Paolo Lovari. 2016
xi Mitchell J. Psychoanalysis and feminism: A radical reassessment of Freudian psychoanalysis. Basic Books. See also Kahn S, Liefooghe A. Thanatos: Freudian manifestations of death at work. Culture and Organization. 2014 Jan 1;20(1):53-67.
xii Reich W. The mass psychology of fascism. Macmillan. 2013
xiii An emerging literature presses the case for a one-size-fits-all diagnosis such as ‘pre-traumatic stress syndrome’ or ‘ecological anxiety disorder’. Cianconi et al’s (2020) ‘The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review’ offers an in-house summary of such attempts. The attempt to formulate a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-type code and a standardised regime of treatment for what is a collective problem is rent-seeking and procrustean.
xiv Marcuse H. Eros and civilization. Routledge. 1998
xv Orbach S. Emotional literacy. Young Minds Magazine. 1998;33:12-3.
xvi Perlesz A, Kinsella G, Crowe S. Impact of traumatic brain injury on the family: A critical review. Rehabilitation Psychology. 1999 Feb;44(1):6.
xvii Kahn S, Liefooghe A. Thanatos: Freudian manifestations of death at work. Culture and Organization. 2014 Jan 1;20(1):53-67.
Robert DiNapoli, Dec 2022
In the end, the notion of solastalgia may prove more helpful looking forward, for it charts much of the difficult mental terrain that the world will have to traverse.