Endgame Emotions: The Melting of Time, the Mourning of the World
By Mikkel Krause FrantzenSeptember 23, 2023
If there was only one of anything, it would be the end of the world.
—Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 1985
It is the feelings bound up with the circumstances of living then, that make one happy or unhappy; but these feelings are not arbitrarily determined. They are not put over or effaced by suggestion. They can be changed only by a radical transformation of the circumstances themselves. But to change circumstances, they must first be known.
—Simone Weil, “Factory Work,” 1946
EVERY SUMMER IS a déjà vu, only worse. Remember the summer of 2018? Or the summer of 2023: at the beginning of June, New York City had the worst air quality of any city on Earth, as smoke from wildfires in Canadian forests blew south. Everyone in the city suddenly became smokers, even if they were not, inhaling the equivalent of six cigarettes on a daily basis. Those of us who were fortunate enough not to be there saw the images from the so-called EarthCam, images that were supposed to show the famous skyline of Manhattan but didn’t, couldn’t.
Air pollution is getting worse and worse. “Everything we burn, we breathe,” as David Wallace-Wells noted two years ago. Moving north, climate scientists recently found that it is now too late to save Arctic summer ice, and the month of July saw the highest global temperatures for 120,000 years. Further east, an unprecedented El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean is anticipated in the second half of 2023.
Remember last year? There were droughts in most of Europe, at the horn of Africa, in Mexico, and throughout the United States (the Colorado River experienced the worst drought in 1,200 years). The biggest news story of the summer of 2022, however, was Pakistan, where floods caused by an extreme heat wave and a long monsoon swept through the country, resulting in devastating losses and a national emergency. Natural it was not.
In nearby China, drought transformed the country’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang, into a dry, cracked shadow of its former self, with Reuters reporting: “‘It is just climate change,’ said Zhang, a 51-year-old who used to work for the local fishery administration. ‘It happens. It is normal.’”
But this is not normal, nor is it, as many newspapers and experts would have it, a new normal. Why? Because we are dealing with cumulative effects, so conditions will still get worse from here—even long after the level of global emissions of CO2 reaches zero, if that ever happens (a big if).
As the 2022 article “Climate Endgame: Exploring Catastrophic Climate Change Scenarios” shows, climate change feedbacks, known and unknown, may in the very worst case “amplify to an irreversible transition into a ‘Hothouse Earth’ state.” Think the first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for The Future, where the combination of high temperature and high humidity (the so-called wet-bulb temperature) causes mass death on a gargantuan scale. “How bad could climate change get?” the article asks. The answer: Really bad, unimaginably bad (even for a writer of science fiction).
This is also what the 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights in excruciating detail. The IPCC Working Group II speaks openly about the cascading or compounding effects of global warming. The authors note the dangers, sometimes to the point of painting a pitch-black picture of our present predicament. “Challenges,” they write, in an almost laconic voice, “include the degree to which time is running out, there is no central authority, those seeking the solutions are also causing the problem, and the present is favoured over the future.”
Such is the climate endgame of the historical present.
In 1957, Samuel Beckett premiered a play called, simply, Endgame (in French: Fin de partie). Endgame, a concept that comes from chess (as Beckett, an avid player, of course knew), refers to the final phase of play, where the outcome and result of the game normally is decided. In Beckett’s play, however, nothing is decided:
HAMM: And the horizon? Nothing on the horizon?
CLOV: (Lowering the telescope, turning towards Hamm, exasperated): What in God’s name could there be on the horizon? (Pause.)
HAMM: The waves, how are the waves?
CLOV: The waves? (He turns the telescope on the waves.) Lead.
HAMM: And the sun?
CLOV: (Looking.) Zero.
There’s nothing new under the sun, no, and nothing on the horizon either. The waves are like lead. At one point, Hamm shouts that the sun is “Grey!” “Like time, the temporal itself is damaged,” Theodor Adorno writes in a famous commentary on the play; “saying that it no longer exists would already be too comforting.” Beckett and Adorno wrote in the apocalyptic aftermath of World War II, but their views are still useful for understanding the contemporary climate endgame. Only, now it’s worse: the catastrophe is not in the past (the Holocaust) but in the present and future, if unevenly distributed. It’s more literal too. Beckett’s drama is partly metaphorical, but today the horizon of the future is more or less gone, the sun—not only in New York but also in many other cities across the planet—is gray, the ocean is dead, lead-like.
It is also true today that the temporal itself has been damaged, as Adorno writes. Time is broken, or better yet, it’s melting, to borrow a concept from my fellow Danish scholar Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther. Winther develops this idea to capture the radical merging and entanglement of temporal scales in the contemporary global world: intergenerational time, cultural time, human evolutionary time, and geological deep time. Through the concept of time-melting, it becomes possible to anatomize the relationship between one’s personal family lineage within one or two millennia, 500 years of colonialism and capitalism, and four billion years of oceanic time. The approach is thus directly related to what eco-Marxists call the metabolic rift, in that this rift also entails a temporal rupture between natural time and capitalist time, between the growth of, say, trees or chickens and capital’s constant “attempts to shorten its turnover time and maximize valorization in a given time” (to quote Kohei Saito’s 2023 book Marx in the Anthropocene).
The point is that, as Winther writes in an unpublished manuscript, “what is normally geological time has become cultural, inter-generational and personal time”—and vice versa. This is how time is melting in 2023. The point is also to note that the climate endgame has not only its own time but also its own structure of feelings. I call this Endgame emotions.
But let’s zoom out for a moment to say that the ecological crisis is a health issue. Air pollution is one example (think Cancer Alley in Louisiana). Microplastics are another example. In 2012, and again in 2017, scientists tried to find ants that didn’t have plastic additives embedded in their skin, and they … couldn’t. Not even in the most remote places on Earth. As for our species, microplastics have recently, for the first time in history, been found in human blood. The climate crisis has metabolized into our own bodies, showing that human health and environmental health go hand in hand.
Yet if climate change accumulates in our bodies, it accumulates in our minds and brains too, and in our nervous systems. It sediments as a generational experience. One study, published in Lancet Planet Health in December 2021, found that 59 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were very or extremely worried about climate change. Generation Dread, it has been called. And the aforementioned IPCC report states that “[i]ncreased risks for mental health and well-being are associated with changes caused by the impacts of climate change on climate-sensitive health outcomes and systems.”
We know this already, if not from the data, then from our lived experiences. We are living through a period of ruin and rage. Or, in the vernacular of the IPCC, a time of “loss and damage.” Obviously, time-melting is also a cause. It causes confusion, grief, anxiety, despair. Endgame emotions—muddy, messy, sticky. One day you are freaking out in the supermarket, the next day you are trying to stay calm in front of your kids, then you are crying yourself to sleep.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a scientist, an activist, or just an all-too-human being. We all know these feelings. We all know the feeling of doomscrolling, sitting there in front of the screen, reading news about the latest catastrophes, or looking at images of yet another dead albatross with plastic spilling out of its guts. (As one Twitter wag remarked: “How do you know if you’re doom scrolling or just keeping up with the world’s current events?”)
And when we are dealing with images of climate change, these are almost invariably images of loss: loss of land; loss of nature; loss of species; loss of life, human and nonhuman. Because we are dealing with loss, we are also dealing with grief. The ecological condition is one of mourning.
Of course, as Joshua Trey Barnett observes in his 2022 book Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence, “[b]eings and ways of being come into and pass out of existence. Landscapes and ecosystems emerge and wither away.” To live is to lose, one might say. Grief is a function of life, loss the cost of connecting to what is not you.
But there is loss, and then there is loss. There are the losses that are “natural” and necessary, inherent to the circle of life (think The Lion King). And then there are the losses that are not—losses inherent to the capitalist machine of extraction, exploitation, and exhaustion of all possible human and nonhuman resources. Losses that could be avoided, or could have been avoided. For, in many instances, especially with regards to the biodiversity crisis and the sixth mass extinction, it is already too late. The losses have already occurred, and they are irreversible. But they need not have happened. So many species did not die a so-called natural death. These are the losses we are dealing with here, the losses that we mourn.
But the thing is, this grief is not abnormal. It is a perfectly legitimate response to ecological loss. A “normal” reaction to “abnormal” conditions.
The thing is, this grief harbors, at its core, a challenge to traditional Western notions of mourning and conventional conceptions of mental well-being. “For Inuit communities in the Inuit Land Claim Settlement Area of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada,” Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo note in an article titled “Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief,” “the land is foundational to mental health.”
The thing is, this grief is not universal. People do not lose in the same way; they do not mourn in the same way. Obviously, this is not the first time in history that unfathomable losses have occurred, nor is the feeling new that an ending has been reached. To some Black and Indigenous cultures and communities, as a wide range of scholars have noted (see, for example, Claudia Rankine’s 2015 essay “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” and adrienne maree brown’s 2021 speculative novella Grievers), it all feels like déjà vu: such communities have already experienced the end of the(ir) world before, by way of the oppression and dispossession of settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and/or genocidal capitalism. There is no question that white people in the Global North are in that sense very late to the party. We are not in the same proverbial boat, nor, in a certain sense, living on the same planet …
For this reason, we must continually ask who “we” are. To whom does this personal pronoun refer? Who does it include—and not include? This necessitates a reflection on one’s own position within the global class structure and mediascape. It requires that one avoid the temptation of being too caught up in the circulation of sensationalist or spectacular images of disasters, of being engulfed by the contemporary doom loop of mass media, which has the (deliberate) effect of drawing the viewer’s attention to the symptoms, and not the causes, of global warming. We need, then, to attend to other images, and to attend to the images otherwise. This pertains to the privileged position of the viewer in the Global North. Addressing this problem in 2019, T. J. Demos pointed to, in his essay “The Agency of Fire: Burning Aesthetics,”
images of beautiful destruction, where the photographer, or more likely cell-phone user, positions themselves in the thick of things, so that the viewer, distanced, protected—at least temporarily so—can witness destruction as a sublime aesthetic object. It’s an “IPOcalypse” brought to you by Apple, Facebook, and Google.
Sometimes it is impossible to mourn: we cannot mourn—but we cannot not mourn. I mean, what is the alternative? And don’t sing that old song to me, “Don’t mourn, organize!” As if grief is not part of organizing, not part of activism. As if emotions are irrational and useless, and we need to be rational, logical, adult activists. As if we can just shut down our feelings, our nervous systems, our affective responses to the endgame. As if we can control our own emotions (we can’t), as if our emotions are ours to own (they aren’t).
In other words, grieving climate change is complicated. I was in conversation with Judith Butler earlier this year, in which the overall topic was climate sorrow. One of their brilliant insights was that we mourn ecological losses but we don’t always know how to mourn these losses. We feel grief but we don’t necessarily know how to express it. We don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know what it does to us. Now, normally when you lose someone, the loss is singular and final (of course, it is still incredibly complicated and painful). But in the case of climate change, you lose and you lose and you lose. The losses are piling up: they are never-ending and ongoing. You have not lost; you are in process of losing.
The problem, then, with ecological grief is that the losses of climate change are unfolding, unfurling; it is a loss without permanence, which makes the process harder but also more hopeful in a way, because you haven’t lost everything yet, there’s still something left. Something that you are about to lose, may still lose, but that is not a given, the loss not complete, and the process not irreversible, though it may be very close to being so.
This is where grief comes into contact, however tangentially, with hope. Because all is not lost, there is still something left. At the risk of oversimplifying a process that is both dialectical and complex, you start with grief, mourning what’s lost—and then comes rage, fighting for what’s left (which in no way means that you at any time overcome grief, that the loss of someone/something you loved is not always with you). Fighting against dystopia, fighting for utopia.
While there is an inherent risk, as numerous thinkers have rightfully pointed out, that ecological grief remains a white Western structure of feeling, that it emerges and revolves around a position of privilege (the “‘IPOcalypse’ brought to you by Apple, Facebook, and Google”), grief does have the potential to reorient us towards the world, the Earth and each other. As queer theorist Sophie Lewis wrote during the pandemic, having just lost her mother:
Grief whirls like wind. It often does not go away even after the same twenty conversations have been had with patient friends. It tires, maddens, frustrates. Or it reorients desires, sometimes fruiting in the form of lush anti-productivity. Grief can bring both anhedonia and joy, fug and lucidity, desire and depression, to an alienated life.
When our grief has structural causes, it can be the ground of struggle and a utopian political force.
But how? How can we speak of utopian political forces when our situation on the global chessboard is as bad as it admittedly is? In a sense, our current situation is reminiscent of zugzwang—a German word that denotes a situation in which you don’t want to move because any move you make will only worsen your situation, but you cannot not move; you must move and thus make matters worse. I am not talking about politicians and CEOs here; proponents of green capitalism; or, to paraphrase the IPPC, those who are seeking solutions which are either part of the problem they pretend to solve or creating new problems, bigger problems: geoengineering, so-called nature-based solutions, a million Teslas. Ecological zugzwang—isn’t this the perfect metaphor for our present predicament?
This realization, however, should not lead to paralysis. There are plenty of problems, but we need to ask ourselves: problems compared to what, exactly? And the grief we are dealing with here does have a structural cause—the loss of the Earth; the loss of land, of life. What we have seen in 2023 alone is that activists have mobilized around such losses, from the lignite mines in Lützerath in Germany to the forests in Atlanta, where a nonbinary environmental activist was killed by the police. It is, then, not a matter of choice: whether one wants to use this loss and this grief or not. It is there, everywhere we look, everywhere we go. Ask Antigone or any activist and they will tell you: emotions—what I call endgame emotions—are inherent in the struggle, pointing in the direction of both dystopia and utopia. Any ecological struggle is based on grief. Riveting loss often both precedes and propels revolutionary action. It is as simple as that.
The struggle is a matter of mobilization but also of coping. Some psychologists suggest that getting angry is the best way to cope with ecological grief and climate anxiety. Anger can be beneficial for individual well-being and can also foster engagement in collective endeavors aimed at tackling climate change. This is useful. Sometimes anger is just feelings in search of a fight—don’t necessarily fight it!
What is useless is a despair that goes too deep and, especially, the cynicism and pessimism that, more often than not, come from a position of privilege. We shall allow ourselves to be emotional killjoys, ecological killjoys—a powerful tool in and of itself, which may take the form of ruining the conversation at dinner parties, blocking flights in airports and thus delaying people’s holidays, etc. Yet, as Rebecca Solnit insists, “we can’t afford to be climate doomers.” Yes, as one activist friend said to me, there is exhaustion and burnout in climate activism, but let’s not forget that there are also ecstatic experiences of pure, revolutionary desire, collective moments of exhilarating joy.
Meanwhile, the business of business goes on. Taking advantage of the ecological crisis, inflation, and surging energy prices, the five big oil companies—Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and TotalEnergies—made a profit of $195 billion last year.
Meanwhile, the luxury cruise ship Icon Of The Seas—five times the size of the Titanic and with room for more than 5,000 passengers—is expected to set sail next January.
Meanwhile, there are more airplanes in the sky than ever before (with soccer star Neymar boarding a private Boeing 747 flight from Paris to Saudi Arabia).
Meanwhile, and speaking of Saudi Arabia, Danish architect Bjarke Engels is cooperating with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the process of creating a highly futuristic project in the Saudi Arabian desert. In a video commercial for the project, a soft voice tells viewers: “We can elevate life because we have a blank canvas. This is not business as usual. This is the new future. This is NEOM.”
Such examples show that capital is busy building its own utopias amid the dystopian reality of the climate endgame. We can’t leave the playing field to Shell and Saudi Arabia. We need to counter by creating our own utopias, emotionally and ecologically sustainable utopias. And our feelings are not only a useful but also an unavoidable part of this process. This is not about psychologizing, individualizing, or pathologizing the problem of global warming; a mindfulness app for your ecological grief or eco-anxiety will not make desertification disappear. But it is about taking seriously the emotions of the endgame. If we don’t do that —if the Left does not do that that—other movements will certainly do so. Climate doomers are one thing, but climate fascists are entirely another. They will not pass up the opportunity to channel these negative emotions in a completely different direction, using them to recruit new members in their struggle to save the planet and the white race.
It is time to leave the leftist dream of bypassing emotional struggles, reproductive labors, and practices of care and jump straight onto the barricade where the real action is supposed to happen. Paraphrasing Johanna Hedva’s 2020 essay “Sick Woman Theory,” we can also ask: How do you blow up a pipeline if you can’t get out of bed?
It is time to see that time itself is melting, it is ticking, but it is still too soon to stop the clock and resign. And one thing is certain: if the endgame at the edge of ecocide and extinction is not felt—intensely and in a myriad of ways—it does not matter anyway.
Mikkel Krause Frantzen is an associate professor in environmental aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen and Humboldt Fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin. He is co-PI of the research project OIKOS: A Cultural Analysis of Care and Crisis in the 21st Century, and the author of Going Nowhere, Slow (2019) and Klodens Fald (2021).
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