This summer I binged on disaster in my free time. I pored over videos of fierce floods sweeping through streets in Beijing. Of fires ripping through the Northwest Territories, Siberia, my own province of Nova Scotia and reducing Lahaina to ash. Of mudslides in Brazil, Italy and California. I know, not the kind of thing most people binge watch. Some might even say it is “disaster porn” and ill-advised. But I’ve never been “most people”. And much of my writing career has been devoted to analyzing catastrophe and the systems that fail us and the planet.
Throughout my binging it occurred to me that every consecutive year, for at least the last 10, has been one of breaking bad records. These are not necessarily bombshell revelations, but this time they hit me in a different way. Although this dire urgency of our time felt more tangible, there seems to be a bizarre phenomenon emerging in the West. A disconnect that feels almost psychotic.
The prevailing mantra of our corporate governed lives is to “check our mental health”. To do “self-care” and wellness exercises. And yet, how often are we told to check the mental health of our world? We can do every wellness practice we want to, but what good is it on a world whose arrangement of power is bent on distraction, ruthless exploitation, brutality of the most marginalized and a penchant for self-destruction? What self-care practice would suffice on a world bereft of coral reefs, rainforests, glaciers, ancient boreal forests, animals, insects, birds, fish, people?
I find myself in a strange place these days. A place between places. I often feel as if I am standing on a cliff, watching the storms gather on the horizon while families picnic in a park behind me, blissfully unaware of or not concerned about the danger looming ahead. Nonplussed by the ticking of the doomsday machine our species has meticulously constructed for ourselves and countless other species over centuries.
It is a kind of purposeful sleepwalking. A strained and resistant normalizing of what is anything but normal. I see people pantomiming a life that is about to come crashing down. People plying the shallows of a social media milieu where drowning in laugh emojis or platitudes is preferred to meaningful engagement. I won’t lie. I’ve done my share of pantomiming too. But every now and then I catch a glimpse in the mirror and peer through the façade. Every now and then I see the trepidation in someone else’s eyes. An existential dread. A living hourglass whose sand has reached single digits.
Thanks to millions of years of evolution, we’ve been conditioned to normalize. It is a way to survive. How ironic that our innate instinct of surviving calamity is also courting it? Despite the unraveling of our biosphere and the subsequent degradation of economic and social systems, we are still ladled with this myth of normalcy via advertisements, political speeches, popular entertainment and the prevailing culture.
We are sold a promise of well being even as inequity is growing exponentially between the uber-wealthy and the rest of us. The wellness industry is little more than capitalist predation under a cloak of fake concern. And buying into it perpetuates the myth that everything will be just fine as it is now.
To be sure, this age we live in is fraught with stark contradiction. Self-congratulatory “captains of industry,” surrounded by their fanbase of pathetic sycophants, reside within the fragile bubble of a new gilded age. They sail their yachts over seas choked with plastic and Sargasso weed. Blast off to the upper atmosphere to extol the reach of humanity in skies laced with climate warming carbon dioxide. Dive to the depths of an ocean being raped of its living treasures at a pace never witnessed before, to gawk at the sarcophagus of another ego-borne tragedy of a distant age.
All the while, influencers. celebrities and corporate shills try to convince us that we can “live our best lives” even as more people are holding 2 or 3 jobs and not making ends meet, millions are choosing between rent and food, millions more are making impossible decisions to cross scorching deserts or unforgiving seas for a better life or to simply survive. And shanty towns and encampments for the houseless are expanding around nearly every city. Many of us have been protected from these early impacts of climate change, civil conflict, famine, war and economic devastation. But collapse isn’t an even process in a world already saddled with deep inequality between classes, regions and countries.
I often find myself trying to come to terms with this nascent phase of collapse. Especially the part where so many of us in the West, myself included, appear transfixed by shadows on the wall. It is Plato’s allegory writ large. Only these shadows aren’t in any cave. They are in everyone’s pocket. A portable box full of holograms which all too often parody our reality. A tyranny of algorithms that filter out unpleasant things or “news”. I must ask; will we go out seeing the world for what it is and what it is becoming, or believing in an AI generated storyline about life and who we are?
Now, I understand the value of storytelling. Writers, whether their genre is fiction or non-fiction, are quite fond of them. They can reveal the complex layers that conceal our nature. They can illuminate the dark and expel ignorance. They can illustrate our interdependence, our empathy, and increase our understanding. But they can also shield us from the things that matter most. They can obscure reality. And when a story does that, it becomes dogma. And that makes me feel that the stories we tell ourselves matter now more than ever before in history.
Many of us feel overwhelmed and powerless. All we can do some days is muddle through. Many feel tired, stressed and sad. And we need to do what we can to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Our emotional, mental and spiritual well being are as important as our physical bodies. And the latter includes our economic, housing, nutritional and educational needs.
But corporate well-speak is a poison because it seeks to obscure the disease of our collective body. Even as it feigns comfort, it ultimately blames the individual for their mental breakdown. Its bromides are not a balm. They are a cover for its own malfeasance and inadequacy to address the human condition and our ecological crisis. And they often end up becoming yet another profit-seeking scheme for slick advertisers and pharmaceutical companies. The global wellness industry is worth an estimated $4.2 trillion dollars.
If we truly are careening toward existential disaster, I don’t want to be “well” with that. I want to go out celebrating and preserving everything that makes this life worth living. Birds, insects, animals, fish, whales, sharks, coral, reptiles, fungi, plants, trees, mountains, meadows, rivers, streams. And for us humans too. For art, culture, literature, music, theatre, good food. For excellent housing, education, healthcare, ecologically sensible transportation and a living wage. For play and leisure time, laughter and tender intimacy, as well as unhampered ecstasy and unrestrained fun. For community, human and non. I want solidarity more than a corporate approved version of self-care. Because wellness is utterly meaningless on a world that is being murdered. And I simply have no desire to be a well-adjusted corpse on a dead planet.