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Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll

In the 2020 Hulu documentary “I Am Greta,” the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg explains how knowledge of global warming nearly killed her. After watching a film in school featuring “starving polar bears, flooding, hurricanes and droughts,” she says, she became depressed and anxious, stopped speaking, and “almost starved to death.”

We are getting accustomed to the idea that global warming feels bad, and this provides its own sense of comfort, as if our psychological distress proves that we are taking the problem seriously. “Civilians love to panic,” says an epidemiologist in Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “To Paradise,” which is partially set in an unbearably hot, totalitarian future Manhattan ruled by blinkered scientists. “Survival allows for hope — it is, indeed, predicated on hope — but it does not allow for pleasure, and as a topic, it is dull.” In our response to global warming, we resemble the frog who does not hop from the heating water until it’s too late. Except we are aware that the water is boiling; we just can’t imagine leaving our tumultuous little pot.

Perhaps one of the many creature comforts we must abandon to address global warming is the anesthetizing stream of global warming content itself. As David Wallace-Wells writes in his 2019 book “The Uninhabitable Earth,” climate-themed disaster films do not necessarily represent progress, as “we are displacing our anxieties about global warming by restaging them in theaters of our own design and control.” Even YouTube videos of climate conferences can slip into this role. As we frame an activist like Thunberg as a kind of celebrity oracle, we transfer our own responsibilities onto a teenager with a preternatural command of dismal statistics. We once said that we would stop climate change for the benefit of our children, but now we can tell ourselves that our children will take care of it for us.

The internet is often criticized for feeding us useless information, and for spreading disinformation, but it can enable a destructive relationship with serious information, too. If you’re a person who accepts the science, how much more do you really need to hear? The casual doomsaying of social media is so seductive: It helps us signal that we care about big problems even as we chase distractions, and it gives us a silly little tone for voicing our despair.

Most of all, it displaces us in time. We are always mentally skipping between a nostalgic landscape, where we have plenty of energy to waste on the internet, and an apocalyptic one, where it’s too late to do anything. It’s the center, where we live, that we can’t bear to envision. After all, denial is the first stage of grief.