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  • Ecological Grief and Anthropocene Horror
  • Timothy Clark (bio)

Today every question is already the question of everything.

—Maurice Blanchot

This paper contrasts what it schematizes as "ecological grief" with a broader, more common but conceptually elusive phenomenon of "Anthropocene horror." "Ecological grief" was described in this issue's call for papers as "an emotional experience brought on by the actual or anticipated loss of cherished natural spaces, ecosystems, species, etc. caused by environmental change" (see Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018a). For the purposes of this exercise I take "ecological grief" to be grief for the loss or threatened destruction of a specific landscape, place or species, as opposed to what might be called "Anthropocene horror." This phrase is used to name a sense of horror about the changing environment globally, usually as mediated by news reports and expert predictions, giving a sense of threats that need not be anchored to any particular place, but which are both everywhere and anywhere. "Anthropocene horror" is something familiar to environmental activists of various kinds but which is now being experienced by an increasing portion of the world population. This paper tries to articulate some of its most striking features.

In an earlier study, I suggested the concept of "Anthropocene disorder" (2015).1 My sketch of "Anthropocene horror" essentially reiterates that argument, but with the phrase altered to stress the affective aspects of the condition, especially its sense of powerlessness, in accordance with the overall focus of this issue of American Imago. The global environmental crisis (usually loosely called the "Anthropocene") is being experienced as a source of many different affects for different people and contexts. Nevertheless, an emergent sense of "Anthropocene horror" (AH) seems distinctive enough for it to be worth trying to delineate as a specific affective spectrum, even if experience [End Page 61] on that spectrum ranges from one of intense despair about the future, at its most extreme, to a mere sense of unease, or even affects associated with denial. All these are variously felt by various people, or even by the same person at different times.2

AH is being lived as a pervasive affect in daily life, not as an easily compartmentalized emotion. It need not be a response to some obviously perceptible assault on the natural environment, but may even or perhaps especially affect someone living in and surrounded by a "developed" infrastructure. "Grief" may still suggest a lack of implication in the loss, but "horror" is more appropriate when part of the sadness at issue is from living in a context of latent environmental violence and feeling personally trapped in its wrongs.

Intense ecological grief and its attendant identity crises tend to be suffered by people who are the most vulnerable to environmental change for reasons of poverty, social status or mode of livelihood. In a paper subtitled "Understanding Ecological Grief," Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis (2018b) refer to the forms of grief undergone by people in the far north of Canada and in the Western Australian wheat belt, both facing severe impoverishment and a collapse of their way of life as a result of climate change. Attending this derangement of old norms and dependencies is a proliferation of anxiety disorders, and what has been described as a paradoxical kind of PTSD in advance (Grose, 2019). AH, on the other hand, may already affect anyone anywhere. As an affect in everyday life, AH is by far the more complex and conceptually elusive of the two states, and clearly the less immediately painful.

The context of AH is even that of a certain lack of realizable feeling. Henri Lefèbvre criticizes the loose way modern people continually mistake basic reality: "the conflation of the terms 'planet,' 'earth,' 'worldwide,' 'world' and 'universe' is [...] rather ridiculous" (1995, p. 254). Lefèbvre was writing in the early 1960s, but this point about the weakness of our conceptions can read even more provocatively in the twenty-first century. It underlines the fact that we have no immediate felt sense of the earth as a finite planet in our basic constitution or perception. Unlike our sense of distance in those realms we can see, hear or walk through, that the earth is a finite...