Greek mythology can be helpful when trying to make sense of the climate crisis. The imminent threat of total ecological collapse carries a certain mythological air, with its sweeping scale and embedded warnings against hubris. Hubris, after all, landed us here—that mortal weakness that brings individuals to ruin and topples empires, that fixes in us the delusion that power, once obtained, is permanent. That no man or god or gale-force wind can snatch it away.
There are several allusions to myth—Greek and otherwise—in The World as We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate, a new anthology co-edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen. One of the most striking is in the science journalist Meera Subramanian’s essay, “Leap.” In it, she retells the story of the giant Antaeus, who channeled the power of his parents—Poseidon, god of the sea, and Gaia, goddess of the earth—to challenge unsuspecting passersby to wrestling matches, believing he could never lose. It isn’t until Heracles comes along that he is finally defeated. Antaeus’s strength came from contact with the earth; sever him from it, Heracles realized, and his power would dissolve. Heracles lifted Antaeus off the ground, and “the giant’s strength drained out of his suspended body like an ice cube melting in the sun.” In the end, Antaeus dies pitifully.
The Antaeus myth is one of many that eerily parallel our current predicament. Our power also comes from the Earth—in the form of fossil fuels, the global food supply, breathable air, potable water—and we, too, can be severed from it. But Subramanian interprets the myth as an actionable lesson. Antaeus “touched the earth to redouble his strength and then wasted it accosting strangers,” she writes. “We could draw on the same earth force, but instead of using it to fight each other, use it to refill our pens and recharge our minds and repower our worlds with energy spun from light and wind.”
Summoning the possibility, as Subramanian does, of a tangible solution to the climate crisis—one that springs forth from the same humans who created it—is perhaps unduly optimistic. But it speaks to the contradictory nature of climate anxiety. To write about the connection humans have to the changing climate, one must nurse two competing anxieties at once: We are both willing participants in and at the mercy of the systems that are destroying us. As the authors of this collection share personal stories about global collapse, a tricky question materializes. How do we think about the idea of individual responsibility when its relationship to climate change is so slippery?
In “From This Valley, They Say, You Are Leaving,” the novelist Lydia Millet, like Subramanian, writes about the deaths of great giants—in her case, the saguaros of the Sonoran Desert, where Millet has lived for much of her adult life. These huge, anthropomorphic cacti, which have come to symbolize the American Southwest, are vulnerable to changes in rainfall and rising temperatures. Their deaths—which Millet captures with the same measured pathos found in her novels—are especially tragic, given how long one takes to mature, and how few are growing as the desert climate becomes harsher. “I’ve seen several giants die on my land,” she writes, “among them one with dozens of arms that was likely a couple of centuries old.”
Alongside these observations, however, Millet must also consider the ways in which her presence there leaves its own mark. Her “contentment and career” depend on carbon-heavy travel, and though she describes her efforts to keep mostly native foliage on her property and to install sustainable energy solutions in her home, she also describes her lifestyle as a “gift of fossil fuels.” “I’m a conservationist who worries about carbon all the time,” she writes, “but can’t live in her private haven without leaving a heavy footprint.”
Other writers in The World as We Knew It find themselves caught in this same tension between vulnerability and culpability, passivity and action. In “Iowa Bestiary,” the writer Melissa Febos explores her relationship to the wildlife of Iowa, where she relocated during the pandemic—a move that prompts her to reflect on the comforts afforded to her by her citizenship in a greedy, imperialist nation. In “A Brief History of Breathing,” the novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad tells us that his aunt carries an air-quality detector to measure the sometimes dangerously high number of airborne particulates as she makes her way around Bangkok. “I often confront my own complicity,” he then writes, “as I am fed into the slow, perpetual circulation of Bangkok traffic.”
Even in essays that skew strongly toward despair, powerlessness never fully eliminates personal responsibility. In “Mobbing Call,” the novelist Tracy O’Neill grapples with her feelings about not having children. “I would have brought into being a consciousness who would experience terror for which I could offer no consolation,” she writes, imagining the compounding effects of global warming in the decades to come—more disease, more flooding, more heat. Shortly after, she cites another reason to not reproduce: a famous Lund University study, which found that childbearing left a significantly larger carbon footprint than, say, owning a car or eating a meat-rich diet. These two arguments against childbearing—hypothetical fear and actual responsibility—reveal that same contradictory anxiety. Though we are victims of the forces of climate change, we must also make sacrifices to stop them.
Near the end of her essay, Subramanian writes, “We have returned to the times of mythology, and we need new stories to survive.” The World as We Knew It is an attempt to write these stories, to hold a mirror up to our lives at a crucial moment in our collective history, and reflect the slew of compounding, often conflicting fears that characterize it. In many ways, storytelling while on the precipice of global devastation is no different from storytelling at any moment in our history. Delve into ancient myths and you’ll quickly realize that the human condition has always been marked by an uneasy awareness that even the most rigid systems are subject to the whims of fate.
What might distinguish our time is the compendium of frightening evidence that shows us what those systems are and how long they might have left. Infrastructure is collapsing faster than we can repair it; shifting climates are becoming less hospitable to us and more hospitable to disease-carrying insects; food security is at risk. “In this unfolding context, small things take on terrifying and uncertain correlations,” writes the novelist Delia Falconer in “Signs and Wonders,” in which she deftly compares modern climate scientists to the Roman augurs, who once watched the behaviors and movements of animals and read into them portents of doom. “It’s as if … in trying to see into the future we’re returning to the dread speculation of the past.” Falconer’s point is that, even with all of this evidence, our era is filled with uncertainty. It’s this uncertainty that makes our fears feel impossible to act on, that keeps us locked in contradictions and diffuse worry.
Very occasionally, in the anthology, those anxieties are replaced by something else—a sense of peace and beauty that springs forth not despite the horrors of our world but because of them. “If I’m on an elevated highway near sunset,” says Sudbanthad, speaking of the same Bangkok traffic that fills him with such guilt, “I can marvel at the orange-hued haze that makes the city look like a shimmering mirage in the desert.” These are the moments when stories transform from fragile mirrors into shields. When our power and powerlessness can coexist without us feeling the paralyzing weight of their illogic. When living on a dying planet seems possible.