Hanging Separately: Some Commentary on PhilosphyTube’s Video Essay on Climate Grief

Oliver Thorn, aka PhilosophyTube, released a great video about “Climate Grief,” and I had a few thoughts on it. (You can watch it below.)

As 1) a millennial, 2) a semi-committed environmentalist, and 3) a UU, I couldn’t help but nod in agreement with his description of the climate crisis as a “hyperobject,” something inescapable and composed of a multitude of interrelated issues.

I’m grieving, too. Brazil’s government is burning acres of rainforest for soy production, something that might lead to a vicious cycle of carbon release. I mean, Jesus, I learned about the importance of the rainforest in elementary school.

It also describes perfectly why individual action is almost useless against the tragedy of the commons, and especially dangerous since the effects are an order of magnitude larger than what we can comprehend.

As an example, let me describe my lifelong struggle to be a vegetarian.

Animal product consumption is one of the drivers of climate change. To over-simplify for the sake of argument, more cows -> more methane release -> greater greenhouse effect -> higher average temperatures. The ethical argument is pretty sound: as a privileged, semi-affluent westerner, I shouldn’t be eating so much meat.

And yet, since my first period at 16 until recently, it’s been a struggle to maintain a vegetarian diet.

There’s the social pressure: climate denial and bullying at my rural community college; an emotionally abusive ex who wanted me to become Ron Swanson and hated my usual dinner of rice and beans; an office with regular events stocked with few vegetarian options and many non-vegetarian ones; social gatherings like weddings without meatless dishes.

There are some mental and emotional struggles, too. Manliness is often associated with eating meat, and even though I know it’s an aspect of toxic masculinity, I’ve had a hard time ridding myself of that notion. My anxiety flare-ups also increase my desire for comfort foods, many of which are meat-based. I never want to rock the boat with my “weird foods,” as my sister once described it.

There are also some practical issues, such as consuming enough plant protein for a many my size and getting enough B12. Those, at least, are solvable with research and experimentation.

At best, I’m vegetarian about half the time, usually at home.

If you see diet as a granular, isolated issue — a personal choice, let’s say — then you deny the hyper-object that it is a part of. That is Thorn’s point in his video essay. It’s not a group of singular, isolated issues, but an aggregate, complex one. Diet is related to climate change, but also to worker’s rights, which connects to undocumented workers, then immigration, and the trash fire that is contemporary American politics.

As a UU, and as a pantheist, and as someone who can deduce basic cause-and-effect, I understand the interconnectedness of all things. But it’s so easy to lose sight of that in contemporary culture, which values specialization, isolation, and intense categorization. It prevents us as individuals from making effective individual choices.

Collective problems require comprehensive, collective solutions.

I’ll continue to struggle being a semi-vegetarian-when-not-a-hindrance-to-anyone. But it won’t fix the Earth. And maybe once I’ve accepted my climate grief, I’ll truly commit to collective action at the ballot box.