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Understanding Doomerism: Psychology, the Climate Crisis, and Economic Inequality

Understanding Doomerism: Psychology, the Climate Crisis, and Economic Inequality

I tend to scoff at internet jokes that lament a specific year because I see them every year. 2016 stands out; American royalty Kylie Jenner proclaimed it as “the year of realizing things.” Climate scientists remember it as another year of record-high global temperatures. Everyone remembers it as the year Trump got elected.

2020’s reputation is far worse; COVID-19, ever-present police brutality against black people, raging wildfires in Australia and California, and the United States president’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power. 2020 got its own Netflix special satirizing its horrors.

After years of humorous finger-pointing at the date, we might have to face facts; the Christian year is not the problem. Rather, we are merely facing the consequences of economic policy obsessed with growth, systemic racism, and climate inaction.

What is Doomerism?

“Doomers” is the name given to those who take stock of the world’s problems and determine that solving them is impossible. Doomers and doomerism—their philosophy—are internet phenomena. By this, I mean, both words were coined by internet users (predominantly on 4chan and reddit in 2009) that were appropriated and reappropriated by other internet users (this time on tumblr, twitter, and instagram) and then became so widely used that internet media took note. “Doomerism” made it onto a few “Words of 2020” lists. 

The basic premise of doomerism is this: everything is bad and nothing good is ever going to happen again. It’s kind of nihilism and a kind of depression, but not really. It is one answer to perceived powerlessness, both an excuse to give up, an outlet of communal grief, and a “tough realist” persona that protects one from the disappointment that comes when things get worse. 

The Rhetoric Surrounding Doomerism 

Coverage of doomers generally follows this outline: Things are, globally, pretty bleak. Some young people feel hopeless—insert quotes from young representatives talking about climate change. Other articles cling to a sense of hope—insert statistics or information about various climate-focused tech projects making positive change.

This article is not that. This article will also not extensively investigate projects or organizations attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change. There are lots of articles that do that. For every article that outlines the “point of no return” there are three talking about salination plants, or other such tech miracles.

Instead, this article will talk about the psychology of doomerism. Coverage of internet trends can be condescending or wildly off base, adults interacting with attitudes and terms completely foreign to them. Social media, like all forms of communication, breeds its own dialects. Nuance gets lost in translation. 

When we focus on the psychology behind doomerism, we discover a much more familiar, albeit less buzzwordy phenom: depression. Doomerism is merely one climate-tinged manifestation of a broader mental health epidemic. 

The adoption of doomerism by young people demonstrates a clear link between the material realities of our world, and widespread mental illness. More than 40 million Americans suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder according to the American Association of Anxiety and Depression; given the pandemic, those seem like conservative numbers. 

Through this lens, we dislodge the idea that doomerism is some new internet fad, or even an irresponsible choice young people are making. Rather, doomerism is the logical response to 70 years of post-war conservative politics, unchecked capitalist greed, income inequality, voter suppression, corporate malfeasance, and poverty. 

The Psychology of Doomerism

I am a depressive, among other things, and my general response to overwhelming sensation is to shut down. Retreat, avoid, isolate. This is because I tend to catastrophize, a cognitive distortion defined by psychologists as a process wherein one infers apocalyptic conclusions from mundane setbacks or anxieties. 

Shutting down is a learned trauma response, a protective behavior. It’s useful to get one through traumatic experiences—your brain neatly packages up terrible events to be dealt with at a later date. However, shutting down, or the “freeze” response is incredibly dysfunctional in response to the “real world”—a world no longer colored by the abuses of the past.

Doomerism is a type of catastrophizing, a hyper-focused threat response to a potentially apocalyptic future.

Doomerism is tricky, because the catastrophizing thought “the world is ending” is not wholly conspiratorial. The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicts that we could reach the “tipping point” of 2 degrees celsius warming, or the point at which we have done irreversible damage to the planet, within the next decade. 

A reddit post entitled “notes from a doomer” opens like this: “Sometimes I wonder how we are not all walking around in a state of pure unquellable panic.” Answer: we can’t. Our bodies can’t sustain “pure unquellable panic” for long amounts of time. We either calm down or shut down, freeze. Doomer is the name given to those who’ve shut down and doomerism is the name given to their online discourse and philosophy.

Doomerism and the Climate Crisis

Doomerism distinguishes itself from old-school philosophical anxieties like nihilism with its contemporary relevance as a manifestation of climate anxiety. As early as 2008 the word “doomer” was used in internet forums where members discussed societal collapse fueled, ironically, by a lack of oil. That particular doomsday remains on the horizon, accompanied by innumerable other threats that have spawned in its wake. (Water, arable land, breathe-able air).

Early doomers were apocalypse ready. They built underground bunkers and glorified wilderness preparedness. They made themselves hard in preparation for hard times. 

Modern doomers, in contrast, represent capitalism and climate burnouts. Their unofficial mascot is the “doomer guy” cartoon—a play on wojak or feels guy, of a man smoking a cigarette and wearing a beanie. His melancholic expression makes him a suitable reaction image to represent despair in response to mild setbacks or to catastrophe. 

Though but a crude line drawing, doomer guy is a fairly accurate representation of the doomer demographic—that is, 20something white people. (There are variations for sure; some doomers are world-weary climate activists whose decades of work with little payoff have made them deeply nihilistic). 

It’s not surprising that most doomers are young people just beginning to make their way in the world. Those born in the mid-90’s have experienced a lifetime of war, ecological collapse, economic disaster after economic disaster, and the global embrace of right-wing authoritarians. 

That doomerism is a posture predominantly adopted by white people points to the inherent privilege in giving up. 

Privilege and Whiteness: Who can Afford to be a Doomer?

Jonathan Franzen, whose books explore white mundanity, wrote an article for the New Yorker that has been read as a doomerism manifesto. The essay premises that a climate apocalypse is inevitable, and that we must “get real” in order to prepare for it.

Franzen’s realism is the alternative to what he sees as a willfully naive optimism. However, Franzen’s tough love is revealing; he views human nature as inherently selfish: “Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me,” he wrote. 

Not all human beings face the consequences of climate change at the same rate, nor will they in the future. Indigenous, poor, and Black communities in America bear the brunt of climate disasters. 

Across the globe, nations that generate the least emissions face the most urgent threats, including food-insecurity made worse by unreliable rains, higher temperatures, and lower crop yields. These nations are predominantly in the global south, and have often been sites of colonialist exploitation. Wealthy nations in the global north have spent decades fueling the hyper-consumptive and high-emissions-producing lifestyles of their citizens through predatory investments and loans and monopolizing the natural resources of poorer nations. 

Doomerism, Capitalism, and the Texas Power Outage

Global capitalism and free trade were the crowning jewels of late twentieth century economic policy. Neither were designed to factor in climate protections. Capitalism will always choose profit over the planet. 

Think of Texas’ recent climate nightmare. Freezing temperatures decimated public infrastructure, leaving many throughout the state without heat, water, or power. At least 21 people died. Freezing temperatures aren’t a once-in-a-century phenomenon for Texas—the last freeze was in 2011, and the last freeze that rivalled this one was in 1989. 

The devastation wrought was not by a serendipitous weather event, but by the state’s laissez-faire attitude towards infrastructure. As mutual aid groups rallied to provide heat, water, and survival tips to their communities, state cops guarded dumpsters full of expiring food, power companies redirected grid energy to wealthy neighborhoods, and hotels price-gouged to take advantage of public desperation. 

This wasn’t a mistake; the system—the literal electric grid and the laws regulating it—worked as designed. The lights in wealthy neighborhoods stayed on. 

Wealthy people aren’t forced to contend with climate disaster in the ways that poor, Indigenous, or Black people are. They can afford high home insurance costs, or costs associated with natural disasters. These expenses don’t cripple them or send them tumbling down spirals of debt that so often can lead to criminalization. 

The interests of the wealthy are prioritized by state and local governments, who will shell out funds to mitigate coastal erasure that threatens beach houses, or fix earthquake-cracked roads in wealthy neighborhoods first. Nuclear plants are never located in wealthy neighborhoods, and neither are pipelines, though both show up on Indigenous land or in communities of color. 

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s climate proposal was to have citizens use their Universal Basic Income to “move to higher ground”. It’s a doomer proposal: the climate crisis is beyond our control, but maybe you can buy your way to safety. 

In Defense of Doomers

Who can begrudge those seeking relief through commiseration? We can point to the privilege inherent in some doomer posturing (you don’t have to care because the climate crisis won’t affect you or your loved ones immediately) and we should. But doomerism is not an outlandish or opaque internet phenomenon. 

The Climate Crisis and Mental Illness

Rather, it’s symptomatic of widespread depression inextricable from the state of the world. As it stands, the climate crisis will bring untold horror—famine, drought, fires, receding coastlines, floods, refugee crises, international conflict over scarce resources, all in the lifetimes of people under 25. 

Compounding the climate crisis are mountains of student loan debt, medical debt, limited access to affordable housing, an increasing gap between the rich and the poor and police brutality.

The world young people are entering into is not kind to them—it is barely survivable. Who has the time to organize mass political will? Who has the energy, after working a double? Still, the burden is placed on young people to save the world. It’s our future, right? 

Many young people have taken the burden on. Young people founded groups like the Sunrise Movement; Greta Thunberg addressed the UN at just 16 years old; survivors of the Parkland massacre founded a movement to fight gun violence. And the media goes wild; we love the romantic narrative of a young hero. Didn’t we grow up admiring the likes of Katniss Everdeen? Who will save the world if not young people? 

Young people chafe under the pressure. We’ll criticize each other for continuing to eat meat, for not showing up to the climate action, for shopping at Zara. We are so angry with each other for our moral failures, each poor choice thrusting us in the direction of apocalypse. Doomerism relieves young people from overwhelming moral imperatives that demand total attention: if climate change is going to destroy everything in a few years anyway, why not enjoy that chicken sandwich? 

Adult journalists should not be surprised by doomerism. If we adopt a stance like Franzen’s, if we acknowledge that the state of the climate crisis is not promising, who could begrudge young people their hopelessness? 

The business of living is less accessible than it has been in more than half a century, and on top of that much of the world might be unlivable in the future. We are working more and earning less. Most of our time is dedicated to selling our under-valued labor. Now we have to be radical climate activists in order to convince our government not to kill us and all future generations? 

Doomerism, the Climate Crisis, and Economic Inequality

Instead of making any legitimate effort at solving the climate crisis, our government wants us to believe that the likes of Bill Gates, whose sole purpose in life has been the accumulation of an unconscionable amount of wealth, will save us with some tech miracle. 

Adults, or people with excess wealth, time, and energy, should bear the brunt for solving the climate crisis for us. The trouble is that most of these people have a vested interest in the status quo; another way of thinking about this is that many of these people have investment portfolios in fossil fuels or projects exploiting the natural resources of the world to feed hyper consumption in the global north. Many wealthy people are now trading water futures, enriching themselves on the future scarcity of the most precious natural resource on the planet. 

100 companies are responsible for 71% of fossil fuel emissions. None of these people can be shamed into saving the planet, not when there’s money to be made. 

Doomerism coverage obsessed with young people’s abdication of their responsibility to the planet misses the ways in which doomerism functions as a posture, a feeling. One can both feel deeply pessimistic about humanity’s chances to forestall the worst effects of the climate crisis and make greener individual choices in daily life. 

Still, some people say, doomerism disillusions young people from building political will strong enough to catalyze the kind of systemic change—change that challenges entrenched economic interests largely responsible for environmental crises—most doomers believe is crucial. 

However, to believe that online discourse is the root of mass political disengagement is to be willfully ignorant not only of centuries of profit-driven climate exploitation, but also of nearly every material reality facing young people today.