It was startlingly bright, the gloom interrupted by diffuse white sunlight filtering through the fog.
My family and I were visiting Northern California in the winter of 2005. Peering from a lookout point by the coast on a late afternoon, still visible under the slow advance of the heavy evening marine layer was an expanse of kelp forests. Even from above, it seemed infinite, tangled and sprawling along the bay. Underwater, the kelp grew up to 100 feet tall, a dense submarine forest teeming with life in the cold, clear waters off the North Coast.
I remember my sister, wide-eyed, in quiet awe, asking our parents, “Is that free kelp?”
Earlier in the day, we’d visited the kelp forest exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium. To us, the dichotomy was clear: if that was captive kelp, then this was free kelp. After our bemused parents confirmed that yes, this kelp was, in that sense, free, we exploded in excitement. Giddily, possessed with the feral spontaneity of childhood, we pressed our faces against the railing separating us from the coast, yelling, “Free kelp!” “FREE KELP!”, until we were exhausted. We hollered and stomped our feet, little celebrators of macroalgal liberation.
Giddily, possessed with the feral spontaneity of childhood, we pressed our faces against the railing separating us from the coast, yelling, “Free kelp!” “FREE KELP!”, until we were exhausted. We hollered and stomped our feet, little celebrators of macroalgal liberation.
I returned to California in 2014, as an undergraduate in Marine Biology. In the same year, Northern California’s kelp forest suffered a massive ecological collapse: marine heatwaves decimated kelp cover along the north coast, reducing it by over 90%. Warm waters slowed kelp growth, resulting in hungry purple sea urchins, which usually scavenge kelp detritus, devouring live fronds. The year prior, sea star wasting disease had devastated the urchins’ major predator, the sunflower sea star. Without a natural predator, the kelp forests were replaced by urchin barrens— seafloor overrun by urchins with no primary production to sustain the community. The effects impacted the coastal community, shuttering the North coast’s abalone and red sea urchin fisheries as their populations were overwhelmed by the 60-fold increase in purple urchins. Even the purple urchins that dominate the barrens wait in zombie-like starvation: they survive without eating for whoever-knows-how-long, but rouse to scrape algae off the rocks so no new growth can occur, the whole system gradually succumbing to decay.
Following environmental news these days feels uncomfortably similar to watching ecological collapse on an even larger scale. Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report on the effects of climate change. The BBC’s headline featured a notable quote from UN Secretary-General António Guterres: “code red for humanity”. The Atlantic called it a “catastrophe”. Other reports discussed the inevitability of surpassing the 2015 Paris Agreement target of limiting atmospheric warming to below 1.5 °C this century. The rhetoric around climate change has escalated, but major political action has not, the world suspended in unbearable stasis as it seems to wait for the point at which the machinery of modern life crashes down around us.
In many climate narratives, hope and despair are linked to a singular outcome. We can still stop this. It’s too late. We can save this. We’re already damned. But the real-world manifestation of climate stressors demonstrates that, for many of us, the coming years will be chronic, not singularly apocalyptic.
In this vein, even disaster pop culture from under 20 years ago feels decidedly off. In 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, the northern hemisphere is plunged into an ice age as climate change-fueled superstorms batter most of the planet. Questionable science aside, its premise seems almost quaint now— a singular climatic apocalypse occurs, rupturing society and definitively heralding the arrival of capital-C Climate Change. The disaster is total and final, and then it is over.
The upheaval we face in reality promises no such concrete end. A recent Science paper showed that those under the age of 40 will experience “unprecedented” numbers of extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods in their lifetime. The day after tomorrow feels catastrophic, but there’s the day after that, too. And the one after, and the one after that. All the days for decades to come.
Given that outlook, it’s unsurprising that there has been more focus on the mental health impacts of climate change, particularly on younger people. A 2020 American Psychological Association survey found that 48% of young adults felt stress over climate change in their daily lives. This stress is often referred to as “eco-anxiety” or “climate grief” and broadly refers to worries related to climate change and its effects. This simple description belies a range of different emotions and experiences. From recurring nightmares about climate destruction to activism burnout, eco-anxiety describes the anger, fear, betrayal, and dread that have followed many young people for most of their lives. Perhaps best summarized in a recent Lancet survey, 75% of young people agreed that “the future is frightening''.
What is the feeling that comes with the understanding that no matter what happens, something won’t be the same ever again?
I often sit with the memory of that day at the coast. I couldn’t tell you exactly where we were, or if it ever existed as I remember it. The remaining truth of that day is in its emotional resonance. It’s partly why I majored in marine biology, with hopes that I’d make the trip up north again and place a scientific understanding to the wonder I felt as a child. Kelp forests are not gone, not completely, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see the forest as it was in 2005. What is the feeling that comes with the understanding that no matter what happens, something won’t be the same ever again?
In “Under the Weather”, Ash Sanders describes the incongruity of viewing eco-anxiety as an individual sickness. The concept of sickness in much of modern society is founded on the biomedical model of disease, which understands illness as deviations from a biological norm, biochemistry gone awry. With eco-anxiety, however, it’s clear that we need an understanding of illness mediated partly by social and environmental interactions. Sanders discusses solastalgia, which refers to the “palpable sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they perceive changes to their local environment as harmful.” Most coverage of climate disaster evokes solastalgia, even if it’s not explicitly named: a Camp Fire survivor speaking about how she lives out of her suitcase, ready to leave from May to December, a Houma filmmaker living along the Louisiana coast after Hurricane Ida worries that storms will displace and scatter her community. These emotions articulate the material effects of chronic stress and alienation on ourselves and those around us. Eco-anxiety isn’t just in our heads, it’s in our bodies, our communities, and our histories too.
Most articles covering the kelp forest collapse end with tenuous hope: there are early signs of recovery, but warming waters make their long-term future uncertain. Underlying that hope is a cruel ephemerality: even if we save this, it may not be forever. It might not even be for a very long time. And yet for the possibility of that time, researchers dedicate their work to understanding how kelp forests become barrens and try to reverse the ecological shift, volunteers tirelessly cull purple urchins to allow kelp to regrow. This might be written off as last-ditch idealism, but it’s always struck me as deeply pragmatic. Even after a precipitous ecosystem collapse, one of the worst environmental outcomes possible, there is practical, concrete work to be done to improve the situation. It won’t be the same. It might not work forever. But there are always ways to proceed, to move forward, to make the possibility of surviving more viable. Acting to save what we can, for however long we can, is not naive. It is the grounded response of people refusing to be alienated from their surroundings.
Underlying that hope is a cruel ephemerality: even if we save this, it may not be forever. It might not even be for a very long time. And yet for the possibility of that time, researchers dedicate their work to understanding how kelp forests become barrens and try to reverse the ecological shift, volunteers tirelessly cull purple urchins to allow kelp to regrow.
In many climate narratives, hope and despair are linked to a singular outcome. We can still stop this. It’s too late. We can save this. We’re already damned. But the real-world manifestation of climate stressors demonstrates that, for many of us, the coming years will be chronic, not singularly apocalyptic. There will be no one outcome, only many difficult scenarios to navigate. But we will have the ability to resist alienation by engaging with the situation at hand, however we can. Survivors of the Camp Fire reached out to survivors of this year’s Dixie Fire, helping them slowly rebuild their lives. The Houma leveraged local networks to feed, shelter, and support their community after Hurricane Ida. Some even saw opportunity in the seeming lifelessness of urchin barrens. Where there was once “free” kelp, there are now “free” urchins—there are efforts that treat purple urchins as freely available resources, feeding up starved urchins to produce manna for fine-dining connoisseurs, leveraging the demand for raw urchin into a potentially restorative solution for the kelp forest. The root of much eco-anxiety is material and can be alleviated materially. The question of how we can act to make our current environment more livable for the living things that depend on it will always be relevant. There’s a tendency to run cost-benefit analyses to actions, to decide if our efforts will be “worth it” in the end. But none of us alive today will probably ever know the ultimate fate of our world. Our efforts are all we have.
In an indeterminate time along the coast, giant kelp grows wild and abundant once again. A school of sardines darts through its labyrinthine fronds, glittering like a key to a door not yet open. Maybe this is a vision of the future. Maybe it is a memory of the past. But in this suspended moment they surge forward, heedless of the temporal boundaries of their existence, each silver body borne on by another’s wake.