Maja Lunde’s “The End of the Ocean” & Eco-Anxiety & The Trauma of Climate Change
In a sense, stories about climate change don’t usually involve the emotional and mental health of people experiencing it. Other than the climate sphere, where discussions about emotions are normalized, and people are able to share their own experiences when it comes to dealing with eco-anxiety, the portrayal of climate change in the news media still paints it as something that should stay in the natural sciences. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; climate change, strictly speaking, is a natural phenomenon that has been observed by the scientific method, and it’s a phenomenon largely caused by fossil fuel emissions. Hence, the reason why it’s labeled as “anthropogenic”; human activity is what causes it, or more accurately, causes current climate change. However, when thinking of the humans who are experiencing the climate crisis, who are on the front lines of this phenomenon — or even “far away” from its effects, but who deeply care nevertheless — how those people are mentally affected is not talked about largely. I guess, when there’s still a chance of being gaslighted about your feelings of the crisis, causing something “scientific” to be made “unscientific”, speaking frankly about how the climate crisis makes you feel is not allowed. The same goes for how deeply haunting experiences can’t be made clear unless it’s brought to the light by some statistics, causing the trauma of climate migration to be made a merely logistical problem over anything else.
If I was to define eco-anxiety, I would describe it as a deeply unsettling feeling that bubbles up in a person when they experience, or think about, the effects of environmental breakdown. I know that’s a broad definition, but when it comes to eco-anxiety, a broader definition might be more beneficial than a specific one. As Pihkala Panu notes, when discussing whether eco-anxiety or climate anxiety should only include stronger anxiety symptoms, or whether the terms could include less severe emotions such as worry or fear, at least to them, the second option would be better because it would help with not pathologizing those phenomena. It would also maintain the concept of anxiety as being a multidimensional phenomenon, and if one specifies eco-anxiety and climate anxiety, it runs the risk of needlessly narrowing them when anxiety, itself, is not a narrow thing. Speaking for myself at least, I do struggle with eco-anxiety and climate anxiety to an extent, however, my feelings haven’t reached the point where, as I believe, I would be diagnosed with more severe forms of mental illness. For others, that might be different, especially if those people have to directly deal with the effects of climate change.
This book, “The End of the Ocean” by Maja Lunde, I didn’t like, or more accurately, I thought I didn’t like it as I was reading it. And, I couldn’t understand why. It was beautifully written, and I usually like stuff that is, and that’s mostly because I’m a word and syntax nerd. The book also kept me fairly engaged as I was reading it, which, because I’m an absolute snob, is not an easy thing to do. So I sat with it, and thought, and then thought some more as I was progressing with the book, and the only conclusion I could come towards as to why I didn’t like the book was because of the characters. Lunde entirely wrote this book from the perspective of two characters: Signe, a Norwegian journalist and activist, whose story largely takes place in 2017, while we also learn glimpses of her past; and, David, a French husband and father who works at a desalination plant, but who’s also a climate migrant in the year 2041, and who has to take care of his daughter, Lou. I absolutely, and without doubt, hated both of them with a great amount of intensity. But, then I sat with the book, and kept reading it, and when I thought about the concept of eco-anxiety when it came to Signe, and the undoubtable trauma that David felt because of climate change, the motivations of both, and their follies as characters, became clear. They weren’t perfect enough for my liking simply because they were broken, and it was climate change, or the prospect of the phenomenon taking away a future, that caused them to be broken, but also inspired them to do the actions they did in the story. And, I felt horrible for judging them: those fictional characters, which means the book was better than I thought.
Part 1. Signe & Eco-Anxiety
As a character, Signe can best be described as determined, as someone who’s incredibly passionate about the issues that she cares about. She’s also stubborn and strong, and when she sets her mind on something, it takes quite a lot for her to move on or change her mind about it. By far, the most important issues that she cares about has to do with the water, with the rivers that were once a staple of her home village in Norway, and the glaciers, particularly one glacier from her home village, that has now changed due to the climate, and due to the extraction of the ice that has been approved by the village’s board. Her ex-boyfriend, and longtime partner who she had a crush on ever since she was a child, approved of that extraction also, which served almost as a dagger to her, an infuriating thing and betrayal that caused her to drift apart from him over their years. It was because of that that she wanted to make a statement to him, to the entire company operating the extraction, stealing the ice they extracted that would be sent away, and hoping to dumb it all in the face of Magnus, to basically show him what he was stealing from the future. That journey caused her to sail from her home country in Norway all the way to France where Magnus was living, using her small cargo ship to sail there.
I didn’t realize it as I was reading the novel, but once I neared the end, and thought about it a lot longer, it seemed to me that Signe was exemplifying eco-anxiety, to the point where it caused a lot of the motivations for her actions. She clearly cared, and often deeply, about the natural world around her, and sought to engage in any kind of action to protect it, or at least, deal with the destruction that was going on around her from her childhood to adulthood. In a sense, that was something she got from her father, who also sought to engage in whatever action was needed to protect the natural environment of their home. Remember, Eco-anxiety, with it not being a concrete thing, can also encompass broad and difficult feelings that stem from the ecological crisis, feelings such as worry, as fear, as frustration, as existential anxiety, and also anger. Those feelings, depending on the severity of them, can also cause someone to engage in actions that may seem irrational, but what seems to be needed in the present moment to achieve desirable change. Whereas another person may experience eco-anxiety that causes them to become “paralyzed”, and not able to engage in action because they seem to think the scope of the problem is to big for them, Signe represents someone on the opposite end, as someone who needs to engage in some kind of action to cope with the situation.
What seemed to be worst for Signe was that the people around her, from her boyfriend, Magnus, to her mother, seemed to dismiss her feelings and willingness to take action to stop the destruction of the natural world around her. This type of feeling, the feeling of your worries being dismissed so that you can focus on “appropriate” worries, is not a unique thing. In a 2021 study, where the researchers surveyed young people from various countries about their feelings about climate change, almost half of the respondents talked about having their feelings dismissed by other people when they discussed climate change with them. It’s something that I went through as well, and it’s a frustrating experience, and a lot of the time, you can see the other person looking at you, thinking of nothing else except “crazy” in their minds. The worst part is, even when I experienced an instance of having my feelings automatically dismissed, with someone even explicitly telling me to control my actions that were all rooted in advocacy, I did the same to Signe. I dismissed her feelings, and extensively scrutinized the action she was taking, an action that helped her cope, to feel like she could make a statement to the representation of the type of people who drastically changed her natural world. The people around her did the same, dismissing the actions she took to protect the environment around her, thinking that they could change her feelings and wants. As Signe narrates about Magnus and her mom, “all at once I felt stupid…like an outsider. The two of them were the same and I was completely different…They tried to understand [this difference]…even though they could never be able to deal with it. Because the pragmatic human being doesn’t understand passion” (Pg. 253).
This quickness to dismiss feelings of eco-anxiety, to minimize them, also causes the person on the receiving end to feel alone, to feel like no one in your immediate periphery understands your worry, and the actions that prompt from your worry. A sense that no one can relate with you jumps forward to the tip of your mind, and it hurts. Speaking for myself, there have been many instances where I felt I couldn’t relate to anyone around me, couldn’t speak frankly about how climate change made me feel because I would be perceived as “crazy” or unnecessarily worried over something I had no control over. I often felt frustrated because of that, frustrated by the fact that I had to simply go along with my life, every day following the exact same routine, while the world around me continued to burn in a metaphorical and literal sense. No one could acknowledge my feelings, couldn’t understand them, as I thought so in my mind, and I had the sense that talking about my own climate anxiety, or climate change in general, would cause unnecessary scrutiny to the phenomenon itself that I learned to stoically navigate the issue itself. I learned to become indifferent because I knew if I was overtly vocal about the issue in my personal life, there was a chance that the people closest to me would try everything to stop me from worrying, as the people closest to Signe tried to get her to stop worrying. And, the level of condescension that stemmed from the loved ones around me, the initial dismissal, then feign worry, then concerted effort to actively try to get me to change, caused me to run away from everyone, including the ones I wanted to have genuine relationships with.
Signe’s story, in a sense, was about the relationships around her, the relationships that made her the way she was in the novel, and the relationships that ended that brought her into a stage in her life when she was truly alone. On one hand, there was the relationship that was between her mom and dad, her father signifying and being the one who always and staunchly fought for the environment around him, and her mother who was the one that always sought to provide Signe with a better life financially, and who advocated for development along the natural world around them so that her hotel could generate more profits. In a relationship that seemed loving, that tension point of differences in values was too massive to resolve, to the point where Signe’s father, because of his intense longing to halt development on a river near their village, blew up a bridge that would have made that development easier. A final nail in the coffin for his relationship with Signe’s mom, and the only reason she found out about it was because Signe inadvertently told her when she was a child, not knowing the strain it will cause on their relationship. Thus, the guilt that Signe carried to her adulthood, thinking her father could never forgive her for it, although she took a lot of her personality from him, but that guilt still caused a distancing in their own relationship as father and daughter. As for her mother, Signe could never forgive her for choosing the profits for her hotel over the natural world she valued much more. It was a betrayal of her trust that her mother infringed on, and along with her mother’s longing to change her to become a more “pragmatic” person, Signe could never trust her again. Signe was also in a similar type of relationship as her mother and father was, when she was Magnus, and as she saw him changing to become more like her mother, there was a strain that couldn’t be rectified. It finally ended when she refused to fit the image he laid on her as a housewife, and it was a painful ending because the love was still there. It was that love, and the way those relationships were shaped by the choices she made to fight for the planet in her own way, that caused her to risk her life on that perilous journey to see Magnus again. The ironic thing, however, was that it was that relationship with Magnus, and the way it ended with some of her love for him intact, that caused her to save someone who she couldn’t meet yet.
Part 2. David & The Trauma of Climate Change
David’s story takes place in 2041, at the height of the climate crisis. It also takes place, for the majority of the novel, at a refugee camp that David stays at with his daughter Lou. He went to that camp obviously out of necessity, but he also went there because it was a place that his wife agreed they would meet again at. His wife, Anna, and their baby boy, August, got separated from him and Lou during a wildfire that occurred at their hometown, where they all had to rush towards anywhere to survive. Even though the signs of an event like that occurring were present, and Anna noticed it and pleaded with David to leave beforehand, David was stubborn and wanted to stay, even when the town was facing a prolonged drought season. His primary motivations to stay were because he had a good job that gave him a reliable income, and because that place was his home, and it’s hard to leave a place that has been your home for so long. In a sense, then, David’s story is a story of a climate migrant, and the trauma that they can face because of climate change.
Climate change will undoubtedly cause an increased rate of human migration due to its effects. This type of migration, as has been noted, can be particularly unprecedented and vast, and a lot of it can be caused by slow and transformative events such as droughts, extreme heat, lack of resources, and sea level rise or ice melt, or it can be caused by rapid disasters such as extreme weather events that can displace people internally. This issue is not merely a logistical one, but also one that deals with humanity itself, for the primary drivers of migration would be out of the hands of the people most affected by climate change. Simply put, most climate migrants would have to leave their homes, even though their countries contributed the least to the crisis, making the issue of climate migrants also a social justice issue. I would also like to preface that, even though Lunde’s “The End of the Ocean” presents climate induced migration as something far away in the future, there have been climate migrants who had to leave their homes because of climate change and its fallout now. For instance, the conflict in Syria that began in 2012, even though it had many causes, worsened because of environmental factors such as water shortages and droughts. And this forced migration was traumatic for a lot of people, and will continue to be so in the future.
One aspect of climate migrants that should get talked about whenever they’re mentioned is their relationship with the concept of loss. It’s no secret that climate migrants, by being forced to leave their homes, face a psychologically anguising life event that starts with the detachment of those people from the community that they have been involved in for so long. That detachment of the community can be traumatic itself because it reduces the social capital that a lot of these people had in their previous neighborhoods or countries, and it forces those people to start over, without them knowing whether they would be accepted by the new community and be given adequate resources to live dignified lives in the first place. This sense of loss also gets compounded to include loss of a usual routine, of what these people knew for so long as what would be their lives. Being jarred away from a semblance of stability, and then holding onto hope that that stability can be regained and brought to a new place, is also a traumatic occurrence. Because, for a lot of people, the prospect of ongoing a kind of change itself is an uneasy experience, so if that’s brought forth forcefully and without warning, without an adequate time to mentally prepare, then that feeling can multiply to even more intense worry, especially if you have a family to take care of. Pair that sense of loss with the prospect of violence, either from the violence of natural disasters, or from violence that can stem from political upheavals, then the undeniable mental health outcomes can become clear for migrants.
David, and his daughter Lou, do clearly have problems with their mental health that subtly get elucidated throughout the novel, and they undoubtedly stem from the traumatic displacement that they faced due to the wildfire that occurred at their hometown. For instance, in Lou’s dreams, she’s sometimes able to smell the smoke that emanated from the wildfire that day, causing her genuine distress and painful memories that culminates in “tears [trickling] out of her sleeping eyes” (Pg. 40). As for David, he genuinely has trouble with leaving behind his previous life and hopes that he can return to some semblance of normal. He also hopes that his wife and baby are still alive, that he would be able to see Anna and August again as they walk into the camp that they agreed they would meet at. He also wants to return to a time and place where he didn’t have as much responsibility as he does now, where he doesn’t have to worry as intensely as he does now, where he can have fun with friends. That thought of normalcy, of wanting to return to normal as quickly as possible, whether with a routine and his usual family, or with friends and no responsibility, pervaded so much in him that he, for a second time, ignored the signs of leaving a place he knew as a home, ignoring the warnings from another woman who he grew attached to. Marguerite, the woman he grew attached to, told him that they had to leave, but he didn’t listen because he didn’t want to replace the image of his previous family.
One aspect of loss that I found quite interesting in this novel, and which was particularly salient to me, was the loss of the opportunity to properly and consistently engage with your hygiene. At the camp, there were opportunities that David and Lou had to clean themselves and their clothes from that wretched smell of smoke, but that opportunity was closely monitored and portioned off. During his first shower at the camp, David made the observation of his hygiene quite clear. While in the shower he said, “I had never been so dirty before, so sticky, so dry, so stinking of sweat. And smoke” (Pg. 42). Of course the smoke part would be highlighted quite bluntly, with it being given its own sentence, quite clearly making itself known to the reader. The smoke signified that moment, and the way it haunted him, and the way it would continue to do so pretty much throughout the entirety of the novel. It also has a lingering effect to it, like the smoke, if stayed, could quite mean that August and Anna could stay with him, meaning that the prospect of them coming back could be even more real to him. But the dirtiness of him is also highlighted, and progressively made clearer by the simple but emotive adjectives that are used in that sentence. It bluntly hits home to how dirty he is at that point, and how much the shower means to him. And it also hints to how the absence of that thing was detrimental. Because, in a sense, the importance of hygiene, and the deep and profound impact that it can have on your mental health, can be something that can be taken for granted by the people used to having these facilities available to them at all times. Hygiene is quite clearly the number one way that we present ourselves to the world, and the sight of cleanliness helps us to be considered as a part of whatever society we live in. But, if that’s taken away, the facilities that keep us clean, and our access to them, that can be something quite traumatic in a way because the cumulative stench of the past quite clearly follows you for periods on end, and there’s no way to get rid of it. Hence, there’s no real way to get rid of those memories also, as they follow you like the stench of the previous days.
The sad thing, however, is that David could never really get that stench to leave him, that smell of smoke. It stuck with him, even when he washed himself from it, almost throughout the entirety of the novel, and it made him want to hold onto the hope that he would be able to see Anna and August again, that they would be a family once more. The ironic thing about that situation, however, is that Lou, his daughter, is the one who understands that they need to move on, and that the prospect of her mother and brother being alive is not all that high. And, she’s the one who told him that, in a fit of anger when her dad wanted to hold onto everything that he couldn’t. She yelled at him, and told him “‘I hate you. I wish you were dead. Just like August! Just like Mommy!”’ (Pg 235). In that statement, Lou destroyed him, but also woke him up so that he could painfully, but clearly, deal with the events of that day, to properly mourn the loss of everything that he had around him. As David said, “I cried over what had been a life, over how it had been taken away from me. And while I was crying, it was no longer possible to keep that day at a distance” (Pg. 236). It was only then that David was able to come to terms with what happened, and look towards a future that could be one where he’s able to save his daughter, and give her a few more years of her life. He was also able to wake up to his surroundings then, to make a plan, and when he did so, we, as the readers, could see how Signe and David were connected.
Part 3. Connections
“The End of the Ocean’’ by Maja Lunde, is a tragic, but great book, and by reading it, I learned more about my biases than ever before. For instance, I thought both Signe and David were bad characters, illogical, and too emotional, but I only thought that because I couldn’t see the eco-anxiety that one of them faced, and the trauma that another went through at the hands of climate change. My attitude, then, became a microcosm of the type of attitude that dismisses real feelings of worry when it comes to the climate crisis, but one that also disregards the emotions of migrants and refugees who probably went through all kinds of trauma to get to where they are. In a sense, my thinking dismissed the emotions of real people, while I wanted them to act in what I thought were “meaningful” ways. I just couldn’t see that the way I perceived these characters as too “emotional”, while dismissing their actions, was an extension of the type of thinking that is so prevalent today: a sort of technocratic obsession with logic and reasoning that doesn’t allow a space for our worries, and a proper space for healing because action must be sequential and rapid. I guess that was one of the ways that the characters of Signe and David were connected, through the way I judged them, and how the people around them judged them. But, even though I might have dismissed their actions, and thought of them as too rash and “irrational”, those actions were able to save people. Signe, by sailing to see Magnus, with those containers of glacier ice, was able to reclaim her love, and also bury those containers so that someone in the future could find them. That someone who found them was David, which means Signe was able to provide him water in the future, saving his life, his daughter Lou’s life, and Marguerite’s life. David, in turn, was able to save Lou’s life by giving her hope for a future, and he was able to save Marguerite’s life by accepting his love for her and not pushing her away. The past and future were connected, and through that connection, multiple lives were able to be saved. If anything can speak to what should be the focus of climate action, it should be that fact: the past and future are connected, and our actions have reverberations that will last way into the future. That means the best course of action would be action that can save as many lives as possible, regardless of where those lives happen to be in time.