In the 14th century, the Italian poet Petrarch wrote a letter to a friend in Avignon, describing his sense of “foreboding” after an earthquake shook the foundations of Rome’s churches. “What should I do first, lament or be frightened?” he asked. “Everywhere there is cause for fear, everywhere reason for grief.”
The earthquake was only one in a series of calamities endured in the poet’s lifetime to that point: floods, storms, fires, wars and finally, “the plague from heaven that is unequaled through the ages,” the dreaded Black Death, which would eventually kill more than a third of Europe’s population.
In his letter, Petrarch was distressed by the suffering of the present, but he was equally worried about what it meant for the future. His fears were “not only about the quaking of land but its effect on minds.”
Six hundred years after Petrarch grappled with the apocalyptic tremors of his own time, the effect of catastrophe on minds is the subject of several new articles published in the last few weeks by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New York Magazine, all of them concerned with the end of the world as we know it. They’re tackling a question at the heart of our collective (in)ability to confront an existential threat: How should we think about—and through–the global disaster that is climate change?
After years of rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and mass extinction, why has this question bubbled to the American cultural surface now? For one perspective, I asked Elizabeth Weil, whose essay “How to Live in a Catastrophe” appeared in New York Magazine last week. She believes the flurry of writing on the topic is connected to the increasingly devastating extreme weather of the 2020s. “The idea that we weren’t already in the middle of the climate crisis just fell away,” she said. “You couldn’t deny it anymore.” [Continue reading…]