Climate anxiety is understood by psychologists to be a form of ‘practical’ anxiety as it is considered a rational response to the threat of climate change and can lead to constructive behaviours. At a Melbourne Writers Festival panel in 2022, Else Fitzgerald described her debut short story collection, Everything Feels Like the End of the World, as an attempt to work through her own climate grief, a sorrow that has its roots in the successive periods of drought and flooding she experienced growing up in East Gippsland. This, surely – writing a book – is the kind of ‘constructive behaviour’ the psychologists have in mind. But what of climate anxiety that clamps down, that debilitates and immobilises? The anxiety I feel in relation to the climate crisis leaves me swinging wildly between maniacal bouts of information gathering and long periods of psychic paralysis, during which I work equally hard to avoid any mention of climate change and its attendant calamities.

Many of the stories in Everything Feels Like the End of the World are difficult to stomach, beginning at a point when it is no longer possible to ignore the facts of ecological collapse. The first story of the collection, ‘River’, is set during the Black Summer of 2019-2020, when bushfires burned more than 10 million hectares of land across Australia and destroyed over 300 homes in Victoria alone. From there, Fitzgerald extrapolates into the future, imagining residents of Melbourne and Victoria’s Gippsland region grappling with the type of environmental catastrophes that climate scientists have been prophesying for the last fifty years. Annual storm surges erode the coastline until ‘entire root systems’ are ‘torn up and scoured of dirt’, their ‘bleached skeletons’ covering the beach. In ‘Glancing Light’, the few remaining residents of Lakes Entrance work together to sandbag the main street against the encroaching tide. Each story is narrated by a different character, their circumstances varying widely from one story to the next: a daughter considers her mother’s choice to remain so close to the fire front; a young couple visits their friends’ parents’ holiday house on the Mornington Peninsula; an older woman flees her life in the city for a cottage on the coast.

I sense in the diversity of the collection that Fitzgerald wanted to craft a mosaic of human responses to the climate crisis. The stories often take place in the aftermath of or in between periods of great change – breakups, displacements, deaths – lending them an introspective calm both surprising and subversive in a work of climate fiction. The blend of metropolitan and regional perspectives does allow Fitzgerald to explore how the impact of climate change is a function of geography, and of means. And the startling one- to two-page vignettes like ‘Resist’ – a flash of police brutality in the throes of a protest – intensify the polyphonic quality of the book. Yet the dominant tone is one of anger. When the narrator of ‘Dandelion’ is confronted by an unattainable level of wealth in the form of a grand house ‘carved into a cliff’, he finds himself wrestling with the feeling that despite being relatively privileged, ‘he’s supposed to be living a certain kind of life by now, the life they were led to believe they could have if they just worked hard enough, and he’s bitter about what he feels is the unfairness of it’. In the eponymous story ‘Everything Feels Like the End of the World’, the occupants of a share house on George Street respond to the ‘endless barrage’ of the news with frenzied hedonism, attempting to crowd out thoughts of the future by glorying in ‘now, now, now’. As I read, I am unable to shake the sense that Fitzgerald herself could be narrating many of the stories, particularly those which, like the two just mentioned, are written from the perspective of disillusioned twenty- and thirty-somethings foundering in the breach between what we’ve been told about the world and what lies ahead. It is out of this rift that the book’s central questions arise. ‘How do you put down roots in a place that won’t exist in fifty years?’ and ‘how can you justify bringing a kid into this?’ 

In her wisdom, or perhaps more accurately, in the depth of her empathy, Fitzgerald does not attempt to answer these questions. Instead, the variety of the collection speaks to an understanding that the answers – if there are answers – will not be the same for everyone. While a number of characters choose to remain child-free, others draw courage and resilience from the fact of their children. Watching a bore being drilled on her family’s farm, the narrator of ‘Fracture’ reflects: 

Part of me thinks this is wrong, that we have no right to be doing this. This has been our great mistake, after all—this arrogance. The drilling and fracking and mining that have destroyed the world I have to leave for my children. But then I look at them and want whatever it takes for them to be okay. I don’t know if that makes me a hypocrite but there it is. 

I carry this passage around like a pebble in my shoe for a long time before I understand that it is more than a representation of the protective instinct of a parent. The narrator’s slide into cliché – ‘whatever it takes’, ‘there it is’ – signals a looking away through a looking towards her children. Fixing her gaze thus, the clamour of personal and moral responsibility fades into the background.  

In writing about the gravity our loved ones exert upon on our thoughts, about the everyday moments of connection between parent and child, human and non-human, lovers and friends, Fitzgerald puts forward a fierce case for why and how we will continue to persist through everything to come.  Whether it is moral to bring children into this world, whether it makes sense to stay as the fire approaches and the flood waters rise, she renders the inner lives of her characters with an emotional acuity and generosity that somehow accommodates all our ridiculous and often contradictory hopes and desires. There it is. 

As the stories reach farther into the future, what it means to be ‘okay’ is distended beyond recognition. The water dries up, the street lights go out, the neighbours drive away in the night. Hypercanes ravage the Northern Territory and Queensland, pandemics sweep the country and fertility rates decline. Then, like light coming on in the distance, the brief references to hypothetical technologies in a number of earlier stories coalesce into an integrated network of virtual realities, biodomes and AIs, and the book enters the realm of science fiction. Melbourne is protected from continually rising temperatures by a BioSphere. The people of New Melbourne are enhanced with biomechanical implants and interface connectors. And down in the flooded streets of Old Melbourne, babies are born with ‘a fine membrane of webbing’ between their toes. 

Although the transition from realistic to speculative is rather abrupt, these stories of cyborgs and hybrids seem to me a logical step from the collection’s earlier accounts of endurance and survival. Just four months before the publication of Everything Feels Like the End of the World, the Australian government completed construction of a 1,022 metre-long seawall along the coast of Malu Ki’ai (Boigu Island) in the Torres Strait, lending ‘Fibian’ – in which Old Melbourne is surrounded by sea walls – a premonitory air. Despite the upgrades, human society remains divided by the same inequities leading to water wars and the deployment of nuclear weapons. As in the first half of the book, these stories are lit by flickers of intimacy, but this, Fitzgerald seems to be saying, is what we’re in for if we don’t change. ‘They had so much,’ one of the last humans on Earth observes, ‘and they ruined it’. 

An entreaty is nested in the penultimate story of the collection. ‘Final Broadcast’ is a record of the terminal transmission from HAVEN, the collective consciousness of the last remaining humans, which has been uploaded and sent into space to search for another habitable planet. Addressing themselves to the citizens of Old Melbourne, they lament: 

we would work towards ending inequality we would sign treaties we would end fracking in national parks drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge we would listen to the climate scientists we would listen to the young people we would reduce revegetate rewild regreen restore we would stop pretending this is not our responsibility we would not accept that we are all doomed we would try 

and implore:

your moment is now you can save it if you try

Once more, I hear an authorial voice in these passages – depleted after the gruelling work of imagining the future should we fail to try, but brimming too, with everything we might yet do. ‘Final Broadcast’ is without a doubt a call to action, but if anything in this book stirs me out of the inertia of my climate anxiety, it is the long-term resilience found in its later stories and suggested by the work as a whole. If practical anxieties are those that incite us to action, the kind of climate anxiety that paralyses might be understood as the profound and all-consuming belief that no matter what we do, everything is already lost. Exploring how our conceptualisation of time influences our perception of agency in Saving Time, Jenny Odell warns against ‘declinism’ – ‘the belief that a once-stable society is headed for inevitable and irreversible doom’: 

As distinct from a clearheaded (and heartbroken) assessment of our situation, declinism is probably one of the more dangerous forms of linear, deterministic time reckoning there is. After all, it is one thing to acknowledge the past and future losses that follow from what has occurred; it is another to truly see history and the future proceeding with the same grim amorality as the video playhead, where nothing is driving it except itself. In failing to recognize the agency of both human and nonhuman actors, such a view makes struggle and contingency invisible and produces nihilism, nostalgia, and ultimately paralysis. 

Despite the apocalyptic subject matter, Fitzgerald manages to avoid ascending to an alarmist register by depicting the dailiness of our ‘struggle’ for survival, as well as the relationships that hold us together. The more speculative stories in the collection further counteract the immobilising effects of declinism by offering a vision of the kind of ‘contingencies’ that might just allow us to continue into a distant and unknowable future.  

Published July 10, 2023
Part of Emerging Critics 2022: Essays by the 2022 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Kasumi Borczyk, Megan Cheong, Jenny Fraser, Muhib Nabulsi, Adalya Nash Hussein. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2022 essays →
Megan Cheong

Megan is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on Wurundjeri land. Her...

Essays by Megan Cheong →