What the Moomins can tell us about fighting climate despair
These books were written in the 1940s, but they can be read as parables of today's climate catastrophe
Climate change is real, no matter what some would have us believe. In this past summer's heat wave over Europe, the Arctic region of Scandinavia experienced temperatures up to 101 degrees, while the ice cap of Greenland is melting at the rate projected for the year 2070. Meanwhile, Australia is experiencing yet another year of unprecedented drought, at the same time as the American Midwest has been fighting against the overflowing Mississippi River after too much rain. It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change is not a problem we will need to deal with sometime in the future. It is happening now.
Grappling with the magnitude of climate change causes what is known as climate despair, which is the overwhelming sense that climate change will inevitably cause the extinction of humanity, and that, while we wait for the apocalypse to happen, life loses its meaning. Climate despair is an expression of what psychologists call "ultimate concerns," that is a concern for existential issues, such as death, finitude, and meaninglessness. When confronted with the enormity of climate change, our ultimate concerns causes despair, and instead of taking action, we give up before we have even started.
In times of crisis, we turn to the arts for guidance and solace. Over the past few years, sales of poetry and dystopian speculative fiction have skyrocketed as people search for meaning in a changing world. Books such as George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower have become literary beacons for those concerned about the state of politics. But for those suffering from climate despair, a beacon can be found in the books about the Moomins by Finnish-Swedish artist and author, Tove Jansson.
Jansson wrote the first two books about the Moomins, The Moomins and the Great Flood and Comet in Moominland, during the years of World War II when her home country of Finland fought off an invasion attempt by the Soviet Union. The Moomins are a family that consists of Moomintroll and his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpappa. They live in a round, tower-like blue house in the Moominvalley, surrounded by friends and other eccentric characters.
Because of the cute appearance of the Moomins (rotund with short legs, big eyes, and wide snouts), the books about them are generally considered harmless stories set in an idyllic fantasy world. But in the Moominvalley, darkness always lurks around the corner. The Moomin books are children's books for adults where light confronts darkness and vulnerability is juxtaposed to the feelings of safety and home.
The Moomins and the Great Flood and Comet in Moominland were written as parables of war, but the natural disasters that threaten the Moominvalley in these two stories can also be read as parables of climate change. Climate change causes meteorological extremes. Certain places on Earth heat up while others grow colder. Snow and rain become unevenly distributed, causing droughts in some places, extreme floods in others.
The winter and spring of 2019 saw large amounts of rain and snow in the Mississippi River basin, causing disastrous floods throughout the entire area. With flood days counting in the hundreds, these floods have broken local records set by the Great Flood of 1927, the largest natural disaster in U.S. history. Living alongside the Mississippi has always meant living with the threat of floods, but because of climate change, the old rules are no longer in play. Families can't return to their homes and Main Streets are closed when buildings continue to be submerged because the water doesn't recede.
In The Moomins and the Great Flood, Moomintroll and Moominmamma go to sleep to the soothing sound of rain, only to discover that it is still raining when they wake up the next morning. The rain continues for days, and the water starts rising around them. When the skies finally clear, the world is covered by water as far as the eye can see. Using a floating armchair for a boat, Moomintroll and Moominmamma meet creatures perched in trees, waiting for rescue after having lost everything they own.
While the Midwest stood under water, earlier this year California saw the end to a drought that began in December 2011 and lasted a total of 376 weeks. In Australia, there is no end in sight of the drought caused by years of almost no rain. Drought is a major concern when it comes to climate change, not only because the absence of rain depletes the fresh water aquifers, but because rising temperatures dry out the soil.
Scorched earth and lack of water are threats in Comet in Moominland where a comet hurtles towards Earth and the Moominvalley, threatening to destroy them on impact. As the comet approaches, it radiates heat that causes temperatures to rise. The closer the world comes to disaster, the hotter it gets. The oceans dry up, and the change in climate forces creatures to flee their homes.
Some inhabitants of the Moominvalley choose to stay where they are, instead of joining the Moomin family in their cave to take shelter. One character, Hemulen, claims that he sees no signs of a disaster on the horizon. Another character, Muskrat, decides to ignore a situation.
In her article on how to psychologically handle mental health issues caused by climate despair, psychologist Emily Green concludes that the effect of climate change on our well-being is connected to whether or not we take action. Doing something small — even as seemingly inconsequential as bringing a reusable bag to the supermarket — leads to a better frame of mind from which to handle the threat of climate change.
The difference between the Moomin family and the characters they meet during the disasters of the flood and the comet is that they take action, and they set small goals. A Moomin doesn't have the ability to steer a comet away from Earth or to make floodwater recede, but a Moomin can fight to keep the family together during a disaster. Even in a time of impending doom, a Moomin takes pleasure in the beauty of a sea pearl, enjoys a cup of coffee in the morning, and always accepts an invitation to dance. By doing all of these things, a Moomin keeps despair at bay.
Because, as journalist and historian David M. Perry says, we can't afford to fall into despair when it comes to climate change. But not for our own sake: for the generations that are growing up today and whose lives will be even more affected by climate change, because one day this world will be theirs.
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