Book Notes: The Nerves and Their Endings

I have been putting off writing these book notes for quite a few weeks. It’s not that I didn’t like the book, quite the opposite. This collection of essays is mostly about the collapse of our climate, but also about the immigrant experience, especially during Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Personally, I thought I had a fairly good grasp on the looming collapse of our climate and our collective inability to put a serious dent in reducing emissions. It is baffling to me how we still put short-term corporate profits over our very existence in this world. This has always been at the back of my mind, but for some reason never really became the main focus. Sure, I very much try to do my part. I have been vegan for close to a decade now, mostly for animal welfare reasons, but hey, saving a boatload of greenhouse emissions along the way is nice too. I never got around to learning to drive a car and never did my driver’s license, thus I was always an avid proponent of urban bicycling and public transport systems. Really out of necessity, because that’s the only way how I can get around. I stopped flying within Europe, even when catching multiple train connections paired with Deutsche Bahn’s reliability track record can easily turn a six-hour travel day into ten hours. It also affects personal relationships, being based in Berlin and my parents living back home in Switzerland, I can’t just hop on a plane and quickly visit them over a weekend. What once was a one-and-a-half-hour flight that can easily be tacked onto the end of a Friday and Sunday now turns into an eight-hour train trip each way.

However, for most of these things, changing my behaviour and giving up some of our most privileged luxuries of middle-class modern-day life luxuries has not once felt like a sacrifice. Am I perfect and reduced the environmental impact of my life to the bare minimum? Of course not, there are still plenty of cases where I put personal interest ahead of planetary well-being. But each time I did change my behaviour, something provoked me to examine my impact on the world. Funnily enough, early in the relationship with my partner, her being a vegetarian for most of her life, she mentioned that as a French person, it would be impossible for her to give up cheese. Not thinking much of it my off-hand answer at the time was that giving up cheese is easy, after all a Swiss person like me managed without an issue, so everyone can do it. This was the moment that got her thinking, until sometime later she decided for herself to change her behaviour. It was also the moment where I got to know more than I ever wanted to about the diversity of French cheese. That’s a story for another day, but little did I know; all I can say is check your cheese facts before you talk to a French cheese-loving person!

None of this has anything to do with the book directly but is a roundabout way of saying that I’m sure it has managed to plant many seeds in my head. Some of these will result in me examining another way in which my behaviour has a negative impact, hopefully leading to a change in my behaviour at some point down the line.

The Nerves and Their Endigs, Essays on Crisis and Response, by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson.


For those who haven’t yet experienced climate collapse in our own bodies, a history not yet written into us, the feeling it arrives in the shape of shadows, an atmospheric wrongness, and harrowing predictions; these are stories that change our own. The moment we begin to truly engage with climate science, our narratives of self and future are whirled out of orbit.

Someone tells me that as they’ve grown increasingly aware of how quickly the climate crisis is escalating, they’ve also begun to regard their own body as a measuring tool for planetary harm. Vast, intricate mechanisms of destruction enter one nervous system and turn it into the place where global heating seems to begin, where it’s perpetuated, and where it worsens. Everything an individual consumes (that banana rather than an innocent turnip), how it gets from one place to another (are you flying home for Christmas?), the space it takes up in the world (are tiny homes and ‘micro houses’ the answer?) gains significance when you realise – as in, make emotionally real – the connection between your way of life and the risk of societal collapse, that you do not end with your physical boundaries. Your nerves, then, seem to stretch beyond what is visibly yours.

I’m not saying we should never say ‘we’ anymore; but by remaining unspecific when it comes to agency, ‘we’ erases the power, the hidden slow violence, that was always at the root of the crisis. It replaces real connections with anonymity. ‘We’, as it is most often used, are not the oil industry, or the billionaires. When ‘we’ as a whole are held responsible, patterns of exclusion and oppression continue to strain into the earth, further rooting themselves. The illusion persists.

Language lays a soothing film over the burns of history and makes violence seem less, as it makes what’s artificial appear natural.

What scares me is the time that passes – that while the government obsesses about getting ‘us back to normal’ (us’ meaning the economic machine that kills most of us), people continue to die from heatstrokes, from droughts and ensuing food scarcity. Ecosystems continue to disintegrate, making further pandemics more likely. Our physical togetherness has been outlawed to save us, but within the abysmal inequality of late capitalism, who really counts as ‘us’ – which self does this emergency response serve?

‘The answer to cold is heat, the answer to hunger is food. But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia.” Neither is there for the climate crisis, because all of the above, along with an economic system which protects corporate greed, helped create it. It’s not easy to recognise this, when we’re afraid and seemingly quicker fixes are offered. Neither is it impossible. Because we are always multiple, responding in multiple ways is in fact more humanly possible – it’s the kind of action that makes us human, and cares for the human in others.

It seems to me that the turn away from hope, so prevalent in recent climate activism, is really the rejection of a specific definition of it – one which was never an option for so many. If by hope you meant trusting that things would ultimately be fine, then yes, courage is better, and more honest. That definition of hope, however, was always privileged. If this was your hope, you were always in the minority.