New Jersey, USA
|Miao, Lucille, “A Leap Forward,” Color Pencil and Acrylic on Paper, 2015|
In recent years, the idea of ecological catastrophe has captured the artistic imagination and infiltrated popular culture through novels such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife and television series like teen drama The 100 (2014–). These stories often tell of a post-apocalyptic future in which human-induced climate change has devastated the earth. However, within this influx of spectacle-packed, disaster-driven narratives emerges a calmer, more hopeful tale — Archipelago by Trinidadian-born British author Monique Roffey. Diverging from previous writings and visualizations, Archipelago recounts the psychological aftermath of an environmental disaster with father-daughter duo, Gavin and Ocean. It presents a descriptive model for climate-induced trauma, theorizing that some persons experience a natural recovery trajectory that includes distress, reflection, and finally, resilience.
In the year following the powerful flood that submerges his home and kills his infant son, the protagonist Gavin shows signs of extreme distress that are characteristic of flood victims of his age and gender, such as distorted cognition, unusual behavior, and emotional torment.1 For instance, in the bathroom at work Gavin finds himself “asleep again, standing on his feet,” startled awake by a coworker.2 He shows diminished self-care capabilities such as insomnia, excessive preoccupation and anxiety surrounding the flood, and clinically significant maladaptiveness. He also experiences climate trauma-related distress. He sees himself as “half-himself, not himself;”2 “memories haunt him,”2 and he is afflicted by “psoriasis,”2 a skin condition that may flare with stress. Similar symptoms of distress are also seen in his daughter Ocean, who is diagnosed as having “post-traumatic stress disorder,”2 and wife, Claire. It is unclear if Claire also has a diagnosis, but she is described as “a soul [that] … has gone to sleep”2 but remains corporeally alive. Clinically significant distress seems to be present in these three characters.
Gavin and Ocean begin to move from a state of distress to one of reflection when they embark on a self-reflection “journey”2 one year after the flood, although Claire chooses to remain at home. The shift happens chronologically during their exploration of the various islands and coastal cities. For instance, in their first destination, La Isle Margarita, Gavin acknowledges that “memories haunt him… [from] his old life.”2 In another place, the ABC islands, Gavin actively ponders “his part in it all … trying to understand that night.”2 In Aruba, Gavin finally confronts the death of his son during the flood the year before, when he encourages Ocean to pay homage to her brother and the trauma it inflicted on Claire. His reflections come to a climax in the Galapagos Islands, where he contemplates Darwin’s “search [for] answers … How did Darwin look up and behold these skies and think there was no art here, no divine alchemy?”2 In this way, the father and daughter’s sailing journey acts as a proxy for reflection.
Resilience begins to emerge near the end of their journey, when Gavin gains insight into man’s relation to the natural world. A tsunami that floods the Galapagos Islands catalyzes a mindset shift in Gavin, and he muses, “I thought I was separate. Me against the world. I wanted to escape that house, everything. But really, I’m part of it all, the earth, the sea. I can’t get away.”2 Implied here is that Gavin’s distress, at least in part, comes from his avoiding flood-related stimuli, and by seeing man and nature as “part of a natural chain, an archipelago, of people”2 or symbiotic partners, Gavin has begun to confront his avoidance of trauma-related stimuli and can begin a journey toward resilience. Ultimately, Roffey seems to suggest that harmony with nature, instead of fear of nature, may facilitate recovery for climate traumas.
Although Roffey presents a simplistic, linear model of climate trauma, her model remains useful in a warming world. The predicted ecological changes for the near future suggest that climate trauma may become more prevalent, and thus more relevant to medical literature. Roffey’s fictional case study of Gavin, Ocean, and Claire’s climate trauma may hold relevance for real-life scenarios. While Gavin and his family present a fictional response, some studies suggest that 25% to 50% of individuals subjected to extreme natural disasters may experience negative mental health outcomes, such as acute stress disorder, PTSD, and other anxiety-related disorders.3 Of course, not every person will experience climate-induced trauma as it affected Gavin and his family, but it appears that climate trauma does occur. Reports also suggest that even minor ecological changes, such as higher temperatures and changing landscapes, may be detrimental to psychological well-being. It seems that higher temperatures are closely correlated with poor mental health outcomes, as emergency mental health services experience more admissions during warmer weather.3 Changing landscapes may also trigger solastalgia, defined as a compromised sense of place and identity when an individual sees his home changed by environmental degradation.4 Thus, it is important that literature engages with climate trauma because possible research topics may emerge from art.
Archipelago’s divergence from typical eco-apocalyptical narratives and emphasis on the psychological aftermath of climate disasters can also serve as a model to mobilize action on climate change. By examining the climate crisis through a psychological lens, Roffey reframes the conversation about global environmental threat as a human crisis by rewriting the “wicked environmental problem … [as the] wicked human problem.”5 Further, the inspiration for Archipelago comes from a human struggle, from a 2008 tsunami in Trinidad that badly flooded Roffey’s neighborhood, including her brother’s home.6 Thus, the narrative of the climate crisis shifts from one of saving polar bears to one that incorporates the “hard-working [men] who opted for a very conventional model of how to live well”6 but cannot do so because of climate-related problems. Preliminary research about social trends such as tobacco use and the HIV/AIDS epidemic suggest such a narrative shift would be beneficial to addressing the climate crisis.5
Ultimately, Roffey’s Archipelago invents a climate-trauma model through a literary framework. While the model is rudimentary, it introduces an important aftereffect of ecological change and provides a foundation for future research and climate-trauma models. By examining the intersection of environmental studies and psychology, it also provides a novel strategy to mitigate climate change — reframing the climate crisis as human crisis. However, ultimately, Roffey’s Archipelago is best explained by its title symbol, an archipelago. While land masses in archipelago may seem independent, they are not. Likewise, while environmental studies, the humanities, and medicine may appear to be separate entities, interdisciplinary connections are abundant and important.
- Stanke C, Murray V, Amlôt R, Nurse J, Williams R. The effects of flooding on mental health: Outcomes and recommendations from a review of the literature. PLoS Currents. 2012. doi:10.1371/4f9f1fa9c3cae.
- Roffey M. Archipelago. Simon & Schuster Ltd; 2013.
- Trombley J, Chalupka S, Anderko L. Climate Change and Mental Health. AJN The American Journal of Nursing. 2017;117(4):44-52.
- Gifford E, Gifford R. The largely unacknowledged impact of climate change on mental health. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2016;72(5):292-297. doi:10.1080/00963402.2016.1216505.
- Travis C, Holm P. Lessons for the anthropocene from the recent past: Tobacco use, HIV/AIDS, and social transformation. Global and Planetary Change. 2017;156:167-175. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2017.04.006.
- Harris S. Parallel Worlds. Wasafiri. 2015;30(3):75-79. doi:10.1080/02690055.2015.1044794.
LUCILLE MIAO is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is majoring in psychology and minoring in chemistry. She grew up in New Jersey and is interested in the visual arts, public health, and psychology.