Déjà Vu

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by william defebaugh

photograph by stefanie moshammer

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“The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” —Vladimir Nabokov

 

For all of science’s advancements, it has yet to produce an explanation for the everyday phenomenon of déjà vu—that eerie experience of feeling like history is repeating itself, where the past and present become, for a moment, indistinguishable. Popular theories assign déjà vu to being somewhat of a glitch. One suggests that it happens when we experience something similar to an already established memory that we can’t access. Another is that our brain is attempting to recall a memory while it’s being recorded, creating somewhat of a feedback loop: a circle.

 

It was difficult to read the news this week without experiencing some semblance of déjà vu. In the wake of premature re-openings, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States doubled in the last ten days. Hospitals across the U.S. are once again under siege; as a doctor at Tampa General Hospital described it, “what we’re having now is the equivalent of a bus accident a day, every day, and it just keeps adding.” And yet, like a memory still in process, Dr. Anthony Fauci made it clear that this is not a second wave—we are still “knee-deep” in the first one.

 

In a brilliant cover story for Time’s latest issue on the climate crisis, Justin Worland puts words to why the pandemic has felt like déjà vu to anyone with ecological awareness: “To many who study climate, the pandemic looks eerily familiar. At first, the new virus seemed distant and inconsequential to most people, so long as you weren’t in the eye of the storm. The rest of the world watched in amazement as China shut down Wuhan. Horror stories of patients dying in hallways in Milan shocked the U.S., but not enough to make the nation prepare…The story of climate change has unfolded over decades, but its trajectory is much the same. For years, we’ve watched as the evidence has grown.”

 

Every time history repeats itself, the stakes are raised. Look no further than the Arctic Circle for proof. Last year, the world regarded in horror as a record-breaking heatwave led to increased wildfires and carbon dioxide emissions. This year, the record has been broken yet again, with nearly five million acres already consumed by flames. It’s a sobering reminder that the poles are the frontlines of the climate crisis, heating at three times the rate of the rest of the planet—what climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck calls “a warning sign of major proportions.”

 

And so we have found ourselves at a critical juncture. As Worland points out, increased industrialization and reliance on fossil fuel consumption was a deliberate strategy put in place to help the economy bounce back after the Great Depression and World War II. It is not an exaggeration to say that the way we decide to bounce back from this pandemic will shape the future of life on Earth. Will we squander this unique opportunity for systematic overhaul? Democrats have put forward a bold new climate plan, but it will only matter if they can take back the government—underlining how much is on the line with the upcoming election.

 

Perhaps déjà vu is an evolutionary glitch, though it seems arrogant to suggest that anything in nature is void of purpose simply because we can’t conceive of it. Perhaps it is more intricately entangled with instinct, equal parts premonition and recollection. Perhaps it speaks to our limited understanding of time, which surely does not operate in the linear way we think it does. Perhaps the déjà vu of the present moment represents our attempt to alter it—to break the vicious circle and find instead a spiral, both expanding outwards and returning to center all at once.

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