When I returned from two weeks of vacation in the beginning of August and started to work again, I was deeply unmotivated. For two weeks, I basically just stared at my notes for eight hours straight and couldn’t get much work done.
In the first week, I blamed the second week of “vacation” for it. The reason is that I performed heavy physical work for a week, hence I suspected that I needed some time to recover from that (a.k.a: I’m getting old).
When the fatigue continued in the second week after my sunburns were gone, I blamed the type of work I had to perform. It was just a relatively mundane collection of definitions and some other info that I need to complete the work on my first research project. It’s not difficult and relatively monotonous, so I felt that this might be the cause. After all, my supervisor told me from the beginning of my PhD studies that “you have to eat your vegetables, too”. While I never really understood what exactly he meant, I felt that this type of work was a vegetable: boring but required. (The main reason I didn’t fully get this metaphor before was that I actually really like most vegetables.)
But I think there’s a completely different reason that causes my lack of motivation: heat exhaustion.
I first started to think about this possibility after I was told that it’s only natural to not be able to work in this heat of more than 30° Celsius every day. After all, it made sense: There’s a reason they have a siesta in Spain.
However, that couldn’t explain my lack of motivation in the early morning and in the evening. Even though it wasn’t as hot as during the day, I still couldn’t motivate myself.
So heat exhaustion wasn’t the correct term for the problem I was facing.
It’s the utter lack of rain.
The first time I had this feeling was this spring, when I had to stay in Sweden for six weeks uninterrupted for an in-person course. It never rained. It wasn’t hot, let alone warm, but it never rained. All day it was a sunny blue sky with not a single cloud in sight.
Even though it wasn’t summer yet, I felt very disturbed by that. I’ve known German climate for all my life, and since we have quite a lot of rain during spring, I first told myself that this might be just the different climate of Sweden — nothing to worry about.
But now, during these hot weeks, I have a very similar feeling. It’s nothing I could describe in words, but it is unsettling. And it is triggered by the fact that the weather never changes. It’s just hot. And we all know that this has to do with climate change. The Loire is completely dried out, many rivers in the north of Italy are as well. Even the Rhine is in some parts carrying so little water that it’s impossible to ride a boat.
Europe is drying out and suffering from one of the worst droughts on record. And everyone with knowledge in this area agrees: It’s only going to get worse.
And this is an extremely dreadful feeling. No one can influence the weather, so when it’s hot, we simply have to endure it and have to accept there’s nothing we could do. It’s a feeling of powerlessness in the face of a catastrophe of global reach.
With this feeling, working on a project looking at the neoliberalism of the 1980s feels kind of pointless. I mean, to a certain degree I am in fact researching one tiny puzzle piece of how we got here, but what does it matter when we’re roasting the planet right now?
Everywhere I look, the plant life dies. I’m certainly not a tree-hugging hippie, but I do care for the environment. When it’s a tad too hot, that’s of no concern for me, but seeing how everything just gets brown with no remedy in sight makes me sad. Or maybe not just sad.
It gives me anxiety deep down. It is like a rumbling feeling, an ambient noise that undergirds all my thoughts. Even though I’m not actively thinking about this everyday, I do notice that there’s something. And this makes it hard to concentrate on my work. Even more so when it’s “just vegetables”.
I’m afraid of what the future holds. This heat is not sustainable, and as it continues, we’re going to get into real trouble. I don’t subscribe to the dystopian visions of groups like extinction rebellion, because neither will the planet die, nor will humanity die out. But you don’t need to face extinction to get a very bad feeling about this. And people will die, and they are already.
Amid all of this, it is difficult to motivate myself to work, but I’ll be of more use to society if I finish my dissertation and don’t succumb to this feeling. This is why I have written it down here. It releases a lot of the anxiety I have.
Maybe this helps in motivating myself more to actually finish my work. Right now, I do in fact feel much more motivated. It’s as if a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
If you have a similar eerie feeling, fear not: You’re not alone.