Mov­ing from fear to ac­tion

The ter­ri­fy­ing par­al­lels be­tween nu­clear war and global warm­ing can of­fer hope, finds Curt Stager

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - The Cli­mate Sw­erve: Re­flec­tions on Mind, Hope, and Sur­vival by Robert Jay Lifton The New Press, 192pp

Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Robert Jay Lifton, best known for his in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the causes and im­pacts of war­fare, po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and co­er­cive thought re­form or brain­wash­ing, has re­cently fo­cused his at­ten­tion on a newer ex­is­ten­tial threat to hu­man­ity: cli­mate change. His slim vol­ume, The Cli­mate Sw­erve: Re­flec­tions on Mind, Hope, and Sur­vival is a per­sonal med­i­ta­tion on pub­lic per­cep­tions of cli­mate change and nu­clear Ar­maged­don.

Writ­ten shortly af­ter his 90th birth­day, the book ex­pands upon an es­say he pub­lished un­der the same ti­tle in 2014, and it reads more like a mem­oir than a sci­en­tific text. Its main premise is that most of hu­mankind is now com­ing to ac­cept the re­al­ity and dan­gers of cli­mate change, de­spite de­lay­ing tac­tics by the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try and its sup­port­ers. Bor­row­ing a term from Stephen Green­blatt’s Pulitzer prizewin­ning ex­plo­ration of atomic aware­ness and cul­tural awak­en­ing, The Sw­erve, Lifton ap­plies it to an “evolv­ing aware­ness of our predica­ment”, in which mod­ern civil­i­sa­tion threat­ens the fu­ture of our species. De­spite the men­ace posed by the “apoc­a­lyp­tic twins” of cli­mate and nukes, how­ever, he also be­lieves that the cur­rent sw­erve in our cli­mate aware­ness can lead to con­struc­tive ac­tion, as a sim­i­lar sw­erve did for nu­clear arms con­trol.

Lifton writes of the “psy­chic numb­ing” that can pre­vent peo­ple from feel­ing ap­pro­pri­ate emo­tional re­sponses to threats and dis­as­ters, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to adapt to or mit­i­gate hu­man-driven cli­mate change. He dis­tin­guishes the wil­ful “cli­mate change re­jec­tion” of some politi­cians and pun­dits from cli­mate de­nial, a cop­ing mech­a­nism for deal­ing with fear or un­cer­tainty. And he ex­tends the con­cept of “stranded as­sets”, the fos­sil fuel re­sources that en­ergy com­pa­nies might be forced to leave un­tapped, to the realm of moral­ity, in which out­dated at­ti­tudes that place prof­its over the com­mon good be­come “stranded ethics”.

What I did not ex­pect from the ti­tle was an in­depth ret­ro­spec­tive on Lifton’s six decades of study on the psy­chol­ogy of nu­clear threats. At least half of the book re­views the his­tory of nu­clear weapons; sam­ples in­ter­views with sur­vivors of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Viet­nam; and ex­poses the Jekyll-Hyde role of sci­en­tists in cre­at­ing and then protest­ing nu­clear power and weaponry. I found that con­tent to be at least as com­pelling as the cli­mate mus­ings, and the im­bal­ance of in­for­ma­tion and emo­tional im­pact left me wish­ing for a clearer fo­cus on the nu­clear story alone, for which Lifton’s rep­u­ta­tion is well de­served.

That ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion, how­ever, al­lows Lifton to draw in­ter­est­ing par­al­lels be­tween nu­clear and cli­mate threats. Both can pro­duce in­tense anx­i­ety over “in­vis­i­ble con­tam­i­na­tion” of the habi­tats that sus­tain us, both fit fa­mil­iar bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives of global apoc­a­lypse, and both have been ob­scured by bizarre ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions from in­di­vid­u­als with vested in­ter­ests in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. They dif­fer in im­por­tant ways, as well. Nu­clear war would be a sud­den in­ten­tional dis­as­ter and would be ex­pe­ri­enced by the peo­ple who caused it.

Cli­mate change is more in­cre­men­tal, col­lec­tive and un­in­ten­tional, the re­sult of sim­ply liv­ing our lives as usual. Some of its ef­fects are al­ready upon us – in­clud­ing those faced by Pa­cific is­land na­tions that once suf­fered from nu­clear weapons test­ing and now face ris­ing sea lev­els – but the worst ef­fects will af­flict fu­ture gen­er­a­tions that did not cause them. With his strong back­ground in nu­clear is­sues to sup­port him, Lifton warns against nar­row­minded ap­proaches to the cli­mate threat. He takes cli­mate sci­en­tist and ac­tivist James Hansen to task for sup­port­ing nu­clear power, call­ing such “cli­mate nu­cle­arism” a dan­ger­ous un­der­stat­ing of the risks of atomic en­ergy.

As a cli­mate sci­en­tist, I found noth­ing new re­gard­ing the sci­ence of cli­mate change, and in the pro­logue Lifton warns the reader not to ex­pect it. I also found no ma­jor er­rors in the sparse sci­en­tific con­tent. How­ever, hav­ing en­joyed Lifton’s weighty analy­ses of nu­clear psy­chol­ogy, I wanted equally de­tailed in­sights into the na­ture of cli­mate re­jec­tion, de­nial and ac­cep­tance, or more ref­er­ences to cur­rent re­search in cli­mate psy­chol­ogy and how to turn fear into ef­fec­tive ac­tion. To me, blend­ing the two top­ics made Lifton’s lesser ex­pe­ri­ence in cli­mate is­sues more ap­par­ent, and in places it made the nar­ra­tive seem to ram­ble off course.

The Cli­mate Sw­erve is not a ground­break­ing con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate aware­ness on a par with Bill McKibben’s The End of Na­ture, and many other writ­ers have ad­dressed sim­i­lar con­cepts else­where. That said, Lifton’s book is still well worth the read. To my eye, it is a pre­scient mes­sage to the next gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars who may see the nu­clear and cli­mate swerves as steps in the same process: the evo­lu­tion of aware­ness of our­selves as a col­lec­tive force of na­ture. Many peo­ple now re­fer to this new phase of world his­tory as the An­thro­pocene epoch, the age of hu­mans, and Lifton hints at the con­cept when he refers to a “species aware­ness” that is nec­es­sary to face these threats to the hu­man habi­tat.

Once we ac­cept the harsh facts of cli­mate change (or nu­clear apoc­a­lypse) and ac­knowl­edge the fear that comes with them, Lifton re­minds us to take a step fur­ther. We must un­leash that pri­mal fear, he ar­gues, so we can then use our in­tel­lect to chan­nel it into a more ma­ture “anx­i­ety of re­spon­si­bil­ity”

Imag­in­ing such mas­sive de­struc­tion and death is a pre­req­ui­site for wis­dom and for peo­ple ma­tur­ing

that leads to con­certed ac­tion. He men­tions the Paris cli­mate con­fer­ence of 2015 and the cli­mate ac­tion group as man­i­fes­ta­tions of such ac­tions, but more ex­am­ples abound. The in­sur­ance in­dus­try is now plan­ning for a warmer, stormier fu­ture, the US mil­i­tary con­sid­ers cli­mate change to be a na­tional se­cu­rity threat, and even ExxonMo­bil ex­pects the re­treat of po­lar ice to fa­cil­i­tate its ex­ploita­tion of fos­sil fu­els in the Arc­tic. Equally im­por­tant is an en­er­getic new co­hort of young peo­ple who con­sider cli­mate change to be the great chal­lenge of their gen­er­a­tion.

Per­haps the best rea­son to read The Cli­mate Sw­erve may be this note of hope. “Imag­in­ing mas­sive de­struc­tion and death,” he writes, is “a pre­req­ui­site for wis­dom” and for ma­tur­ing as a “tal­ented species in deep trou­ble”. In tak­ing ap­pro­pri­ate, well-in­formed ac­tion now, we can ex­pe­ri­ence “sym­bolic im­mor­tal­ity” not only through our im­me­di­ate de­scen­dants but also by “liv­ing on in hu­mankind”. “What­ever our age,” he con­tin­ues, “we are … part of a flow of end­less gen­er­a­tions that in­clude fore­bears as well as chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.” At its core, Lifton’s cli­mate sw­erve is a grow­ing sense of con­nec­tion to our planet and one an­other. “It is very late in the game,” he con­cludes, “but at the same time far from too late.”

Alamy; Getty

Old and new Ar­maged­don … bot­tom, a nu­clear blast; top, melt­ing ice

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