The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival

by Robert Jay Lifton

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This is a book about climate change but not a detailed study of its ubiquitous effects, or of its political requirements. Rather it is an exploration of mind and habitat, a meditation on what I call the climate swerve, our evolving awareness of our predicament. The climate swerve creates a mind-set capable of constructive action, and is a significant source of hope.

During sixty years of thinking and writing about nuclear weapons I frequently came upon people and events pivotal to the climate story. But it took me a long time to grasp the significance of these encounters and turn my focus to mind-sets related to global warming. I am part of that climate swerve.

Living in Hiroshima for six months in 1962 and interviewing survivors there gave me a hands-on sense of the human effects of nuclear weapons. Like global warming, those weapons raised doubts about the future of our species. I came to recognize that one can learn much by comparing these two apocalyptic twins and our responses to them. I came to see parallels, differences, and overlappings.

When talking to people in Hiroshima I found myself wondering about what went on, psychologically and politically, at the other end of the weapon. This concern with both survivors and scientists, with their voices and mindsets, will be prominent throughout this book. Survivors, like those in Hiroshima, seek meaning from their death encounter, and they may embark on a mission of witness that can be illuminating to their fellow human beings. Scientists created nuclear weapons and then warned us about their danger; it was scientists who revealed to us the devastating consequences of global warming. Scientists in particular, and professionals in general, bring special authority to nuclear and climate matters, which is why the few among them who become associated with various forms of denial, falsification, and rejection have done such great harm.

My work on climate change, then, owes much to my study over the decades of the mind’s relationship to murderous nuclear devices and the world-ending threat they pose. But other studies I have done are also relevant to my approach to the climate story: my work on Chinese thought reform and the mind’s response to totalism; Vietnam veterans and the American confrontation with atrocity; and Nazi doctors and the potential of professionals for active collusion in genocide. The destructive forces encountered in these studies shed light on human-caused climate disaster.

At the same time, the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015 was a stunning demonstration of universal awareness of the danger of global warming, of what I call the climate swerve. Virtually every nation in the world joined in a recognition that we are part of a single species in deep trouble. More recently many of the signatories have expressed further commitment to specific promises to reduce carbon emissions. This display of species awareness is unprecedented, and holds out the possibility that we humans may extricate ourselves from extreme climate catastrophe.

To be sure, there is profound resistance to such awareness, even at times a vicious backlash. The problem is magnified by right-wing political forces, sometimes termed “populist” or “ethnonationalist” movements, gaining power in parts of the world, groups that reject climate change and slander its advocates. Most notable here, and most dangerous to the world, is Donald Trump, the recently elected American president. He and people he has chosen to serve in his administration view climate change as nonexistent, not human caused, or a hoax. But even Trump and his allies cannot fully avoid, in some part of their minds, the recognition that harmful, human-caused climate change does indeed exist. In that sense they are less climate deniers than climate rejecters. Their danger lies in both the actions they resist and those they take. Yet in ways I will consider further, they too are susceptible to the forces at play in the climate swerve.

Climate change confronts us with the most demanding and unique psychological task ever faced by humankind. Yet we have the capacity to apply our minds to this task in the service of protecting our habitat and surviving— perhaps renewing ourselves—as a species.

No one claiming to be an intellectual or a concerned citizen can avoid confronting either the nuclear or the climate threat. But because the climate problem is all-enveloping, no individual person can adequately encompass it. My portion of it—the task I have set for myself—is the comparison of nuclear and climate threats as a way of focusing on the dilemmas we face in connection with our own prior and contemporary actions. I make no claim that this perspective will in itself decrease our carbon emissions or stem the overall rise in sea levels. But even as it enables us to take another look at the still-pervasive nuclear danger, I believe it can offer a measure of insight into grasping our climate menace and acting on it.

The Ultimate Absurdity

I wrote this book just after celebrating my ninetieth birthday. I don’t believe most reasons people give for their longevity, but if asked about mine I would, with tongue only slightly in cheek, point to a longstanding sense of absurdity. This does not mean that I belong to a philosophical or artistic movement that focuses on meaninglessness because we know that we all will die or that that we inhabit an “indifferent universe.” In fact I understand us to possess minds that can create meaning in our lives and find ways to preserve the piece of our universe that we call our planetary habitat. Rather, my sense of absurdity has to do with how much that all of us observe and experience is contradictory, less than rational, based on distorted fantasy.

To be sure, this sense of absurdity has considerable relationship to the extremely destructive, and self-destructive, events I have studied: systematic efforts to control the human mind; the dropping of atomic bombs on populated cities; the pursuit of atrocity-producing wars; and physicians’ vast-scale reversal of healing and killing.

But my sense of absurdity surely preceded these studies and has had more to do with everyday human foibles, very much including my own. I have long expressed my sense of absurdity in bird cartoons. The birds are stick figures—I have no artistic talent—but they can expose just about any kind of pompousness or dubious claim, including the very claim of the uniqueness of the individual self. In one cartoon, which I like to refer to as my existential classic, a small, naïve, enthusiastic bird declares, “All of a sudden I had this wonderful feeling, ‘I am me!’ ” And a larger, more skeptical—even jaundiced—bird looks down at him and responds, “You were wrong.”

This sense of absurdity has not prevented me from joining struggles to oppose what I take to be dangerous forces, especially those related to issues of war and peace and nuclear weaponry. To the contrary, I believe that it has contributed to my judgments, however fallible, about what to oppose and how to oppose it. It may even be a source of hope: what is identifiably absurd can and should be changed to something less absurd and more life-enhancing.

But the subject of global warming is absurd in a newly bizarre way. Its ultimate absurdity is this: by merely continuing with our present practices and routines, we human beings will increasingly harm our own habitat, the portion of nature we require to survive, and ultimately destroy our own civilization. We needn’t start a war or make use of nuclear weapons. We needn’t do anything—other than what we are already doing—to endanger the future of our species.

The “indifferent universe” that the philosophers of absurdity have been fond of referring to has indeed been indifferent to our actions. But those philosophers could not  have imagined our  darker, species-created climate absurdity.

The crucial interaction at issue is that of mind and habitat. Mind is our precious human achievement, a wonderful instrument that can do dreadful things. Our symbolizing minds cause us to reconstruct, with our cerebral cortex, every perception we have. We cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or touch without bringing to the experience a measure of our imagination. That imagination could create a Mozart horn concerto as well as a theory that the Nordic race can best be strengthened by killing all Jews. Yet our mind is our only means of addressing the physics and politics of global warming.

Our habitat is the portion or portions of the earth and its atmosphere—of “nature”—that we humans require to survive. While the word “habitat” suggests specific geographical places, the human genius for adaptation has expanded our habitat to include our entire planet. As the lyrical anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote: “The creature who could clothe himself in fur or take it off at will, who could, by extension of himself into machines, fly, swim or roll at incredible speeds, had simultaneously mastered all of earth’s environments with the same physical body” so that “no longer could man be trapped in a single skin, a single climate, a single continent, or even a single culture. He has become ubiquitous.” But with this omnivorous adaptation and unlimited symbolizing imagination, man “has the capacity to veer with every wind, or stubbornly, to insert himself into some fantastically elaborated and irrational social institution only to perish with it.” In that way man became “the single lethal factor at the root of declining or lost civilizations.”

Facing climate threat, our efforts at adaptation have included reckless consumption of the planet’s energ y resources, notably its fossil fuels, while numbing ourselves to the recognized consequences. At the same time we have succumbed to the power of corporations and nation states at the forefront of this rapacious quest.

No wonder some psychologists and neuroscientists look for an explanation of this behavior in the wiring of our brains. They claim that the brain enables us to deal with immediate threat but not with prospective possibilities. I think that view is half true, and highly misleading. Our brain wiring matters a great deal, and we are surely better at taking in a direct experience than at imagining events in the future. But at the same time a distinguishing evolutionary characteristic of what has come to constitute the human mind is precisely our capacity to imagine what has not yet happened.

With global warming, moreover, the catastrophic future is increasingly visible in a disaster-dominated present: in the high temperatures, droughts, extreme fires, and coastal flooding now occurring throughout the world.

The climate swerve is a manifestation of collective imagination, prospective and immediate, efforts to pit the human mind against the ultimate absurdity of global warming—to make use of our mental resources, including our political and social capacities, to confront this absurdity and find our way toward climate sanity.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Jay Lifton. This excerpt originally appeared in The Climate Swerve, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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