Through small group conversations, climate-alarmed individuals can have breakthroughs in the depth of their engagement and commitment.
Come share your grief, terror, and other feelings with people who understand. Hear about their experience, which is both unique and universal, and realize that you are not alone. We hold 3 calls per month.
I am very excited to tell you about the launch of my new project, Climate Awakening, which aims to unleash the power of climate emotions through thousands of small group conversations.
It has been the honor of my life to develop and champion a new approach to climate politics, one that treats climate as an emergency that requires a WWII-scale mobilization to address, through founding and directing The Climate Mobilization. When we launched in 2014, this was an audacious, marginal paradigm. We were determined to make it mainstream.
And we did it! This small, scrappy, visionary organization changed the way the world talks and thinks about climate — a new United Nations poll shows that 64% of people globally view climate as an emergency — and we have brought the concept of WWII-scale Climate Mobilization firmly into the mainstream of the climate movement and politics. This is a huge achievement that was made possible by hundreds of volunteers, organizers, donors, and allied organizations.
Of course, until we have eliminated emissions, restored a safe climate, reversed the 6th mass extinction of species, and created a just society that works for everyone, our work is unfinished. The next step is for governments and institutions to declare climate emergencies and enter “emergency mode”, dedicating all available resources to protecting humanity and all life. The Climate Mobilization is supporting this work at the local and state level. Matt Renner is leading as Executive Director, and I am supporting as Board President. Climate Awakening is fiscally sponsored by the Climate Mobilization Project.
My Next Step
With Climate Awakening, I am getting back to my roots as a clinical psychologist, and building on the work of my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Of course, I am also bringing the understanding that we are in an acute emergency, that full-scale mobilization is our only option, and that we need to build the largest social movement in history.
There is a huge disconnect between what people understand intellectually about the climate: 64% think it’s an emergency, and how they are acting: normally. I believe that this disconnect comes from the failure to confront and process the truth of the climate emergency emotionally and socially.
Through small group conversations, climate-alarmed individuals can have breakthroughs in the depth of their engagement and commitment.
You can join a small group conversation, sign up for updates, learn more, and support Climate Awakening at: ClimateAwakening.org
Dear Climate Psychologist, My partner and I are beginning to have conversations about having kids, but I’m quite pessimistic and extremely worried about our future. Why would I want to bring a child into this world, right now? Imagining the future they would grow up in fills me with terror.
When I have tried we’ve become stuck arguing about what might/ might not happen. We get derailed into our different perspectives on how different the future might be.
How can I communicate my anxieties about having kids honestly?
Sincerely, Frightened of the future
Dear Frightened of the Future-
I get this kind of question a lot, and I relate personally, too! Many people who understand the existential danger of the Climate Emergency feel alienated from their partners, as well as other family and friends, feeling that “no one understands.” There is a spiral of silence around the climate emergency. We avoid talking about it because we worry it will make others feel uncomfortable, or start an argument, or that we will be uncomfortable So, let me be clear, despite widespread denial of the Climate Emergency and how it will affect our society, your worries are in fact based in the reality of what the global scientific community is telling us, and you have every right to feel that way
You are already in touch with your fear about the Climate Emergency, but it’s always important to explore, express, and process more emotions. You haven’t been able to successfully communicate about these feelings with your partner, so make sure you are articulating them to others. Consider joining a discussion hosted by Good Grief Network or Conceivable Future. Also, consider joining the Climate Emergency Movement- this will not only help protect humanity and the living world, it will also help you by finding other people who share your alarm about the future.
After you have had some practice talking about the emotional and personal parts of the climate emergency, try to bring the Climate Emergency conversation to your partner in a new way. First, leaving kids out of it entirely. Ask them if they have seen some recent news– for example Siberia being 100 degrees– and how it makes them feel. Talk about your own emotional experience– your fear, grief, and other feelings. Invite them to read an article or book about the climate emergency and discuss it with you. I recommend The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells or my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Invite your partner to attend a meeting of a climate emergency organization with you, either a group you already know, or one you can explore together.
When you do talk about children, communicate whether you are questioning, or whether you feel certain. If you are certain, you do not need to seek agreement, you need to communicate your decision. You have every right not to have children, but your partner deserves to know where you are at. If you are still questioning, try to articulate what might make you feel differently, ie “If I see world governments actually acting responsibly, and racing to eliminate emissions, I might change my mind.”
Try to have self compassion and compassion for your partner during these stressful conversations. Neither of you asked to be born into this age of ecological crisis. It is an unprecedented emergency, and it is extremely difficult to intellectually and emotionally make sense of.
-Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Do you have advice for the Frightened of the Future? Respectful conversation invited in the comments.
Are you feeling increasingly depressed about the future? Terrified? Enraged? Helpless?
Facing the Climate Emergency is a self-help guide for all who are struggling with the pain of the climate emergency , and helps them turn their pain into action. My goal is to help you become the most effective warrior for humanity and the living world that you can be!
This book combines my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, as well as the last 6 years I have spent in the Climate Emergency Movement, as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Early readers have reported that this book is extremely helpful in navigating their climate journeys, and said things like, “I am ordering 50 and sending to all my friends!” — you can check out that feedback, and get a FREE CHAPTER, at Facingtheclimateemergency.com
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In 20? Perhaps you plan to be advancing in your career, married, with children or retired, living near the beach, traveling often. Whatever it is—have you factored the climate crisis into it? In my experience, most people have not integrated the climate emergency into their sense of identity and future plans. This is, a form of climate denial. The vast majority of Americans—especially educated, successful, powerful, and privileged Americans—are still living their “normal” lives as though the climate crisis was not happening. They are pursuing their careers, starting families, and even saving for retirement. They know, intellectually, that the climate crisis is real, but they have not faced that reality emotionally, they have not grieved the future they thought they had, and consequently, they have not been able to act rationally or responsibility.
Thankfully, this is starting to change. Thanks to the efforts of the School Strikers, The Climate Mobilization (the organization which I founded and direct), Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, authors like David Wallace Wells, and many more, people are increasingly confronting the terrifying reality of climate truth, and looking for help processing and making sense of what they find.
After you acknowledge the apocalyptic scale and speed of the climate emergency, you must allow yourself time to grieve. There are so many losses: the people and species already lost, your sense of safety and normalcy.
Above all, in order to live in truth, we have to grieve for our own futures—the futures we had planned, hoped for, and thought we were building. Grief is appropriate—while, on one hand, this is the loss of an abstraction, not a living creature. On the other, it’s a huge loss—the loss of our most cherished plans, goals, fand fantasies.
When I was a child, I remember my mother telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I knew this wasn’t literally true, but I also knew that I had many options. I studied at Harvard, then earned a PhD in clinical psychology with plans to write books about psychology for popular audiences. I imagined myself married with children. What a lovely life I had planned! It was going to be meaningful, intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding, and rich in relationships.
But there was one problem.
When I forced myself to learn about the climate crisis, when I fully grasped its reality, and when I started the process of grieving what was already lost, I also realized that my lovely life was… not going to really work. Maybe I could still pull off living my perfect life—at least for a decade or so—but it would happen while tens of millions of refugees streamed out of regions made unlivable by heat, drought, or flood, and while state after state failed and threatened the collapse of humanity and the natural world.
Ultimately, I had to acknowledge that the future I was planning on was ruined. I was never going to lead a happy and satisfying life while watching the world burn, no matter how much self-care I practiced. I already felt that I was simply too interconnected with the planet for that. I had to say goodbye to the future I had planned on, and, in many ways, I had to say goodbye to the person who had made those plans, and so I had to grieve those losses, too.
Psychotherapists know that grief is not optional: when confronted with devastating losses, grief is the only healthy way to respond and adapt to new realities. If we stop ourselves from feeling grief, we stop ourselves from processing the reality of our loss. If we can’t process out loss, then we can’t live in reality. We become imprisoned and immobile. Grief ensures we don’t get stuck in the paralysis of denial, living in the past or in fantasy versions of the present and future. Think of the widower who cannot acknowledge the death of his wife, never cleans out her closet, and is thus never able to create a full life without her.
The climate emergency threatens to destroy our shared and personal futures. It challenges basic assumptions about progress—that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” The climate crisis threatens to set back thousands of years of human development. It has ruined the futures we had planned. It has also made the present—what we do now—almost unbearably important. Our actions now, this year and next year, have a incalculable amount of importance to all life.
When I grieved the loss of the future I had planned for myself, I gained the ability to engage more fully and meaningfully in the here and now of reality and morality. You can, too. Changing course allowed me to set out on a new path, with a new future dictated by the personal mission to do whatever I could to help society confront the truth, and initiate a global response to the climate crisis. Letting go of my hopes and plans that were, in themselves, a kind of climate denial—allowing me to live in line with my values and in climate truth. This action allowed me to feel a hope that was powerful enough to motivate my transformation into a climate warrior who is prepared to do everything that I can to prevent catastrophic outcomes from fully unfolding, and to help restore the health of the climate and protect all life.
My grief enabled me to remember my connection to all life, and helped me let go of the illusion of my separate self. If the forests die, I die. If the oceans die, I die. I am entirely dependent on the natural world for my life and safety. The natural world will only survive if humanity has a collective awakening and commences emergency mobilization. I realized, as Dr. King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I realized that I was only truly going to be able to thrive on a healthy planet where humanity realizes that we must take seriously our responsibility to protect and nurture the natural world and each other. Understanding this meant I had to shed my former self and go far beyond my goals for personal happiness and success, and reorient them around helping to create the collective awakening that we need.
You, too, must grieve the future you’ve dreamed of. It’s a hard step, but it’s also part of the necessary work of stepping into the now and facing our climate emergency. This way, we can turn grief into power. Once you realize that the future you thought you had is not going to happen; you can begin to think of yourself differently. If humanity’s two choices are to transform or collapse, the only rational, moral choice is to immerse yourself in the struggle to protect all life.
Only when you are able to face the future as it is—not as it was or as you dreamed it would be—will you fully grieve and be ready to move on. To help as you grieve the future you thought you had, ask yourself:
What have been your cherished hopes and plans for the future?
Are you ready to realize your plans will not unfold as you had hoped?
Can you envision a life that revolves around a commitment to protect all life?
Are you struggling to cope with the climate emergency? Are you terrified or in despair? I wrote a book for you.
Transform Yourself with Climate Truth opens a new genre: self-help for the climate emergency. The goal of this book is to help you feel your feelings and turn them into effective, heroic action in the fight for humanity and the living world.
Margaret Klein Salamon, who trained as a clinical psychologist before founding a climate-advocacy organization, takes the opposite view. She doesn’t see fear as paralyzing but as a necessary response that activates people to recognize danger and take action. What’s more, given the state of the atmosphere, she argues that acute fear is rational. “It’s important to feel afraid of things that will kill us—that is healthy and good,” she said. She believes that reckoning with the scope of the emergency is required, both to activate responsible behavior and to reap the mental-health benefits of “living in climate truth.” Salamon, who grew up in a family of psychoanalysts and considers therapy to be “something of a family business,” is writing “Transform Yourself with Climate Truth,” a self-help book on the subject.
Salamon said that it’s no surprise that people can’t process the truth about the climate crisis and instead construct defense mechanisms against it. In twenty years, what now registers as an extreme heat wave will likely be the norm. By 2045, more than three hundred thousand U.S. homes will be lost to encroaching oceans; by 2100, a trillion dollars worth of real estate will be lost in the U.S. alone. As atmospheric carbon levels rise, plants produce more sugars and fewer nutrients—by 2050, vegetables will be turning into junk food. There’s a huge overlap between things that wreak havoc on the climate and things that serve a materialist version of the good, comfortable life: meat-eating, air-conditioning, air travel. “It’s a basic part of being human that our minds frequently deal with competing interests—that’s how defense mechanisms are formed,” Salamon said.
Salamon hosts periodic phone sessions, where callers can dial in to discuss their feelings about climate change and climate activism. All sorts of emotions have come up on these calls: guilt and shame, grief, panic, helplessness, even “destructive glee” from people who are angry that their warnings haven’t been heeded. Salamon stresses the importance of processing climate change as an emotional and personal phenomenon, not just a scientific one. Everyone, she said, needs to grieve for their own futures, which aren’t going to look the way we thought. They’re going to be more parched, more crowded, more dangerous, and more austere.
Thousands of people have read my essay The Transformative Power of Climate Truth through the years, and I have updated it several times. See the most recent iteration, including an analysis of Trump, the breakthroughs in the Climate Emergency Movement, and more. Available on medium here.
The month discussion series, Life in the Climate Crisis– is going extremely well.
Every month about 10-20 people call in, some regulars, some new, to discuss the emotional, personal, and social elements of being alive during this time of crisis. There is a palpable sense of fellowship as we discuss various topics around the climate crisis. We have discussed how understanding the truth of the climate crisis feels, how it affects relationships, and how it makes us feel differently about ourselves.
We have laughed and cried together. Discussants have shared painful feelings– especially the sense of being alienated and that “no one understands”– and found relief in being heard and understood.
I am writing a book, and using the Mobilizer Discussions as a way to workshop and develop it. I have shared some of that writing– which you can see here– and had my writing influenced by the contents of the calls. One Mobilizer Backer called it, “Her monthly joy.”
We have a call coming upthis Sunday! The topic is how the climate crisis should influence your relationship to money. I hope you can join us. While the Mobilizer Backer program is for monthly supporters of The Climate Mobilization, you are invited to attend 2 calls before making that commitment.
McKay directed The Big Short: one of the strongest climate films to come out of Hollywood. Ok, I know The Big Short isn’t technically “about” the climate crisis, but hear me out:
The Big Short confronts the climate crisis more explicitly than most movies do. For example, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben, believes societal collapse is imminent and that “seeds will become new currency.” In the closing credits we see that Dr. Michael Burr, the genius behind shorting the housing market is now trading in just one commodity: water. The implication is that some of the most prescient forecasters in the world are also foreseeing massive environmental collapse.
But more importantly, the Big Short is basically a parable about the climate crisis. For this reason, it has been on The Climate Mobilization’s “Recommended Films” list for years. A small group of people know that imminent collapse is coming and hardly anyone, and no institutions, believe them. In the “Jenga scene” banker Jared Vennett illustrates how fragile the housing market truly is (as well as how callously racist the culture on Wallstreet can be). When you pull out too many rungs, the whole thing comes crashing down.
We can imagine a Jenga game labeled with all the things that make civilization possible. Instead of A, B, AA, etc the blocks could say things like, “wheat yields,” “water access” “public health” and so on. When the climate crisis damages too many of these, the whole tower will fall: civilization itself will collapse.
Finally, The Big Short illustrates how it feels to understand that a crisis is coming while most people and institutions are blithely optimistic, continuing with business as usual.
It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goosebumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal – is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views… But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.
The characters in The Big Short struggle with the social, personal, and professional consequences of predicting collapse. Their jobs are threatened and they are mocked, “They call me Chicken Little, they call me bubble boy,” Vennett says of the professional disdain he experiences for telling the truth about the coming housing crash.
People who tell the truth about the climate crisis and advocate for emergency climate mobilization understand the social costs of being outside the norm. We have made many family members, dinner party guests, and dates uncomfortable. We have experienced alienation, and relief at finding fellowship with others who understand the truth and are dedicated to solving the crisis.
Profiting from vs Preventing Collapse
The characters in The Big Short sought to profit from the coming collapse. Imagine if instead the forecasters had started organizing and getting the best progressive politicians to recognize the danger of the financial collapse and start introducing policies to reign in these financial institutions before it was too late?
That’s basically what we at The Climate Mobilization are trying to do. We could seek personal profit — shorting insurance or agricultural futures, perhaps, or buying land in Siberia. But instead, we are focused on preventing collapse.
After The Climate Mobilization spent months campaigning for WWII scale climate mobilization in Iowa, in the lead up to the Iowa Caucuses, Bernie Sanders started talking about the need for WWII scale climate mobilization in debates and town halls. Our ally Russell Greene got the need for WWII scale climate mobilization into the Democratic Party Platform.
Now we are working locally, getting resolutions passing in Hoboken NJ, and Montgomery County MA, declaring a climate emergency and committing the city to reaching zero emissions at emergency speed. In Los Angeles, we have supported the introduction of a motion calling for a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department — a city department that would oversee the rapid transition to zero emissions, as well as spread the need for emergency climate mobilization to people and other government bodies.
Seeking personal profit would be absurd, because ultimately the climate crisis threatens us all. The stakes of the housing bubble pale in comparison to the climate stakes. The only safety, the only profit, will come from preventing the Jenga set of human civilization from falling down. We want to cancel the apocalypse, and we know the only way to do that is through an all-hands on deck climate mobilization that brings America, and then the world, to zero emissions at emergency speed, and draws down excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Check out The Big Short to get a good picture of the eerie feeling of knowing collapse is imminent while everyone is acting normal. And then please consider organizing with or financially supporting The Climate Mobilization.
Before starting The Climate Mobilization, I was training to become a clinical psychologist. Psychology was the first lens I used to examine my own and others’ responses to the climate crisis: grief, terror, denial, dissociation and more. My most impactful writing has been on the psychology of the climate crisis.
In January, I started a psychological discussion series, with the goal of creating a fellowship with others who are grappling with climate truth as they go through their lives every day. The discussions will open to all Mobilizer Backers — The Climate Mobilization’s sustaining donors.
These 90 minute monthly calls will be a time to share and learn about the under-discussed personal, emotional side of the climate crisis. The format will vary, but the basic questions we will explore will include: What is it like to live in these times? How does it feel? How does the climate crisis affect your relationships? How does it affect your identity?? How does it affect how you plan your future and make major decisions?
On the next call, upcoming on 2.18, I will also share and discuss the step-by-step guide I am working on to “Go all in on the climate emergency,” intended to help people take responsibility for the climate crisis and leap into becoming climate warriors. Mobilizer Backers will be invited to read the (draft) guidebook chapters before the call. The topics we discuss will include “Build emotional muscle,” “Welcome all Thoughts and Feelings,” “Curiosity and Compassion,” “Grieve the life you thought you were living,” and “Fear: It’s there to help us.”
I will discuss these topics, share from the guide, and ask callers to share their thoughts and experiences.
The Mobilizer Backer Program will also feature a monthly “Strategy and Politics” call, which will bring on leaders from within TCM, as well as esteemed guests, to talk about TCM’s strategy and the work they have been doing, comment on current events, the state of politics and the climate movement. Mobilizer Backers will ask questions and offer feedback. The next call is 2.22 and features John Mitchell, our lead engineer, explaining the brilliant implementation plans he has created for cities
Mobilizer Backers are the foundation of the Climate Mobilization. They provide us with reliable income and support the spreading of climate truth and the building power for emergency climate mobilization all over the country. Because we leverage a huge amount of volunteer capacity, your gift will have a much greater impact. Please become a Mobilizer Backertoday. I hope to see you on the calls soon!
Last Week, David Wallace-Wells published a cover story in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, a devastated economy, plagues, resource wars, and more. It has been read more than two million times.
The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece — though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening:
“Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” –Michael Mann, writing with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles.
Eric Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:
A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers.
And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW’s piece, have felt deep anxiety.
There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly bc of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.
While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions — namely, fear — in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Affect tolerance — the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others — is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia — the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others — is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.
Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt, and helplessness — can be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we should try to avoid “making” people feel such things! Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis. I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argue in The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings — not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.
Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article… but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it — it’s to protect them from the climate crisis!
I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. TCM exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.
I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the United States to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.
In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.
Columnist Joe Romm noted that we aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include: 1) An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years; 2) massive government investment in renewables; 3) overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink; 4) fair-shares rationing to reduce demand; 5) A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment 6) a 100% marginal tax on income above $500,000.
Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem “politically realistic” but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people’s fear into productive action.
We know what is physically and morally necessary. It’s our job — as members of the climate emergency movement — to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.
I was earning my PhD in clinical psychology when I, like the protagonist of the acclaimed podcast S-town, developed an “obsession” with the climate crisis and the imminent threat it poses to humanity and the natural world.
For years, I had been using some of the very psychological defenses I was studying — such as like willful ignorance, intellectualization, and denial — to protect myself from the frightening facts. When my defenses gave way, I pushed myself to actually study what was happening. Confronting the truth was painful and scary, like it was for John B.
S-town illustrates two common reactions to living in this time of ecological and civilizational crisis. 1) Like Producer Brian Reed, we can keep up our defense mechanisms, and refuse to fully engage with the climate emergency or 2) If, like John B, we do not defend ourselves from the facts, we can become deeply depressed and cynical about humanity.
John B’s despair leads to his individual suicide. But as Susan Mathews argues in Slate, “John B.’s take is significantly more logical and less “crazy” than the reaction most of society has.” The more common reaction, demonstrated by Brian, will lead to our collective suicide. If we all continue to treat the climate crisis as someone else’s responsibility, we have no chance of averting an apocalyptic fate.
S-town illustrates the deep loneliness of people who cannot detach from the implications of the climate crisis or say “fuck it,” to the collapse of civilization which we are careening towards. John B has long been frustrated with the residents of Woodstock for not accepting, let alone acting on, climate science. Presumably in reaching out to an NYC reporter, he’s looking in part for someone willing to take him seriously. But even in climate science-accepting communities it is easy to feel lonely, or crazy, once you start really comprehending climate truth.
John B tries to get through to Brian about the climate crisis. Brian describes how John B would demand that he listen to presentations on the crisis of civilization, “I sat through lectures that he put together with slideshows on climate change and energy depletion…. You need to sit through this lecture, then we can talk about the murder.”
Hearing the facts doesn’t really move Brian. The day before he kills himself. John B sends Brian “The Collapse List” It’s full of statistics like, “*90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950, 50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985, We must produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in the past 10,000 years combined.:
Brian describes his experience reading the list as “numbing.” He first assumes the statistics are inaccurate, but when he looks into it they seem to check out. Nevertheless, Brian treats John’s focus on the climate crisis as a poignant quirk, an element of John B’s eccentricity, saying, “All the world was a Shit Town to John B, and he bore every disgrace of that world in his heart.”
Brian and the creators of S-town delve into many aspects of John B’s life and suicide deftly, thoroughly, and compassionately. Loneliness, conflicts about his sexuality, and mercury poisoning are all considered in vivid detail. But climate change, isn’t given that investigatory treatment. Instead, the show treats his obsession with looming ecological collapse as just another symptom of mental illness. It doesn’t consider that it might be a legitimate causal factor in its own right.
This uneven consideration ignores the fact that confronting the climate crisis is a source of mental anguish to many. When I put my career as a psychologist on hold to found a climate advocacy group, I quickly discovered that many of the people coming to volunteer with me were grappling with grief, terror, alienation, and even suicidal thoughts stemming from their confrontation with our current reality.
There’s nothing eccentric about such reactions: they are a logical response to the information that the ecological crisis threatens to cause the collapse of civilization in the coming decade, within many people’s lifespans. Brian confirms that the facts on John’s list are accurate, reports feeling “numb” and then simply moves on, to reporting on conflicts surrounding John B’s estate. You have to wonder which response is more “pathological.”
I am not trying to condemn Brian. His response is normal and understandable. Letting go of our own personal brand of climate denial is a complicated and painful process. It’s important that we give each other support in moving through a process of mourning the stable, beautiful world we thought we were living in, rather than pathologizing that grief. But the mourning doesn’t have to last forever.
I knew I wasn’t going to overcome my own despair by changing lightbulbs, or working for incremental solutions that weren’t going to keep us safe. As I did research I discovered a hidden consensus among analysts about the scale of action needed to solve the climate crisis: an emergency speed transition on the scale of the home front mobilization during World War II. Everyone seemed to acknowledge we needed it, but no one was advocating it. They didn’t think it was possible to spur that scale of action.
So I started an organization whose mission is to break our societal trance and make the necessary possible: radical truth telling and radical hope. Many have since told me that even just stumbling across a vision that could actually solve the climate emergency was a powerful source of psychic relief. Similarly volunteers report that spreading and building power behind climate truth gives them energy and a sense of purpose. I certainly feel that way.
Repressing our fear and anxiety about the climate crisis is draining, especially amid mounting crises. There’s just so much to rationalize and ignore, from unseasonable weather to reports of the melting permafrost and the collapsing arctic ice sheets. Channeling the mental energy we expend resisting knowledge of the crisis into an organized collective response is critical to our mental health as individuals and our survival as a species. John B’s mental illness and isolation kept him from channeling his concern about the climate crisis into effective action. However, because of S-Town, millions are being exposed to his deep concern.
John B may have been a man of many quirks, but his response to climate change should not be seen as one of them. Rather despair should be viewed as a halfway point to action; it can be part of a process of coming to terms with climate truth and dedicating oneself to productive action Let’s hope that listeners are able to move past minimizing or exoticizing his psychological responses, and use his story as a jumping off point for examining their own.
After Donald Trump’s election, we at TCM went back to the drawing board. “How are we going to successfully commence climate mobilization under these insane political conditions?!” we asked. We devoted hundreds of hours to reading, conversation and study to attempt to answer this question.
For those looking for an even deeper dive, we are also publishing a 40-page version that includes an extended strategic analysis.
We hope you read this blueprint, share it widely, and talk about it with others. Then, we hope you’ll consider attending one of our newly launched Climate Emergency Movement trainings to learn the specifics of how to work with a local team to put it in action. (Information about our newly launched training program can be found here).
Here’s my bottom line: I think our climate mobilization movement is toast under a Donald J. Trump presidency. With Jill Stein sinking in the polls, I believe our only hope for delivering a climate mobilization within the next year is under a Hillary Clinton administration. A Clinton presidency buys us time to build a mass movement capable of delivering on the promise of our amendment to the Democratic Party platform; a Trump presidency slams the door shut.
We do not underestimate how tremendously difficult it will be to force a Clinton administration to commence a WWII-scale climate mobilization resembling the one outlined in the Victory Plan. That’s why we have launched Climate Year and are ramping up a massive campaign with Russell Greene to create support for the climate emergency summit within every major sector of society in the coming months.
Furthermore, Bill McKibben is now calling for hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets to demand that the Democrats follow through on our amendment to the party platform. Check it out:
And as a result, by staring them down, the platform, at the last minute, turned markedly more progressive. Among other things, there’s a call in there for an emergency climate summit within the first hundred days of a new administration, designed to—and it says this in the platform—mobilize us for something like a World War II approach to climate change. We’ll see if we can hold them to it. Clearly, it will take hundreds of thousands of people in the street, just like there were in New York two years ago this month.
Thanks for considering the arguments in the article. I look forward to further organizing and mobilizing with you all in an America where we maintain some modicum of civil liberties and are free from the shackles of Donald Trump and fascism.