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.