The Uninhabitable Earth

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Por: PeriodicoVirtual

The Uninhabitable Earth

The Other Kind of Climate Denialism

As uncertainty and denial about climate change have diminished, they have been replaced by similarly paralyzing feelings of panic, anxiety, and resignation.

Photograph by Mason Trinca / The Washington Post / Getty

“The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells’s new book about how climate change will affect human life, begins, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” In superhot cities, roads will melt and train tracks will buckle. At five degrees of warming, much of the planet would be in constant drought. With just six metres of sea-level rise—an optimistic projection—land where three hundred and seventy-five million people currently live will be underwater. Some of the apocalyptic stories aren’t from the future but our recent past: in the Paradise Camp Fire of late 2018, people fleeing the flames “found themselves sprinting past exploding cars, their sneakers melting to the asphalt as they ran.”

To anyone who has been paying attention, the broad strokes of “The Uninhabitable Earth” come as no surprise. We are racing toward—in fact have already entered—an era of water shortage, wildfire, sea-level rise, and extreme weather. To read the book is to ask hard questions about one’s own future. When will the city where I live be flooded? Where should I live when it does? Where will my future children live? Should I have children at all?

Yet Wallace-Wells has also stressed that there is no place for fatalism. In an interview with NPR, he said that “every inch of warming makes a difference”—we cannot stop the process of warming altogether, but we can control whether climate change yields a future that is apocalyptic or instead “merely grim.” Several years ago, I asked the climate activist and writer Bill McKibben how he was able to keep from falling into depression, given how much time he devotes to thinking about climate change. He answered that fighting is the key—it’s only despairing if you think that you can’t take on the problem. “It’s the greatest fight in human history, one whose outcome will reverberate for geologic time, and it has to happen right now,” he said.

In 2008 and 2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force to examine the relationship between psychology and climate change. It found that, although people said that climate change was important, they did not “feel a sense of urgency.” The task force identified several mental barriers that contributed to this blasé stance. People were uncertain about climate change, mistrustful of the science, or denied that it was related to human activity. They tended to minimize the risks and believe that there was plenty of time to make changes before the real impacts were felt. Just ten years later, these attitudes about climate feel like ancient relics. But two key factors, which the task force identified as keeping people from taking action, have stood the test of time: one was habit, and the other was lack of control. “Ingrained behaviors are extremely resistant to permanent change,” the group stated. “People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.”

Wallace-Wells hits this note in his book, too, writing, “We seem most comfortable adopting a learned posture of powerlessness.” As uncertainty and denial about climate have diminished, they have been replaced by similarly paralyzing feelings of panic, anxiety, and resignation. As we begin to live through the massive dangers imparted by climate change, as one psychologist put it to me, “We are in psychological terrain, whether we like it or not.”

John Fraser is a conservation psychologist who has studied burnout and trauma among people doing environmental work. “We have to move beyond terrorizing people with disaster stories,” he told me. Responses to climate change are often discussed as a spectrum, with denial and disengagement at one end and intense alarm on the other. We are getting more alarmed. In 2009, a Yale and George Mason study grouped Americans’ responses to climate into six categories: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive. In 2009, eighteen per cent were alarmed; in 2018, that number had risen to twenty-nine per cent.

Fraser wants people to feel not alarmed but activated, and he takes a relentlessly positive, solutions-oriented attitude. “We got trains all the way across America in a few years, and people on the moon in a few years,” he said. And ideas for climate moonshots abound: negative-carbon-emission plants are prohibitively expensive, but they do exist; some advocate for reviving nuclear power; proponents of a Green New Deal call for ending fossil-fuel extraction and subsidies, and radically expanding public transportation. In Silicon Valley, ideas are emerging that rely less on politics than on technology, like flooding some deserts to grow carbon-sucking algae beds, or using electrochemistry to get rocks to absorb carbon from the air. Fraser believes that the most productive way to communicate about environmental problems is to emphasize the positive solutions that exist. “What we need to promote is hope,” he said. “The first step to a healthy response is feeling that the problem is solvable.”

“Is it appropriate to feel terrified? No,” Fraser said. “Because you just shut down.”

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 scopeof 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.

In October, 2017, Wallace-Wells spoke on a panel at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists that was titled “Doomsday Stories: The Ethics and Efficacy of Doomsday Reporting.” The conversation largely followed the fault line between scaring readers and offering them hope. Coming down hard on the side of fear, Wallace-Wells passed something he had been told by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who said, “You really can’t let people’s need for hope get in the way of the telling the truth.” And fear is useful, Wallace-Wells said: the threat of mutually assured destruction motivated world leaders to end the Cold War, and fear of cancer has led people to quit smoking. “It’s a little too simplistic to think that anything that is scary is inevitably paralyzing to the public, and I think it’s a little patronizing,” he said.

One of the other panelists was the psychologist and communications expert Renee Lertzman, who argued that it was necessary to “blow up the dichotomy” between fear and hope, or truth and positivity. The problem with the horror-story narratives are not necessarily that they are frightening, she said, but that they are presented almost cinematically—placing people outside of the action in the “politically neutralizing” position of “titillated, excited, fearful spectators.” In her book “Environmental Melancholia,” Lertzman argues that unprocessed grief about ecological devastation is a big part of what prevents people from addressing environmental challenges. This “arrested, inchoate form of mourning” keeps people locked in a state of inaction, she writes.

When I spoke to Lertzman, she talked about the need to have conversations about climate change that allow space for people to process—or at least acknowledge—their feelings. A gesture as simple as beginning a conversation by allowing a few moments to say, “ ‘Damn, this is intense,’ ” she told me, “frees up a lot of energy to move into problem-solving mode.” This recognition is a familiar move in psychology: first acknowledging that a topic is difficult and then wading in. It reminded me of the way that a doctor with a good bedside manner might approach delivering a difficult diagnosis, but Lertzman said that it’s more complicated than that: because of our culpability in the climate crisis, discussing it is like getting news about a health issue that’s directly related to one’s own habits. You not only have to face a scary future but reckon with how you helped to create it. “We have to come to terms with the fact that what we’re doing is no longer sustainable, and the onus is on us to rise to the occasion,” she said.

“What works really well is when people feel that they are invited and inspired to be part of something constructive, combined with having the safety to grapple with the magnitude of things,” Lertzman told me. This way of thinking loops back to Bill McKibben’s advice, that the only cure for climate agita is activism. Susan Clayton, a professor of social psychology and environmental studies (and a member of the A.P.A.’s climate-change task force, a decade ago), made a similar point, telling me that what’s good for the climate—in the form of participation in a community effort—is also good for the psyche. “It’s similar to the civil-rights movement,” she said. “The act of coming together is empowering and validating.”

In a poignant essay posted on Medium, Mary Annaïse Heglar, who works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote that the climate movement has a lot to learn from the civil-rights movement. Climate change might be the first existential threat levelled at all of humanity, but America itself has been an existential threat to black people for hundreds of years. Describing the calculated violence of Jim Crow, she writes, “I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. . . . They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world.” The flooding and fires of our changed climate may be unprecedented, but the threat of annihilation is certainly not—in their discussions of climate change, both Wallace-Wells and Salamon refer to their ancestors who lived through the Holocaust. Put in this light, the response of quiet climate denialism—not disbelief in the phenomenon, but the choice to bury one’s head in the sand because thinking about it is too unpleasant—is not just untenable but childish. As Heglar writes, “You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight because you have to.”

About halfway through “The Uninhabitable Earth,” Wallace-Wells pauses to give his “brave reader” a small pat on the back for making it through what would be “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic.” When I started reading the book, the experience was shockingly physical. My heart beat faster as I was reading about the disasters to come. My eyes filled with tears as I tracked Wallace-Wells’s climate timelines with the coming decades of my life, or those of the children I might have. But as I read on, in the course of several days, I became acclimated. I could read it with my mind, without my fight-or-flight systems getting in the way. This felt strangely empowering.

Wallace-Wells writes that the last century of fossil-fuel extraction and industrial capitalism has enabled a life style I enjoy—that this very process “made middle-class-ness possible” for billions of people.” Yet, at the same time, it is a system that must be radically overhauled. Modern people have a tendency, he writes, to see human systems as more inviolable than natural ones. And so, “renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two.” It’s why creating global factories to suck carbon out of the atmosphere might appear to be easier than simply ending fossil-fuel subsidies, he writes. These are the competing truths we have to integrate: a livable world is incompatible with fossil fuels, and fossil fuels made the world we live in.

Decarbonizing the economy will be difficult, but it must be done. It will be hard—but not as hard as surviving the catalogue of disasters that will befall us if we don’t. This is, to my mind, the great strength of Wallace-Wells’s approach to storytelling. The thing to grieve, then, is not the Earth’s habitable climate but, instead, the century of carefree car-driving and reckless deforestation, the years of eating meat with abandon and inexpensively flying around the world—and the massive economic growth that this system has enabled. Overhauling the fossil-fuel economy will represent a true loss, but its sacrifices will be nowhere near the alternative. The process is subject to all matter of difficulties: the problem of collective action, scientific uncertainty, technological challenges, political mobilization, and many others. But to do anything less is to go insane.

Nota tomada de: https://www.newyorker.com

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