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

By Dan Clendenin

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Robert Jay Lifton, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (New York: The New Press, 2017), 178pp.

For the last sixty years, the American psychiatrist Robert Lifton has studied the causes and consequences of the most violent traumas of our age — most notably, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and Vietnam. His twenty books have included the National Book Award winner Death in Life: Survivors in Hiroshima (1967). He helped to pioneer the field of psychohistory. Now, almost ninety-two years old, he might have saved his best effort for last. This newest book explores climate change, which he considers “the most demanding and unique psychological task ever faced by humankind.” That is, how do we swerve, change our thinking, stir our creative imagination, and take actions to something that is killing us just as surely as nuclear war, genocide, and terrorism have threatened us?

This book isn’t about the science of climate change, although he has lots to say about scientists both pro and con, but rather about our mindset or collective awareness regarding climate change. He begins with the “absurdity” that humanity itself, merely by the way we have chosen to live, is “the single lethal factor” of civilization. In particular, drawing upon his previous work, he appeals to the “apocalyptic twins” of nuclear weapons and climate change as those were experienced on the Marshall Islands, where from 1946 to 1958 the American government conducted sixty-seven atmospheric nuclear bomb tests, one of which “unleashed the equivalent of one thousand Hiroshima bombs on the region in the largest detonation of any kind to have taken place on the face of the earth.”

Somehow we have gotten used to this nuclear and climatic apocalyptic. We numb ourselves to what he calls a “malignant normality.” There are bad actors here, but also good ones, like “witnessing professionals” who call us to a more life-affirming way to live. Of special note in his opinion are the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that divested its holdings from fossil fuel companies, and the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, which he considers a “stunning declaration” and “expression of species unanimity.” We should resist feelings of helplessness. In a “swerve,” shift, or deviation from the climate status quo, we should reject dread, embrace hope, and take creative actions while we still can.

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