Take stock of your body: your heart rate, breath, overall mood. Investigate the level of tension in your jaw and between your eyes, the weight of your gut, the physiological equilibrium at which you’ve found yourself. Then read the following passage.
Even if we meet the Paris [climate accord] goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. […] By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century.
Where is your body now?
Have the metrics of your physiological arousal spiked? Maybe you are unlike me, a person who visibly jumps every time someone enters a room in which I am sitting. Maybe you do not walk through life with the limbic system of a small animal constantly preparing for death. But it doesn’t feel good to read, does it?
And yet now, with the distance of maybe five or ten seconds, you may find your body already slipping back towards equilibrium, that fleeting flash of terror fading into a vague sense of dread in the back of your throat, becoming something easier to ignore. When you are done reading this post, when you are cooking dinner or making out or preparing for sleep, it’s likely that the knowledge of civilization’s eventual collapse, even if it does cross your mind, will arouse no emotional response at all.
This propensity to ignore tragedy is known in psychology as psychic numbing, a term coined by psychiatrist Robert Lifton, who in 1982 examined the psychological response to another existential threat both terrifying in its immediacy and altogether intangible — nuclear war. He opens thusly:
Human existence itself may be absurd, as many have claimed, but we live now in a special realm of absurdity; we are haunted by something we can neither see nor imagine. We are afraid of something we call “nuclear holocaust” and at the same time are removed from, and have little awareness of, that threat.
The nuclear sword of Damocles, the ignored prophecies of climatic Cassandras; like characters in any Grecian tragedy, we face a choice: to move steadily towards our ends, or, even in the face of seemingly omnipotent forces, to oppose them. But a third, even more insidious, choice exists:
As the numbing or diminished feeling breaks down, our leaders, along with various leaders in different parts of the world, tell us: “Numb yourselves some more, don’t feel; above all, don’t question.” That is the situation we have to confront.”
The public’s numbness , convenient as it may be for some, is largely the result of the human brain’s breathtaking margin of error for emotional arithmetic. Empathy may be a powerful force, but it does a remarkably poor job at scaling up. Author Annie Dillard illustrates this miscalculation by inviting us to consider the nation of China: “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself — in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love — and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.” Faced with such staggering numbers, we run into what behavioral psychology professor Paul Slovic terms “the collapse of compassion.” Slovic investigated how humanity can witness genocide without acting to stop it. He concludes that statistics describing severity of the situation do not help people’s sense of empathy; in fact, seeing the seven-digit numbers associated with genocide or mass famine actually make people less inclined to give to a charitable cause, compared with the donations garnered from the narrative of a single impoverished girl.
Even on a much smaller scale, empathy works in strange and illogical ways; a study by Israeli behavioral researchers found participants more likely to contribute money to a single child’s cancer treatment fund than to a fund for the treatment of eight children with cancer. The reason? Decision making is based largely not on rationality, not even by emotion, but by something deeper, a primordial lurch of the gut towards the positive or negative, what Lifton and Slovic term affect. Affect is a cognitive shortcut, a heuristic device with an easily-diluted power. We care about a single starving polar bear , considerably less about the one-fifth of invertebrate species potentially facing extinction, less still about carbon dioxide concentrations reaching 410 parts per million. The brain, in short, is smarter than the gut, but the latter is generally in the driver’s seat. The death of a planet is an idea so large and so terrifying, our affect short-circuits. And we see it happening in real time, and we feel nothing.
On an intuitive level, the instinct to numbness makes sense; disquiet is painful, terror more so, and when afforded the opportunity, it is usually preferable to not be in pain. An animal cannot maintain a state of arousal indefinitely, and like cows by a highway learning to ignore the sound of passing semis, we remain calm, far enough removed from catastrophe to let it bead up and roll off our collective psyche. So it’s an unappealing question, how to bypass our brain’s defenses in order to feel the full weight of what is to come. But according to Lifton, accessing affect produces “the tension and the beginning anxiety we need to experience, and embrace, and put to good use in the form of action, in order to bring about collective survival” — a statement as pertinent to climate change as it is to nuclear weapons.
Lifton claims that this anxiety is predicated on our ability to “imagine our own death,” a phrase which brings to mind the opening scene of Phillip K. Dick’s seminal sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which the protagonist’s wife makes use of a palliative mood-altering machine to feel the full emotional weight of a world decimated by nuclear winter and all but deserted by humans:
“At that moment,” Iran said, “when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I read how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting — do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.’ So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has emigrated, don’t you think?”
I like the idea of periodically scheduling a few hours of self-accusatory depression. The trouble, though, is this: why go through the trouble of baring your psyche to the prospect of planetary annihilation, unless you believe you can stop it? Terror demands action, and for Lifton and Slovic, this is the goal: to stop atrocities (nuclear war and genocide, respectively) by using affect as a motivating force. But in the case of climate change, how much agency do we really have? Is there any hope for salvation, or are we better off leaving on our blinders, knowing the worst will come long after we’re dead?
These are real, terrifying questions with no simple answers. But if they engulf you in anxiety, don’t worry — it’ll wear off soon enough.