How 'Death Anxiety' Is Sparking the Shift in Consciousness We Need to Deal With the Global Climate Threat

Confronting the possible end of our species may be necessary to provoke climate action.

Photo Credit: 4Novembers/Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, by Robert Jay Lifton (The New Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission.

Climate Swerve 1: From Experience to Ethics

What I am calling the climate swerve is a matter of individual and collective awareness. It is a state of mind and not in itself a form of action, but it can lead to action. Swerves are not orderly. This one seems particularly haphazard and, in almost all of its details, unpredictable. Yet we sense that we are in the midst of something formidable and ultimately hopeful. One thinks of Bob Dylan’s insistence that “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?” With climate swerve, we all become Mister Jones in our uncertainties. But there are some observations that we can begin to make.

The term “swerve” comes to us from Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher who lived during the first century BCE. Lucretius was referring to a movement in the small particles he believed constituted our universe, a movement that was an unexpected deviation from the ordinary.

The contemporary humanist Stephen Greenblatt argues that the recovery in the fifteenth century of Lucretius’s manuscript (after it had languished in obscure libraries for more than a millennium) contributed to a different kind of swerve: the extraordinary shift in human consciousness associated with the Renaissance and the creation of the modern world. Greenblatt himself seized upon the word and used it as the title for his compelling book, which he subtitled, “How the World Became Modern.” But he was far from the only writer interested in the Lucretian swerve (or its Latin equivalent, “clinamen”): Jonathan Swift referred to it in 1704 in A Tale of a Tub; James Joyce alludes to it in the beginning words of Finnegans Wake; it appears in the work of Jacques Lacan and Simone de Beauvoir. And Harold Bloom wrote of the “swerve” of poets from their predecessors in The Anxiety of Influence. Not surprisingly these writers have different views of the swerve, but they share a sense of it as a significant, if not always logical or clear, shift in the way people experience their world.

Making Use of Death Anxiety

Greenblatt points out that Lucretius’s poem is “a profound therapeutic meditation on the fear of death.” Lucretius insisted that “death is nothing to us,” and only by accepting its inevitability and its end to all feeling can we achieve vitality and enjoy the pleasures of life. The climate swerve is involved with death in a number of ways. It is partly a response to the fear of death, individual and collective, associated with advanced global warming. Until recently this fear has been suppressed and denied. The same has been true of the death anxiety associated with nuclear weapons, but in that case the descriptions and images of megadeaths could be more prominent and lasting. I believe that the death anxiety of climate change has moved more toward the surface as the swerve has taken hold.

Beyond climate and nuclear threats, death anxiety in general tends to be greatest when there are profound psychohistorical dislocations—breakdowns in the social arrangements that ordinarily anchor human lives. I have in mind the contentious and ambivalent relationships in our society with institutions having to do with family, religion, sexuality, birth and death, and above all with political authority and governance. Such dislocations have characterized our time, and have been greatly intensified by both nuclear and climate threats. A vicious circle of increased death anxiety, suppression and psychic numbing, and reinforcement of climate normality can result.

Yet something more constructive is also occurring. By confronting dire catastrophe and taking in the resulting death anxiety, even the possible death of our species, we make the swerve possible. And the swerve itself has an integrative effect that can, in turn, utilize the increasingly conscious death anxiety. That death anxiety, no longer avoided, becomes a stimulus for a continuous dynamic of awareness and potential action. In that way the swerve creates a state of mind appropriate to the threat. And death anxiety becomes an animating force that both enhances, and is kept in check by, the swerve.

The Evidence

The evidence of the climate swerve has three elements: experience, economics, and ethics. People throughout the world are increasingly experiencing the effects of climate change and the ever more active reporting of those effects in the media. None can fully avoid the drumbeat of disaster. Nor can they ignore the scientific consensus about global warming and the increasing scientific evidence that it plays an important part in the severity of hurricanes and tornadoes, extreme droughts and wildfires, heat waves, periodic moments of extreme cold, rising sea level, and extreme flooding. All this is part of the growing recognition that climate danger encompasses our planet and that we are all vulnerable.

There has been a quantum leap in media coverage, which I confirmed by scrutinizing the articles about global warming in the New York Times during the years 2013, 2014, and 2015. There is not only greater coverage of climate disasters in general, as compared to past years, but a much greater tendency to raise questions about the role of global warming in causing or intensifying them.

Public opinion polls and attitude studies show that increasing numbers of people are becoming convinced that the earth has been dangerously warming and that human influence has been a crucial factor. Even the disingenuous assertion “I’m not a scientist” is becoming less useful as a political talking point, though it is sometimes replaced by “There has always been global warming,” which is a way of expressing doubt about human causation. Or a still more sophisticated evasiveness, as expressed by Scott Pruitt, who President Trump appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency: “Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”

Now human influence is admitted but there is still an insistence upon ultimate uncertainty and doubt. Denial and falsification have by no means disappeared (Pruitt has discounted the danger of carbon dioxide emissions), and political opposition has in some ways intensified. But the typical oppositional stance has become a combination of partial, mostly unspoken, recognition of climate change as an entity, and rejection of climate change as a significant threat requiring social and political action.

Such rejection is necessary to sustain one’s identity and worldview, including antagonism to government regulations and, in many cases, to government and governance. Yet climate rejecters are increasingly on the defensive and subject to the disapproval of the general public. To be sure, their focus on lost jobs and Third World development can be politically compelling. And they can rightly point to technical problems in a massive conversion to renewable energy sources. But in doing so they cannot help revealing the extraordinary technical and economic revolution that is taking place in the production and utilization of those renewable sources and their potential human benefits.

This contradictory position of rejecters can lead to extreme actions, as in the behavior toward scientists by the Trump transition team in late 2016. The questionnaires they sent to the Department of Energy asking for the names of employees (scientists and staffers) and information about their attendance at climate change meetings suggested a McCarthyite witch hunt and potential purge. Climate deniers and rejecters have long expressed this antiscience stance, which is both anti-Enlightenment and antimodern. It is also a manifestation of the kind of totalism I could observe in Chinese communist thought reform: subsuming the truth to a closed, falsified narrative, while seeking to control the media and other sources of information. Significantly, the questionnaires were withdrawn in response to expressions of outrage that could be understood as opposition to totalistic witch hunts and, at least indirectly, as affirmation of the climate swerve.

Risky Business and the Rockefeller Turn

One powerful economic indication of the swerve was expressed in the emergence in 2014 of a group called Risky Business, which published a national report titled “The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” Leaders of the group include two former secretaries of the treasury (Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin), a former secretary of state (George Shultz), and two prominent American billionaires (Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer). What is notable is that these financial tycoons focus specifically on the economic costs of climate change. As made clear in their mission statement: “The signature effects of human-induced  climate  change—rising seas, increased damage from storm surge, more frequent bouts of extreme heat—all have specific measurable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity.” Their message is that our present use of fossil fuels will soon bring down the American economy. They are moneymen who are responding to the ever more pressing climate truths.


Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist who has written more than 20 books and edited many others, including the National Book Award-winning Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

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