At times Zizek suggests that it's better to do nothing. This doing nothing resonates with a certain passivity, perhaps better described as impassivity. With climate change, is it the case that passivity is what is feared?
For the post-Cold War generation, the primary global threat comes not from action, but inaction. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science warned that within a few decades, climate change will have “massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems,” including widespread famines, lethal heat waves, more frequent and destructive natural disasters, and social unrest. Despite the litany of warnings like these, governments have utterly failed to take meaningful action.
At this point, climate change can be limited or accelerated, and humans can adapt to some degree, but significant damage to the planetary ecosystem can no longer be averted.
According to Washington, D.C.- based forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, the expectation of climate-change disasters is causing “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” In an interview with Esquire in July, she explains that the symptoms look much like those of post-traumatic stress disorder: “the anger, the panic, the obsessive, intrusive thoughts.”
Signs of pre-traumatic stress are increasingly evident among those who stare at the problem of climate change head-on: climate scientists, climate journalists and climate activists. The Esquire piece profiled a number of climate scientists and activists who experienced profound psychological trauma in the course of their work.
Paul Ehrlich is an ecologist at Stanford University and the coauthor of a recent paper arguing that a sixth mass extinction is already underway. He has put civilization’s chances of saving itself at about 10 percent—but he’s beginning to think that’s too optimistic. When asked by In These Times how he deals with the prospect of societal collapse, Ehrlich chuckles: “I drink a lot.”
Katie Herzog, an environmental journalist for Grist, says it’s “something easier to ignore if you don’t work in the business”—her friends are probably tired of hearing that “the planet is going to shit.” She’s “worried about the world that children will inherit,” and thinks it’s “irresponsible to have kids. I take solace that I’m not bringing life into the world that’s going to suffer.”
Slate’s climate reporter Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist by training, made waves when he publicly declared that he cried reading an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “I go back and forth day-to-day between despair and optimism.” After much internal debate, he, unlike Herzog, did decide to have a child. “Before we had our baby it felt much easier to just give up,” he says. Now, “I feel an added pressure to keep trying.”
Those who pay close attention to climate change are deeply concerned for the next generation. And a significant portion of the next generation, it seems, is concerned for itself.
The young and the stressed
A 2007 poll of more than a thousand middle schoolers found that almost 60 percent feared climate change more than terrorism, car crashes or cancer. Roughly the same percentage thought more needed to be done to combat the threat, and more than 40 percent reported that concern about climate change occasionally occupies their minds.
“Unlike adults who can put their heads in the sand … kids are very aware of what’s going on,” said Chris Saade, a North Carolina-based psychotherapist, in a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail. “Children often ask me questions that we, as adults, try to evade: ‘What is going to happen to the human race?’ ”
Most of the middle schoolers from 2007 are now in their early 20s. For a generation that was born after the Cold War and came of age in the Anthropocene, to what extent does climate fear persist into young adulthood?
In a June 2015 Pew poll, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 rated climate change a “very serious” problem, compared to 47 percent of those 30 to 49, 44 percent of those 50 to 64, and 41 percent of those 65 and over. Fifty-one percent may seem a slim majority, but in light of what we know about human psychology, it’s actually quite striking. A 2009 report on climate-change psychology by the American Psychological Association explains that people tend to underestimate the danger of events perceived as having a “small probability.” Climate risks, which are believed by many to be uncertain, far off in the future, or occurring in remote parts of the planet, should follow this logic.