Apocalyptic psychology


in Politics, Psychology, The environment

Emily has written an interesting post about our half-longing for apocalypse and the psychology of climate change. Evoking the possibility of disaster sometimes serves rational purposes, such as providing a way to deal with uncertainties about costs. There are still people who argue that the benefits of climate change are likely to exceed the costs, and others who argue that the cost of addressing climate change is unacceptably high. Pointing out the possibility of catastrophic runaway change is one way to respond to such positions.

That being said, there are deeper and more emotive reasons for which the destruction of our civilization as the result of climate change has psychological poignancy. At some level, there is the feeling that we deserve it – that our abuse of the rest of nature has disqualified us from continued participation in it. Thankfully, quasi-religious notions of sin and damnation generally leave a space for redemption. Particularly if we can do it in a way that doesn’t leave the world littered with nuclear waste and toxic pollutants, moving to a low-carbon society could help humanity to redeem itself in its own eyes.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 16, 2008 at 12:16 am

I appreciate that you are taking religious and metaphysical/psychological factors seriously. While I think it is not enough for “humanity to redeem itself in its own eyes”, because I think its pretty clear that the structure of guilt/redemption is part of the problem, not a possible solution, the fact these factors are being considered in a way other than as religious zealotry we have to get rid of, is a reassuring event in your blog.

. September 29, 2008 at 3:59 pm

John Oliver On Apocalypse Literature

By David Pescovitz on Book

In this JBooks.com video, The Daily Show writer John Oliver gives a quick survey of apocalypse literature, from the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Rob Kutner’s Apocalypse How.

John Oliver’s Literature Rodeo: Apocalypse Edition (Thanks, Kenneth Gordon!)

. October 14, 2008 at 3:27 pm

But this has always been one of Weaver’s strengths. Without ever dumbing the issue down, he keeps it as simple and understandable as he can.

He agrees the crux of his book comes down to a single alarming sentence on page 28: “People have simply no idea how serious this issue is.”

It’s so serious, he said, that unless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

. March 4, 2009 at 2:55 pm

So how and why do we keep showing up to work every day with barely a ripple of disaffection? How can we have arrived a year or so away from a last chance to stave of cataclysm with no clue what to do and not be going nuts?

The best answer, relying on Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, is that we are going nuts, and our increasing determination to act as if nothing were out of whack is a very ordinary, very human response to the crisis arising from conflict between our beliefs and hard reality.

What is the nature of our crisis? We believe that everything is going to work out, that the ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica will not slip off into the ocean and our shorelines will not be inundated even though all the evidence demonstrate that this is already underway.

The contradiction between our belief in deliverance and the reality of a rapid descent toward chaos creates within us the turbulent and distressing state Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Caught in a bind, we act unconsciously to ease our psychological burden in two ways: (1) by reducing the sources of conflict, and (2) by avoiding, rejecting or denigrating new information that would increase dissonance. As Festinger observed, these tendencies in individuals may reach mass acceptance, bolstering a catechism of erroneous beliefs. If everyone else thinks the same way, it is much easier to screen out contradictory information.

. May 11, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Dealing with climate trauma and global warming burnout
May 11th, 2009

I’d be very interested in hearing what coping mechanisms readers have developed for dealing with “climate trauma.”

The knowledge that humanity is headed pell-mell toward self-destruction is tough to deal with. I am fortunate that I get to vent blog full time on this subject, though that doesn’t free me from the frustrations of the Cassandra syndrome. I will share one of my secrets for avoiding burnout.

Whenever I get frustrated by people refusing to see what is right before their eyes, by the success of the climate science deniers in their campaign of disinformation and delay, and by the attacks on the personal integrity of the many idealistic scientists and activists who are desperately trying to help humanities save itself from itself, from Hell and High Water — I remember one thing. The deniers and delayers sleep well at night thanks to their blinkered ideology. And I will be damned if I’ll give them yet one more advantage on top of their better funding, better messaging machine, freedom from having to present factual or consistent arguments, and credulous coverage by a status-quo media. We simply can’t afford to get burned out, since the end result would be humanity getting burned up.

Guest blogger Gillian Caldwell, the campaign director of 1sky, has done all climate science activists a favor by opening up on this painful subject to my friend Lise Van Susteren, M.D. (who previously posted “Our Moral Obligation to Act“). Caldwell’s post was originally published here.

. August 27, 2009 at 10:06 am

Depression May Provide Cognitive Advantages

“Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. argue in Scientific American that although depression is considered a mental disorder, depression may in fact be a mental adaptation which provides real benefits. This is not to say that depression is not a problem. Depressed people often have trouble performing everyday activities, they can’t concentrate on their work, they tend to socially isolate themselves, they are lethargic, and they often lose the ability to take pleasure from such activities such as eating and sex. So what could be so useful about depression? “Depressed people often think intensely about their problems,” write the authors. “These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.” Various studies have found that people in depressed mood states are better at solving social dilemmas and there is evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test (PDF). “When one considers all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning. Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate eye–an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.””

Milan September 24, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Emily’s post, mentioned above, got deleted when she wiped her blog. So as to make my post somewhat sensical, I’ve reincarnated it here:

A Different Perspective: We Won’t Explode.
from eponymous horn by blackhats

Okay, so nobody wants to think about climate change. No more than anyone wants to think about war, or disease, or homework. I can dig that. I spend most of my life avoiding thinking of all those things.

But, *ahem* bear with me as I intro this.

You go through statistics on the sorts of extinctions that are expected to occur, the kind of flooding that is underway with rising oceans – threatening water supplies for tens of millions of people, the endangerment of our food supplies, (blah blah blah) and people’s eyes either glaze over, or just go dim with a grim sense of apocalypse.

Well, that sort of apocalyptic depression is starting to seem less and less sensical.

See I argue that we don’t want things to be handled. We WISH it will be the setting of the sun on mankind. We wish that one day 10 years from now the planet will be devoid of life, that our friends, family, and children will have exploded into flame and were immediately immolated in some sort of mystical, poorly understood end-of-world affair. And, we never had a chance.

That is what our Christianized roots dictate is ‘right’. That Jesus is getting ready to come down 20 years from now and say ‘Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, there has been FAR TOO MUCH of this pre-marital fucking, and sodomy. Oh, and that Hiroshima business doesn’t sit well with the boss. I’m going to let loose all hell. Quite literally. Catch some of you guys later.” *shooty finger to wide-eyed audience as bodies rise from graves and Bosch’s Garden of Delights comes to a brutal end in the last panel of the triptych.*

And, that’s what we imagine, right? That, if we believe in it, climate change means it’s ‘over’ for us. (I say ‘if we believe it’ because most of us still don’t, even if we passively accept the science.)

Well, I hate to tell you this: but as I understand it we’ve got years and years and years and years of great and challenging life yet to experience. Perhaps hundreds and hundreds. But not life as we know it. Not the type of life that we have been living now.

We are probably the most fortunate and unfortunate generation to exist yet. We have been living absurdly well. Our Great-Great grandfathers would be shocked to see how we can spend most nights in our twenties passively high out of our minds, cheerily escorting virtual prostitutes in our virtual cars in the visual delights of Grand Theft Auto. The fact that we can turn on hot water any time of day or night is not only taken for granted, it is considered an absolute necessity. If you have any disease, any ailment, you can be escorted magically in a vehicle 60 KM/H to hygienic, well-supplied, professional and relatively cheap treatment.

At least in the microcosm of Canada, we are living lives that a few centuries previous would be considered absolutely impossible, hedonistic, sinful, desirable, and absolutely luxurious.

And what we are really saying when we say ‘It’s hopeless’ is ‘I really really.. really like driving.’, ‘I am SO into Barbados.’, ‘Watching television is very enjoyable.’ And finally ‘I just cannot say no to it.’

(I’m currently telling myself ‘I cannot say no to writing on my lap-top because oh God I love it.’)

And, you know, if we were just going to all spontaneously explode after the 2012 (fingers crossed), I’d say ‘Fuck my degree. Barbados, baby.’

Sadly, I think we’re going to survive. I think that no matter how grim we try to be, how many times we say “The weather is getting hotter this summer.” “Climate change.” “Yep.” *Cue worried look* “Anyways..” We’re not all dead in the next twenty years.

Not all of us.

Human beings are hearty, resourceful, intelligent and survivalists. So yes, humanity won’t see it’s dying age within our life-time, I predict. (Speaking like this makes me feel like Winston Churchill.) But, what it will see is some great changes.

And, I think the mistake is to see ourselves as passive actors in these changes. Part of the problem is how we refer to the problem. Climate Change. Global Warming. It’s not like War, or Homework. We don’t see ourselves as active parts of the equation. The climate is something external to us. We are mere pawns to the gods of wind and humidity, of sunshine and rain.

Again. We wish it was God finally pulling the curtain. What can we, meaningless little creatures milling upon the surface of the great Earth do to control such things? Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we are fucking strong creatures. We are so strong, in fact, that we have the ability to push and shove machines that affect the global climate of all things. That is some feat. We are powerful. We’ve proved ourselves Atlases of a sort. But now that we’ve dropped the Earth and it’s rolling steadily towards a big goopy dirty-looking future, what now? It’s rolling. It’s ungraspable. It’s the weather. We can’t change that.

Unfortunately it is not a sunburn in Ethiopia that will kill us, nor the vengeful ghost of Arctic past. The problem is very tangible, and is to some extent, controllable in many ways. Governments are recognizing that we need to cap our carbon emissions to avoid runaway climate change, and if they can get a handle on it, we could see the rationing of carbon credits.

So that means each government would be part of a global initiative to reduce the total output of carbon emissions by taxing electricity and energy. You could only use X Kilowatts of energy a month, and X is proportionate to the amount of carbon credits distributed for that month. You would be buying the warmth of your family with carbon credits. The less carbon emissions we output now will almost certainly mean the more household heating, more food distribution, more life, for the next 100 or so years.

For me, this doesn’t seem discouraging. It seems natural. Three hundred years ago, if your family had a farm they would not sell it for three months of high living. They would think, “This family farm has to sustain my family and generations further down the road until the end of time. It is all I have to offer them.”

Somewhere along the line, we decided to sell the farm, and buy the luxury condominium that depreciates in value over time.

I want my family and my family’s family (even if we exclude the rest of the world) to be able to live life in a manner that is somewhat secure. I think it would be alien to think otherwise.

So the problem of ‘Climate Change’ is not so much a problem of ‘Climate Change’, but it’s a problem of ‘Your Children’s Lives’, it’s a problem of ‘Your Next Forty Years’, it’s a problem of ‘eating’.

Just a different way of thinking about it, I suppose. I just wouldn’t count on exploding.

Milan July 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I wonder how much of a psychological connection there is between concern about climate change today and the intense concern about nuclear war during the Cold War.

Both situations raise the prospect that the world is indeed doomed, and that everything we see around us could be catastrophically eliminated as the consequence of human choices.

Living with the realistic possibility that this could occur is probably something new for humans, and probably something that affects our psychology in society in important ways.

Anon April 17, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Has there ever been a time like this – when most experts think we are seriously flirting with a human apocalypse? Maybe with nukes during the Cold War.

. May 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm

Overcoming climate despair: We are the U-turn generation

This week, federal Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan released a disheartening report, slamming the Harper government for having no plan to meet is own 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (targets that are already completely inadequate). It’s not surprising news, but adds to the feelings of desperation harbored by many.

Those of us concerned about climate change, and anxious to mobilize public support for bold action, walk a difficult line. We have to be respectful of the psychology of this time, in which the public understandably wrestles with feelings of despair and searches for hope, even as many refuse to accept what the science is telling us. Facing the realities of climate change is scary for many, and fear-based messages alone can be paralyzing. The answer is not to gloss over the seriousness of the situation, however. Rather, the answer is to engage in what our communications director Shannon Daub calls “responsible truth-telling”. (For an excellent discussion of the balance between fear and hope in climate communication, see David Roberts’ excellent essay here.)

Understanding people’s need for hope is why our Climate Justice Project has sought to communicate that policy and technological solutions are plentiful and at hand. We have also endeavored to communicate that the task before us can be accomplished in stages.

In engagements with young people in particular, I like to introduce the notion that, “We are the U-turn Generation.” The concept is this: all of us who have the courage to look the science of global warming full-on wrestle with despair. A clear understanding of what the scientific studies are telling us is that wealthy industrialized societies must be carbon-zero by 2050. Even then, we will still face the challenge of pulling accumulated GHGs out of the atmosphere, in order to get global CO2 parts per million (PPM) down to 350, if devastating ecological and social upheaval and harm is to be avoided. We are forced to live with the uncertainty of whether this Herculean global task can be accomplished. But for now, the task of this generation is the U-turn ­­– to change the direction of the path we are on – to see global emissions slow, and over the next 30-40 years, drop to zero.

. December 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm

There had been warnings. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change issued a prophetic report. “In the coming decades, our coastal city will most likely face more rapidly rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, as well as potentially more droughts and floods, which will all have impacts on New York City’s critical infrastructure,” said William Solecki, a geographer at Hunter College and a member of the panel. But what good are warnings? Intelligence agents received advance word that terrorists were hoping to hijack commercial jets. Who listened? (Not George W. Bush.) If we can’t imagine our own deaths, as Freud insisted, how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live. “Historical events might be unique, and given pattern by an end,” the critic Frank Kermode proposed in “The Sense of an Ending,” his classic work on literary narrative, “yet there are perpetuities which defy both the uniqueness and the end.” What he’s saying (I think) is that there is no pattern. Flux is all.

. December 1, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Looking down Central Park West, I’m thrilled by the necklace of green-and-red traffic lights extending toward Columbus Circle and the glittering tower of One57, that vertical paradise for billionaires. And as I walk past the splashing fountain in front of the museum’s south entrance on West 77th Street, I recall a sentence from Edward Gibbon’s ode to evanescence, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which “the learned Poggius” gazes down at the remains of the city from the Capitoline hill: “The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

This is our fate. All the more reason to appreciate what we have while we have it.

. August 5, 2015 at 10:20 pm

“As you might expect, having tickets to the front row of a global environmental catastrophe is taking an increasingly emotional toll on scientists, and in some cases pushing them toward advocacy. Of the two dozen or so scientists I interviewed for this piece, virtually all drifted into apocalyptic language at some point.

anon October 8, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Our cultural model of the apocalypse is of a sudden event. That’s our cultural model of every apocalypse. The most likely apocalypse of my childhood would have been mutually assured destruction between the US and the Soviet Union, which actually almost occurred. We now know it almost happened a number of times. We were a hair’s breadth from the world ending. Nobody celebrates those dates, but I wish they would. The “day the world was saved” dates.

I think that’s something so basic about our culture – the idea of the abrupt apocalypse. We don’t even think about it. Something that kills 80 percent of the existing human population over 40 years – we don’t know how to react to that. We don’t know how to react to mass extinction events. But the passenger pigeons had their apocalypse. It took a long time – we had to eat them all.

If it’s not a sudden event, then it’s either completely out of our control — or potentially within the possibility of our control. That changes the way we look at the possibility of an event like that.


. October 13, 2016 at 12:37 am

HUMANS are a gloomy species. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving. Asked whether global poverty had fallen by half, doubled or remained the same in the past 20 years, only 5% of Americans answered correctly that it had fallen by half. This is not simple ignorance, observes Johan Norberg, a Swedish economic historian and the author of a new book called “Progress”. By guessing randomly, a chimpanzee would pick the right answer (out of three choices) far more often.

People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; “40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not.

Pessimism has political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. A whopping 81% of Donald Trump’s supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite.

The spread of basic technology, allowing for clean water and indoor plumbing, may have helped even more. Louis XIV’s palace was the pinnacle of 18th-century grandeur. Nonetheless, without flush toilets, it stank. “The passageways, corridors and courtyards are filled with urine and faecal matter,” wrote a contemporary observer. Now 68% of the world’s population have modern sanitation—a luxury denied to the Sun King—up from 24% in 1980.

. October 13, 2016 at 12:37 am

Mr Norberg agrees with Steven Pinker, a psychologist, that humankind is also experiencing a “moral Flynn Effect”. As people grow more adept at abstract thought, they find it easier to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. And there is plenty of evidence that society has grown more tolerant. As recently as 1964, even the American Civil Liberties Union agreed that homosexuals should be barred from government jobs. In 1987 only 48% of Americans approved of interracial dating; in 2012 that figure was 86% (and 95% of 18- to 29-year-olds). The caste system in India has eroded as individualistic values have spread: the proportion of upper-caste weddings with segregated seating fell from 75% to 13% between 1990 and 2008.

. February 23, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Not since the Reagan era cold war with Russia has apocalyptic awareness been so forefront in the public’s mind. Disturbing incidents ranging from nuclear football Facebook selfies to alarming North Korean military activity now accrue weekly. Sometimes hourly. What can one do besides scroll through Twitter before bedtime and let the news populate our nightmares?

Referencing the daily outrages, legislative battles, and civil division, she writes:

“Racist laws can eventually be overthrown, and even a cultural backslide toward bigotry and nationalism can be slowly, painfully reversed. We don’t get a do-over on climate change. The vested interests agitating to strip the planet for parts know that, too—and they plan to profit from this particular apocalypse as hard as they can.”

“It is hard to outline the contours of a future you have never been allowed to imagine—one that is both different from today but accessible from it, too. The best we have been permitted to hope for is that the status quo be scraped to the edges of the present for as long as it lasts—a vote to run the knife around the empty jar of neoliberal aspiration and hope there’s enough to cover our asses. If people cannot imagine a future for themselves, all they can measure is what they’ve lost. Those who believe in the future are left, as they always were, with the responsibility of creating it, and that begins with an act of faith—not just that the future will be survivable, but that it might, somehow, maybe, be an exciting place to live.”

. February 23, 2017 at 2:11 pm

“They’re not the only ones eagerly anticipating the end times. Apocalyptic thinking has a long and febrile history in Western thought, and it is usually associated with moments of profound cultural change, when people found it all but impossible to envision a future they might live inside. The notion of armageddon as something to look forward to crops up time and again at moments of profound social unrest. Today, that includes legions of lonely alt-righters celebrating the advent of a new post-democratic, post-civilizational age where men will be real men again, and women will be really grateful. This “dark enlightenment” rumbles alongside a massive revival in millenarian end-times fanaticism among the Evangelical Christians who overwhelmingly voted for a man some of them believe is the literal antichrist who will hasten the final return of Jesus and his arse-kicking angels to sweep the righteous to their reward. There are many millions of people, especially in the United States, who seem to want an apocalypse—a word whose literal meaning is a great “unveiling,” a moment of calamity in which the murkiest and basest of human terrors will be mercifully swept aside. That gentle armageddon, however, looks unlikely to be delivered. Frightened, angry human beings have always fantasized about the end of the world—and institutions of power have always profited from that fantasy. “

. March 29, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Why I decided to write a novel for teenagers about catastrophic climate change

The Silent Invasion is set in the age of environmental apocalypse, where even the landscape is frightening. But writing about climate change matters – most of all for those who will inherit the world

. May 19, 2017 at 7:48 pm

Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”

. May 19, 2017 at 7:51 pm

Scientists are problem solvers by nature, trained to cherish detachment as a moral ideal. Jeffrey Kiehl was a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research when he became so concerned about the way the brain resists climate science, he took a break and got a psychology degree. Ten years of research later, he’s concluded that consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes.

. July 10, 2017 at 3:13 pm

The Politics of Optimism
Optimism is a political act; cynicism is obedience.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful — cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.

. July 11, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Alarmism Is the Argument We Need to Fight Climate Change

New York magazine’s global-warming horror story isn’t too scary. It’s not scary enough.

New York’s David Wallace-Wells has a formidable cover story in the magazine this week, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” that dryly details just how bad things could get due to climate change. The answer? Very, very bad. The timeline? Sooner than you think. The instantly viral piece might be the Silent Spring of our time, except it doesn’t uncover shocking new information—it just collects all the terrifying things that were already sitting out there into one extremely terrifying list.

“No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough,” Wallace-Wells writes, before running through the known science and stats that explain why rising seas, the focus of most of our climate panic, are just the tip of the iceberg—disease, famine, economic panic, and civil unrest are coming, too. An argument for freaking out, his piece has been decried for being too alarmist. Actually, it is not alarmist enough. As I read it in bed at midnight Sunday night, for the first time I started to realize just exactly why climate change might be a reason not to have children—because if those children have children, this could be their world. That’s how close to the edge we are.

. July 22, 2017 at 2:28 pm

What Good Is Fear?

As we face down the existential threat of climate change, it’s worth considering how fear of nuclear war has spurred humanity into action.

It’s not often that a story about climate change goes viral, but last week, David Wallace-Wells’ New York story “The Uninhabitable Earth” did. (It even claimed the distinction of being most-read-of-all-time article on the magazine’s website.) The piece, which is an assessment of how bad things could get if we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, also prompted a huge conversation about whether its “worst case scenario” framing was too scary to be helpful in spreading the climate message. Some argued that the deep terror the article inspires would be paralyzing, not productive, invoking psychologists who found that fear froze up their research subjects. Others parried: “Social scientists are forever testing how individuals respond to various messages in lab conditions, in the short-term, but the dynamics that matter most on climate are social and long-term,” Vox’s David Roberts wrote. “It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough.”

But Weart was willing to speak in favor of the piece’s rhetorical style. “There’s this widespread idea that it’s dangerous and counterproductive to elicit fears,” he said. “But I don’t think the history of nuclear fears supports that.” Instead, Weart has found that in some cases the terror associated with Cold War nuclear capabilities, felt throughout culture and at the highest levels of government, did help mitigate nuclear threats. At other times, though, the dread of nuclear war has prompted increased defensiveness and an unhealthy concentration of power.

. September 6, 2017 at 6:42 pm
peer-reviewed science September 6, 2017 at 6:44 pm

The Consequences of Collective Discontent: A New Measure of Zeitgeist Predicts Voting for Extreme Parties

In recent years, extreme right-wing and left-wing political parties and actors have gained popularity in many Western countries. What motivates people to vote for extreme right- or left-wing parties? In previous research, we showed that a collectively shared sense of doom and gloom about society can exist among citizens who, individually, experience high well-being. Previous research developed an operationalization of this collective societal discontent as an aspect of Zeitgeist, which can be compared to personal experiences (van der Bles, Postmes, & Meijer, 2015). In the present research, we investigated whether this Zeitgeist of societal discontent predicts voting for extreme parties. We conducted a field study during the 2015 Dutch provincial elections (N = 407). Results showed that collective societal discontent (Zeitgeist) predicted voting for extreme parties but that personal discontent did not. Results also showed that pessimistic Zeitgeist was associated with lower education levels and tabloid-style media consumption. These findings advance our understanding of the discontents that fuel extreme voting outcomes: Global and abstract (negative) beliefs about society are more consequential than concrete personal experiences.

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