How well do humans respond in a crisis and how we will react in the ‘new normal’ of on-going climate crisis? This is a question I’ve been pondering more and more in thinking about the human and organizational dimensions of climate change.
For instance, within the mainstream discourse of climate change policy the argument is often made that we need to move beyond climate change ‘mitigation’ and focus increasingly on ‘adaptation’. While adaptation is a critical part of responding to the impacts of climate change, the implication is that adaptation is now the ‘main game’ and will involve relatively manageable infrastructure and planning changes. The problem here is that the scale of climate change on ‘business as usual’ (BAU) projections will likely exceed manageable parameters. Physically, there are clear issues over how humanity can adapt to 4-6 degrees Celsius warming in terms of a habitable climate, extreme weather events and the demise of food supplies. Indeed, some researchers have now started to focus on ‘transformative’ adaptation. As a recent commentator noted, ‘The words that need to be in our conversations are transformation, rationing and shared sacrifice’. However, this becomes even more complex once we consider humanity’s psychological ‘adaptive capacity’ in a situation of societal breakdown.
While many of us in the developed world have grown more wealthy and physically secure, we are also increasingly divorced from the natural world and reliant on sophisticated technologies for our daily survival and psychological well-being (witness the outrage and catharsis we experience when unable to access the internet or our email!). Moreover, our worship of economic neo-liberalism and the merits of individualism have denuded the communal ethos so necessary to managing crisis situations. We live like Gods, and yet the irony of this is that at the apogee of our economic development we are at our most vulnerable in responding to existential threat.
For instance, how ready are we to deal with the difficult ethical and moral implications that will flow from climate change in the next few decades? One example of this is proposed in Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars. In one chapter Dyer outlines a future scenario in which the US responds to an increasing flow of climate refugees from Mexico and Central America by establishing a ‘hard’ border of automated machine guns and mines. He ponders how US citizens would respond to the daily TV coverage of mass fatalities as a result of these measures. Psychologically would we in the West be able to deal with the human loss of life that climate change will result in (potentially billions of people worldwide)? While I can foresee the prosperous North hardening it stance to the loss of life in distant locations, once the suffering is close and within our own communities – how then will we respond?
Some insight into the possible future responses is revealed in Margaret Atwood’s marvellous book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. In a memorable scene late in the book, Atwood explores how people respond to catastrophe in different ways drawing on the example of the Black Death in medieval Europe. She notes how some sought to protect themselves through selfish actions (fleeing or locking themselves away in their castles), while others gave their lives willingly to help others. Some saw the plague as an excuse to ignore normal moral codes (drinking, partying, rape and murder), while for others it increased their religious fervour:
“To sum up the reactions,” says the Spirit, “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life. These are the only six reactions possible in a crisis, if the crisis isn’t a war. If it is a war, you could add two more-Fight, and Surrender-though these might be dark subjects of Helping Others and Give Up and Party.
We are seeing some of these responses now starting to play out as the reality of climate change emerges in popular consciousness. The next decade of climate politics is going to be an ‘interesting time’. Beyond the physical impacts (heat, storms, disease, war), I wonder how our modern sensibilities will cope psychologically with what is to come?