It is time to step into the role of the "prospective survivor"
Why thinking and feeling about how the climate crisis could kill us is adaptive
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“As prospective survivors we can find meaning in our actions to combat climate change. We can take on a survivor mission of preserving our habitat and embracing genuine forms of adaptation for our species. In doing so we reassert our larger human connectedness, our bond with our species.” - psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton
Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash
I’ll be honest, the last few weeks have been really rough, both out in the world and on me personally. A lot of fatalism and despair have been floating around since a draft of the latest UN I.P.C.C. report was leaked, which in no uncertain terms raised the possibility that humans will go kaput due to inadequate action on climate. Speaking from the perspective of a Canadian living in the US, the broil of the North American heat dome that killed hundreds of people and 1 billion marine animals, as well as the rip-roar of dramatically early wildfires in some of those same western regions, have left many in a new kind of terror. The remarkable drought in California has led to July blazes normally not seen until September or October. Meanwhile, kids on TikTok are saying that all of this makes them want to “unalive” themselves, and friends text me while trying to hide from the heat half-joking about needing suicide pills. Then an article declares that 2100 drilling approvals have been made since Biden took office, despite his climate pledge. This is not a movie folks, even though it feels like one - - - how are we supposed to get by and not lose our minds inside of a system that is so casual about us dying? Of course, that question is only new to the privileged among us.
The thing is, as these horrors creep closer into the souls of people who’ve so far been lucky enough to feel pretty comfortable in life, new dynamics start to arise. People with privilege get scared. They get startled. They start wondering about the pace of destruction, and when it will touch their own lives. They realize it is way sooner than they thought, and their sense of “ontological security” gets ruptured.
I’ve never had so many journalists reach out to me with interview requests than they have since the heat dome. Some talk about having to rethink assumptions about their kids being able to live to certain ages they’d previously taken for granted. Others ask about their own survival and that of society. In my experience, these are not things that journalists writing for large mainstream outlets have ever raised so freely in conversation before. We are in the midst of a mass awakening, and our task is to figure out how to get the most energy for change and resilience that we can out of it.
It is crucial that privileged people feel this deep abyss of alarm, because with privilege comes some power. As climate reporter Emily Atkin so deftly puts it in her Heated newsletter, “What’s needed today is sustained outrage at the powerful, by those with the time and resources to express it.” But stumbling out of one’s daze of comfort into an existential battle for the future of humanity isn’t something many people feel equipped for. Often, thoughts of helplessness thwart them, such as - What can I do? I’m only one person and this is all so baked in - when actually, any pro-caring, pro-future, pro-environmental actions will help, and there are endless ones to choose from. Yes, much is rapidly changing and we can’t cling to the world that we’ve known. But we can make choices about how we are going to change along with it, without ever giving up the fight to prevent more suffering.
So you’re just one person. What’s the next step? Grieve, yes, there’s lots of that to be done and emotional methodologies to support you (more specific coping skills are coming up soon on Gen Dread). But as you do internal work, you can take external actions too. I highly recommend reading Atkin’s digest from earlier this week called “‘What can I do?’ Anything”, which is full of specific, fresh and feasible ideas. Generally speaking, starting where you are, by reaching out to touch something you influence, whether it’s a family member, an upcoming event, a community, a company, a law ---- that’s where you’re needed. Just get started, and the opportunities to keep going will never stop.
While researching for my forthcoming book, I came across an idea that beautifully describes the opportunity we have to harness existential climate feelings for something so much bigger than ourselves. The concept is that of being a “prospective survivor”, which comes from the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who extensively studied the psychological causes and effects of extremism and war. While a survivor is someone who has touched death but made it out alive, a prospective survivor is someone who vividly imagines how they might perish and gets shaken to the core by its haunting affect. The journalists who’ve asked me in the last weeks about their own survival and that of their children are clearly doing this. I know that many of you reading this have been too.
In his book The Climate Swerve, Lifton writes “As prospective survivors we can find meaning in our actions to combat climate change. We can take on a survivor mission of preserving our habitat and embracing genuine forms of adaptation for our species. In doing so we reassert our larger human connectedness, our bond with our species.”
At its simplest, the prospective survivor, with a mind so sensitively attuned to the threat of complete annihilation, may hold the power to shake things up and bring about new ways of being human at this time that we need. What the prospective survivor does not do, is make peace with death or collapse. She sometimes even finds joy in pushing against them and would rather die trying, arm in arm with others just like her, than in a state of surrender. This is the kind of resilience we need now. When enough of us generate existential meaning by stepping out of isolation and into this role, we muster the life force that might actually prevent the worst outcomes from happening. It’s a way of living with radical hope.
I’ll leave you with a fantastic quote from climate change and mental health researchers in the Lancet, who write, “Recognising that emotions are often what leads people to act, it is possible that feelings of ecological anxiety and grief, although uncomfortable, are in fact the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and conviction that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.” And to quote Atkin one last time, “The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.”
Doom and gloom won’t serve you, but meaning and courage will.
I’m happy to call myself a prospective survivor. How about you?
A message from other climate creators
*all promos in Gen Dread are unpaid*
Picture this: thousands of wind turbines off the Atlantic coast, each one taller than the Washington Monument. That vision may soon be a reality. Windfall, a special series from the award-winning podcast Outside/In, is the story of a promising renewable technology and the potential of wind power in a changing climate. Find Outside/In wherever you get your podcasts or at windfallpodcast.org
For any readers of a more entrepreneurial bent, Gen Dread is giving away a handful of All Access passes to See Change Sessions, a 2-day virtual summit August 18-19 on the intersection of climate action, sustainable business & the outdoor sports ecosystem.
The event is designed to connect passionate people who want to protect our outdoor playgrounds. It raises funds for a great org — Parley for the Oceans, and there will be a pitchfest for sustainable startups. The first 5 subscribers to respond to this email and express their interest will get a pass. Tickets can also be sought at seechangesessions.com.
1) The University of Kansas is in phase II of a psychological study about climate resilience and recovery and they would be grateful for your participation. Details here.
2) A friend of Gen Dread is conducting a quick anonymous survey about how the climate crisis impacts your mental health. Would you mind filling it out? It is to inform a forthcoming media project aimed at supporting people to cope better with what’s happening. Feel free to share with others. https://forms.gle/B4BnXuNTiTjJ9Kww6
3) What if you didn't have to choose between your work for climate justice and living a life you love?
We all need support as we do our climate work. Jess Serrante is a leadership coach and longtime climate activist whose mission is to support social change leaders to experience ease and joy while making a bold impact for social and climate justice. I got a lot out of working with Jess. She helped me clarify my goals and streamline my process of making a career change towards the work I’m now doing in my postdoc researching mental health supports for young people in the climate crisis. Highly recommend.
Want some support with your climate leadership? Jess is offering a free 30-min discovery session to anyone who wants to learn more about working with her. She's also offering a free bonus coaching session to GenDread readers who sign up to work with her before August 13. Sound interesting? Get on it here!
That’s a wrap