The Climate Swerve

The Climate Swerve is the title of a recent (2017) book by the elder (now 92) statesman of American psychiatry, and the eminent public intellectual, Robert Jay Lifton.

What does “swerve” mean? In customary language it suggests something hurtling down a road that has to swerve if disaster is to be avoided. Not a bad image to conjure up about climate change. (Also about nuclear weapons, about which Lifton has long been concerned and is here again but which I omit in this posting, the better to focus just on climate change.)

The Swerve had been used as the title of a widely acclaimed book in 2011 by the American humanist Stephen Greenblatt with the grand and sweeping sub-title How the World Became Modern. In short, the swerve was nothing less than what came to be called the Renaissance, which turned Europe from a more or less  traditional stable path to what we came to call modernity itself. This conjures up nothing less than a new era of human consciousness. The swerve becomes something to be welcomed, a turning away from the old to the new.

Today it means our acceptance of the fact of escalating climate change and the extraordinary chance of species extinction, and of making things swerve.

Lifton sees this change in consciousness of climate change taking place now – as he puts it “our evolving awareness of our predicament” –  particularly in the global agreements on limits of carbon emissions and the networks of scientists and NGOs. “The climate swerve creates a mind-set capable of constructive action.” Again: “Climate change confronts us with the most demanding and unique psychological task ever face by humankind.” We are destroying the natural world which just happens to include ourselves. There is absurdity loose in the world but he is telling us, there is also hope – which dissolves the absurd –  and is in short supply these days.

Both Lifton and Greenblatt in their thinking about swerve take us back to Lucretius the Roman philosopher of the first century BCE.

He wrote of “the nature of things,” of how patterns of atoms form and reform, some dying, others being created. Indeed, Lucretius is seen as meditating about death in a novel way, that there is no afterlife, of creating a new kind of consciousness of death. Lifton can perhaps be read as telling us that our consciousness of our death as individuals must now be transcended by our knowledge of the possibility of the death, the extinction, of the human species itself, and of many other species, of  “ecocide.”That is the terrible truth of our fevered times, but it contains the hope that it will lead us to do whatever we can to avert that fate. Nothing has the likelihood of focusing the mind today like the possibility of the end of times tomorrow. We have, Lifton reminds us, the evolving capacity to imagine what has not yet happened, and we should act accordingly. Nations must transcend their specific national interests “in the recognition of a shared planetary fate.” Some real meaning must be imbedded in the notion of the global that goes far beyond “globalization” of the corporate variety.

Near the end of this book so informative and full of hope Lifton writes “Studies have shown that people are more drawn to climate change issues when these are presented as threatening their own health and that of their children.” And their grandchildren!

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2 thoughts on “The Climate Swerve”

  1. Thank you Mel for this blog. We belong to a book group and would often choose a book like this as the focus for an discussion. I have some questions. First, is the text of Climate Swerve on the technical side? Secondly, the message may be a doomsday scenario . . . Admittedly a well presented, non-technical analysis can assist our efforts to persuade Canadians and abroad!

    Peter Jones
    Peter Jones

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