Robert Jay Lifton. Photo: Yale Environment 360By Diane Toomey
26 October 2017

(Yale Environment 360) – Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton has delved deep into the some of the darkest issues and most traumatic events of the 20th century with his research into the mindset of Nazi doctors, terrorism, the experiences of prisoners of war, and the aftermath of nuclear attack, which he chronicled in Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, winner of a National Book Award.

Now, at the age of 91, Lifton has turned his attention to climate change. In his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, Lifton argues that we are living through a time of increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, a psychological shift he refers to as a “swerve,” driven by evidence, economics, and ethics.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lifton talks about how far into this swerve we are, how natural disasters are critical in changing people’s minds about climate change, and the losing battle the Trump administration is fighting by continuing to deny the science behind global warming. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to take the stand of climate rejection,” he says, “because there is so much evidence of climate change and so much appropriate fear about its consequences.”

e360: You’ve written about fragmentary awareness shifting to formed awareness. What is the difference between the two, and where are we on that continuum in terms of climate change?

Lifton: Fragmentary awareness consists of a series of images that may be fleeting, and in that sense fragmentary. In relation to nuclear weapons, it has to do with the weapons themselves, some Hiroshima film or pictures, descriptions about deterrents, and hydrogen bombs.

Formed awareness is more structured awareness, so that there’s a narrative. There’s a cause and effect – hydrogen bombs actually creating the possibility of literally destroying the world and killing every last human being on it. And there was, in that way, an image that was clear and sequential – a narrative, a story.  And there’s a parallel with climate. With climate images, when they’re fragmentary, we may have an image of a storm here, of sea rise here, a little bit of flooding there, the drought. But when that becomes a formed image involving global warming and climate change, we take in the idea of carbon emissions leading to human effects on climate change and endangering us. And in that same narrative, there can be mitigating actions to limit climate change. [more]

Climate Change and the Human Mind: A Noted Psychiatrist Weighs In

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