The Swerve We Need

The Swerve We Need

What’s it all about?

Robert Jay Lifton, known for his influential role in the development of psychohistorical theory (think of him as a real-life Hari Seldon), uses psychoanalysis as a lens through which to understand human behavior, both past and present. In the first half of The Climate Swerve, Lifton takes a deep dive into the history of nuclear technology and humanity’s psychological responses to those threats: psychic numbing, the creation of meaning around our own existence and potential ending, death anxiety, the cognitive dissonance between everything being okay enough day-to-day and the looming threat of inevitable doom. In the second half of the book, Lifton applies those same observations and arguments to our understanding of, and reactions to, climate change. Although there are some notable differences between nuclear and climate crises, he admits, even those differences can be understood through historical context.

The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, Robert Jay Lifton. The New Press, September 2017. 192 pp.

Lifton also tosses in a few solid critiques of capitalist power structures and corporate greed – in particular, he makes the case that capital incentives and the quest for profit have motivated irresponsible corporations to normalize ecological terrorism. He calls into question the ethics of corporations that are known to contribute to global warming, as well as the political doublespeak around climate issues (especially Florida’s Rick Scott and his weird Orwellian tendencies).

The title, especially the word Swerve, plays largely into Lifton’s examination and the big, tough call-to-action that’s implied throughout. Swerves, to Lifton, are historical phenomena, haphazard shifts in individual and collective awareness, in the way people experience the world. Such swerves occur in response to various social, political, or academic events: as an example, Lifton cites Stephen Greenblatt’s identification of a swerve during the Middle Ages, when a shift in collective awareness upon the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rurum Natura arguably led to the Renaissance and, thus, the modern world.

The heart of the swerve we now face, Lifton argues, lies in bravery – truth-telling and truth-facing and the difficult acknowledgement of our own human tendencies. We’ve had a hard time assembling the various images we have – ice melting in the Arctic, mega-storms pounding the East Coast, sea levels rising, mass coral bleaching, etc. – into a cohesive whole. There’s a cognitive dissonance between the environment we live in and the environment that will become the new normal in the next 100, or even 50 years. Hell, this past month in North America was natural disasters. For about a month, here in Seattle, I breathed smoke and tasted ash on my way to and from work, thanks to massive, unusual wildfires as friends of mine in Florida dealt with preparing for, and cleaning up after, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, two of the most powerful storms to ever hit the states. And this week, we’re just starting to see the devastation Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico.

But again, the problem is that we tend to view these events as scattered, unconsolidated, unconnected. Lifton argues, like many environmentalists, that we must adapt, we must evolve, we must shift the way we are thinking as a society. The outcome, if we don’t, is very simple: we’ll die.



Before we go any further, I have to confess some initial biases:

  • As a woman, I have a reactionary gut-impulse to discredit psychoanalysis because of Freud’s blatant sexism. I know there’s a lot more to Freudian thought and psychoanalytic theory, but the word psychohistoricism still left a bad taste in my mouth the first few times I encountered it.
  • In regards to swerves – I read Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve, a few years back, and while I found it entertaining, I was not completely convinced of its academic merit – I thought Greenblatt took too many liberties in his examination and presentation of history. Thanks to this prior exposure, my guard was already up.
  • Robert Jay Lifton is over 90 years old. I guess I started this book a bit ageist, because it was hard to imagine someone who won’t live to see the worst of climate change being wholeheartedly invested in shifting the way we think about it.

Now that those are out of the way

The Climate Swerve is unique in that it isn’t as preachy as other environmental works I’ve read. Lifton doesn’t explicitly say we must, we must over and over again. He does, however, present some serious ways our psychology has potential to either hurt or help us as a species – we can’t stare down the dangerous habits of humanity if we don’t know what we’re looking at. Lifton does the parsing, and challenges his readers to think and act bravely with the pieces. And it works, because (1) he builds his credibility as a researcher and psychohistorian in his analysis of nuclear power, and (2) he uses a good number of first-hand sources – environmentalists, political scholars, physicists, psychoanalysts, people who have been victims of passivity in relation to either nuclear or climate issues.

There are, however, some issues: Lifton’s discussion of the nuclear problem takes up the first 100 or so pages – about half of the book – and there are parts of it that feel, in hindsight, tangential to the larger narrative. And most of the second-hand sources from the chapters on climate change are from moderate to left-leaning publications, which leaves Lifton open to charges of political bias.  

Ultimately, this isn’t a book I’d recommend to a far-right-winger to bring them into the climate chaos loop – let’s be honest, if they’re still rejecting the existence of climate change, then Lifton isn’t going to change their opinion. I would recommend it more for your middle-of-the-road uncle who believes climate change is real, but doesn’t really know what it has to do with him. It’s readable, accessible, and pretty damn thorough for a book that’s meant for the general public.

The Climate Swerve is a call to action, operating from the understanding that facing climate change must be a communal effort. And beyond action, it is a call to hope: climate awareness, Lifton argues, has the power to bring people with immense differences together through the creation of a community around survival – not of the fittest, but of the species as a whole – if only we are willing to concede our conveniences and delusions for the sake of future generations.

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