Robert Jay Lifton was born 91 years ago. Living through the catastrophes of the 20th century — world war, tyrannical regimes, genocide, the nuclear bomb, terrorism — he grappled with their terrible impact on human beings. His work as a psychiatrist, historian and public intellectual forged his reputation as one of the world’s foremost thinkers. Among his 20 books are such seminal award winners as Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967); The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986); and Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (2014).
Now he has turned to climate change, which, he says, “presents us with what may be the most demanding and unique psychological task ever required of humankind.” In The New York Times three years ago, he wrote that “Americans appear to be undergoing a significant psychological shift in our relation to global warming.” Borrowing a term from Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt to describe a major historical change in consciousness, he called this shift a climate “swerve.” Lifton plunged into studying the phenomenon further and has just published a new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections of Mind, Hope, and Survival.
Here is my interview with him.
Bill Moyers: In that New York Times essay back in 2014, you wrote that “experience, economics and ethics are coalescing in new and important ways” to bring about this change in attitude toward climate change. Yet you quoted Bob Dylan’s words that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” Do you know now, three years later?
Robert Jay Lifton: Yes. Resistance to climate truths is giving way to an embrace of them. Our mindset has been changing from rejection to confronting climate danger. I take that to be a profound change and a somewhat hopeful one, because at the global climate conference in Paris in 2015, virtually every nation in the world joined in the recognition that we’re part of a single species in deep trouble, and that each country had to make some contribution in cutting back on fossil fuels emissions, which are the source of our danger. Maybe that really indicates the shift from identifying with the smaller group to ultimately identifying with the whole human species. That sounds sometimes grandiose or romantic, but it’s an everyday matter when we think about the truths of climate change. It also applies to the nuclear threat.
Moyers: How so?
Lifton: Well, with the nuclear threat we know that if sufficient weapons are used, human civilization — all of humankind — could be extinguished literally by “nuclear winter.” So we have to see ourselves as part of the ultimate human group, just as we have to do with global warming.
Moyers: You write that in the 1980s there was a “swerve against nuclear weapons” by millions of people worldwide that produced a call for “a nuclear freeze.”
Lifton: That’s right.
Moyers: But look at what happened. Three decades later, in the first days of his administration, Barack Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for, in part, calling for an end to nuclear proliferation. Yet one of his final acts as president eight years later was to authorize a trillion dollars to modernize our nuclear weapons arsenal. One might say, “So much for the nuclear swerve!”
Lifton: It’s not over. Yes, it’s discouraging, and it was a terrible decision that Obama made. He made some kind of compromise and got something back from the Republicans. But these challenges are a continuous struggle, and it’s never won. There’s always a backlash. That’s true of any protest or struggle. However, it may well have been the swerve against nuclear weapons that kept them from being used after Nagasaki was destroyed in 1945. Maybe it’s served us in that manner.
Moyers: In his magnum opus A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations would fall not because doom was inevitable but because governing elites would not respond adequately to changing circumstances or because they would focus only on their own interests. Remember that?
Lifton: Yes. Well, the governing elite and even the common people have not responded adequately to either nuclear weapons or climate threat. See what’s happening with North Korea right now. So yes, it’s discouraging, but if we keep at it, maybe what we can achieve even in a bumbling way will prevent an ultimate catastrophe with both a nuclear and climate swerve.
Moyers: Have we reached a level of fear about climate destruction similar to the fear some years ago of nuclear destruction?
Lifton: That is an important question, because usually we say, “Oh, fear’s a bad thing, anxiety’s bad,” but it’s appropriate to experience fear and some kind of anxiety in relation to both nuclear and climate threats. We probably haven’t reached sufficient fear of climate disaster but it’s been growing and it’s becoming more immediate.
Moyers: Let’s take one by one the three forces you say are contributing to the swerve toward climate change awareness. First: experience. You wrote three years ago that people had been stunned into a new awareness by a drumbeat of climate-related disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and wildfires, by extreme heat waves and extreme cold, by rising sea levels and floods. So here we are, three years later, with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and now Jose and Maria right behind them. Wildfires are consuming large swaths of forestlands in the Northwest. There are droughts all over the world. Is experience telling us global warming is worse today than when you set out to write The Climate Swerve?
Lifton: Absolutely. The planet gets hotter, there are more and more catastrophic disasters. The hurricanes are bad enough, but it’s not only those hurricanes; it’s storms in South Asia and the South Pacific that are occurring at the same time — and, as you said, the droughts and fires, the wildfires on a new level, more and more encroaching into urban areas. These are profoundly menacing developments. So it’s the immediacy and experience of climate change that’s becoming more traumatic and immediate, and we’re aware of it to a degree that we have not been before. And this also brings up another issue. With climate change there hasn’t yet been until possibly now, and maybe not even now, an equivalent of nuclear imagery. When you see imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you really sense that the world could be ended — the imagery of extinction as I call it — by these weapons. They’re more than weapons; they’re instruments of genocide. We haven’t had equivalent climate images. But now the hurricanes, the devastation of islands that an hour before had been beautiful places of pleasure, wiped out and rendered uninhabitable — that’s a pretty staggering image.
Moyers: The second force you identify as converging with experience is economics. You describe what you call a “wonderfully evocative term, stranded assets, to characterize the oil, coal and gas reserves that are still in the ground. Trillions of dollars of assets stranded there.” And you write: “If we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sustaining the human habitat, between 60 percent and 80 percent of those assets must remain in the ground. In contrast, renewable energy sources are taking on increasing value in terms of returns for investors, long-term energy savings and reduced harm to the communities where we live.” And, you write, “It matters that the market may end up devaluing their fossil fuel assets.”
Lifton: There’s more and more recognition that a carbon economy is dangerous to us economically. And there is increasing recognition that renewable fuels have economic value as well as obvious value for our health and our well-being and our survival. In fact, as you know, the economic revolution in renewable fuels has been impressive. It really had not been anticipated. In any case, you have the symbolism and active significance of members of the Rockefeller family and two of the Rockefeller foundations recognizing this — withdrawing from fossil fuels in terms of their investments, divesting themselves — and recognizing a new kind of economic possibility. So the economic side is making itself felt. Unfortunately, it’s still in a sense an impasse because there are lots of people who continue to defend those stranded assets with what I call stranded imagination or stranded ethics. They insist they have a fiduciary duty in terms of their corporation to serve investors by making use of those stranded assets. But there’s more and more pressure against them and more and more of what I call “species awareness” that condemns this pattern of stranded ethics.
Moyers: I want to believe you, but it still seems to me that powerful capitalist organizations such as ExxonMobil, libertarian oligarchs like the Koch brothers, and superrich right-wingers like the Mercer family are not going to want to leave all that buried treasure in the ground.
Lifton: Most of them will do their damnedest to bring it out of the ground and see themselves as even doing good in the process by creating jobs and by enhancing the economies of the developing world and other such rationalizations, yes. But there’s more and more of a recognition against it, again as embodied by the Paris accord. It’s of some significance Donald Trump tried to withdraw from Paris, never quite succeeded, and now seems to be looking for a way to stay in the treaty. Of course, he’s declaring all kinds of victories because he says we’re renegotiating the treaty, which means renegotiating with yourself, since you set the standards that one agrees to for reducing carbon emissions. But the fact that he couldn’t finally take us completely out of the Paris accord and that when he tried to there was a rallying by individual states, led by California and by others in the world, reasserting the principles of Paris we’re all in this together — well, you can’t deny the power of climate swerve — this new global awareness about climate danger.
Moyers: Regarding the choices we face, I remember your once quoting the old Jack Benny joke in which a robber points a gun to Benny’s head and offers him a choice: “Your money or your life.” There’s a long silence, and then Benny responds, “I’m thinking it over.”
Lifton: You need a few laughs if you are going to survive in all of this. Well, we’re thinking our choices over. And I call this the ultimate absurdity. If we do nothing different from what we’re doing now, continue with fossil fuels, not change anything, just do what we’re doing, we’ll destroy ourselves as a civilization. What could be more absurd than that? I distinguish between formed awareness and fragmentary awareness. You see one or two hurricanes and say, “Maybe what’s coming will be bad here, maybe it won’t.” That’s partial, fragmentary and skewed awareness, but if you have formed awareness it takes shape as a story, a narrative: “Global warming is real, it endangers the whole planet. We have to take steps toward eliminating or reducing it by eliminating carbon emissions and replacing them with renewable fuels.” That’s what’s taking place — formed awareness over the fragmentary awareness. It’s erratic, and any swerve is irregular, not quite predictable, and takes forms that we can’t anticipate. But it’s there and it’s happening, and even Trump’s experience regarding the Paris accord is evidence of it.
Moyers: What about people who say: “I agree global warming is happening and I know we should be concerned about it, but my job depends on mining coal or on fracking. My job depends on oil and gas. My job depends on getting those resources out of the ground.” You told a story; I’ll tell another — of the longtime New Yorker who is walking down the street at night when an armed robber steps out of the dark doorway and demands, “Give me your money or I’ll blow your brains out.” At which the weary New Yorker replies, “Fire away, buddy; you can live in this city without brains but you can’t live here without money.” It’s a tough call many people face.
Lifton: Absolutely, and one can have considerable sympathy for them. Their jobs are essential, and that’s why with any kind of conversion into renewable energy, you’ve got to provide jobs for those who lose them when we step back from fossil fuels. It’s not so easy. Obviously, the Republicans haven’t thought about that and they’ve fought back against the climate swerve, but even the Democrats have probably not gone nearly as far as they should in recognizing the issue of jobs.
Moyers: To the two forces we’ve already discussed, experience and economics, you add third one that’s converging to create the climate swerve:
ethics. You write: “The swerve toward awareness of global warming was leading people to feel it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for future generations. Their consciences were being stirred. They were being energized.” This was three years ago. Do you still think that force is as powerful today as it was then?
Lifton: I think it still is, even though now with President Trump and his administration you have ethnonationalism, which combats exactly what we’re talking about. What we’re describing is a recognition that there’s something wrong with endangering ourselves as a species and perhaps even eliminating ourselves and our civilization. There’s something wrong with what we are bequeathing to the next generation.
Moyers: What did you think when you heard President Trump say to the victims of Hurricane Irma, “We’ve had bigger storms than this”? And Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, in effect said to reporters pressing him about the relation of Hurricane Irma to climate change, “Don’t bring that up. To use time and effort to address [global warming] at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”
Lifton: Those were further expressions of climate rejection. I talk less and less about climate denial and more about climate rejection. And the reason why I make that distinction is that everybody now, including Pruitt and Trump, the most antagonistic people to climate truths, knows in some part of their minds that climate change threatens us, but they reject the threat because they can’t accept what it demands of us. It demands that government itself be active and connect with other governments, and this threatens their worldview and their identity. Pruitt doesn’t ever want to raise it. There’s a problem now with people like him and people like Gov. Scott of Florida, who see terrible devastation, who still want to see themselves as humane leaders, who try hard to walk a fine line between continuing to reject global warming as a major factor in the extreme weather and still wanting to be seen as caring for people. It’s a losing battle because as they do this, the truths of climate more and more impinge. There is the old idea that we just adapt to each disaster because there will be new disasters, that after all, climate does change, and we don’t know whether human beings do it or not. That’s what the rejecters are now saying. Adapt! That’s again a form of stranded ethics.
Moyers: The subtitle of your book is “Reflections on Mind, Hope and Survival.” Those words express the hope you felt when you started writing it three years ago. But you didn’t — couldn’t — anticipate Donald Trump and the 63 million Americans who voted for him because they shared his worldview, or a Trump regime united in treating global warming as a hoax.
Lifton: Yes, that’s true. But my argument is that this climate swerve is still operative, still very powerful, still involves species awareness as epitomized by Paris, and that even Trump and his lackeys cannot buck it. They can try their best to delay it, to interfere with it, as they are, and they’ve done a lot of harm and they will do a lot more harm. But they cannot stop it. The swerve is larger than any person. It’s larger than Trump and his crowd. Again, I think his failure to leave the Paris accord is an indication of this.
Moyers: I hear you. And from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima to the Holocaust, from genocide to terrorism — I know that you are not a romantic about human nature, or about power. But I have to say that I’m not as sure as as you are that Trump won’t get away with it. Here’s a man who says global warming is a hoax, who lies about the threat of global warming, who’s stacked the government with opponents of science, who’s created a hostile environment for scientific research by simply refusing to fill so many key scientific positions, who’s muzzled officials who are charged to inform the public—
Lifton: Yes, he’s done all that—
Moyers: —who’s sidelined or fired scientific advisers, closed down the Environmental Protection Agency program that helps states and local communities adapt to rising sea levels and other effects of global climate change, rolled back fuel-economy goals, killed flood risk standards for infrastructure projects, removed climate-related content from government sites, and proposes sharply to reduce climate research. That’s not just a few inches won here and a few inches there, like the battles of World War I. These add up to a blitzkrieg.
Lifton: They are significant. And they’re evil. And they’re dangerous — they’ve already caused all kinds of danger. And I’m sure that things he’s already implemented have interfered with efforts at dealing with this sequence of hurricanes that we’re talking about, and he’ll do a lot more dangerous things, and there will be difficulties that he’s caused that will take years or even decades to overcome. So I’m agreeing with you. But there is a future beyond Trump, and there is a significant element of new human awareness. You know, I say at the end of my book, “It is always and never too late.” Of course it’s too late to do what we should’ve done decades ago in terms of combating global warming and what we should’ve done in blocking Trump and not electing him and in doing other things that would have stymied him. But it’s not too late because we can still try to get rid of Trump, to change these policies and save much of our civilization, to bring about life-enhancing patterns that are the very opposite of what Trump has done. So that’s the long-range view that I put forward as at least a human possibility. And what I’m talking about in the book is a mindset that’s open to that possibility, while acknowledging that we haven’t actually achieved it.
Moyers: Let’s talk about that mindset. Because as we discussed in our conversation last week, 4 out of 5 Republicans still support Trump and a large majority of the 63 million people who voted for him still support him. Let’s talk about their mindset a moment, their psychology.
Lifton: Well, as we’ve been discussing, there is a movement of more people recognizing global warming as a danger, recognizing the human contribution to global warming, recognizing the necessity for doing something about it. So there’s a trend in that direction, and that trend is consistent with what a climate swerve — which is, as we’re both saying, a mindset.
Climate change is all-enveloping in everything around us every day of our lives. Trump’s supporters can’t avoid it any more than anyone else. So the danger’s still very much with us, but we possess the evolutionary capacity of human beings to cope with it. Our minds, some say, are not wired for anticipating the future — the future of climate threat and the greater forms of threat that will increasingly occur in the future. But the fact is, our evolutionary achievement with our human mind has to do with imagining beyond the immediate. It’s a capacity we have, and at Paris, even with a flawed accord, there was an expression of that capacity transformed into a political act or universal agreement. Yes, it’s shaky because it depends upon following through with actions that physically and physiologically affect our lives. But the mindset is the basic requirement for such action. It would have been impossible, prior to developing this kind of mindset and this kind of species awareness, to imagine any significant steps on a wide scale, internationally, to combat climate change. Now we can imagine them, and we’re seeing some of them in a beginning way taking shape, because our mindset is evolving. Other studies have talked about — and they’re really important — the scientific nature of climate threat and the scientific findings. And the climate scientists are really prophetic in what they’ve told us about climate danger. But one also has to look at what the human mind is capable of doing and where it is in relation to this capability.
Moyers: The Canadian writer Judith Deutsch recently published an excellent essay on “Convenient Untruths About ‘Human Nature:’ Can People Deal with Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons?” She invokes the book The Garden of the Finzi-Continis to make an important point. Did you read the book or see the movie based on it?
Lifton: Yes, I did. I saw the film, yes.
Moyers: As the Nazis were consolidating power over Italy, everyday people were still exulting in the warm and pleasing experiences of daily life. They simply could not see or believe impending disaster. Some people cannot bring themselves to imagine the worst.
Lifton: That’s right. And that was true of many people in the Holocaust, many Jews who could not believe the danger they would be in and could not give up their homes and possessions, and could not allow themselves to imagine the horrors that the Nazis had begun to impose on people. There are patterns of what I call psychic numbing and other ways of diverting one’s mind from unacceptable truths. And there is a parallel, as you’re suggesting, with climate change.
But in a way, these hurricanes have been useful to us because they have received all kinds of visual expression now. We have all seen those dreadful threatening images of these hurricanes on television or the internet. This doesn’t mean that people won’t still deny, reject, numb themselves to climate change, but it’s harder to do so, and perhaps fewer and fewer do so successfully in the mixture of rejection and acceptance that many have in connection with this danger.
Moyers: How do you explain the studies showing that when some people — a lot of people — are confronted with an indisputable fact that contradicts their belief system, they will choose their belief and their values over that fact every time?
Lifton: I think the people who reject the facts of global warming in order to sustain a belief system that rejects it are a minority, and perhaps a minority that’s growing smaller as the mindset I’m describing in The Climate Swerve is growing. I repeat, it’s touch-and-go, and there’s no moment of truth. But it’s happening. That’s the argument I’m making. I’m not envisioning some beautiful future of humankind behaving perfectly and wisely in this new mindset. I just think we have an increasing capacity to avert catastrophe and to take some life-enhancing steps that comes from the mindset.
Moyers: What’s the danger that the vast and growing inequality of our time is leading to a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest world? You may remember the chief economist of Britain, Nicholas Stern, who quantified people’s right to live on the basis of wealth. I read that he justified expanding Heathrow Airport because he said a rich person would lose money having to wait for a flight and that this wealth was worth more than the wealth of people dying due to the greenhouse gas emissions from flying.
Lifton: Well, I don’t think such a view would gain too much of a hearing right now. I keep returning to these hurricanes. I think they’re very significant psychologically as well as physically. What they psychologically tell us is that everybody’s vulnerable. Rich vacationers, retirees in Florida, along with ordinary people are just as vulnerable as people whose islands in the South Pacific might sink into the ocean. There is the fantasy that calamity will affect them but not us. That’s wrong, and the hurricanes make the truth more available to us. I think, again, the experience side of climate change right in their own backyards, in our own backyards, alters that.
Moyers: Is there a danger we’ll be so dazzled by technology we’re likely to ignore the reality of danger? Remember what Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman reported after the first atom bomb test in New Mexico? He said that the scientists who brought it off broke into “tears and laughter. We beat each other on the back. Our elation knew no bounds. The gadget worked.” He got out his bongo drums and led a snake dance! What does that tell us about—
Lifton: There are a lot of things it tells us. The scientists who made the atomic bomb are, in my sense, people with a tragic destiny. You know, there was the US race with Nazi Germany and good evidence that the Germans were more advanced in nuclear physics, and we had to get the bomb first. But then there was the use of that dreadful weapon, or instrument of genocide, and many of the more sensitive scientists turned quickly into anti-nuclear people — and very effective ones.
But what you’re talking about in terms of the gadget and our embrace of gadgets more generally is an attitude toward technology, especially the idea that technology will serve us and save us. I speak of what I call rescue technologies. For example, there’s an embrace of what’s called geoengineering, a vast technology to change the climate, actually change the weather, which has never been proven and could have all kinds of dangers of its own. It’s significant that the scientist Edward Teller, who so believed in the technology of destruction — perhaps the leading nuclearist of his time — was also a leading advocate of geotechnology of this kind.
Let me say embracing rescue technologies is very, very dangerous. Another rescue technology for nuclear weapons has been the strategic defense initiative, SDI, as though if we set up these anti-missile missiles, we’ll be OK and we can keep our nuclear stockpiles. The trouble is, it’s not OK. They’re never guaranteed to get all the incoming missiles and bombs. They may get most of them, but it’s never been demonstrated — and it seems unlikely to ever be demonstrated — that they can be foolproof against all nuclear weapons that are used. So this worship of technology, what I call technicism, which is a kind of child of scientism, is deeply dangerous, and that’s I think you’re implying with your question. Although it extends to all sorts of things we do in our culture that go beyond bombs and beyond climate, maybe it’s most dangerous with nuclear weapons and with climate.
Moyers: Why does all this matter to a 91-year-old man who, like me at 83, is, not likely to experience the worst climate disasters that might await our species? Why do you care?
Lifton: Bill, this book is about a vast universal problem. It’s also very personal in the way that I write it and the way I think about things. And it’s a series of reflections that I feel are justified in terms of my experience. I hold to the idea of what I call larger human connectedness. It’s a secular version of the sense of human continuity, or even sense of immortality, and we as a culture-creating species we really, really require. We don’t just live in a single moment. We don’t even live only in the lives of our parents and children and grandchildren, but rather as part of the great chain of being. I feel that very strongly. So it matters to me what happens along the way in that chain, what happens to the world in the future, what becomes of the nastier forces that I’ve struggled against in my lifetime. It matters to me that these convictions continue for the remainder of my life, and beyond, as part of the great chain of being.