Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from Margaret’s new report: Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement. It is available as an Illustrated PDF or Text Only on Margaret’s site here.

Emergency Mode: Optimal Functioning in an Existential (or Moral) Crisis

Most psychological and sociological writing about the climate crisis has warned climate “communicators” of the risks of triggering primitive and pathological responses to crisis: “fight or flight”, panic, and the devastation caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of these bleak portrayals, many political and organizational leaders have dared not convey the horrifying truth of the climate crisis, since they operate under the mistaken belief that the only response to emergencies is panicked chaos!

But aside from panic, individuals and groups can also respond to emergencies with reason, focus, dedication, and shocking success. Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning, markedly different from “normal” functioning— is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.

We are all, at times, confronted with emergency situations. Children, and adults who are overwhelmed by the situation for whatever reason, enter either panic mode, in which they act without thinking, or are paralyzed and unable to act. Children, for example, will often hide during house fires. However, healthy adults respond to emergencies by entering emergency mode.

  Normal Mode Emergency Mode
Priorities Many balanced priorities Solving the crisis = One top priority
Resources Distributed across priorities and saved for future. Huge allocation of resources towards solution
Focus Distributed across priorities Laser-like focus
Self-esteem Source Individual accomplishment Contributing to the solution

Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency and reorients by:

1) Adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority

2) Deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis

3) Giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.

Emergency mode is a fundamental departure from “normal” mode of functioning. In normal mode, the individual or group feels relatively safe and secure, does not recognize any immediate existential or major moral threats — either because there is none, or because they are in denial — and therefore:

1) Maintains a portfolio of priorities

2) Attempts to distribute focus and other resources wisely among them

3) Gives considerable weight to personal gratification, enjoyment, and achievement

Long Emergencies

Usually emergencies take hours or days to resolve, but people can and do also enter long emergency modes that last for years. These “long emergencies” include diseases like cancer, which is life-threatening but not immediately curable, acute poverty, in which the person struggles daily with the emergency of meeting basic needs, and war. For these long emergencies, the business of normal life must be integrated into the emergency response. For doctors, nurses, paramedics, crisis counselors, hostage negotiators, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, and (hopefully) climate campaigners, emergency mode is a regular, on-going experience.

There is also moral emergency mode, when an issue—usually regarding freedom or equality—becomes elevated to the status of an existential threat. People in moral emergency mode are the driving force behind most, if not all, successful social movements. These people have decided that nothing, not even survival, is more important than the struggle. They dedicate themselves to it fully and utilize all of their capabilities in the service of victory.

Emergency mode often involves a specific, particularly intense type of flow state. Flow is an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow described it as:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In short emergencies such as a fire, individuals stay in an emergency flow state the entire time. If the individual is in long emergency mode, however, these emergency flow states are experienced frequently, but other elements of life, such as rest, recreation, and close relationships, are also maintained. Indeed, balancing one’s intensive work on solving the emergency and all other activities is one of the most challenging elements of facing a long emergency.

On the other hand, living in emergency mode can be extremely rewarding. Flow states in general are sought after, and a key indicator of psychological health. People enjoy being fully engaged in activity — “in the zone” — utilizing their entire capacity, whether they are playing sports, performing musically, studying intensely, or responding to an emergency. As Csikszentmihalyi described the rewards of flow:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

I have spoken with Emergency Room doctors, firefighters, and climate campaigners who report being hooked on the sense of purpose, feeling that they are useful, and the relief from self-involvement that their immersive work provides.

People must feel basically competent to handle the emergency in order to enter emergency mode. If people don’t know what to do during an emergency, they may panic, despair, or resist going into emergency mode at all. This is why having structures such as a designated phone number to call in case of any emergency (9-1-1), or a designated place to go (the Emergency Room) during medical crises are so helpful—they provide clear steps for people confronting emergencies, making it much easier for people to enter emergency mode. The more the climate movement can provide structures for people’s engagement — clear directions and support for people who are ready to tackle the climate emergency — the more people will go into emergency mode. Effective, transparent leadership is also critical in enabling people to enter emergency mode. Confidence that leaders and decision makers are competently addressing questions of strategy and policy for the emergency mobilization allow participants to focus on their contribution.

Essential to long emergencies is the human capacity for dedication and commitment – the mind state that brings a person back, over and over, to the emergency issue despite inevitable interruptions and temptation to avoid the issue. It also takes a good deal of courage, and ability to stay calm under intense stress. The famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters from wartime United Kingdom addressed this challenge. We could translate them into this framework as meaning, “Avoid Panic Mode and Stay in Emergency Mode.”

Photo credit: By GrindtXX – Own photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38348626