Ed.note: On October 10, 2019 we’ll be hosting the live, online event, We Need to Talk, a conversation with Karin Kirk and Susanne Moser about how to talk about the climate crisis. Get your tickets here.
A conversation with scientist Susanne Moser about climate communication, the benefits of functional denial, and the varied flavors of hope.
This story was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project.
Perhaps you are depressed about last year’s IPCC report, which said we have about a decade to head off catastrophic climate change. Or you are reeling from the UN’s recent warning that we may doom one million species to extinction. These days, the relentless tide of bad news can take a toll on our mental health — and on our motivation to stay in the fight. How can we find that sweet spot between denial and despair?
Susanne Moser advises governments, nonprofits, and foundations about climate adaptation and the kinds of changes required in a warming world. Photo courtesy of Susanne Moser.
Susanne Moser has given it some thought.
In fact, Moser has been thinking about climate change since the mid-1980s, when — as a high school student in Germany — she read an article on the subject in one of her mother’s magazines. She came to the US to complete a doctorate on climate-related issues, and her long resume includes stints at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as academic postings at Harvard and Stanford universities. Moser has always been ahead of the curve: she was writing about climate adaptation back in the early 1990s, before that was a thing. Today, in addition to advising governments, nonprofits, foundations and others on climate change adaptation and the transformational changes required to maintain the kind of conditions that allow for a functional society, much less one in which all people and nature can thrive, Moser spends a lot of time thinking about the psychological demands of this fraught moment.
In a conversation with Earth Island Journal and Island Press, Moser talks about communicating bad climate news, the benefits of “functional denial,” the varied flavors of hope, and the better world we can build in the wreckage of life as we know it.
So you’ve been trying to get people to pay attention to climate change for decades now. We always hear in the communications field that fear is not motivating, that scaring the bejesus out of people is not productive. But personally, I feel quite motivated by fear. And the science is fearful. Should we pull our punches on that?
Well, there is no doubt that fear is motivational, or else we would not be here as a species. Right? If we were not afraid of the lions coming out of the grass, we’d be eaten by them. But if you only scare people without telling them what the hell they can do with their fear and how to translate that into protective or remedial action, then you lose them. There are two reactions we have to a threat: we either deal with the threat, or we deal with the feeling about the threat.
The first option actually reduces the threat. You reduce it, you run away from it, or you build a seawall against it. The other one is, I don’t want to look this awful issue in the face because I don’t know what to do. So I’m going to stick my head in the sand.
The same is true with shame, which can sometimes move some people. Guilt can, anger can, love can, but if you don’t know how to translate them into anything, then even positive feelings won’t do any good.
Well, certainly, plenty of us are scared. These days, if you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention. So, how can we recognize the trouble we’re in and still get out of bed in the morning?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Certainly, for me, one of the reasons to get out of bed is that we really haven’t tried everything. Having done miserably at communication, having done miserably at policy, having done miserably at market responses to climate change gives us a ton of hope, because we could do so much better.
The other thing is we’re short-sighted human beings on many counts, and yet our species has managed to build cathedrals that took 300 years apiece. So it’s not like we can’t. The future isn’t written yet. It is still open in terms of how it’s going to be shaped.
Still, what we have to realize — and what’s dawning on many people now — is that we have put a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere that won’t just come out tomorrow. That’s why we have to make space for grief, fear, and all the rest of it in public spaces and in our private lives.
We’re dealing with a global system that’s highly interconnected. We have set so many things in motion that if you tried to control it right now, you couldn’t. We have sailed a ship, and the question is, are we going to keep blowing wind into its sails and sending it off into even more troubled waters, or are we going to do what we can to smooth out the waters, and make sure the opening to the harbor is wide enough for everyone?
There is a ton of space left in terms of what we can do. We can’t just do anything we want, because of the things we have already set in motion, but we can stop making it worse, and there are so many options to deal with the challenges and to make life much less miserable for the vast majority of the world’s people.
So I think it’s a matter of priorities and values, and reckoning with what we have done. In the public sphere, it’s called political work. In the private sphere, there is deeply personal transformational work that needs to be done.
You’ve talked about something you call ‘functional denial.’ What does that look like?
The denial part is what we all have. It is incredibly hard to look the realities we have created in the eye. The functional part is that we have to keep going regardless. On a daily basis, I have to get up in the morning, I have to pay my bills, I have to do my work. I function as if the world were just the regular old world in which everything stays the same and I don’t have to worry too much about anything. If you look at my daily life, it would look like that.
If you look more carefully, you might see changes or choices I’ve made to try to avoid adding to the problem. But by and large, I get out of bed, I drink my tea, I do my life as if nothing else was going on.
And at the same time, every single day, I face what we have created. If you ask me to stop for a minute and say, How do you feel about that? it can paralyze me. I have so much grief about it. I have such anger about it. It’s all one big morass of emotions that I have about what we, humans, had the audacity to create out of blindness, and then out of greed and whatever.
So it’s that simultaneity of being fully aware and conscious and not denying the gravity of what we’re creating, and also having to get up in the morning and provide for my family and fulfill my obligations in my work.
For me, functional denial is actually a form of hope.
Say more about that.
I’ve come to the conclusion we have very little hope literacy in this country, and in the world, actually. There are many different flavors of hope.
One is sometimes called grounded hope, active hope, or authentic hope. That’s where you are not at all convinced that there is a positive outcome at the end of your labors. It’s not like you’re working towards winning something grand. You don’t know that you’ll able to achieve that. But you do know that you cannot live with yourself if you do not do everything toward a positive outcome.
And then there’s ‘radical hope,’ a term coined by a man named Jonathan Lear, an anthropologist. With radical hope, you don’t know at all whether the outcome is positive or negative. Neither the means nor the ends are clear, and you have to reinvent yourself completely to come to peace with whatever that new future is. Between grounded hope and radical hope, that’s what we’re going to need for climate change.
It sounds like radical hope is useful in times of great uncertainty.
Oh, absolutely. Lear came up with that term in the context of studying a Native American tribe that had lost everything: their land, their livelihoods, their culture, their freedom — they had to completely remake themselves in order to survive.
They had a great leader in helping them make that transformation. We don’t currently have anyone in this country or in this world that I see who understands what radical cultural transformation requires in terms of leadership.
It seems in fact that our leaders are doing precisely the opposite at this moment of uncertainty, and promising us a return to some ethereal status quo that we’re clearly not going back to, even if that were desirable.
What’s interesting is that I’ve come to understand uncertainty as a necessary condition for hope. If you’re perfectly certain that “It’s going to be fine” or “It’s going to be hell,” you don’t need hope, because you know exactly what’s going to happen.
And what people like Trump and other radical right-wingers in particular promise is a kind of certainty: “America is going to be great again, it’s going to be purely white, and we’re going to have great economy and we’re the best.” That’s all a form of certainty.
Whereas, “The future is going to look very different, and I can’t tell you how, but we’re going to have to go through that together and figure it out and create it — that’s uncertainty, that requires work. It’s very unpopular.
We’re so bad at handling uncertainty. It’s very unsettling.
Well, it’s unsettling, and it’s difficult work, we’re bad at it, and that is the grounds for transformation. I have absolutely zero illusion about how hard this is going to be and that we have absolutely no guarantee we’re going to make it to the other side. So, I’ll tell you that up front.
But, because we’re finally loosening from those set ways, there’s actually opportunity. You cannot transform if you stay the same. It sounds trite, but if you hold on to the way it has been, you’re going to stay the same. So you have to let go of the cliff, and you’re going to look like a fool, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes — my god, you’re going to go scratching down the cliff. It’s not going to look pretty, but it’s the only way you have a chance of actually changing.
We do seem to be going off a cliff, as a society, so it’s helpful to see that as a necessary transformation.
Yeah, and this is the kind of framing that we need, and the kind of leadership that we need, to help us understand that this is a process. It’s a very archetypal process. Maybe we’ve never been at this much risk, as a species, but it’s not like we have never had to go through anything similar.
Maybe migration is a good example. You have to let go of your homeland, and you set off on a ship in the ocean. You don’t know whether the boat is going to hold up or whether the captain knows anything about where he’s going. That’s a metaphorically perfect illustration of what we’re doing. We let go of something old in order to go through great uncertainty and come to a new place where we unfold in new ways.
There are people out there who are skipping the hope part, who believe that it’s inevitable that climate change or something else will cause the collapse of civilization, and they’re getting ready for that. I’m thinking of the Dark Mountain Project, and various prepper communities on the political left and right. What do you think of that approach?
What’s interesting to me is that they skipped right from one certainty, “We’re going to be fine, it’s not going to be bad,” to another certainty, “We’re all screwed.”
For example, Jem Bendell in the UK has put forward a deep adaptation agenda. On his Facebook page, on his LinkedIn group, he basically forbids a conversation about anything in-between, “We’re going to be fine” on the one hand and “We’re screwed, we’re going to die out in the next five decades.”
For Bendell, and also the Dark Mountain project, they are finding community with each other and building social capital that is absolutely crucial to get through the tough spot that we’re going through.
But the preppers — the people who just buy their generator and their guns and store food for three months — I’m worried about them. In America where there’s so many guns, we’re going to shoot each other, and it’s very scary to me. It’s a very individualistic, survivalist approach, whereas the Dark Mountain project and Jem Bendell’s deep adaptation are actually doing some of the deep psychological and social work required to get to a different place.
So, community is a key ingredient of the transformational change that needs to happen if we’re going to come out on the other side of this?
There’s no doubt that the harsh conditions we’re currently creating will make us dependent on each other in ways we don’t even know yet. We’re so focused on, “Can I protect myself from this; can I survive on whatever?” Even, “Where can I move?” as if there is a place to hide from this global change. But to have any chance of surviving as a species, we need to share resources, to bring the weakest and most marginalized into the center of our communities, and yeah, we’re going to get a lesson in dependence and interdependence like you haven’t seen. Well, none of us have seen. I say, Stay put if you can and get to know your neighbors!
I could not agree more with that prescription, but I also can’t help but notice that that doesn’t seem to be the direction we’re headed in as a society.
It’s not just the climate news but also the societal condition — the political inability to make anything happen across partisan lines — that feed into people’s despair. Fostering social capital, wherever we are —in the workplace, at the neighborhood level, in the communities — is absolutely crucial.
Hope doesn’t hinge on a rosy picture of the future. I really believe that the amount of suffering and the amount of cruelty that we’re capable of is very large. But I also believe that people do have a heart and are desperate for something other than what this currently is.
There are millions of people who don’t know how to engage with this in a constructive way and feel powerless, which is feeding their despair, but who are not on board with the viciousness and hatred and divisiveness that you can get on TV every minute of the day.
It’s really true. And the way we live now in this culture, which has caused climate change, is such a radical break from most of human history. Returning to a more cooperative way of living could be like coming home.
Yeah. It is relearning something that we once knew, at least on a species level. We keep talking about the three Fs: fight, flight, or freeze, but there is a fourth one, and that’s the one that actually helped us survive.
The forming of bonds, or the be-friending. That’s the piece that got to us to cooperate as a species and recognize that we have greater advantage when we work together as opposed to everyone for themselves. This is biology. It is in the genetic history of our species. We are here because we cooperated. It’s part of us.
With the story of climate change, there’s so much loss: loss of the familiar, of places we love, of the stable climate that gave us a huge boost as a species. Are there things to be gained as well from moving out of that certainty?
I certainly think so. The loss is tremendous and heartbreaking on so many levels, both the human suffering and the wiping out of other species, the loss of places, seasons. And it strikes me that it seems so much easier to imagine these losses than to imagine that we could change ourselves and create a different form of living on the planet.
It is really crucial that we learn to imagine what we could gain. If we can’t imagine it, it’s more difficult to create. It’ll make us dependent on accidents, serendipities.
When [atmospheric concentration of carbon passed] 415 parts per million, people were saying that we had never had these kinds of atmospheric conditions during the time that homo sapiens have been on this planet. And we’re now moving to double that, and beyond.
So we’re having to deal with completely new environmental conditions, and we will be changed by that. Can we imagine that? No. Can we try to imagine that we’re not just clobbering each other over the head or blowing each other up? I can imagine something different.
When you imagine it, what is the best thing about that new world?
That we will be a nondominant species again. I’m not the first one to say that. But it’s basically the idea of keeping the Anthropocene to a really thin layer in the geologic record and being one among many species that live on this planet within the confines of its resources, without damaging it, and in fact making it part of our species’ purpose to recreate and nourish the conditions for the continuity of life.
In my highest aspirations for the human species, that’s what we will be: servants of life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.