"More than machinery, we need humanity."
People on social media would have really hated Cassandra. Her constant barrage of doleful warnings would just be dismissed of as hyperbolic and unhelpful. Those who did engage with her, would suggest that she needed to go back and do the reading again, that she was simply reading more gloom into things than was warranted, that she was misinterpreting what scientists were actually saying, and, of course, numerous individuals would assure her that scaring people isn’t an effective strategy. Why, people would ask Cassandra, do you insist on focusing only on the negative?
On a similar note, Jonah would have been insufferable online. Were Ninevah a cool new social media app, he would be blasted for ruining everyone’s fun. Whenever Jonah replied to, or commented on, someone else’s posting he would swiftly earn himself a mute or a block. People would mockingly tell him to go back to sitting in the whale’s belly, since nobody outside the whale was interested in listening to him. Jonah’s protests that his words had once inspired the people of Ninevah to change their ways, and thereby avert catastrophe, would be met with exasperated sighs and eye rolls, along with dry comments about how the scale of the present crisis is much larger than any one city. Listen, people would tell Jonah, we get that there are real crises, but disaster won’t be averted just because people in one city change their ways, and telling people to don sackcloth isn’t a winning strategy.
If they were online today, Jonah would be dismissed as an out of touch curmudgeon, and Cassandra would be ignored as an unwelcome doom-monger. All of which is to say, we haven’t learned much from their stories.
“Doom is the new denial”
Within climate change discourse, there is a new bogeyman. This dangerous foe operates under many monikers, but is often referred to as: the “climate nihilist,” or the “climate doomist/doomer.”
These unsavory individuals are defined by the despairing tonality they adopt, one in which they mournfully cry out that it is already too late and that all is lost. To the “doomist,” the climate catastrophe is not only already unfolding, but certain to get worse, with the likelihood being that climate change will play out in line with the worst case scenarios. A nasty misanthropic streak often runs through these “doomists,” and this manifests in a disgust with humanity that can occasionally lead to the embrace of reactionary ideas (like Malthusianism) under an environmental banner (though, it should be noted, “doomism” and eco-fascism are not the same thing). The “doomist” looks askance, perhaps with a hint of affectionate pity, at the activists demanding reformist policies or advocating for a Green New Deal – believing that it is already too late for such mild steps. Despite their frequent affection for a retreat to the pastoral, these “doomists” have a tendency to show up online where their commitment to bleakness frustrates and infuriates climate scientists and climate activists.
Indeed, a common refrain in current climate discourse that has been repeated by several high profile figures, is that the “doomists” are the new denialists.
At risk of being rude, that is absurd.
Lest there be any confusion, this is not to advocate for the “doomist” perspective. It is absolutely fair to question the efficacy of doom-mongering. Similarly, it is undeniable that “doomists” can frequently be annoying and rude online. But in elevating “doomists” to the status of “the new denialists” – those concerned about climate change overlook the real problems in climate discourse that “doomists” reveal, while simultaneously failing to properly take into account that the denialists haven’t really gone anywhere. The problems that “doomists” present for those concerned about climate change cannot be solved by turning these bogeymen into strawmen. And by elevating “doomists” to the status of “new deniers,” climate change activists wind up exaggerating the power and influence the “doomists” have while downplaying the continuing problem of climate denial.
What follows is an attempt to wrestle with the “doomist” phenomenon, without arguing for or adopting that perspective. In all likelihood the “doomist” perspective is going to gain adherents in the months and years ahead, and those concerned about climate change are going to need a better tactic for dealing with it than simply dismissing it and blocking it on Twitter. To handle the “doomists,” climate activists need to recognize the parts of their critique that are legitimate.
It’s unfortunate that we live in an era when doom saying needs to be taken seriously, but we do.
Where we are now, and where we’ll be tomorrow
You don’t have to be a “doomist” to find recent climate news worrying. The arctic is literally on fire, the permafrost is melting, heat waves recently scorched new records across Europe, the numbers of climate refugees are already growing, Greenland is melting, the Keeling curve keeps trending upward, the destruction of the Amazon is racing ahead, and this litany of woe could continue at length. And though those in the climate community debate just how dire recent IPCC reports are (and how useful it is to talk in terms of things like “12 years”), most people would agree that the IPCC report did not paint a particularly rosy picture. Of course, there are also reasons not to despair: growing percentages seem to recognize that climate change is a serious issue, Ethiopia recently planted over 300 million trees, the Green New Deal has sparked a real conversation, youth activists in many countries are disrupting business as usual to call attention to the issue, and though systemic change is what’s needed many people are taking steps in their personal lives to shrink their own carbon footprints.
The hope giving headlines aside, it is hard to look at the pile of recent scientific studies and the bulk of environmental reporting and feel particularly positive. A running theme of late seems to be that things are getting worse faster than was originally predicted. Though the mantra of the moment is that time is of the essence, it seems as though many politicians and business leaders don’t share this sense of urgency. Indeed, in many cases they seem happy to accelerate us towards the climate catastrophe.
And as regular headlines from around the globe attest: the climate catastrophe is already happening, it just isn’t evenly distributed.
It is knee deep in this predicament that the climate community finds itself: simultaneously recognizing that the current state of affairs is less than optimal (to put it mildly), while also wanting to push back against the temptation to declare that all is lost. This requires walking a narrow path that highlights the very real risks, that emphasizes that immediate aggressive action is needed, that evinces a willingness to radically transform society, while also highlighting that it isn’t already too late. This often manifests in arguments around the usefulness of hard deadlines and cliffs, with many in the climate community pushing back against talking about things like “12 years” or “350 parts per million” of “2 degrees of warming.” To frame things in terms of such hard absolutes, the argument goes, is to make people think that the game over screen will come up when these points are reached, when in reality it is more fruitful to center the need for continued action. After all, 2 degrees of warming would be very bad, but better to limit the warming to 2 degrees than to let it spin out of control to 5 degrees of warming. The position becomes one of keeping things from getting worse, and it recognizes that “worse” sits on a continuum where there’s pretty much always an “even worse.”
Climate scientists, climate communicators, and climate activists find themselves needing to make their arguments with a high degree of nuance. What’s more they are challenged to do this while keeping their own grief and anger in check, something which they often do by appealing to lofty emotions. These groups recognize that time isn’t necessarily on their side, they recognize that there are serious political/economic/social forces arrayed to prevent progress on these fronts, but they refuse to believe that the fight has been lost.
Which brings us to the “doomists.”
The most basic definition of climate doomism/nihilism is that it is the belief that it is already too late. Not that it is too late to prevent some climate change (a position with which most in the climate community would agree), but that it is specifically too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. Doomism is seen by its critics as stoking apathy, and giving people permission to do nothing. After all, if the catastrophe is inevitable why bother protesting, organizing, or altering your lifestyle? Doomists have a tendency to insert themselves into online discussions where they annoy climate scientists, scoff at the efforts of activists, and generally beat the drums of doom. Therefore, within climate discourse, doomists are framed as a group that deserves to be ignored and dismissed of – they are (as was previously mentioned) seen as being the new denialists. And within climate discourse to be called a “denier” is a serious accusation.
Yet, it’s important to remember that “doomist” is rarely an identity one assumes for oneself, rather it is a label that one finds has been affixed to them by someone else. “Doomist” doesn’t really refer to a genuine organized group of people or to a coherent ideology – many of those who are accused of being “doomists” would furrow their brow in confusion if you accused them of being anarcho-primitivists. Insofar as there are “doomists” (and, again, it is likely that many who get called doomists would not describe themselves that way) they seem to represent a scattering of writers and readers who are given to voicing a particularly grim view. And one of the major problems with the label of “doomist” is that merely by participating in climate discourse, these so called “doomists,“ tend to prove that the accusations about them aren’t true.
For those who are genuinely indifferent, those who have truly given themselves over to apathy, those who genuinely think there is no point…don’t bother engaging on that topic. And considering the number of prominent figures who emphasize the need for people to talk about climate change, it seems worth noting that “doomists” are a group that seem to be unable to not talk about climate change.
Therefore, here is a more accurate definition of a climate doomist: anyone who gives voice to a perspective that is slightly bleaker than the currently acceptable level of bleakness in climate discourse. To express anger is acceptable, to express grief is acceptable, to mourn is acceptable, but to express despair is unacceptable. To say that marches aren’t enough is acceptable, to say that personal lifestyle alterations won’t cut it is acceptable, to say that we’re running out of time is acceptable, but to suggest that we aren’t going to act in time is unacceptable. And all of these shift as the tenor of the main body of the climate movement lurch between optimism and pessimism (after all, there was a time when it was unacceptable to critique individual lifestyle tweaks).
Thus, climate doomists exist not so much as a coherent group of thinkers and activists, but as a strawman. The point of climate doomism is that it provides mainstream climate discourse with a useful contrasting perspective. What doomists allow activists to do is say things such as “yes, I think that things are really bad…but I’m not one of those weirdos who think all is lost!” Or, “yes, I think that people need to fly less and stop eating red meat, but I don’t want us all to go back to living in caves!” Or, “yes, I think that it is imperative that we enact a Green New Deal, because I’m not one of those people who has lost faith in the political process.”
If “climate doomists” did not exist, the climate movement would have to invent them. And though it hasn’t had to invent them, it has certainly worked to elevate them.
An excellent case of this use of doomists as a deflection tactic is seen in David Wallace-Wells book The Uninhabitable Earth – a book which has done more to inject an apocalyptic tone into mainstream climate discourse than anything any of the doomists has published. Wallace-Wells’s book is a funereal march through the current state of the climate, and it grimly notes that it is likely that we are already locked in for more than two degrees of warming. And yet, Wallace-Wells insulates himself from charges of being a doomist by differentiating himself from those who he frames as the real doomists. In a chapter titled “Ethics at the End of the World,” Wallace-Wells takes aim at people like Guy McPherson, John B. McLemore, Paul Kingsnorth (of the Dark Mountain project), and Roy Scranton – these men, Wallace-Wells argues are the real problem especially as they seem “almost to be cheering for the forces of apocalypse” (207). Thus, after more than 200 pages of bleak pronouncements, including sections that cast doubt on the efficacy of protest movements, and a tone that expresses little faith in government solutions – Wallace-Wells makes sure to clarify his own credibility by differentiating himself from the people who are 10% more pessimistic than he is. And in evaluating the need for such differentiation, it is worth recalling that Wallace-Wells was originally lumped in with the doomist crowd when he first published the New York Magazine article which would eventually grow into The Uninhabitable Earth. Granted, the great irony of Wallace-Wells’s chapter on the doomists is that it seems quite likely that most of Wallace-Wells readers had never heard of these joyless Jonahs until Wallace-Wells mentioned them.
This, in turn, reveals another aspect of what going after “doomists” involves – it consists of elevating the doomists to the same level as mainstream climate discourse and greatly overinflating their reach and influence. This is not meant as an attack or an endorsement of McPherson, McLemore, Kingsnorth, or Scranton – but none of them commands the same level of cultural climate clout as the likes of Al Gore, Naomi Klein, Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, or David Wallace-Wells. True, Scranton had an op-ed in the New York Times, and Kingsnorth occasionally writes for the Guardian, but the occasional op-ed does not make one a dominant voice in climate discourse. And though anarcho-primitivist-punks have long been a favorite punching bag for the left, for every vegan listening to Nux Vomica and reading John Zerzan there are probably 10,000 people re-watching An Inconvenient Truth while calling their congress people and asking them to please vote for the Green New Deal before driving to the farmer’s market to buy some humanely raised beef. And lest there be any doubt: the Nux Vomica listener, and the An Inconvenient Truth watcher are quite likely attending the same climate marches.
Yet the more pernicious element in elevating the influence of “doomists” is when it is suggested that they are somehow equivalent to denialists. But this, as has been noted before, seems like a ridiculous exaggeration. Climate denialists have a lock on one of the major political parties in the US, think tanks flush with funds routinely hold large conferences on climate denial, when climate scientists appear on mainstream television they routinely find themselves debating a climate denier, and millions of people cling to every word of a President who thinks that climate change is a hoax (if you haven’t read Merchants of Doubt yet, you need to). Can any of those things be said of doomists? No, they simply can’t. Doomists have so little political influence that they might as well have none, doomists are hardly flush with corporate cash, and though doomists have created some of their own media they have next to no presence in mainstream media. And all the while that climate activists grouse about “doomists,” denial is still the stance of one of the US’s major political parties. Sure, the New York Times may occasionally publish an op-ed by a “doomist” (though if you actually read those op-eds it may make you reconsider how much of a doomist that doomist really is), but the New York Times has multiple climate deniers and climate delayers amongst its regular columnists.
Doomists aren’t the reason why so many people think that climate change is a hoax, denialits are.
Doomists aren’t the reason why the Green New Deal can’t get passed, denialists and delayers are.
What’s more, turning “doomists” into strawmen, while exaggerating their numbers and influence, risks ignoring the reasons why the present conditions are optimal for the flourishing of doomism.
Looking failure in the face
People have been warning about climate change for quite some time. The IPCC report that has gained infamy as the “12 years” report is hardly the first time the IPCC has sounded the alarm, long before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth James Hansen had testified before the Senate about the dangers of climate change (that was in 1988), the Keeling curve has been steadily documenting the increasing rise in CO2 in the atmosphere since 1958, and there is a lengthy list of social critics who were warning about the dangerous risks of humanity’s alteration of the planet long before the term “climate change” was being used (George Perkins Marsh was writing about this in the 1860s, Eugene Huzar was writing about this in the 1850s). One can say many things about our current climate predicament, but not that we weren’t warned. There are certainly many activist groups doing important and inspiring work at the moment, but there were many activist groups doing important and inspiring work twenty years ago too; however, to watch the environmental headlines for a week is come away with a powerful sense that things are just getting worse.
And it is in this environment that doomism metastasizes.
If you look to history you will quickly see that there have always been those saying the end of the world is at hand. However, if you engage with the scholarship that considers the history of doomsaying and premonitions of catastrophe, you will recognize that there is a split that emerges in the 1800s as people begin to shift from believing that doom will be brought by an angry god, to a belief that humanity is bringing doom upon itself. And these fears were greatly increased in the 20th century under the shadow of mushroom clouds. Thus, placing climate doomists involves first recognizing that these anxieties stand in a tradition that recognizes that humanity can doom itself. Such a position is in no way exclusive to doomists; indeed, the acknowledgment that humanity can cause its own downfall seems to be one that would be shared by most of those concerned with climate change. After all, the belief that humanity cannot alter the climate to its own detriment, or the idea that what we’re seeing are just normal climate cycles, are views associated with climate denial.
Yet, what defines doomists isn’t a recognition that humanity is capable of being the agent of its own destruction, what defines them is the belief that humanity has already so thoroughly become that agent that now the catastrophe is unavoidable. While those on the apocalyptic fringe often have to resort to bizarre lengths to prove that the signs of the doom they foretell is at hand, the climate doomist doesn’t need to turn to conspiracy theories. Instead, they can turn to the climate coverage in The New York Times, articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, government reports (including those by the IPCC), and even the basic coverage of cable news talking about heat records being broken. There are certainly some climate related stories that go to press with unhelpfully hyperbolic headlines, but there are also plenty of articles that note that things are getting worse faster than was originally anticipated; and though there are some climate communicators who emphasize the need to focus on the positive, many an article features quotes from climate scientists who are somewhat dumbstruck by what they are seeing.
Where climate denial is based on a refusal to accept what the scientific community is saying, climate doomism is based on a deep acceptance of what the scientific community is saying. Where climate denial is based on pointing to differences in opinion within the scientific community as evidence that climate science is bunk, climate doomism is based on looking at those differences in opinion (especially those dealing with timelines, worst case scenarios, and triggers) and placing heavy emphasis on the worst case scenarios rather than the best case scenarios (often pointing out that many scientists are averse to giving grim predictions, and noting that the IPCC is a fairly conservative body). Climate denial is based on the belief that everything is fine and nothing needs to be done, climate doomism is based on the belief that the catastrophe is already here and even if we take drastic action immediately things will probably still get worse for many of the world’s people. It increasingly seems that nothing can convince deniers of their folly (unless Trump comes out tomorrow in favor of combating climate change), if you challenge a denialist they will retreat to their stack of Fox News reporting and right-wing talking points. If you challenge a doomist, on the other hand, telling them that they are only looking at the negative, they may also be fairly inflexible – but they can retort by pointing to the fact that the Keeling curve keeps going up, they can point to record breaking heatwaves, they can point to Greenland’s melting glaciers, they can point to IPCC reports, and they can note that the idea that “there’s still time” represents a privileged position that overlooks that for many of the world’s most vulnerable people time is already up.
Doomism is the guilty conscience of the climate movement. It speaks to the fact that for all of its efforts, the climate movement has not managed to halt climate change. It speaks to the fact that for all of their expertise on the matter, climate communicators have not managed to communicate climate change effectively enough to drive the action needed. And it speaks to the fact that the climate community does not have a great answer to the mountain of coverage that suggests that the climate situation is getting progressively worse. Doomism is a particular flavor of activist burnout that recognizes that we have been marching about climate for years, that we have been calling our elected officials for years, that young people have been hailed as sitting at the front of the movement for years, that we have been altering our personal lifestyles for years, and yet here we are.
This represents a major problem for the climate community. And, frankly, it is one that the climate community still doesn’t know how to properly deal with. Which is part of the reason why doomism has to be vilified.
For every person who takes climate change seriously, doomism is a constant threat lurking in the background. It is the danger of being overwhelmed by the bleak news, and losing faith. And thus, those in the climate community try to keep doomism at bay by figuring out ways to go up to the line without crossing it – you can talk about climate grief, or climate anxiety, or climate anger…just so long as you never say out loud that you think it might actually be too late. But burying this worry won’t make it go away.
The danger that doomists pose to the climate camp is that their gloom may be infectious. The climate community knows how to deal with denialists: present them with the facts, and when they refuse to believe them, ignore the denier. Doomists present more of a problem for the climate community because doomists upend this equation. Doomists take the facts and argue that if the rest of the climate community really believed these facts that they too would recognize that time is up. The reason doomists are seen as dangerous is that they, unlike denialists, are actually a part of the climate community. Climate activists aren’t particularly worried that their friends will start voicing climate denial talking points, but they are worried that their friends will start declaring that all is lost. And they’re worried that deep down they might also think that all is lost.
This, ultimately, is the real challenge that doomists pose to the climate community: how do you give hope to those who have lost hope?
This is a question which the climate community needs to figure out an answer to, and it is a question it needs to answer soon. For the steady flow of bad news doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up soon, meaning that doomists are likely to multiply in the months and years ahead.
So, what to do with doom?
One way to approach the question would be to stop treating it as an infection that needs to be quarantined, and instead recognize how to effectively use it.
On the Uses of Doom
There isn’t anything particularly new, within environmental discourse, about issuing grim warnings. Consider that one of the classic works of environmentalism (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) couches its call for action in a vision of calamity. Similarly, much of the anti-nuclear campaigning of the 20th century (around nuclear weapons, and around the hazards of nuclear power) made use of apocalyptic framing in order to communicate the potential risks. And this tendency can also be found in recent works on climate change, such as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization. Indeed, as Keith Makoto Woodhouse documents in his history of radical environmentalism The Ecocentrists, emphasizing the worst-case scenario has long been a tactic taken up by certain strands of the environmental movement. It’s a case of taking the precautionary principle and putting it into practice as the basis for a political stance.
Granted, the retort would be that in these above scenarios doom was not embraced or seen as inevitable. Instead, the premonition of catastrophe served a rhetorical purpose to spur people to action. However, it should be noted, that in many of these cases it worked. Carson’s frightening warnings really did lead to change, the apocalyptic tenor of the anti-nuclear movement really did lead to mass mobilizations, the perception of risk really can motivate people.
And thus, the doomists present something of a gift to climate discourse. It is a dangerous gift, that needs to be handled carefully, but doomists give those who care about climate discourse an opportunity to discuss and acknowledge the worst case scenarios – what is important is for those who care about climate change to then be able to pivot from these grim possibilities in order to make the point “and that is why we must act immediately.” Furthermore, that is the point which those who care about climate change must continually make to the doomists themselves: “the risks posed by climate change getting worse are catastrophic, and it will be difficult to prevent more bad things from happening, but those dangers are precisely why none of the people who care can afford to sit on the sidelines.” Rather than insisting that everything will be fine (an argument which seems increasingly questionable with every passing day), doomists allow climate discourse to say that it is precisely because things won’t be fine that action is needed.
The standard response to this is some variation of the idea that “scaring people doesn’t work.” It’s a fair point, but an honest look at the current state of the world demonstrates that the climate communication strategies of the last several decades (which avoided scaring people) didn’t really work either. What’s more, there’s some reason to be skeptical of this commonly accepted wisdom about fear. After all, recent studies by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication have found that growing numbers of people are concerned about climate change and there seems to be a link here between people seeing more of the frightening results of climate change and reacting with growing concern. Furthermore, if one steps away from climate change specifically, and digs into scholarship from disaster studies one encounters plenty of work that highlights how one of the reasons why people find themselves ill equipped to handle disasters is that they were sure they didn’t have to worry. In juxtaposition to the idea that “scaring people doesn’t work” one should hold up works such as Never Saw It Coming by the sociologist Karen Cerulo, in which she argues how our societal bias towards positive thinking means that we underestimate the chances that things will go wrong.
To be clear, climate change is not just some threat lingering on the distant horizon. It is already here. It is already causing misery and death. And for many of the world’s people (including many of the most vulnerable – who are also some of those least responsible for exacerbating climate change) the idea that “we still have time” is meaningless. Climate doomists, though they can be annoying online and though they can leave people feeling depressed, serve a valuable function in climate discourse insofar as they keep bringing the attention back to risk, back to the dangers, and back to the consequences of failure. Frequently one sees these “doomists” derided for their indifference, but if these doomists were genuinely indifferent than they wouldn’t spend so much time talking about climate change. Indeed, many climate communicators have highlighted that one of the main things people need to do is to talk more about climate change – and a lot of these “doomists” talk a lot about climate change. But if doomists didn’t talk so much about climate change, there wouldn’t be a need to constantly lambaste them.
Within the climate community one often sees doomism attacked out of the belief that doomism represents a kind of indifference or that it can spur people to inaction. This is certainly a fair and important point; however, it is also one that demonstrates that the problem isn’t really doomism. The problem is apathy, the problem is indifference. Can doomism inspire such stances? Certainly. But doomism is hardly alone in inspiring indifference, inaction, and apathy. The belief in a magical techno-fix, the idea that children will save us, the belief that the Green New Deal will fix everything – are all just as likely (if not more likely) to inspire indifference and inaction. If you’re looking to see what the greatest causes of indifference are, there are probably substantially more people who think that Elon Musk is going to save the day, than there are people who think all hope is lost.
It isn’t wrong to suggest that despair can make people feel trapped. But despair is most isolating when people are made to feel that they must be ashamed of, or hide these feelings. At its most useful, doomism opens the space in which we can admit that we are afraid, in which we can admit that we think things are going to get worse, and in which we can stop pretending that we think everything is going to be fine. But what’s necessary is not to wallow in this space, but to rise from it with a response of “yes, we’re scared, but what am we going to do about it?”
Insofar as doomism seems to be spreading, and gaining new adherents, this isn’t so much a result of the influence of particular doomists as it is a result of the steady deluge of bad news. It seems likely that the images of Greenland melting have done more to inspire people to turn towards doomism than any single writer. As the sea levels rise there will likely also be a rise in the numbers of people who are leaning towards doomism.
Unfortunately, you can’t counter doomists by blocking them on Twitter. After all, those who see themselves as the scions of Cassandra expect that their warnings will go unheeded. But you can counter doomism by noting that it is precisely because of the catastrophic dangers that we must act. And if a doomist should reply that it’s pointless, let us heed the words of the great anti-nuclear philosopher Günther Anders:
“If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of the disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out. There is nothing more frightful than to be right.—And if some, paralyzed by the gloomy likelihood of the catastrophe, have already lost courage, they still have a chance to prove their love of man by heeding the cynical maxim: ‘Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.’”