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American Individualism Is My Climate Fear

The stories we tell dismiss the collective. And collective action is all that can save the planet’s many inhabitants.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For years you were a bore and a doomsayer if you mentioned climate change at a party. It wasn’t even the elephant in the room: There were no elephants. Just people.

When an unapologetic denier of reality took over the White House, and media outlets finally decided to run with those little climate change end-times features that had been cooking along on a back burner for roughly a half-century, the elephant finally shuffled in. Now everyone acts like its presence is completely normal. What climate change eleph—oh, you mean Stan? Well yeah, of course Stan’s here. Stan’s always here. He makes a mess in the corner, I mean Stan’s a big guy, but we’ll clean it up later. Wait, I see him now—hey, Stan! Stan the Man! He’s over at the finger-food table, picking up crab puffs with his trunk. Um, does he actually know that’s crab? I thought he was a vegetarian!

That’s how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic, anyway. While we still went to parties. A few people still do, sure, but they’re either wearing MAGA hats and possibly packing, or frat-boyish hordes whose anti-mask rebellion looks like Daytona at spring break. The partiers’ sense of entitlement appears so immense that it leaves no space for elephants—figurative or otherwise.

When I think of the future under climate change, I think of populations in migration, sea-level rising, weather patterns morphing, and crops and nation states failing. I think of diseases in migration, as mosquitoes and ticks and other vectors spread to new territories. Uncertainty and instability on a scale we can barely imagine, though we’re getting a sneak peek with the Covid pandemic. I think of chaos and strife—forms of social disorder, unjust and tragic in their own right, whose effects can’t be undone. Chiefly I’m preoccupied with what we call mass extinction, which is irreversible and closely tied to climate change. Collective action is the only thing that may be able to stop either.

At the moment—a sustained, tormented moment—it doesn’t look like collective action is our strong suit, here in the United States.

There’s been a curious loneliness, for people like me, in working on climate and species extinction threats these past decades. At first, it felt like gaslighting: The scientific evidence for both of these ongoing crises was overwhelming, and their relevance and urgency, not merely to one narrow interest group but to every interest group that lives and will live, seemed painfully clear. (Some sectors of the military, for instance, have been trying to plan for climate change for ages, recognizing it as a clear and present danger to national security.) Yet the mainstream gave the crises minimal attention. The matter of planetary life support was a bit of a boutique concern, in many people’s eyes. Like quilting or collecting vinyl, it had its adherents—often poignantly committed to their arcane hobbies—but their doings were of little general interest.

There’s a kind of desperate fierceness that grows from such isolation, from such commitment to an unpopular idea. I’ve seen it with other ideas that are widely held to threaten the American way of life—socialism and atheism, say, though each of those cases has its own history and scope. “But can’t you see?” plead their proponents from the sidelines. “Can’t you see?”

These days the extended disinformation campaign over what should properly be seen as a life-support emergency has retreated from public and social spaces to the halls of Congress—specifically Republican lawmakers and their constituent donors in a range of fossil-fuel-related industries—where it’s making a last stand in very, very bad policy. It’s also thriving—temporarily, I like to hope—in an anti-government executive branch and its Cabinet-for-hire, a willfully ignorant cadre of inverted Chicken Littles who run around claiming the sky isn’t falling, even as sizable chunks of it rain down awkwardly on their heads.

Climate anxiety should probably be called climate fear. “Anxiety,” after all, is a condition we believe we can and should manage and subdue, maybe with therapy or pills. Fear, on the other hand, is a motivator—a reflex we developed over the span of deep time through painful trial and error, to avoid what can hurt or kill us. When we wish to survive and thrive, we take coordinated, strategic action to keep the object of that fear at bay.

The human capacity for self-preservation through social collaboration is often named as one of our primary and unique attributes, along with the complex language we command and can use to achieve it. In climate change and mass extinction, we’re facing down the most powerful adversaries our kind has ever known. These are clearly enemies of our own making. As the once-famous political cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote in the 1970s and put in the mouth of a fictional possum: We have met the enemy and he is us.

These are vast, systemic problems that demand a vast, systemic solution. A touch of personal nervousness won’t produce an adequate defense. Only our superpowers of cooperation will be able to save the day.

What I fear, when it comes to climate change, is the war between the self and the community. That war is nothing new—in this country, the self has been winning the fight since Ronald Reagan and probably before—but with climate and extinction at stake, and a time frame that’s acutely limited, we’re at a crucial inflection point.

The current commander in chief is an absurdly perfect embodiment, in fact a caricature, of the side that’s pulling for the self. More than any other factor that has been cited to explain his popularity—including his commitment to a broad corporate license to pollute, profit, and kill; to white supremacy; to sexism; or to an anti-choice posture—that perfect embodiment is what accounts for the die-hard loyalty of about a third of the voting populace. He represents and repeatedly enacts, with a zealous and triumphal abandon, the notion that one man, an individual and by extension the individual—driven by no impulse or thought beyond pure, inexhaustible self-interest—should spin like the sun at the center of all being.

On the other side, pulling for community, are arrayed the forces of reason. And whether or not you find this particular commander in chief to be charismatic (speaking for myself: no), the problem with the forces of reason is that they don’t lend themselves to a rebel-hero narrative.

Our cultural meaning-making is so profoundly vested in this one story, which we tell over and over again, that we don’t truly believe in any other. Movies, TV, and even video games focus on one person who triumphs over the odds to save either the world or simply him- or (more rarely) herself. Our mainstream fiction is that of an individual under fire, who fights to vanquish evildoers. Sometimes the individual joins up with a merry band or love interest, and sometimes at the end we’re presented with a neat, attractive nuclear-family unit, standing with their arms around each other amid the smoldering ashes. But this is mostly a wink and a nod: We understand the merry band or love interest is largely window dressing. You need them for dialogue and drama.

We make a crucial choice when we decide our meaning-making vehicles will all be about one person’s victory over others. We choose, in the stories we tell, to omit or dismiss the collective in favor of the lone fighter. So we shouldn’t be surprised when that rebel-hero narrative rises up to crush other, less established fables beneath its shiny boot heel.

Storytelling is everything. Actually being a rebel or hero isn’t a requirement for the position of boss of these United States; possessing literally no rebellious or heroic characteristics doesn’t have to be a problem. If you can tell a tale of yourself as a rebel and a hero loudly and confidently enough, using simple, reductive words, some people will listen, hearing in your egotistical fantasy the tolling bell of their personal liberation.

I worry that our failure to tell a new story just as loudly—of love and respect for the natural world that sustains us, of an embrace of science by secular and religious groups alike, of sacrifice for the common good, of the nobility of putting a livable and beautiful future before the indulgent pleasures and reliable sameness of the present—will lock us onto a path of desperate loss.

The trick with the elephant in the room is not to befriend it, all the while drinking and talking pleasantly as before, but to confront it and wrestle it down. (This is the problem with extended analogies, since real-life elephants deserve far kinder treatment.) The metaphorical elephant is gigantic. No single guest at the feast can possibly prove sufficient to the task: All partygoers are needed.