Check out the article by a climate survivalist from the February 27, 2011 Washington Post. (I’m going to go out on a limb and treat the article as if it’s not a satire or hoax, but maybe the joke’s on me.) The author describes how he’s buying solar panels and generators and laying in food and supplies and putting extra locks on his doors and windows in anticipation of the coming climate apocalypse, much in the way that in the 1960s certain nuts were digging shelters in their backyard to provide protection against hydrogen bombs, and in the ‘80s (and probably to this day) right-wing crazies were building up small arsenals to protect themselves against the time when the government tried to take away their right to be bigots.
Anyway, fear of the coming apocalypse seems to be an honorable tradition among some factions of the human race, and besides in this case it’s probably good for the beleaguered economy that this guy is spending what must be lots of money on hardware, both high-tech and low. But there are some elements of climate survivalism that are truly troubling. The fact that the Washington Post chose to put this article on the front page of its Sunday opinion section is an editorial judgment that the author, who is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Committee, is someone whose perspective deserves to be taken seriously. What is this perspective? In part, that of a monomaniac who views pretty much every bad thing that’s happening on the planet as directly caused by climate change. (Could it have occurred to him, for example, that rising food prices in part reflect increased global demand because more people in places like China and India now have enough money to buy enough food?) But much worse than the climate obsession is the incredibly retrograde social Darwinism that he expresses. If we can’t stop climate change (whatever that could possibly mean), the only option is to retreat into a Hobbesian state of social anarchy where people have to lock themselves and their nuclear families into their well-stocked basements and allow themselves to devolve into fear-ruined brutes.
Societies actually have abundant tools at their disposal for reducing vulnerability to weather and climate – building codes, land-use planning, insurance programs, poverty-reduction polices, and so on – and much capacity for wielding those tools more effectively, should they focus on doing so. Sending families into their basements is not on that list (except during tornadoes!).
I assume that climate survivalism is not the version of adaptation that most people who are concerned about climate change would advocate. Yet the attention of climate change policy advocates (as well as climate change researchers) has never seriously focused on sensible approaches to adaptation. Until recently, leaders of the mainstream environmental community resisted open discussion about adaptation because they naively thought that they could get the world to stop using fossil fuels, and that any discussion about adaptation would simply give comfort to those who didn’t, or couldn’t, fully buy into their agenda. Al Gore, in the first edition of Earth in the Balance (he later changed his tune a bit), went so far as to liken adaptation to appeasement of Nazi Germany prior to World War II. (Climate skeptics have been perfect partners in this squelching of adaptation, since to them any discussion of the need to adapt would acknowledge that the problem actually exists.)
One can hardly fail to note the contrast between the standard, communitarian rhetoric of climate change advocacy on behalf of getting rid of fossil fuels – we all need to act together to save the Earth! – and the nihilistic isolationism of climate survivalism – I need to put bars on my windows to save my butt! After all, one of the big arguments that environmentalists have used about the need to stop climate change is that those who will suffer most are the little brown poor people in far-off lands who will, for instance, experience increased incidence of malaria and exposure to floods and other disasters. (Of course the fact that they are already burdened by such things in huge disproportion to the privileged minority doesn’t seem to enter into the argument). Why this hasn’t been a justification for aggressive adaptation I fail to understand (after all, the reason why the privileged minority are relatively insulated from such suffering is precisely that our societies are better adapted to many types of stresses). But I raise this point because when it comes to climate survivalism, the little brown folks are nowhere to be seen, and apparently it’s every relatively affluent white guy (and his nuclear family, of course) for himself.
About the Author: Dan Sarewitz is the co-director of CSPO and a professor of science policy in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.