Climate science does its best to reduce the uncertainty surrounding climate change, and as our actions now will ultimately change the outcome, the level of severity related to a warming world is still up for debate, but the range of possible outcomes narrows day-by-day. The mainstream climate science confidently states two things: 1. if left unabated or poorly mitigated climate change will be devastating for an unacceptably large number of people, and 2. near-term societal collapse is not inevitable and there is still time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
In my last post I covered impact scepticism belief. This was a belief characterized by believing that the climate is changing and believing that it is the cause of human activity, however, also believing that the effect of climate change will not be as bad as climate scientists say. Some even believe that climate change will be of a net benefit to humanity (it won’t).
Today I want to look at the other end of the spectrum, those that believe that the scientific community (specifically the IPCC) are understating the effects of climate change, that it will be a great deal worse, and it is already too late to do anything about it. There are several terms used for the beliefs at this end of the spectrum, such as alarmism or climate change fatalism, but the phrase doomism appears to be the way in which popular discourse often discusses the concept, so it’s what I’ll run with in this post.
While not as heinous as impact scepticism, I still find climate doomism interesting to examine as there seems to be a great deal of overlap in some the thought processes that can lead to an individual forming such a belief. At both ends of the spectrum there is mistrust in the scientific consensus, often due to a belief that financial incentives influence conclusions, and both have prominent figures willing to cherry pick or disingenuously use science to push an ideology, but that proponents of the belief none the less hold up as those that are brave enough to talk the truth.
My aim of this post is not to disprove the claims of the climate doomists (as I am not a climate scientist, so I would likely be bad at it if I tried). Instead, I’d like to flesh out the main components of the belief, determine who is most likely to hold such a belief, where in the world such a belief is most prominent, and why.
By taking the middle of the road view on the severity of climate change I am fully prepared for the one side of this ideological divide to call me an alarmist, the other to call me a denialist, and for both to call me naïve for trusting in the scientific consensus. But, as I’ve mentioned previously, I love nothing more than reducing the complexity in my life by drawing on the expertise of others, especially if its where the majority of experts reside.
Taking the climate change “black pill”
One phrase, often used by very online people, that I’ve become particularly attached to when discussing climate change doomism lately is the idea of taking the black pill. While it’s a term with a super dark origin it does fit neatly with a worldview that sees climate collapse and humanities demise as imminent and unavoidable.
For instance, here are a couple of definitions from the indispensable 21st century institutions Know Your Meme and Urban Dictionary:
“The Black Pill is a metaphorical term often used to describe a set of beliefs often linked to nihilism, fatalism and defeatism.” Know Your Meme
“When you take the black pill, you realize that nothing is going to get better. All you can do is lie down and rot in solitude.” Urban Dictionary
I like this framing as it implies that doomism is a worldview that is created in an individual, as opposed to an innate personality trait. It is part voluntary (i.e., Dave took the black pill), but also used to talk about the effects external forces can have on an individual (i.e., Dave was black pilled by that reddit forum and the YouTube algorithm)
Most of all I think the phrase is useful as, for those that have been black pilled, they can be brought back by taking the white pill:
Being white pilled on an issue is “1. Being aware of a difficult situation or position and having a fighting ‘can do’ attitude and not giving up, plus accomplishing said thing(s) within the difficult situation. 2. Being optimistic, not merely through gut feelings but via having thought about a situation enough to understand how to get through it successfully” Urban Dictionary
Hell yeah, I want to be white pilled on climate change, it sounds ace!
What beliefs add up to climate change doomism?
The beliefs on this end of the spectrum often overlap with the “we can fix it” part of the phrase I’m using throughout these posts to conceptualise the current scientific understanding of climate change: “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it” Nicholas 2021
Beliefs that an outcome is achievable fall under what psychologists (typically within Health Psychology) refer to as efficacy beliefs. If you’ve heard of the term efficacy its likely you’ve heard of it in the context of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is holding the belief that you are able to accomplish a specific activity or behaviour in order to attain a desired outcome [ref]. This could be holding a self-efficacy belief that you can go to the pub without drinking alcohol, if your desire is to reduce your level of drinking, or the belief that you can cook healthy food, if your desire is to lose weight (note: this is different from having the ability to do so, which is often referred to as behavioural skills).
Response-efficacy is the belief that a specific activity or behaviour will be effective in attaining a desired outcome. For instance, you may believe that you can give up smoking (self-efficacy) however you don’t believe that giving up will cause a meaningful improvement in your life (response-efficacy). When efficacy beliefs and risk perception are combined, the dual concepts can be a useful framework for determining the intention and subsequent likelihood of performing a behaviour, in a way that risk perception on its own is often inadequate to do so.
This is used in great effect by the Risk Perception Attitude Framework [ref] whereby high and low response-efficacy and risk-perception can categorize individuals into one of four attitude groups: responsive, avoidant, proactive, and indifferent.
Responsive attitude: These individuals believe in a threat, believe that a particular behaviour will be effective in reducing or eliminating the threat, and are expected to be most motivated in enacting various self-protective behaviours.
Avoidance attitude: These individuals are likely to experience conflicting motivations. On the one hand, their high risk perception likely makes them concerned about the threat, but on the other hand, their low response-efficacy beliefs are likely to dampen their motivations.
Proactive attitude: These individuals are not motivated by their risk perception of the threat, but rather by their desire to avoid the threat entirely, no matter its level of consequence.
Indifference attitude: These individuals believe they are not vulnerable to the threat and, even if they were, they do not believe in their ability to avert the threat.
This model was initially developed to examine attitude towards skin cancer and its prevention, and from it comes the conclusion that effective messaging should focus on both threat communication and actions that can be effective in reducing said threat.
By now you can no doubt see how this model could apply to climate change, and also see why the psychological distance of climate change can mean that public communication of meaningful action can often be an uphill battle. I’ll likely touch on this model again in the future (probably in the context of Response Scepticism) as, to me at least, it helps outline some of the greatest challenges to mass action on climate change. For now, I just wanted to use it as a means to localize our doomism belief in the avoidance attitude part of this categorization.
From a doomist perspective climate change is seen as a threat, often the ultimate threat, to life on earth, while simultaneously a belief is held that no individual, national, or international mitigation efforts will be sufficient to prevent societal collapse.
The merchants of doom
Climate change is a high information concept. We aren’t born with an intuitive understanding of climate change. Instead, we learn about climate change through the sources of information we interact with, and there are various factors that attract some people to certain sources over others. As such there are two sides to the information problem: 1. the information content, and 2. the selective incorporation of information into our beliefs about climate change.
This section looks at that first part, the information content. And I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn that if you want to feel hopeless about climate change there are individuals out there ready to dish you out black pills buy the bucket load.
The most extreme climate change doomism take that I’ve come across has got to be from the University of Arizona based ecology professor, Guy McPherson. Here is a, totally normal and in no way dumb, interview with McPherson from a few years ago.
“There is nothing to be done in terms of preserving the human species more than a few more years[…] I think in terms of the human race we’re done and its locked in and it’s been locked in for a long time”
“I can’t imagine there will be a human on the planet in 10 years”
He “can’t imagine there will be a human on the planet in 10 years”?
He “can’t imagine” it.
This interview took place in 2016!!! He can’t possibly see a way in which AT LEAST ONE HUMAN BEING manages to survive the catastrophes of climate change over the next five years.
Well, I guess that’s it then. I best go tell my friends kid that I, and also, she, and also everyone she has, or will ever, know, will be missing her 7th birthday then. Shame.
Interviewer: “What do you make of all the other experts that do seem to think we can effect change, we can survive?”
McPherson: “Well, for one thing they’re paid and so they only go halfway in presenting the information. Almost nobody is willing to add up the feedback that we have triggered and the consequences of them. So, because we are a society that is focused on specification, the specialists are geared towards understanding one or another aspect of climate change… nobody is putting the pieces together.”
And from reading some of his work, that last quote just about sums up McPherson’s argument for inevitable near-term human extinction. McPherson views mainstream climate scientists as failing to see, ignoring, or deliberately underplaying the effects of interconnected feedback mechanisms in their climate models. So instead of trusting them, McPherson trusts other fringe experts, rarely accepted by the consensus community, that suggest that we have already passed a climate change tipping point from which we will not recover from. McPherson himself even appears to acknowledge his bias in such information synthesis at the start of the main thesis on his website: “I’m often accused of cherry picking the information in this ever-growing essay. I plead guilty, and explain myself in this essay [link] posted 30 January 2014.” [ref]. A link which is now sadly dead, but at one point contained a post titled “Picking Cherries”. A post that I would dearly liked to have read.
The author Jonathan Franzen is either an eccentric delight of a person, or an elitist, sexist, racist, misogynistic buzzkill. More often known for his fiction, Franzen occasionally strays over into the climate change commentary world and has frequently been given a platform for his views through The New Yorker. In his most recent essay, What If We Stopped Pretending, he deals out black pilling pearls of wisdom such as:
“You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope”
Franzen suggests a conflict existing between climate mitigation efforts and biodiversity, in that attempts to reduce CO2 emissions are ineffective, at best, and actively harmful at worst. He seems to have a similar distrust of climate scientists and the IPCC to McPherson but with more focus on their incompetence than their direct deception, and suggests that as we have not made significant progress in the last thirty years (even though we have) then we will fail to make progress in the next thirty years. He follows these assumptions with this possibly serious, possibly a joke, explanation he gives for why he has now checked out on the whole solving climate change thing:
“As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption […], and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe”
“I can run through ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met”
He of course starts with an assumption that 2°C is a tipping point after which all attempts at mitigation will be for naught.
The above alone should disqualify the dude from any serious conversation on climate change, however, his prominent position as The New Yorker equivalent of a twitter ‘well actually…’ reply guy means that there are likely to be a lot of powerful people that will eat his inactionist rhetoric by the bowlful. Especially if they are already pre-disposed to believe that nothing can be done. (For some nice debunking of this essay see this article from Vox).
Jem Bendell and Deep Adaptation
I have, of course, long accepted that climate change is near entirely, or entirely, the cause of human activity. As such I don’t spend much time hashing over the primary climate science literature, I instead like to focus on the measurement and understanding of climate change beliefs. Similarly, in his self-published manuscript Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy Jem Bendell (a professor of Sustainability Leadership from Cumbria University) briefly offers some of the reasoning to suggest that full climate collapse is imminent (mostly due to feedback loops and the methane time bomb theory) but it’s clear he wants to quickly skip through this and talk about his main area of interest, the mass adaptation of society to runaway climate change.
And I don’t blame him, it’s a really interesting thought experiment. What should we do if we were already past a point of no return?
But instead of keeping it as an intellectual exercise (due to the scientific consensus not yet supporting such an assumption) Bendell jumps in with both feet and argues that as collapse is imminent then it must be the case that scientists are not telling the truth, due to being part of “a system which enables them to be well paid, feel important, to feel righteous, to travel the world giving warnings of how bad things are, while continuing to live well” [ref p29]. As such, he suggests that those of us that believe the effects of climate change can be effectively mitigated through the decarbonisation of our economy are in denial, and that societies efforts should predominantly focus on preparing us to live in a world in which climate change has caused the collapse of society as we currently know it.
Here is a great response that seems to debunks some of the scientific arguments that Bendell uses to argue that societal collapse is imminent: The Faulty Science of Deep Adaptation. As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m in no position to judge the science. What interests me, however, is how the idea of Deep Adaptation appears to be resonating with the (mostly UK and US) public in a way that previous fatalistic narratives have not. With an active forum, events, and an ever-growing Facebook group, it’s clear that Bendell has tapped into something with his work.
The community discourse on Deep Adaptation often centres around two main themes. Firstly, there is the person-focused, internal implications of living in a world where societal collapse is imminent, and how to emotionally prepare for such a collapse. This is often informed by Psychotherapy and Buddhist spirituality. The second aspect is how to practically prepare for an imminent collapse, often with a focus on homesteading (basically the left wing, rural, non-gun focused version of prepping) and strengthening local communities. There is an effort to bring a positive framing to accepting societal collapse, however, at its heart there is a level of nihilism to the community that can sometimes make for distressing content. Within the Deep Adaptation world, they would likely argue that it is merely the Truth, and ask; wouldn’t you rather face it than live in denial?
The Dark Mountain Project
“Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine’s coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand.” Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto
Where do I even start with this one? It’s an art project. Born out of the 2008 financial crisis The Dark Mountain Project is a collective of writers, artists, poets, and storytellers focused on creating works around our social, economic, and ecological demise.
As with Deep Adaptation they stake out a position whereby social collapse is imminent and inevitable. Their aim is to “face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it”. I’ve not had the chance to scratch further than the surface of their content, but I have to say their manifesto (because of course they have a manifesto) is a cracking good read, containing as it does such gems as:
“It is, it seems, our civilization’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.”
“Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs”
Fun stuff, I’m genuinely interested to see where they go with their collapsist fan fiction, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that they are basically just the fancy pants version of Humans of Late Capitalism.
The Darwinian nature of doomist content
Content, such as that created by those outlined above, on its own does not magically convert someone into a fatalistic believer. If it did then strapping climate change deniers down, Clockwork Orange style, and making them read the latest IPCC report could very well be a viable way to save the world. Instead, content is likely to be comprehended and incorporated into a person’s world view based on a varying range of cognitive, psychological, and demographic factors.
Much of my academic work from my PhD [ref 1, 2 & 3] looked at active information-seeking behaviour of people during their vaccination decision-making process. Many parents deciding on vaccinations for their children, for instance, will simply trust the advice given by their doctor and barely give vaccination a second thought. Some will do a brief check perhaps with a look at what the NHS website says just to confirm they have been given the correct advice. Some, however, will dive in deep (often too deep) spending countless hours looking for any and all information that they can find on vaccination, no matter it’s source or quality.
It’s hard to determine if the content changes the person or that a person seeks out content that aligns with their pre-existing world view [ref]. Likely both are true and likely the process is cyclical.
Social networks (IRL and online) appear key to this decision-making process, with information and advice frequently being sought from friends and family members. In this way rumours about vaccine side-effects have an ironic socially contagious element to them, spreading through certain susceptible communities more than others.
In a further mirroring of the real-world diseases that vaccines prevent, vaccine misinformation is almost Darwinian in its dominance over pro-vaccination content [ref]. Insulated anti-vaccination social networks are constantly fuelling their narrative with fresh content that aligns with their beliefs. These networks work as a testing ground where, occasionally, a particular story or piece of information will have the right combination of elements to press people’s buttons in such a way that they, well, press the buttons that make it spread. This might be frightening narratives from parents that are convinced a vaccine has damaged their child, or “evidence” that a vaccination programme has a secret agenda to cause harm.
Moving away from vaccines, societal doom has proved a particularly effective means for content to survive and thrive online, particularly so in the last few years [ref]. Threatening events, too big for us to intuitively comprehend, cause us to be glued to our TV and social media feeds, trying to garner any information that may help us avoid the threat. Alarming contentcan appear to be helpful towards this endeavour, however, devoid of any practical means to avoid the threat only proves to heighten anxiety and does little to improve our situation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when Bendell shared his Deep Adaptation manuscript in 2018 it saw over 600,000 downloads in it’s first year [ref] and has since been translated into numerous languages [ref]. Helped no doubt by Bendell potentially framing the paper as the study that ‘they’ don’t want you to see [ref], due to the paper not making it through the peer review process.
Climate change doomism in society
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report announcing that to achieve a future compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the world would have to cut 45% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 [ref]. It is likely no coincidence therefore, that 2018 saw the birth of Deep Adaptation, as alongside this narrative of societal collapse, popular discourse took the IPCC findings to suggest a hard deadline linked to the phrase “we have 12 years to save the world” [ref].
While, yes, passing the 1.5°C increase would indeed indicate a catastrophic failure to address climate change, and, yes, it is looking increasingly likely that we will blow straight through 1.5°C and struggle to keep temperature below 2.0°C, but 2030 is by no means a binary switch where, when passed, there will be nothing that can be done. Reducing emissions is vital now and reducing emissions will also be vital, if not more so, in 2030 and beyond. (Or so I’m led to understand by the range of climate scientists that I trust within what is termed the scientific consensus)
The “we have 12 years to save the world” narrative was likely effective in waking people up to the reality of climate change. In fact, 2018 saw a great leap towards climate change political action on the global stage, with Greta Thunberg’s first school climate strike, the birth of the youth climate movement, and global acts of civil disobedience from Extinction Rebellion.
For every ray of light, however, comes the chance of shadow. And in the dark recesses of the internet 2018 also saw the birth of a meme perfectly adapted to the time, the Doomer.
For those uninitiated in the deep lore of the current alt-right, early twenties, disaffected, white male, internet subculture (and I envy you if you are), those that frequent such communities (often on 4chan or Reddit) have generated a range of generational architypes that play on, and rhyme with, the idea of the Boomer (a post war born individual from the Baby Boomer generation). While the architypes of Boomer, Zoomer, Gloomer, Bloomer, etc are all memes used by the subculture community to characterise other individuals, the most dehumanising of which is to class an individual as an NPC, it is the Doomer that is most often self-identified with in such communities.
The Doomer (often illustrated in a black hoodie, beanie, and smoking) is characterised as: Male, in their twenties, aimlessly working a dead end job, at risk of drink and drug addiction, struggling to get over or maintain a romantic relationship (frequently depicted using misogynistic tropes of nice guy entitlement), holding a deep despair for life, and being hopeless for both now and the future [ref].
As with most memes of this nature its mainly used with humorous intent (e.g. like this or this). But the joke is rarely that far removed from reality, with the Doomer subreddit recommending other less ironic forums such as /r/collapse, /r/overpopulation, /r/depression, and /r/SuicideWatch. Which I’ve not provided links to, because, yeah, I’m not going to do that.
Are the kids particularly prone to this way of thinking or are we all Doomers now?
While there doesn’t seem to be much of an overlap between the Doomer internet subcultures, and doomist climate change content (i.e., I doubt many self-identified Doomers are planning to grow their own vegetables in a self-sufficient community any time soon), it’s likely that they are both reflecting the prevalence of doom that exists in the current zeitgeist.
Proper adults get to put their grownup doomist nonsense in The New Yorker, while edgy kids express their nihilism in meme form. Each equally based on feeling rather than the scientific consensus, and each tapping directly into the emotional threat response way that our brains love to process information. Climate change doomism in young adults has seen increased academic study in recent years, under the larger psychological construct of climate anxiety (sometimes termed eco-anxiety) [ref]. A study published (although not yet peer reviewed) last month by Caroline Hickman and Elizabeth Marks from the University of Helsinki [ref] indicated a particularly high level of climate change Doomism in young adults. In their study the authors surveyed 16- to 25-year-olds across 10 countries (1000 responses per country). Among their findings were that, globally, 56% of respondents agreed that “humanity is doomed” due to climate change. Below I have plotted the breakdown of this finding by country.
This, of course, doesn’t indicate that the kids are significantly more doom prone than adults, but it does indicate that there is a great deal of prevalence for such a viewpoint among that generation, and that it is a global phenomenon and not just a vestige of western culture. In fact, the global south seems to hold such a belief in excess of countries in the global north.
This finding seems to be consistent across other question phrasing and across a range of ages. For example, here is some data from WIN Gallup that I will hopefully be publishing an analysis of in the near future. Showing again India and Pakistan in high doomist agreement (but in this case Brazil being particularly low, so read into that what you will)
Is doomism ultimately self-fulfilling?
In his book The New Climate War, the climate scientist Michael Mann suggests that “[climate] doomism today arguably poses a greater threat to climate action than outright denial” [ref, p.179]. As a research psychologist, I love it when people make statements like this, as, with a little jiggling around this can become a testable hypothesis. Something like this perhaps:
Are individuals that score high on climate change doomism, less likely to support various specific net-zero policies?
Some work has been done on this topic by the likes of Mayer & Smith and Costello et al, but I wouldn’t say we’re at the point where we can either support or reject such a hypothesis at this time. It does seem a plausible enough theory: why act to address a problem that you believe is too late to solve?
I’ve seen members of the deep adaptation community argue that people move through feelings of climate change grief and hopelessness into a form of action. Of course, their form of action might be to prepare for the collapse of society or enjoy the little things in life while they still can. It’s not out of the question, however, that the general public might alternate between feelings of hopelessness and active pragmatic engagement. I know I do!
It does seem highly likely, however, that over consuming on doomist content has a negative effect on mental health. That much can be clear from the suicide hotlines plastered all over the doomist related sub-reddit’s, within the deep adaptation community, and even the main sidebar for Guy McPherson’s website (although he makes clear that he is not advocating for or against suicide, so that’s, um, cool of him I guess).
And when the only advice given to the kids growing up in this impending disaster society seems to be “learn to code” or “touch some grass”, it’s understandable that they may fall into hopelessness.
Who holds a ‘responsive attitude’ to climate change?
Due to “the white pill” also probably having a secret right wing meaning that I’m not aware of (usually the case with such internet born terms), I would perhaps suggest the need for some sort of Deep Mitigation community or perhaps a White Mountain Project. Luckily, a movement that would espouse such ideals already exists. The youth climate movement.
You would be hard pressed to find any community that better embodies the responsive attitude (i.e., high risk perception and strong efficacy beliefs) than the youth climate movement.
While Franzen sits in his garden running through all the possible ways that humanity will try and fail to mitigate climate change, the youth climate movement has created an international, diverse collation of young adults [ref] that are prepared to take risks with their own futures to improve the futures of others [ref].
While McPherson is out picking cherries, counting down the minutes until our demise, the youth climate movement are taking countries and powerful corporations to court [ref] and are celebrating historic victories [ref].
While Bendell and the deep adaptation movement are in their listening circles, turning ever more inward as they talk of loss and grief, the youth climate movement are taking no bullshit and holding every powerful leader to account [ref], in a way that only someone that hasn’t been corrupted by age can do.
(I have nothing bad to say about The Dark Mountain Project, rock on you grown up goth kids)
These ideologies will no doubt battle it out over the coming decades. In fact, such battles are currently playing out in microcosm within the internal politics of Extinction Rebellion at this very moment. With one of the influential voices of Extinction Rebellion, Rupert Read (who does not appear to agree that collapse is inevitable, for instant this is great), coauthoring the Deep Adaptation book with Bendell and another, Gail Bradbrook, giving a back cover quote that, fittingly, starts: “This book is the ‘red pill’ of our times”.
Footnote: I contacted the authors of the paper to get the full wording of this question and include it below. I’ve got to say the reporting around the findings of the paper, implying that young adults think, feel, or believe that “Humanity is doomed” (e.g. this, this, and this), however, mighty bit of a stretch. Its a pedantic point I know, but the statement only means that they think of it when they think about climate change, not that they believe it.
Still here are you? We’ll if you’re looking for similar reading, I would first like to recommend this post from Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall and Colleen Schmidt who are also members of Extinction Rebellion: The faulty science, doomism and flawed conclusions of Deep Adaptation
After you’re done there here are two of my previous posts. The first is on impact scepticism, the belief that climate change won’t be that bad. And the second is on rates of old school climate change scepticism.
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