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Fight or Flee: What is the Rational Response to Climate Change?

“Dude, I looked it up, it’s only $20,000 to buy several acres up in Manitoba, are you in?”

These were words uttered by my brother at a dingy sports bar near his college apartment. He wants to build a climate bunker in the northern woods of Canada, and he’s about 82 percent serious.

He backed up his sales pitch with facts about warming trends, natural disasters, as well as possible migration patterns. He assured me that even if we didn’t end up camping out in a log cabin, it would be a good investment as the area would become warm enough to be prime agricultural land.

While his words weren’t surprising, given his personality and penchant for weird ideas, his proposal did stay with me. It stayed with me both because I had seen this pessimism from so many of my environmentalist friends, and because it stood in direct contrast to the messages I had heard as I started my new job as a policy associate with Frontier Group.

During my first week, I took part in a training with dozens of other new staff of organizations in the Public Interest Network, at which we were trained by experienced activists and joined by young organizers in learning the basic skills of public interest advocacy and organizing.

Given the backgrounds of the organizers, I was taken aback by their apparent optimism. During the week-long training, I heard much more about how the Eastern seaboard would look with wind power than I did about which cities would become the next Atlantis. The older advocates painted a vision of plastic-free seas and rivers safe for drinking and swimming, even though they had read the same research my brother was quoting. Faced with the same situation, they had emerged with starkly different outlooks – one of them was either wrong or crazy.

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At first glance, it seems like my brother had the rational response. Apocalyptic conditions call for apocalyptic responses, and given the lethargic response by our government and others to the signs of climate change, it seems more than reasonable to start planning for our tropical Canadian bunker. 

But even if my brother is the sane one, that doesn’t mean that we’re crazy. What I’ve realized in my short time with Frontier Group, and my longer time thinking about the climate apocalypse, is that there are two ways to rationally approach this situation – one individual and one communal. For one’s own benefit, it might make sense to migrate north and wait out the storms. But from our position as part of humanity’s web, the rational choice is to keep working despite every new setback, every sign that we should pack our bags.

Even in the face of disaster, the most sensible option may be to hope. There have been several times in history when the persistence of a small group of people kept a movement alive when everyone thought it was dead. The Civil Rights and Labor Rights movements, and even the environmental movement, all had periods where their issues had sunk from the public’s mind. Yet, despite the bleakness of the situation, continued, unfailing activism helped to inspire enough hope to keep their movement afloat – and eventually give it the push needed to make lives better for millions.

As the waters rise (literally and metaphorically), it is easier to sink into cynicism than to have faith in ideas and a better future. To me, the outlook of my new colleagues at the Public Interest Network seemed to embody this faith. Regardless of their setbacks, or doubts about whether their actions will be enough, they keep on fostering and spreading hope.

Psychology is now illuminating the power of hope as a potent motivational factor. Creating a vision of the future that is clean, healthy and beautiful, provides a place for the world to go, and the motivation necessary to get there.

I believe that even my brother is susceptible to this message. Despite his pessimism, he is partial to grand ideas – and these theories can be filled with solutions rather than escape plans. Perhaps by shifting the conversation from doom to hope, he and I can reimagine our “bunker” as a “cabin” – a place not to escape from an apocalyptic future, but instead to enjoy the wonder of the world we have helped to save.