During a recent speech at the European Union parliament, the teenage activist Greta Thunberg began her talk as follows: “My name is Greta Thunberg. I’m 16 years old. I come from Sweden. And I want you to panic.”
Her reasoning goes like this: While panicking is counterproductive when there’s nothing to panic about, it serves an important purpose when there’s a genuine cause for alarm. Panicking about vaccines causing autism or commercial airliners leaving chemtrails at 35,000 feet is an obvious waste of energy. But if you find yourself alone in the Alaskan wilderness and an angry grizzly charges at you, it would be suicidal not to freak out.
There’s a catch, though. Certain forms of panic can lead to paralysis rather than action. This may especially be true with respect to climate change: The threat is so massive and our individual potential to effect change so miniscule that it’s easy to throw one’s hands in the air and, to quote the philosopher Peter Singer, just “party our way into extinction.” Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, has dubbed this the “anthropocebo effect,” on the model of the “nocebo effect,” whereby merely “mentioning the side effects [of a drug] makes them more likely to occur.” In this case, merely mentioning the catastrophic consequences of climate change can make it more probable that they’ll occur.
The environmental crisis is transgenerational and global in scope: It will affect virtually everyone around the world for hundreds of generations to come, assuming the human race exists that long.
But the truth is that our environmental situation really is dire. Our species emerged about 2,000 centuries ago in the grassy East African savanna, where we evolved to meet the challenges of that specific environment. To survive — meaning survive long enough to pass on our selfish genes — we needed to think about the future on timescales of hours, days, and…