Climate Survival Training

My father used to say, “If you are with someone who is acting insane, it behooves you to be sane.”

Have you ever been in a life or death situation? Laurence Gonzales has made a study of survivors and victims in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Among a great many insights into human psychology, Gonzales relates an especially gripping story that we should take to heart.

The story involves the delivery of a sailboat, which sank in a storm and stranded the captain, mate, and three-person crew in a raft with no supplies. But the selection between the survivors and victims began long before the boat went down.

Two of the crew, both experienced sailors, had spent days compensating for the captain and mate’s incessant drinking and inattention. Apparently, their leaders considered sailing a routine job, and a dull job at that.

Unfortunately, the crew could not be vigilant every moment, and they awoke one night to an abandon ship alarm that set them adrift in a raft without proper supplies.

When things go badly, survivors are realistic about their chances and recognize that they might yet be overcome in spite of their best efforts. In the meantime, however, they take whatever small steps they can to “do the next right thing.” Importantly, they are often determined to survive for the sake of someone else.

Aboard the drifting raft, the captain and mate became defensive and morose. The crew recognized how dangerous these attitudes were and made a rational survivor’s choice: they agreed to protect each other and let the captain and mate follow their own destinies if necessary. This was neither a callous nor hostile decision. They simply acknowledged the truth: one path increased their jeopardy while the other offered hope.

When confronted by insanity, the crew acted sanely.

In practical terms, this meant that one of them stayed awake whenever the others slept. They covered themselves with seaweed to fend off the sun. And when the captain and mate ridiculed their efforts, they ignored the criticism and avoided confrontation.

Meanwhile, the captain and mate continued down a psychological spiral until, one day, they decided to die. To the horror of the others, they stuck their heads into the sea and drank their fill. Salt and dehydration mixed to brew delusions. At some point, the captain announced that he was going to 7 Eleven. He slipped over the side and was quickly devoured by the sharks everyone had been watching for days. Hours later, the mate made the same fatal choice, leaving the survivors alone in the raft.

Eventually, the survivors were rescued; rewarded for keeping their heads, doing the next right thing, and living for one another.

This is a true story about a sailing adventure gone wrong, but Gonzales could just as easily have been writing about climate change.

In the climate version, our sailboat is still afloat, but our leaders are behaving just as the captain and mate did. We see a storm brewing and we have volumes of information about the risks. We even know what precautions to take, if only we can decide to take them.


As a party, Republicans have decided not to act. They denounce climate science, accuse scientists of corruption and conspiracy, and resist efforts to limit fossil fuel consumption. They even ridicule those who act responsibly.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party rides along without speaking up very much. In truth, there are people working in many government agencies in response to executive orders and other mandates, and there is a lot of work underway at the state and local levels.

But our national political leaders are acting insanely while our capacity to prevent real trouble slips away.

When I worked on my first climate change exhibition in 2003, nobody took the so-called “worst case emission scenario” seriously. I remember scientists saying that, surely, humanity would never be so foolish.

But we are. Since 2000, global carbon emissions have grown beyond the worst-case scenario because the developed world has dithered while China has come on strong.

We might not feel empowered to do much about this situation but, as my father said, when others are acting insane, it behooves you to be sane.

What does this mean in practical terms?

It means making a rational survivor’s choice to protect one another in spite of our leaders.

It means the deniers’ claims hold no currency.

It means ignoring the deniers in the news media.

It means slashing greenhouse gas emissions as deeply and as quickly as we possibly can at work, at home, at school and anywhere else where we can take action.

It means going beyond our job descriptions to ask what else our organizations can do help our communities cut emissions.

It means investing as much as we possibly can in promising technologies, infrastructure improvements, and anything else that will make our communities more resilient.

It means talking openly about the climate threat and what we expect each other to do.

It means telling others about the many benefits that come from taking action and speaking out.

It means electing leaders who will make sane choices and holding them accountable.

It means working on the problem for others.

Nobody holds all the cards. Therefore, we must do what survivors always do: be honest with ourselves about the gravity of the situation, gather all the information we possibly can, and marshal all of the resources at our disposal.

Survivors don’t wait for others to save them. They simply do the next right thing.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.