Bill McKibben is wrong: humans and nature are not ‘at war’

Using war as a metaphor to frame a response to something has a long history: we have the war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror. Now Bill McKibben wishes us to have a war on climate change. Actually climate change is already being framed in this way, as evidenced by the commonly used terms of ‘fight’, ‘tackle’ and ‘combat’ when talking about our response.

McKibben’s intention is to use this frame to mobilise energy and action to mitigate global warming. There is nothing wrong with the intention. But the framing is a mistake, and a highly counterproductive one, for reasons I will now briefly elaborate.

Firstly the metaphor masks the source of the problem and obscures the real threat – certain kinds of human activity. It displaces the focus away from us and makes non-human nature the problem. But it’s only a problem because we have made it a problem by our destructive behaviour.

Declaring war on climate change is a declaration of war against nature itself because climate is a natural system. The changes to climate that we are witnessing result from severe disruptions that humans are causing to the climate system – the processes of change are the planet attempting to self-regulate its way to a new stability. It is the process of re-establishing balance between highly complex dynamic planetary processes that we have thrown into chaos. On its centuries-long journey to settle down into a new set of conditions, life will find it very hard to live well – so climate change does pose a threat to life, but only because we made it a threat by causing the changes in the first place. It is not nature, or the climate system, that is our real adversary (if we are to stick with the military metaphors) yet this is the idea promoted by this metaphor.

The second reason why framing climate change in this way is not useful is because it reinforces particular ways of conceptualising the human relationship with nature that encourage destructive behaviour. McKibben argues that we are in an actual war with the climate – that it is not a metaphor. But this is a false claim because he is using the metaphor to conceptualise climate change in a particular way. To say it is literal denies the possibility of conceptualising our relationship with the natural world differently – it makes it appear as though the relationship of war is an indisputable fact when it is only a concept.

The belief that humans are separate from and superior to nature, that we have the power to control nature and transcend its limits, is regarded by many scholars [1] as a root cause of our current ecological crisis. I agree with this analysis. This belief system has made us blind to the warning signs and has led us to overexploit nature’s resources, overwhelm natural cycles and push natural systems out of balance and beyond safe operating boundaries for supporting life. Unfortunately this belief is deeply embedded in industrial growth societies and their economic and political systems. But we are not and can never be separate from nature. The idea that we can control the larger complex system of which we are just one small part is hubris, and is doomed to create all kinds of unforeseen and unintended negative consequences. Fighting a ‘war’ against climate change falls into this trap of thinking, and reinforces beliefs of separation, superiority and control.

To state as McKibben does, “The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?” takes us down a most unhelpful path. Metaphors are not merely linguistic devices, they are cognitive operations that shape how we think, how we act and how we relate to the world [2]. How we frame nature matters. Framing nature as the enemy will not help heal our disconnection, nor will it support ecologically responsible behaviour: it is likely instead to activate and strengthen self-protection values that are associated with lack of concern for the natural world [3], and to trigger ecologically maladaptive defences to alleviate the stress and anxiety of feeling at war [4].

There are no simple answers but my suggestion is to talk instead about ‘responding to’ or ‘dealing with’ climate change. Our focus should be on designing a more harmonious way of living with the natural world – not fighting against it.


[1] e.g. White 1967; Bateson 1982; Plumwood 1993

[2] Lakoff & Johnson 1989; Lakoff 2010;

[3] Schultz et al 2005; Bardi & Schwartz 2003; Sheldon & Kasser 2011

[4] Crompton & Kasser 2009; Weintrobe 2013; American Psychological Association 2009, Hogget 2011

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2 Responses to Bill McKibben is wrong: humans and nature are not ‘at war’

  1. Simon says:

    Hi Nadine — I do agree that we don’t ultimately want people in the mindset where they can “win” a “war” against climate change without any change to their own behaviour and values. On the other hand, I’m wondering about whether a kind of pluralism might help? Mixed metaphors, used with care? Maybe some of your research touches on this, in which case I would be very interested to know more. How may we compare the effects of metaphorical purity — or should we call that metaphorical austerity 😉 — with a more profligate approach to the use of metaphors?

    So would it be OK if Bill McKibben did his “war” thing, and later on in the same article pointed out the dangers and deficiencies, perhaps adding a different metaphor? OK, I’m serious into speculative territory here, but if that were found to be helpful, would there be guidelines to help people use metaphors in a well-mixed way, to offset the pitfalls of unhelpfully framed thinking?

  2. Pingback: “Fighting” climate change: an analysis of a metaphor and its problematic entailments | cultureprobe

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