Elders Enter Emergency Mode

by Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, with Jim Streit

It is fitting that younger generations are taking the lead in the grass-roots response to the unfolding climate and environmental emergency. They have contributed the least to creating the crisis and yet stand to suffer the worst of the consequences.  It’s heartening to see younger people rising up and demanding action on these issues. Still, however talented, passionate and energized they may be, young climate activists can’t tackle this problem on their own. They need help from all corners of society, and elders have a crucial part to play.

Elders often (though not always) can offer:

  • Considerable time commitments for volunteering, as many have retired
  • Skills that they have developed through their careers
  • Wisdom, especially the ability to rise above ego to get the job done– something the movement sorely needs
  • Financial resources

All of these resources and more need to be brought to bear in grappling with the climate emergency.  It is no exaggeration to say that this crisis is the greatest single threat  human civilization has ever faced. In order to meet the challenge, we need  to transform our global economy and society in ways that might seem unimaginable. The energy and transportation sectors command much of the attention, but agriculture, manufacturing, and construction will all need to be transformed also, as will our personal consumption habits. Moreover, decades of inaction have left us no choice but to implement these changes rapidly — on a time scale of years, not decades.

While this might seem impossible, it can be done. There is precedent for this type of rapid transformation on a societal  scale. However, in order to make this happen, we as individuals and as  a society will need to exit our normal mode of operation and enter emergency mode.

Emergency Mode

Imagine there is a fire in your house.
What do you do?
What do you think about?

You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan of action. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.

Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. It is a state of enhanced performance— markedly different from “normal” functioning— characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.

Normal Mode Emergency Mode
Priorities Many balanced priorities Solving the crisis = One top priority
Resources  Distributed across priorities and saved for future. Huge allocation of resources towards solution
Focus Distributed across priorities Laser-like focus
Self-esteem Source Individual accomplishment Contributing to the solution

Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency, and reorients by:

  • adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority.
  • deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis.
  • giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.

Emergency mode is not limited to individuals facing short term threats such as a fire.  In fact, large groups or even entire societies can enter emergency mode and remain there for years. The US during World War II provides a historical model for a society operating in long-term emergency mode. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ended American isolationism and initiated a full-scale mobilization in which the entire industrial economy and labor force were harnessed to support the war effort. By entering emergency mode and mobilizing for total victory, the United States accomplished truly staggering feats, producing unprecedented numbers of ships, planes, tanks, and other necessities of the war effort.

Moving Towards Emergency Mobilization

Emergency mobilization on this scale is precisely what we need if we are to prevent a global cataclysm and restore a safe and stable climate. We need to transition away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive agriculture as soon as possible, draw down all the excess CO2 and cool the planet below present levels. This will happen only with public planning coordinated by the federal government, global cooperation, massive public investment, forceful regulations and economic controls, and full societal participation.

We cannot count on people entering emergency mode reflexively. Those of us who have entered emergency mode — who understand the mobilization imperative — need to get talkative and loud. We need to spread our message as far and wide as possible. We must not stay “closeted” and appear that we believe everything is fine. Rather we need to “come out” as being in emergency mode and in favor of a WWII-scale climate mobilization that rapidly sweeps away business-as-usual — to our friends, family, neighbors, fellow climate activists, and the public. We need to spread our message as clearly, loudly and in the most attentiongrabbing ways we can.

Rise of the Climate Emergency Movement 

Fortunately, a new front is rapidly emerging on the global stage that is geared toward doing just that: The Climate Emergency Movement

The Climate Mobilization was a pioneer in this movement, spending years promoting maximal intensity mobilization in relative obscurity. Today,  the Climate Emergency Movement has captured the public imagination and is rapidly gaining power. There is a militant movement of young people marching in the streets and occupying the offices of elected officials, embarrassing representatives who refuse to act with urgency. In the United States, the Green New Deal is shaping the Democratic Party platform around a 10-year national mobilization to achieve a carbon-neutral economy. More than 1200 cities around the world have declared a Climate Emergency.

Join the Movement to Protect Humanity and All Life

This fledgling movement has tremendous momentum and is growing all the time. However, relative to the epic nature of the challenge, the Climate Emergency Movement is still small, and broke.  We need all the support we can get. We need you. The forces arrayed against us are mighty. But on our side is the extremely potent truth — what science tells us and what is becoming more apparent all the time — as well as the human desire to survive and protect other people and species.

Elders can get involved and make a real impact on the movement in a number of ways:

  • Volunteer — with a Climate Emergency Organization! Extinction Rebellion (especially if you are willing to get arrested! See below), Sunrise, the Justice Democrats, Fire Drill Fridays, the School Strikers, or The Climate Mobilization. Elders possess a lifetime of accumulated skills and wisdom that would be enormously valuable to the climate emergency movement. Organizations need help in any number of areas including
    • Office / clerical work
    • Writing and editing
    • Technology
    • Legal services
    • Organizing meetings
    • Translation services
    • Logistical support (transportation, cooking, etc.)

Elders also can have a higher risk tolerance, and willingness to get arrested, than young people starting out their careers or parents with school age children. Jane Fonda is an example of these values, getting arrested at “Fire Drill Fridays” each week.

Further, when elders risk arrest (as has happened several times in Extinction Rebellion) their arrest carries a special significance. A life-long law abider has, often for the first time, stepped out of the law-focused realm.

  • Communicate — Spread the word about the climate emergency wherever and however you can, to family, friends, religious communities, or other organizations with which you are involved.  Let people know what is at stake and what needs to be done.
  • Contribute — Climate emergency organizations are relatively new to the scene and are not as well funded as some of the more established environmental organizations who advocate a more gradual approach.   Groups like Extinction Rebellion, The Sunrise Movement, and The Climate Mobilization are in perpetual need of resources to fund their critical work.
    • Elders in particular can consider giving part of their estate away NOW to the climate emergency movement. Waiting does not make sense!
  • Vote! — Make sure you support candidates who understand the gravity of the climate emergency and the actions that need to be taken, and make sure your family, friends and neighbors do the same.
  • Tell Congress to Declare a Climate Emergency!

We are now in a time of tremendous consequence. Incredibly, the choices we make now and in the near future matter a great deal to the future of humanity and all life on earth. It’s time to leave gradualism, business as usual, and normal mode behind until we have solved the climate problem. The time has come to enter emergency mode, both as a society and as individuals. The stakes could not be higher.


Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, is the founder and Executive Director of The Climate Mobilization, an organization that is working to initiate a WWII-scale mobilization that rapidly transforms our economy to protect humanity and the living world. Margaret earned her PhD in clinical psychology from Adelphi University and also holds a BA in social anthropology from Harvard. Though she loved being a therapist, Margaret felt called to apply her psychological and anthropological knowledge to solving climate change. She is the author of The Transformative Power of Climate Truth and Leading the Public into Emergency Mode. Her forthcoming book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, will help readers process the emotional, psychological elements of the climate crisis and rise to the challenge of our time.

Sue Sorensen

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1 Comment
John Sorensen

Margaret, your clear, compelling call to action certainly stirs me. The threats to all life from climate disruption are just as serious as those from world nuclear war or, as we are awakening to now, perhaps the growing threat of a coronavirus pandemic. You rightly say we all need to spread the word whenever and however we can. Your article demonstrates that — the very serious tone that all of our conversations about this threat need to take and steps that each of us can take. Well done!

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