In 2014, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman — Nobel-winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow — said he was “deeply pessimistic” about our ability to act on climate change, because of “loss aversion”: a distant problem requiring immediate sacrifice is exceptionally hard to accept. Six years later, the problem is not nearly as distant — Australia burns, Antarctica melts — but the sacrifices seem so daunting that the very topic seems to have instilled a fight or flight instinct: the Greta Thunbergs on the one hand, dedicated to putting out our “house on fire”, the Donald Trumps on the other, throwing fuel on the flames, and a seemingly paralysed majority in the middle.

As an avowed humanist, I am haunted by the idea that we are unable to act in our species’ best interests, which means acting in the planet’s too. The authors of the books I have been reading offer many reasons for our seeming denial: from our fear of death and inability to think beyond the here and now, to our “opt...

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