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TIME: How climate change is changing how we dream

The prevalence of climate dreams decreases with age. PHOTO/ MissLunaRose12/WIKIMEDIA


Martha Crawford started having climate change dreams about 11 or 12 years ago. Unlike many of her previously remembered dreams, these were not fragmented or nonsensical—they were “very explicit,” she recalls. “They didn’t require a lot of interpretation.” In one, she’s reading a textbook about climate change and then throws it behind the back of her couch, pretending it doesn’t exist.

TIME reports that in another, she’s sitting in a lecture given by a climate scientist. But the professor starts yelling at her for not paying attention, and she fails the course. The meaning was pretty clear, says Crawford, a licensed clinical social worker: “You’re not paying attention, and you need to pay attention.”

The dreams eventually inspired her to start the Climate Dreams Project in 2019, and since, she’s been facilitating a space where people can share climate dream anecdotes, mostly anonymously.

One dream submitted to the collection was of people digging holes in the desert so that the rising seas would have somewhere to go. In another contribution, a Flood Football game was underway, and in the second half, players were floating on inner-tubes.

Another person, who shared four climate dreams, recounted one in which billions of people were funneling into a giant room that looked like a video-game sports arena, but large enough to hold the world’s population.

“At the end of the dream, the entire face of the earth was different,” they wrote. “It was completely icy and the only habitable part was a giant plateau with a city on it.”

It would seem that climate change has woven itself into the “fabric of dreaming” as Crawford puts it.

Studying dreams can be slippery. We don’t always remember them, and interpreting them is highly subjective. But, according to a survey of 1,009 people conducted by The Harris Poll in June on behalf of TIME, over a third of people in the U.S. have dreamed about climate change at least once in their lives.

The imagery and sensations evoked by these dreams vary widely, according to the survey. Most people’s climate dreams involve extreme weather or natural disasters; fewer are about mosquitoes and locusts or political leaders and laws. The most common emotions reported are fear and stress, except among Millennials who seem to have more hopeful dreams.

The prevalence of climate dreams decreases with age: 56% of people between 18 and 34 years old said they had at least one climate dream in their life compared to 14% of people over the age of 55. Men appear to be dreaming more about climate change than women.

And people of color are dreaming about it far more than white people. Together, the data give us a new perspective on how the country may be feeling about climate change.

Every now and then, society collectively experiences the same moment to such an acute degree that it changes our dreams. The pandemic certainly did this, as have world wars and 9/11.

The question is whether enough people are feeling climate change acutely enough that it is systemically infiltrating our dreams at a population-level. The Harris Poll survey, coupled with Crawford’s dream project, suggests that in the U.S., it may be starting to.

Climate change is now part of the zeitgeist, says Alan Eiser, a psychologist and a clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. “It’s part of what we’re living in and through, so it must impact dreams.” But determining exactly how, he continues, “well, that’s complicated.”

The majority (57%) of Gen Z and Millennials have dreamed about climate change, according to the survey. That’s compared to 35% of Gen Xers and just 14% of Boomers. One way this split can be interpreted is that, from school lessons to real world events, climate change has been pervasive throughout younger people’s lives in a way it hasn’t been for older generations—and it will continue to define their future.

Read the full TIME study on climate change dreams here.

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