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We’re Freaking Out About Rats Cause We Can’t Handle Climate Change

The current panic about urban decay and disorder is classic displacement.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

We’re hearing a lot about chaos these days. Joe Biden claimed late last month that abolishing the filibuster would cause “chaos”—“nothing at all would get done,” he fretted. Cities that dare to reimagine themselves, as they reopen, with fewer cars or cops are also allegedly courting chaos. At community board meetings, denizens of Manhattan’s West Village have railed against the rat infestations and drunken crowds caused by New York City’s Covid-era outdoor dining program.

The specter of urban chaos has been deployed with special fervor by conservatives and centrists over the past year. The New York Post has been obsessed with the rats, as well as with the crime and mayhem in the subways and streets; Democratic nominee Eric Adams eked out a June primary victory by campaigning on “safety, safety, safety.” Adams also claims to want to save cities from the chaos caused by Democratic Socialists of America and their fight to defund the police and tax the rich. His opponent, Republican mayoral nominee and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, has gone even further, suggesting that disorderly New York ought to return to the “broken windows” policing Rudy Giuliani inflicted upon the city in the 1990s. (The “broken windows” approach involved aggressive crackdowns on subway fare evasion and other minor crime, on the theory that small offenses, when unpunished, lead to more violent crime, as well as poor quality of life for law-abiding citizens.)

The truth is that, while there has been an alarming recent increase in shootings and homicides, we don’t know exactly what’s causing it. Reactionary political voices are exaggerating the level of disorder, just as they did last summer during the Republican convention, when speaker after speaker railed about the looting, violence, and general mayhem in cities with Democratic mayors.

All this talk about “chaos” by politicians is best explained by a phenomenon first described by Sigmund and Anna Freud, which they called “displacement.” The word in German is verschiebung, which means “shift” or “move.” Displacement is when the mind unconsciously shifts its attention away from something dangerous or threatening, as a defense against anxiety. Freud used the word “censorship” to describe the way the mind can police and protect itself—sometimes also “repression.” Freud’s most famous patients exhibited displacements strikingly similar to those we are seeing today: One patient referred to in Freud’s writings as “Rat Man” suffered from sexual anxieties, which he displaced with bizarre intrusive fears of being tortured by rats.

What anxieties are we displacing today when we fret about the chaos of filibusters, rats, looters, and drunkards? Probably some much larger ones.

In late July, after record-breaking rainfall, passengers were trapped in flooded subway tunnels in more than a dozen Chinese cities. Twelve people died in a train in Zhengzhou, a city of 10 million on the Yellow River, where according to the BBC, survivors have described water leaking into the subway cars, slowly rising from “our ankles to our knees to our necks.” Parents held children above their heads. Because streets, too, had become waterways, it took rescue teams four hours to arrive. In that same city, more than 200 cars were trapped in a highway tunnel filled nearly to the ceiling with water. Twenty-five people died in flooded subway cars in Henan, where more than 500 people were evacuated from submerged trains. The previous week, in flash flooding in Germany, cars were overturned, buildings and bridges left in ruins, and streets filled with debris, in a swath of destruction some Germans are comparing to World War II. Homes were submerged, and helicopters had to rescue people from rooftops. Over 125 lost their lives, and thousands were left homeless. Meanwhile, Turkey is engulfed in wildfires related to the heat wave in southern Europe, which its government is ill equipped to manage; at least eight people have died, thousands have been evacuated, and, at this writing, the fires have reached the edge of a coal power plant. That’s on top of the early-summer heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which is estimated to have killed almost 200 people in the United States, as well as over a billion shoreline animals on the Vancouver coast and an untold number of river creatures.

This is the chaos we used to put out of our minds a decade ago, finding it safely unimaginable. Now that climate mayhem is here, it’s harder to ignore, which is probably why we’re engaging in so much displacement. We’re all Rat Man now.

The Freuds understood displacement as an unconscious replacing of important fears with reassuringly low-stakes, unimportant worries. In New York, for example, rats and drunken suburbanites, while worrisome, are a bit less terrifying than the prospect of drowning in our cars in the Holland Tunnel. Partiers and rodents are trivial but real: I nearly stepped in vomit on the floor of my subway car the other night at Penn Station (take it easy, children of Scarsdale!), and my Brooklyn neighborhood has indeed seen an increase in murine residents.

But the concepts we fixate on to avoid upsetting, larger issues can be purely phantasmic: In the process of displacement we may make things up—anything, no matter how ludicrous—to displace the unwelcome anxiety we wish to escape. Freud had another patient, named Wolf Man, who displaced anxieties about castration (or his dad, whatever) with obsessive fears of wolves, which had entirely vanished from Austria by Freud’s time. The president’s kooky fantasy about filibuster chaos is closer to that example. Abolishing the filibuster to get more climate mitigation and disaster prevention into the infrastructure bill wouldn’t have brought chaos, it would have been a brilliant attempt at avoiding mayhem and tragedy.

It’s telling how often the people accused of bringing chaos are precisely those working the hardest to avert climate disaster or simply call attention to the problem. The progressives and socialists Adams has been railing against are more serious than he is about building climate resilience and greening our cities, advocating public power, which could allow states to make energy policy in the public interest, rather than for fossil fuel industry profits. In a special twist that could have given Freud a rich case study, the Turkish government has been accusing the media of causing “chaos” by reporting on the fires.

In psychoanalysis, displacement might be addressed by a careful exploration of the displaced feelings. It’s not too soon—or too late—for us to collectively do the same. We are living through serious chaos. We don’t want to die in a flooded subway tunnel. But the rats aren’t the problem. And inebriated revelers are annoying but hardly a big deal when compared with mass extinction. We can’t let our subconscious—or our politicians—change the subject. We must stay focused on climate chaos if we are to prevent—and cope with—much more of it.