This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to improve your experience...

Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

If the political movement to combat climate change is to be successful then all of us must overcome the pull to thinking in either/or terms and hold the tension between hope and despair.


johncleeseIt sometimes seems that to avoid dangerous climate change in a just and equitable way with our carbon budget already largely used up requires a degree of cultural change which is simply beyond our reach. But perhaps this is to ignore, in other areas, just how much our culture has changed in recent decades. A good example is the transformation achieved in the position of gays and lesbians in many western democracies in the last 40 years. Could not environmentally destructive consumerism go the same way as sexism and homophobia?

Deborah Gould’s book Moving Politics studied the rise and decline of the direct action AIDS movement ACT UP in the USA in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a movement built upon gay and lesbien communities and Gould noted the powerful role that shame, pride and despair played in this activism. Gould's research was a direct challenge to the male dominated world of political studies which was and still is dominated by the same rationalist assumptions that dominate economics. Only in the last 15 years have a small minority of researchers, like Gould, begun to take the role of the emotions in politics seriously.

As Gould noted, any political movement seeking to make things better in the world has to manage despair. This emotion, one that many psychoanalysts call depressive anxiety, arises because from the beginning activists are haunted by the belief that they might lack the collective resources to address the damage and suffering that they see around them and that motivates their action. In other words, besides its external opponent a political movement always has an internal one and that is despair.

With fellow CPA member Ro Randall I have been interviewing people involved in direct action such as the occupation of power stations and airport runways to explore how they manage the powerful feelings aroused by exposure to the disturbing truth of climate change. Here’s one young female activist speaking about this despair:

“I know if I let open the floodgates it’s there…I know what that depressive, overwhelming ‘I feel lost’ feeling is. I’ve had it. It’s not something I enjoy.”

In my own experience of movements for change I have been struck by the way in which the failure to contain despair can lead to an unrealistic hope or produce a state of mind, sometimes referred to as schizoid, that finds it hard to avoid thinking other in terms of polarities.

The hope I’m speaking of here is built upon a denial of and flight from despair. The group ‘puffs itself up’ to make itself feel big, it overestimates its own strength and underestimates the power of the opposing forces, it resorts to faith (“history is on our side”) and magic (“come on everybody, one last push”). It prefers to engage in wishful thinking rather than face reality as it is. 

The schizoid state of mind is one I often encounter in my work as a psychotherapist. This is the familiar world of binary, either/or thinking where it seems there is no ‘in between’. Everything is either one thing or the other and the coin constantly flips between one perspective and it’s polar opposite – either my marriage was the wonderful relationship I always imagined it to be or I was living a total illusion; either I have this special (and exclusive) relationship with my children or I mean nothing to them. And the odd thing about this splitting is that it paradoxically reproduces the very anxiety it tries to manage.

This state of mind manifests itself in many different ways. One is ‘catastrophic thinking’, something which leads to the feeling in the individual or the group that, for example, there is no such thing as a mistake or setback for all such events are experienced as a catastrophe from which recovery is impossible. I have discussed the danger of climate catastrophism and this, and other manifestations of this schizoid state of mind, easily take hold of political movements.

Another obvious and much parodied consequence of this either/or thinking is the splitting and factionalism which often bedevils political groups. But it goes much deeper than this and in my experience can affect the culture of otherwise healthy movements. Within movements around climate change we can see this at work in terms of a series of unhelpful binaries. For example, ‘The only realistic thing to do is change the system’ versus ‘We are powerless to change the system we have to focus on achievable changes in our community and in our own lives’ or ‘You can never change the state you have to fight against it’ versus ‘There is no alternative to working within the state for change, anything else is unrealistic’.

Another binary is ‘all or nothing’. We throw ourselves into an all consuming commitment which, because it is all consuming, demands immediate return and when reality proves recalcitrant despair quickly sets in. As one of our interviewees put it, “there’s definitely a danger of tying your whole sense of worth and purpose to this challenge that is so much bigger than you and is never ending”. And this binary is often linked to another one which is ‘now or never’. In climate change this is manifest in the belief that ‘we must all act now or it will be too late’ a belief which can all too quickly slip into the perception that it is already ‘too late’, that processes have already been unleashed which are irreversibly leading to catastrophe. This is the danger with the language of ‘tipping points’, it can tip the individual over into overwhelming despair so quickly.

A final binary to mention goes way back to the Old Testament. It reads, 'you’re either with us or you’re against us'. In contemporary global politics this has been manifest in a series of fundamentalist conflicts – Nazism/Bolshevism, Capitalism/Communism, and now the so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ . A further extension of this binary opposition says that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This has been disastrously manifest in the Middle East where a whole succession of tyrants – Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and now Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt have been supported because of the belief that ‘he may be a dictator but at least he’s our dictator’.

George Marshall has recently urged us to beware of what he calls ‘enemy narratives’ around climate change and, given our anxious propensity to go creating monsters where none exist, this is a salutary reminder. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion referred to this as the fight/flight mentality. It has become common to think of this as a kind of group pathology. But it would be dangerous to then assume that the very idea of ‘fight’ is somehow wrong. To the contrary, the group when it functions creatively may still have to fight at times but it is able to have the right fight with the right opponent at the right time. The point is that whilst talk of enemies immediately takes us into a paranoid narrative we do nevertheless have opponents and we need to know how to overcome them.

So these are some of the binary oppositions that proliferate within political movements for change and each one carries with it the potential to lead us into a situation where we turn against ourselves, particularly in periods when a movement faces real setbacks which make the underlying despair hard to contain.

What seems to be emerging from our interviews with climate activists is a new generation that is developing a much more emotionally intelligent activist culture, a kind of sustainable activism. Direct action places activists in a vulnerable situation and, rather than a macho denial of vulnerability, the new generation of activists seems much more prepared to acknowledge this vulnerability through systems of formal and informal support such as organised debriefings after ‘actions’ and trauma support networks. Many activists also seem to be able to take a proportionate response, intense engagement when needed can be followed by the capacity to take a step back and give attention to self-care.

Some within this new generation are already talking about a sustainable activism, one that is in it for the long term. As one of our interviewees put it,

“The struggle will always be there for justice and for those kinds of things and I don’t think we should...there’s no utopic end point is what I mean. It will always be evolving and changing and I see my... I think that I see myself as somebody who will always be aware of injustice and look for ways of trying to bring more equality into things and so... I don’t know... that’s what I kind of feel that I am so that’s my philosophy, there will always be another struggle somewhere…”

A sustainable activism has a ‘pessimism of the intellect’ which can avoid wishful thinking and can face reality as squarely as possible but it also retains an ‘optimism of the will’, an inner conviction that things can be different. It is hopeful but this is not so much a hope that you ‘have’ but, as my fellow CPA member Julian Manley put it, “this is an embodied hope that simply ‘is’ and with this embodiment there is a depressive position, that is to say, that hope exists (it ‘is’) despite all the reasons that acknowledge the situation as being hopeless”.

By holding the tension between optimism and pessimism a sustainable activism is more able to bear the despair and has less need to resort to splitting as a way of engaging with reality. It can hold the contradictions so that they do not become either/or type polarities. It can work both in and against the system. Whilst it believes there can be no personal change without political change it is equally insistent that there can be no political change without personal change. It insists optimistically that those who are not against us must be with us and therefore carries a notion of ‘us’ which is inclusive and generous, one which offers the benefit of the doubt to the other.

Finally it holds that it is both already too late and yet it is also never too late. It is able to face the truth that some irreversible processes of change may already be occurring, that the two degrees limit in the increase in global temperatures may not be achieved, that bad outcomes are inevitable and some are already happening. It nevertheless insists this makes our struggle all the more vital, vital to reduce the scale and significance of these future outcomes, to fight for the ‘least worse’ outcomes, and to ensure the world of our grandchildren and their children is as habitable as possible.

This is the text of a presentation given to the conference organised by Confer The Psychology of Inspired Collective Action at the Tavistock Centre, London on November 21st 2015.

Also available on this site is Sally Weintrobe's presentation from the same conference: A New Imagination