- Published: 23 September 2015 23 September 2015
edited by Sally Weintrobe Routledge 2012
2 reviews and 2 radio interviews
Review by Anne Karpf
Karpf explores her own ambivalent reactions to serious climate disturbance. Read more in The Guardian
Review by Terry Patterson
This groundbreaking collection of papers brings together the most current thinking of those concerned with conscious and unconscious reasons for the difficulty we have in facing climate change.
The richness of this ambitious and moving book is achieved by the discourse between those from the disciplines of what Sally Weintrobe suggests we might call the human sciences. It’s a very sophisticated body of writing, which puts forward new and complex ideas.
The book has its origins in an interdisciplinary conference on our engagement with climate change at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London in 2010. Before this event there had already been a number of smaller conferences on the same theme in London and Bristol where some of the psychoanalytic writers presented their thinking. Its launch coincided with the founding of the Climate Psychology Alliance which brought together many of the contributors and others with the aim of applying psychoanalytic theory to illuminate inertia around climate change. It begins with a forward by Professor Chris Rapley CBE, a climate scientist who sets a context of the political and historical aspects of our engagement and it concludes with a Stephan Harrison who summarizes the science of global warming. Between these chapters are seven main chapters all written by psychoanalysts, each of which is then discussed and elaborated on by two colleagues, sometimes other psychoanalysts, sometimes academics in politics and psychosocial studies, philosophy and social sciences, public ethics, conservation, regeneration and social change.
Before we enter the main body of thought, Sally Weintrobe skillfully introduces the uninitiated reader to the psychoanalytic way of understanding; that humans are inherently divided between love and hatred of reality. She explains that when reality is unmanageable or unwanted we unconsciously erect defenses which allow us to function, somewhere in the hinterland between knowing and not knowing. She outlines concisely the themes of denialism, negation and disavowal that are threaded through the book. In doing so she makes the texts accessible to those not yet acquainted with this way of thinking as well as to seasoned psychoanalysts.
Each chapter looks at the issues from slightly different angles, providing new and thought provoking insights. For those unfamiliar with the theories I imagine these could be quite mind blowing, as even with many years in the field there are surprises; light bulb moments, when links are made and fresh insights coalesce.
Weintrobe’s chapter (and several others) on anxiety explores Valimaki and Lehtonen’s suggestion that ‘modern man is suffering from what they call environmental neurosis, rooted in deep seated annihilation anxiety resulting from our denial of our real dependence on nature and the illusion of our own autonomy’ (p.41). She argues that our actual dependence on the Earth and the fear, guilt and shame we experience when we think about the damage we have done, re-stimulates early anxieties associated with our dependency on the breast/ toilet mother. She uses Kleinian concepts of the paranoid schizoid and depressive positions and our oscillation between the two, to make sense of our relationship with the Earth. Being in the paranoid schizoid position we can protect and preserve the narcissistic parts of ourselves thereby avoiding the smallness and powerlessness that comes with early dependency. Yet moving into a more depressive way of functioning requires that we face the pain, guilt, shame and hopelessness about the Earth on which we all depend, and this re-stimulates early anxieties about the ruthless damage done to the breast/mother. The argument is that throwing masses of scientific information at people will not result in social, behavioural change because it caused too much anxiety and pushes people towards a defensive, paranoid schizoid position. Weintrobe and most other contributors conclude that the only way to achieve meaningful, positive responses to climate change is to offer a facilitating environment which will support people to face reality and move more towards the depressive position. If we can come to terms with the damage done to the object we depend on for our survival, just like the we do as babies in relation to the mother, then we may be more ready to listen to the scientists and adopt behaviours which are about love and reparation, rather than greedy, destructive, devouring for our own selfish satisfaction.
Psychoanalysis has always applied theory about the individual to wider social, political and global systems and this is very much part of this book. Hoggett’s chapter on ‘Perverse Culture’ draws upon observations of the global financial collapse and the way in which there was a ‘turning a blind eye’ to the reality of what was happening. He takes further the ideas about defensive maneuvers to protect narcissistic grandiocity and explores the perverse structures that allow the deviant behaviour of powerful executives to thrive, and even take pleasure in the suffering of others at their expense. He talks about a crisis in civility of neo-liberal economic and social policies, where there is no longer a capacity to practice restraint upon one’s own desires and think beyond the self in order to protect the wellbeing of others. He draws an important distinction between denial where we do not see what’s in front of us, and disavowal where one part of the mind sees it and another discounts it. He sees this kind of perverse thinking being facilitated by the spread of virtualism in economic and social life and even in politics where governments distract themselves by setting targets for emissions reduction and spending huge amounts of energy demonstrating how they are moving towards them.
Another chapter that stands out for me is Rosemary Randall’s ‘Great Expectations’ where she explores what happens to people who do try to face ecological debt. She uses stories from participants in her Carbon Conversations groups to illustrate this, cleverly comparing their journeys to that of Pip in Dickens’ classic novel. Pip makes the assumption that his benefactor is Miss
Havisham, with whom he has found favour as a boy and this sits comfortably with his sense of deserving a better life because of his own intrinsic merit. When he is confronted with reality, that the benefactor is in fact Magwitch, the convict from the marshes he’s helped as a child, he is shocked and goes on a journey which Randall likens to the gradual disillusion with the grandiose sense of self required during the oedipal stage of development. He is forced to reframe his identity, learn humility and the meaning of forgiveness. Randall then beautifully weaves Pip’s psychological journey through her exploration of processes involved in the coming to terms with our own ecological debt, the damage done and our complicity in it. Towards the end of the chapter Randall does acknowledge that the journeys’ of people in her groups differ from Pip’s in that there is no resolution. She appreciates that those embarking on such a journey can find themselves isolated and at odds with those closest to them; that it is a painful process that can produce excessive amounts of guilt, despair and anxiety. She suggests that these extreme responses could largely be mitigated by improved social and political structures, which offer validation, affirm and even reward pro-environmental behaviour and help people to feel accepted and respected.
Finally the last chapter I will mention is Renee Lertzman’s ‘The Myth of Apathy’ based on her research into the opinions and attitudes of people living around an ‘ecologically troubled’ region near the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, USA. What she discovers is that there is a great deal of affect, rather that apathy. The data she collected from participants showed powerful and complex emotional responses to the environmental degradation of their beloved natural habitats. She found high levels of concern and a great deal of loss and grief, but she sensed an ‘arrested mourning’, a form of ‘social melancholia’ with a longing for reparation alongside distancing psychological defenses. She uses Freud’s ideas about transience to make sense of what might appear to be apathy, where the pleasure in beautiful things is diminished by ‘a foretaste of mourning its decease … by thoughts of its transience (Freud 1916: 306)’. (p.125) She provides a sophisticated and detailed expose of what lies beneath the surface of people’s inaction. She asserts that we imbue places from childhood with special qualities, what Bollas would call transformational objects that promise to alter our internal mood or metamorphose the self like mother once could. And that, just like in infancy our ambivalence towards objects is defended against by splitting and mania. She suggests that ‘…it is possible to rethink conceptions of apathy, not as a clear lack of concern but, rather, as complicated expressions of difficult and conflicting affective states.’ (p.130) Seen in this light she argues that the use of alarming messages about the state of the planet can only serve to bolster peoples defenses and do more harm than good. Lertzman concludes with a humble acknowledgement of the limitations of psychoanalytic thinking, which can be seen as esoteric and insular, and urges us all to build bridges with other communities to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
My experience over several years of attempting to engage psychoanalytically trained colleagues in conversations about climate change has been disappointing and somewhat bewildering. We are supposed to be able to bear the unbearable, manage the unimaginable for our clients, but on this issue I have observed a great deal of the same defenses amongst therapists as exists in the general population. At the other end of the spectrum I have been dismayed by the insistence of activists and environmentalists on discounting harsh realities in favour of positive actions and the pursuance of a utopian post industrial fantasy. I have also felt huge sympathy for the scientists who bring an unwelcome message and are ridiculed and denigrated for this. This book has relevance for each of these groups and should be compulsory reading for anyone who finds themselves puzzled by unfathomable human responses to what is probably the greatest challenge we have ever faced as a species. Its not easy reading; its not an easy subject, but it is a very important book, the only book to date which attempts and succeeds in taking us closer than ever to a deeper understanding of human responses to climate change. The contributions in this book are too broad ranging and complex for me to do justice to here, and I apologize to those who’s chapters I have not been able to cover in the limited scope of this review, but hope I’ve given a flavour of what it’s about and wetted the appetite of those who are beginning to look for answers.
Terry Patterson is Senior Counsellor at The Advice and Counselling Service, Queen Mary University of London. She trained as a Student Counsellor at Birkbeck in 1992-95 and worked as a Counsellor in Primary Care, in Staff Counseling and private practice before moving into the HE sector. She has previously been Chair of the Birkbeck Counseling Association, a tutor on the MSc in Psychodynamic Counselling at Birkbeck and is currently on the executive committee of Heads of University Counselling Services special interest group of BACP UC. She has previously been actively involved in three Transition Town groups and is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. Affiliation: Queen Mary University of London Email:
BBC Radio 3 Night Waves 17th October 2012
Philip Dodd interview with Sally Weintrobe and Rosemary Randall about Engaging with Climate Change
Programme description: “Engaging with climate change is something the psychoanalytic community is attempting to do in a collection of essays edited by the analyst Sally Weintrobe – what is the contribution that psychoanalysis can make to possibly the most traumatic issue facing humanity and yet one which the vast majority of us simply ignore?”
Listen here – 30.47 into the programme
BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed 23rd January 2013
Laurie Taylor interview with Sally Weintrobe and Paul Hoggett about Engaging with Climate Change
Programme description: “Climate change – what lies beneath its widespread denial? Laurie Taylor talks to Sally Weintrobe, the editor of the first book of its kind which explores, from a multi disciplinary perspective, what the ecological crisis actually means to people. In spite of a scientific consensus, many continue to resist or ignore the message of climate communicators – but why? What are the social and emotional explanations for this reaction? They’re joined by the Professor of Social Policy, Paul Hoggett.”
Listen here – 16.00 into the programme