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We seem to be sleep walking towards disaster.

Global temperatures have risen 0.8°C in the last century and are now set to rise well beyond 2°C by 2060, a figure universally regarded by scientists as the safe limit. The estimates provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which have been derided by climate change skeptics as scaremongering, now look as if they will turn out to have been surprisingly conservative as the world warms faster then anyone anticipated. Only this summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean retreated to a point that climate science had earlier thought would not be reached until 2030.

As the temperature gradient between Arctic and temperate regions diminishes the Jet Stream slackens and our weather is thrown into chaos – unprecedented heatwaves and droughts in the American Midwest and eastern Europe, prolonged wet summers in the UK and north west Europe. The impact of bad weather on food prices was last felt just two years ago when the failure of the Russian wheat harvest provided the trigger for food riots from the Indian subcontinent to North Africa, the latter acting as a catalyst for the ‘Arab Spring’. So we can see the way in which climate chaos quickly transforms into social chaos and also the connection to a series of other predicaments – overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, the destruction of bio-diversity, etc.

And yet, faced with accumulating crises, international agreement on action to mitigate climate change seems further away than ever and, once we have them, none of us seem to be able to give up our energy intensive lifestyles. To repeat, we seem to be sleep walking towards disaster. The last time this happened, when the USA and USSR threatened each other (and the rest of us) with mutually assured (nuclear) destruction (MAD), psychoanalysts spoke out (Segal 1987). This time the threat is greater because its nature makes it more difficult to respond to – it is distant rather than immediate, it will affect others first rather than ourselves, and the threat is not embodied in an obvious ‘other’ for we (in the West) are all implicated through our lifestyles.

How might psychoanalysis contribute to understanding the predicament we now face? Well this time, as before, some members of the psychoanalytic community, analysts and therapists, have begun working and organizing on this issue. One of the first fruits of this activity was realized on September 27th when the book Engaging with Climate Change, published by Routledge as part of the New Library of Psychoanalysis series, was launched at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Sally Weintrobe, former Chair of the Institute’s Scientific Committee, Engaging with Climate Change develops an interdisciplinary dialogue involving analysts, therapists, climate scientists and social scientists.

In this book and a number of other recent publications we can see how the psychoanalytic perspective contributes to several core questions. What has happened to our relation to nature to let such a crisis come to pass? What feelings does climate change arouse in us, how do we defend ourselves against these feelings and how do these defences undermine our capacity to engage with this new reality?

With the exception of Harold Searles (1960, 1972) psychoanalysis has had little to say directly about the first question. For Searles, our relation to the non-human environment was a crucial factor in our development from birth onwards. Against the fetish of the independent self which has been central to Western individualism psychoanalysis has emphasized the interdependent self. But Searles argued we must go further to a transpersonal notion of self which located the human being in a web of both human and non-human relations.

I think psychoanalysis approaches a more transpersonal perspective when it focuses on our relation to the nature within us, that is, our nature as physical beings and the frailty which accompanies this. This ‘fact of life’ is one we find very hard to accept and our flight from physical vulnerability and mortality seems to have much to do with our illusions of omnipotent control over nature and our search for (consumer) distractions.

Both for the individual self and for society the issue involves the acceptance of limits and therefore the questioning of entitlement. And of course this means we are in the territory of depressive anxiety and ownership of responsibility for the damage we have done and will continue to do. Loss also makes its appearance. As we see the Amazon destroyed or coral reefs die out one by one this feeling can become so powerful it can lead to despair. Emotional numbing is one response to such despair and some research on the experience of those living in damaged natural environments suggests that apathy, far from being a sign that people care very little, arises because they care too much. Of course another defence against depressive anxiety is the manic defence, we take flight from despair by throwing ourselves back into the state of mind that ship-wrecked us in the first place, joining the frenzied partying on the Titanic.

More worrying still is what might be called the pre-depressive response to climate change and other crises. Concern, guilt and despair are pre-empted by terror and fear for which fight, based on splitting and projection, is the natural response rather than flight. Nature is seen as something vengeful and hateful that must be tamed and controlled. As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Requiem for a Species some businessmen and scientists, having ignored or scorned climate science, are now saying that if there is a problem then business and technology can solve it through geoengineering solutions such as the creation of sulphur dioxide aerosols to deflect the sun’s radiation in the upper atmosphere. Such ‘solutions’ remind Hamilton of the verse “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”. Or we might think of a patient who, faced with the chaos that omnipotent control has wrought upon his life, lurches intoxicated towards the control buttons once more.

Another form of fight locates all the badness in the other – the Chinese and Indians, the Africans with their large families, the rich and complacent West, and so on. Instead of the much needed cooperation our situation requires splits emerge between developed and developing countries, and between trading blocs and regions. Competition for scarce water resources already fuels conflicts in the Sudan, Mali, Israel and elsewhere. Boundaries soon become barriers which are anxiously patrolled to keep out the ‘losers’ as desertification and hunger results in mass migrations.

If this sounds gloomy then psychoanalysis also indicates how denial can be replaced by a growing capacity to face reality, and despair can change into hope. We also know how, in individuals and groups, powerful feelings can be contained thus lessening the need for destructive defences and conflict. Good work is getting done, not just by those involved in the Engaging with Climate Change volume but also by ecopsychologists and others. And here I would mention two other books published in 2012, Vital Signs edited by Mary Jane Rust and Nick Totten, and Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos by Joseph Dodds. Finally, and also in 2012, the Climate Psychology Alliance has been launched which seeks to provide a forum for dialogue and collaboration between different psychological approaches, initiated by psychoanalytically-oriented practitioners.

In New Associations, the magazine of the British Psychoanalytic Council, Autumn 2012.

Paul Hoggett is a therapist, researcher and teacher. He is Professor of Social Policy at the University of the West of England and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and member of the Severnside Institute for Psychotherapy.

Searles, H (1960) The Nonhuman Environment in Normal Development and in Schizophrenia. International Universities Press.

Searles, H (1972) ‘Unconscious processes in relation to the environmental crisis’, Psychoanalytic Review, 59, 3: 361-374.

Segal, H. ( 1987) ‘ Silence is the real crime’, International Review of Psychoanalysis, 14: 3-12.

Weintrobe, S. (2012) (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge and New Library of Psychoanalysis Beyond the Couch Series.