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Hilary Prentice is a leading figure in the ecopsychology movement in UK.

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(First published in Therapy Today March 2014 25(2)

Following her article ‘Floods, Climate Change and Denial’ Hilary Prentice talks further with Colin Feltham about the role that therapists could play by enabling people to articulate their feelings about climate change. This in turn could free people to change their lifestyles, support others with campaigns to help the planet, and collectively challenge the indifference of governments and industry. She invites therapists to engage with the profound challenge to our planet through compassion and mindfulness

Hilary, what was it that first brought you to an interest in climate change and what were your very first steps?

I attended almost the very first meeting organised by PCSR (Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility) in the mid 1990s. During the day possible theme or working groups were set up. I can remember some of the themes – money, class, refugees.... and I found myself putting up my hand and tentatively calling out, ‘Err, the earth?’ I don’t think I had any idea beforehand that I would do that. On that occasion only a couple of us met, but we had an amazing conversation, mapping out on a large bit of paper our various thoughts and feelings. The ideas did not stop flowing and it was very exciting – we both felt the subject was hugely important.

Out of this an Ecopsychology group of PCSR was formed that, after a first year of finding our way, became very productive as well as rewarding and meaningful for all of us who joined. We continued to meet for several years and we went on to start writing, running workshops, speaking and teaching. Tania Dolley, who I met on that first occasion and I both felt we needed to find out what else was going on, and she put an advert in Resurgence magazine ‘Calling all ecopsychologists’, with my phone number. It was very moving to be phoned by people from all over the country, often saying things like, ‘I thought I was alone with this, it’s such a relief to talk about it...’ From this we organised a first national networking day in 1997, and put people in touch with each other in an early UK Ecopsychology Network.

I still remember the very first workshop I facilitated on Ecopsychology. It was at a Mind conference in Scarborough and I really had no idea what would happen. About 14 people attended and, after a tentative start, I was very moved to discover that every single person there – mostly service users – had some special private place in ‘nature’ – in a garden, or park, by a river, somewhere – where they went for refuge and which was deeply important to them. And, stunningly, not one of them had told their counsellor or other mental health professional about this. Furthermore, when I opened up the workshop to include peoples’ feelings about what was happening to the earth, the response was pretty consistent – to the effect of, ‘I only let myself think/feel about this for very short periods – I feel so intensely about it, it seems unbearable.’ But there was appreciation at having a space where they could share about these things with support from others.

In what ways were you in touch with or out of touch with nature when you were growing up? I ask this because I think some of us have rural roots and sympathies but others, like me, are thoroughly urbanised! And there’s the nature-deficit disorder hypothesis.

I didn’t have a particularly rural childhood. My mother loved gardening. When I was at primary school a friend’s family used to take us up on the Yorkshire moors, and there were family holidays from when I was about 10 for a few years with the Holiday Fellowship that involved walking days – these are very happy memories. Discovering youth hostelling in North Wales and the Lake District as a teenager, walking all day and sleeping somewhere fresh each night, was revelatory, and even at that age it was obvious to me that it was profoundly healing.

But I think ‘thoroughly urbanised’ people like you can also be drawn to this work. I have a London friend who swears she will never leave London and claims to love the smell of petrol – but her love for her North London allotment is legendary.

A widespread practice in ecopsychology and ecotherapy courses is to begin with each person telling their own particular ‘Earth Story’, urban or rural, usually in journal form. This begins with our earliest and childhood memories – of sky, birds and dandelions, sun and rain, holidays, pets, insects, pavements, parks, grandparents, days out with school, the first time we connected what was on our plate with what happens on the land... whatever comes up when we take a look. For many, writing these stories and sharing them is itself moving and revelatory. Our culture is so human-centred that these stories tend to remain unarticulated and, having never been listened to, not developed or integrated. This is very different from what happens in indigenous earth-based (and sustainable) societies, in which every child is taught a great deal about the greater than human world and the creatures and elements with which s/he shares this, and how to relate with them.

Like many, I was seriously taken up with climate change issues some years ago, then somehow reactions became mixed, doubts crept in, academics like Bjørn Lomborg persuaded many that climate change isn’t the greatest priority for economic intervention. Or some dismiss it as not human made, and so on. Even among the best educated there are mixed feelings. How can we explain all this?

I also find this at one level quite mystifying and hard to understand. One part of me cannot quite believe that something so very important can be let slip onto the collective backburner. And it’s not as though the effects of climate change that are already with us are all hidden from our view – weekly if not daily there is a news item about extreme, exceptional and never-before-recorded weather somewhere in the world.

But another part of me feels that it is pretty important to try to understand and make sense of what is going on here. In the anthology Engaging with Climate Change, edited by Sally Weintrobe, (Reviewed on this site) different insights and hypotheses are put forward, beginning perhaps with the more pragmatic level. There has been a concerted campaign of misinformation on the part of organisations often consisting of a very small number of people, that are directly connected to vested interests in the status quo. Clive Hamilton describes this process in his chapter on ‘What history can teach us about climate denial’. He speaks of ‘the aggressive adoption of climate denial by neo-conservatism’ in the US, pointing out that, although in the 1990s views on climate change were influenced by science, at this point you can make a good guess at people’s views in that deeply divided society by looking at their views about same sex marriage, abortion and gun control. In these circumstances, he says, ‘facts quail before beliefs’. I was fascinated to read the three historical vignettes he offers, where good science was discredited by small numbers of active campaigners who found the new science or new information to be somehow deeply threatening to their view of their world and, implicitly, to have political implications that they disliked. I was amazed to read that in Germany, where he then lived, Einstein’s theory of relativity was regarded in just such a way, partly because he was an internationalist and pacifist. Einstein’s work was apparently often accused of being ‘un-German’; ‘“Jewish mathematics’’ served the same function as “left wing science” does in the climate debate today,’ says Hamilton. Einstein feared for his safety, and eventually left Germany in 1933.

As well as and, perhaps, because of this active ‘denialism’, there are now political and ideological associations around the science in the UK also, although views are less extremely polarised here. To those of us whose natural leaning is to question a culture of increasing inequality, intense materialism, the profit motive and the growth of global capitalism, climate change makes intuitive sense and is supportive of how we see the world. It would make sense that continuing economic growth in which we burn fossil fuels, mine the earth, farm the seas and cut down the forests in the interests of short term profit is going to have a destructive and increasingly de-stabilising effect on the entire global ecosystem, but to change these values and ways of behaving is in any case desirable. But, to those of us in favour of continued economic growth, who believe the current economic system is the best that can be had – well, climate science is probably made up by ‘environmentalists’ (read dubious person with worryingly hippy-like attributes) for their own gloom-ridden agendas.

But what I am pointing at here I think hints at a much deeper level to all this. The implications of climate science are in fact very profound – it requires a tremendous change in how we live and the values by which we live if we are to mitigate and then change course so that we are no longer producing the gases involved in anything like the way we currently do. These changes can be hard to contemplate, and I think many of us do quail just imagining them and find ourselves practising Weintrobe’s ‘disavowal’, where the information is treated as too threatening to take on board, and so we live as though we know and don’t know at the same time.

I also feel tempted to ask you what you feel has gone on for you? Really this needs to be an ongoing enquiry, best answered freshly as things unfold. Probably each one of us holds a piece of the jigsaw here.

Then there is the precautionary principle. Even if it’s not quite as bad as the worst predictions, we should still take serious preventive measures. Do you see people accepting this principle?

The problem with this question for me is that it implies there is no scientific consensus about human-caused climate change in suggesting that we should act ‘just in case’. But this is simply not true – readers may wish to look at and also A review of 12,000 peer reviewed scientific papers on global warming and global climate change found that, of those that took a position, 97 per cent agreed with the consensus position: climate change exists and is caused by human activity (anthropogenic).

So perhaps this ‘precautionary principle’ is just one example of the subtle, or not so subtle, ways in which doubt is cast as to the existence of that consensus, and hence to the need to take action.

The other side of the denial coin is, of course, that concerns are renewed every time we have extreme weather. People are thinking, maybe this is due to climate change; governments should do something about it! People are already recycling, some have reduced their own carbon footprint, what else can they do?

Well, I fear I may already be putting myself in line for that ancient human process called ‘shoot the messenger’, so I would be very hesitant about suggesting what people should be doing!

But of course it is a very good question – many of us slip into disavowal because the situation seems so huge, and it can feel that nothing we do can make any difference. And it can be very painful to feel that our lifestyles are causing destruction - yet as individuals it is not possible to step outside the society in which we live. In the rich part of the world we are cast as the ‘consumers’ of goods, whether or not we really want that; the rest of the world tends to more obviously pay the price for this, but perhaps can also see what is happening more clearly.

In reality I think there are countless things we can do, if we feel inspired to do so. It is famously important to join with others, and there are many environmental projects around that support people to take action at the level or place to which they are drawn – from Friends of the Earth to the Climate Psychology Alliance to the Ecopsychology Network to the Transition Movement, from allotments and local food to ethical clothing and transport to community composting schemes to campaigning and signing petitions. One thing that is discovered over and over again is that, once we take action, we tend to feel better, insights come, community is built, and one positive thing often leads to another.

And of course in doing this we can learn, and gradually the consensus may shift so that politicians and others in power will have the support, as well as pressure, to make the difficult decisions that need to be made.

I have been particularly inspired recently by the actions of one single woman who has started a movement rippling round the world – Polly Higgins (see A barrister working in London, she had a revelatory moment in court one day; she realised that part of the problem is that ‘the earth needs a lawyer’. She saw the profundity of this insight, and put it at the centre of her life. She has been speaking and organising around the world, and at every level of human society, to make ecocide the fifth International Crime Against Peace. If we had a legal framework that changes the legal obligations and constraints on the corporate world, very many decisions would immediately be made differently. She is very clear that this is an idea whose time has come, as was the abolition of slavery. Many who profited from slavery saw that too initially as too radical, as something that perhaps sounded nice but would destroy the economic and social system. However, when a certain tipping point was reached the normative white view changed radically. It became simply indefensible that such a cruel and destructive system could be legally allowed to persist. Slavery was seen as degrading to the humanity of the perpetrators as well as devastating to victims. How could anyone think otherwise? And, of course, society did not collapse when slavery was abolished, but was slowly and with difficulty changed for the better.

I very much hope that the same will happen with ecocide, and that it will soon be unimaginable that there was once no law against this.

Turning to specifically counselling/therapy-oriented reactions, theories and policies, isn’t it still the case that many therapists do not regard it as legitimate to bring climate change issues into counselling sessions unless the client asks?

I don’t think anyone has ever suggested this would be appropriate – I certainly don’t think my article implies that at all.

However, our culture is deeply human-centred/anthropocentric, focusing on human issues to the exclusion of the other than human – again, as though we are separate from and superior to all other forms of life. Inevitably, this has permeated counselling and therapy theory and practice as well as all other areas of life. One aspect of this has led to the reverse of what your question implies – when clients do bring thoughts and feelings about the other-than-human, they have tended to be interpreted as a projection or avoidance of the real issues, which are of course about human relationships. I have never forgotten being phoned in those early days by a rather senior training analyst in a prestigious organisation. She said that she was very moved to finally be able to talk about these issues. She spoke with intense feeling about a very beloved tree of her childhood that had been cut down despite her protestations. This had been deeply traumatic and sad for her – she still felt the grief, shock and outrage. But, she said, every analyst she had worked with had treated it as about something else – a human she had lost at some point, perhaps anger about something else. No one had ever heard and honoured the depths of her pain about her beloved tree.

In his book Living in the Borderland, Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein begins by being very honest about doing the same thing to a client, until he finally ‘got it’ – his client’s profound feelings and dreams were precisely as she was telling him; they were not, as he was constantly re-interpreting, about something else, something human-centred.

And, of course, if people don’t think this is an appropriate subject for counselling, they won’t bring it – and so our unconscious denial of our embeddedness in the web of life, with all the richness of experience that brings, continues.

My experience is that, where the subject can be put on the table, processing immediately starts to happen, and this is one reason why I would love to see ecopsychology/ecotherapy included in all training courses, for example. The psychosynthesis organisation Revision has a one year post-qualification course in ecopsychology, and there are many ways people can dip a toe in – look on the Ecopsychology website to find more. Natural Change runs week-long events in which personal work takes place both within a group and on the land – another good way to learn more.

Perhaps the major block to appropriate action is a frozen fear. If scientific data and predictions about rising temperatures can be trusted, things are looking very scary indeed. The myopic business-as-usual reaction is a kind of adaptation. Aren’t therapists more used to helping people to calm down rather than panic or be alarmed?

I agree that things are looking pretty scary. I would describe ‘the myopic business-as-usual reaction’, to use your words, as more a ‘defence’ rather than an adaptation, however. Freezing in the face of danger is obviously not ideal if that stops us from acting appropriately to avert the danger, and I would not imagine many therapists would see supporting that as a skilful way of working with fear.

Creating safety so that people can open up and begin to process what has been avoided, feel the feelings, address the difficulty and start to think more clearly again is perhaps a more helpful short summary of what we do. But of course we need to start by exploring our own thoughts and feelings before hoping to be really present for others – whether in training courses, groupwork or individual work.

A very important point of yours is about alternative forms of, or venues for, therapy: either leaving the therapy room or actual therapy-in-the-environment, or encouraging greater immersion in outdoor activities like allotments, parks, trekking, equine therapy etc. But at the moment these are minority activities, and perhaps more obvious outside big centres like London.

I think they are happening in many places, from downtown Los Angeles to Israel to South African urban youth; from prisons to schools to psychiatric units. In the article I mentioned Jenny Grut’s work with torture survivors on allotments; that took place in two areas of London. I really recommend her book The Healing Fields to anyone drawn to explore more how this kind of thing works.

Any final thoughts?

I closed my article with a question/invitation about bringing compassion to all this, and to me this is really of the essence. We know that blame, guilt and fear do not help us open up, grow, or make wise decisions in extremely difficult situations. Compassion and mindfulness can.

And for those living with flooding and other weather-caused damage, I wish all support. Very likely some counsellors in these areas have already been offering support, such as listening projects. We all have much to learn. I look forward to hearing in Therapy Today from others – the positive responses of the human heart as well as the profound questioning that are both being called forth.

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