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Why are the truths difficult? What sense does it make to have a sign in our shop window saying 'difficult'?

cracksStrap-lines tell stories about what an organisation stands for. Our value as an organisation hinges on whether we can contribute to the difficult task of climate engagement. So we launch our new website  with "Facing Difficult Truths".

Why are the truths difficult? What sense does it make to have a sign in our shop window saying 'difficult'? Massive social and psychological forces pull against a sound response to the climate and ecological challenges which face us. We’re operating in a field where awareness and decisive action are both actively suppressed and instinctively repressed – hence the centrality for us of understanding denial in its various forms. Sally Weintrobe and colleagues have done pioneering work here, in Engaging with Climate Change Paul Hoggett has tackled head-on the difficulty, manifesting as hostility, resentment and controversy, of even using the word denial in this context.

So our narrative is, inescapably, about the need to do something extremely difficult, not just as individuals who are adept at screening out inconvenient and disturbing information. We share with other groups a counter-narrative to the dominant stories that have given security, meaning and coherence to whole societies. Such stories act as meta-narratives that are prevalent and endemic, such as that of the hero myth of domination and triumph or that of a consumer society. Even as the cracks in our dominant narratives become wider, messages that challenge it are forcefully resisted.

So what are the cracks that are appearing in this dominant narrative? They include:
• Loss of belief in financial security and the sustainability of economic growth
• Increased cynicism about government, institutions, regulation, the efficiency of markets (at the big issue level)
• Despair through lack of faith in the future
• Realisation that security through domination of Nature is hubris
• The increasing volume of warnings about climate and ecological disaster

These cracks can act as nudges to divest, or disinvest in what has maintained the old paradigm. But are there any new narratives to invest in?

Most of us in climate psychology would probably see the Transition movement as an ally. Richard Heinberg, in the Foreword to Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook, applauds an approach that addresses tough realities but “ends up looking more like a party than a protest march”. The founders of the Transition movement knew well that inspiring stories were vital to any successful movement and that it had to look like fun if it was to garner wide support. Transition has achieved great things and may yet prove to have played a decisive role, if we do manage to find a way to a sane and sustainable future. But after the heady early days, Transition activists were forced to realise that only a small minority of people want to go far down the path of trying to re-localise economies, or to look hard at the carbon costs of the things we have and do. However appealing the image in the Handbook of climbing out of the tarry pond of fossil fuel dependence, we still have difficulty giving things up to help make that happen.

In the gestation of the CPA in 2010, at a University of West of England event Seeing Futures, ecopsychologist Sandra White spoke on “Beyond Sacrifice”. One of her conclusions was that the social conditions in which sacrifices are likely to be forthcoming do not currently exist. The globalised, consumerist version of wellbeing still has a very powerful grip. There are diverse psychological strands here, but one of the best known has become enshrined in economics. This is that we heavily discount future gains in relation to present losses. However clearly Lord Stern repeatedly spells out the vast future benefits of decarbonising our economy now, action has so far fallen well short of the mark.


Why does the vaunted middle class attribute of deferred gratification, or the willingness of parents to put their children first, often at great cost to themselves, fail us in this instance? As George Marshall, who generates new stories, explains so well in Don’t Even Think About It; Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change the threat still seems distant and abstract…..to most of us in the rich world where most of the harm originates. Separation of cause and effect is part of what makes climate change a wicked problem. Part of the difficulty we refer to is that of making the truth stick, as something both inescapable and pressing.

The word “inescapable” can evoke the opposite, a narrative path of human brilliance and ingenuity, our capacity to “escape” through answers to every challenge. This is double-edged. One of the favourite ideas of the Transition movement is to mobilise the collective genius of a community. Laudable though this vision is, the shadow of human brilliance lies in the techno-fix myth; the notion that business-as-usual will always be possible because of our infinite capacity to adapt to and manipulate our circumstances. Earthmasters, Clive Hamilton’s tour de force on geoengineering, is perhaps the most powerful critique to date on how this dominant paradigm operates in our field.

Another narrative thread that is amenable to Jung’s notion of the shadow is Paul Hoggett’s thinking on Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination. Hoggett’s thesis covers a range of threats and historical settings. In the narrower context of climate change, it’s not hard to see how the perverse excitement which can be derived from apocalyptic scenarios, has been latched onto by climate denialists, in their own narratives, as “climate porn”. To counter this, and without exaggerating, we can hold in mind that research suggests that climate scientists over-compensate in the direction of caution to avoid accusations of alarmism.

Hoggett has also drawn attention to bias and our need to watch out for it in ourselves. Other things being equal, we would expect to welcome anything that might look like good news with open arms, say, the possibility of a decline in solar activity. But, we know that our opponents in the battle for hearts and minds will cherry pick and feed an anxious public with anything which appears to undermine the dire warnings emanating from climate science. This points to a critical element in our narrative. “Facing Difficult Truths” is not a command from any moral high ground; it is, first and foremost, a commitment to facing the difficult truths in ourselves.

My use of the word “opponents” brings us to “Enemy Narratives”, arguably the outstanding theme in Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and a point of tension with the other big climate book of 2014, Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Splitting and projection are amongst the most powerful of psychoanalytic concepts and understanding their implications is part of what we bring to the table of climate discourse. Marshall’s intuitive grasp of it is heartening. It enables him to convey an important message to climate activists. The difficult truth here is that we may be more attached to our enmities than we are to the need for self-questioning or alliance building. If we can face releasing our projective enmities while still being faithful to our vision, the CPA project will be enhanced.

What about hope? We want to be more than a forum, an intellectual group, re-organising deckchairs on the Titanic. In April 2015 CPA event Radical Hope and Cultural Tragedy addressed the question: in the light of the climate and ecological holocaust that is unfolding, what kind of hope is possible that is not blinkered or delusional?

There are certainly objective and scientific issues here, as well as psychological ones. There are still genuine uncertainties around climate sensitivity, the “carbon budget”, tipping points and speed of sea level rise, also the adaptability of plant and animal species. These uncertainties cloud our view as to what mitigation of the holocaust is possible and what the timescale is for adaptation. The commonest view is that some mitigation is still possible (as well as essential) but phrases like a “rapidly closing window” do seem to have been around for rather a long time. Al Gore has spoken of flipping from complacency to despair, and George Monbiot of resignation to inevitable catastrophe being a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are no credible voices denying that we are in a deep crisis, but there is a spectrum of views, in each of which there are sub-spectrums of knowledge, recognition of uncertainty and philosophy.

So a CPA position on hope is work in progress. We have embarked on a project which combines pursuit of truth, living with uncertainty, and supporting each other as we mourn what is lost or going, while at the same time expressing gratitude for what we still have. One role we have is help make the resources of psychology useful to those who campaign and work in other ways for the change we need. Human and political tipping points cannot and must not be ruled out, however unlikely they seem. At the heart of our vision is a hopeful determined and courageous exploration of what is humanly possible.