As anxiety about ecological crisis and the coronavirus spreads, we might expect defensive psychological formations to take hold on a large scale.
There is something hard to digest about conspirituality and its relationship to the climate crisis.They are both very large global ideas that take us into far territories of the mind and can overwhelm. I discovered the term "conspirituality" through CPA member Steve Thorp's sending a link to the CPA message boards, linking to the podcast Conspirituality.net.The podcast has taken as its mission a weekly exploration of the increasingly volatile synthesis of conspiracy theory and new age spiritual practice.This synthesis has dramatically increased during lockdown, fuelled by factors we can all recognise: isolation, prolonged anxiety, a sudden rupture in social reality, a huge uptake in use of social media. It seems right also to mention the destablising effect on people’s psyche of the growing awareness of the severity of the ecological crisis.
The CPA Forum’s initial discussions involved a sharing of members’ experiences of friends and acquaintances drawn into anti-lockdown activity and conspiracy theory and the unnerving feeling that comes when encountering friends articulating these beliefs with such certainty. Members wondered if there may be a connection to early trauma, or to the adrenalin rush of discovering secrets, and noted how some friends had hurtled in a short space of time into becoming certain that the Earth is a battleground for alien forces, that a new world order is in control.
Some suggested that conspirituality might be a way for people to locate human agency as still an important factor in a world hurtling out of control.
Ivana Sharp wrote:
I think it provides containment for otherwise unbearable feelings. You mention how it feels highly unnerving to talk to someone with these beliefs. I agree and I wonder if that unnerving thing has always been there but hidden and now it's become obvious. And if we are in some way asked to help to hold it. If the whole thing is a way of communicating something unspeakable. So when you ask how to speak to loved ones who are believers I would go for compassion.
In the CPA we try to take into account not just the individual but broader cultural, social and ecological perspectives.From all these perspectives, this is an unnerving moment.What effect is this having on the psyche of our culture?
Q Anon and patterns in the clouds
Our discussions circled around Q Anon, which in a short time has gone right to the mainstream of US politics.A highly contemporary phenomenon, Q Anon is part digital cult, part live action game, part online community.It makes use of the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in unrelated things, a phenomenon known as apophenia.
Related to apophenia, the authors of the original paper that coined the phrase "conspirituality," Ward and Voas, note that certain aspects of the new age spiritual movement lend themselves very well toaccepting conspiracy theory; a) nothing happens by accident, b) nothing is as it seems, c) everything is connected.Yet these are also general tendencies within the human psyche, to seek meaning, to understand connections, and to seek to penetrate the surface of phenomena to seek patterns.
“Apophenia" and "conspirituality" seem like different ways of explaining similar things.Yet they also seem to point to different styles of consciousness.Whilst it seems reasonable to attack the problem at its root, criticising apophenia is difficult because the human tendency towards pattern finding seems so deeply embedded in what it is to be human.Conspiritualists may find patterns where there are none, yet this linking together of disparate seeming phenomena is also a part of creativity. Yet we need some critical discernment, if we are to distinguish sense from delusion.
The problem that I turned over as I thought about the threads was that in order to cut conspirituality off at the roots, I would need to deny the validity of intuitive pattern matching, and dismiss this as "apophenia" - just the stitching together of random things.Yet analytical, binary approaches also seem to be a big part of cultural polarisation. Sarah Deco offered an alternative idea:
The group of my contacts that perhaps surprisingly seems to be free of conspiratorial leanings are the storytellers. This, in my mind, supports my totally unproven theory that storytelling acts as a vaccination against these kinds of narrative viruses. When working on a story in order to tell it you have to fully engage with it until it fills your dreams and then after it's told you drop it. I think this fosters the ability to 'dance with the paradigm' and avoid particular stories becoming essential to one's identity. Conspiratorial stories don't generally survive real investigation. When you learn a story it can only appear real if you know the world you are describing inside out. This is useful training in discrimination between coherent tales and invented nonsense. Hence my rather counterintuitive conviction that if we all told more fairy tales there would be fewer conspiracy stories.
Conspiracy and paranoia as defences against anxiety and powerlessness
Members emphasised the paranoid aspect of conspiracy and its relationship to narcissism as a way of managing anxiety and powerlessness. Paul Hoggett linked to an article by Sarah Churchwell who wrote:
Paranoid narratives are inherently narcissistic as well as authoritarian... A paranoid system confirms that your powerlessness is only because the game is rigged against you– and that the world cares enough to bother disempowering you.
This powerlessness and anxiety are recurrent themes in the struggle to combat climate change and the politics of climate change denial.
Judith Anderson wrote about how power plays out in climate change denial, and how conspiracy theories detract from the "real" conspiracy around climate change denial and the fossil fuel industry. Some of the opposition to lockdown has been pushed by the right-wing press with some connections to known funders of climate change denial; for example the Great Barrington Declaration was published by a Koch Brothers’-funded think tank.
As our conversations continued, conspirituality continued to occupy a central position in our political narrative, such as reports of hundreds of anti-lockdown protestors outside of St Thomas hospital, and a growing international anti-lockdown movement.There is a confusing mix of influences on opposition to lockdown, from alt science and spiritual intoxication to political opportunism.
Our threads explored how conspirituality links to the climate crisis.Mary-Jane Rust spoke about a rise in "black and white thinking" with the rise of Brexit and the pandemic.She connected it to binaries at work in climate psychology, notably "working with nature" vs "modern civilization.”Mary-Jane suggested that we beware the simplicity of binaries, and seek to stay aware of what they exclude.
Conspirituality hits the mainstream: the eruption of the mythic into the symbolic centre of political power
Then the subject flooded into the mainstream with the attack by a pro-Trump crowd on the US capitol.The symbol of this attack picked out by the media was Jacob Chansley, aka Jake Angeli, dressed in buffalo furs and horns and adorned in pagan tattoos, here spouting Q Anon dogma at high speed to camera, here standing at the Speaker's dias in the Senate.Suddenly his image was everywhere.
The links to ecopsychology seemed clear: someone donning animal furs, calling himself a self-initiated “shaman,” interested in psychedelics and self-healing, with a fundamentally romantic view of the world, seems to be someone seeking to connect to an ecological psyche.Yet he is aligned with Donald Trump, a man who has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, called climage change a "hoax," backed the Dakota pipe line, rolled back over a hundred environmental regulations and defunded the environment agency to a shell of its former self.
A thought that I am left with was provided by Chris Robertson.Thinking about the deep pull of conspiracy theory - how it tunes in to the immunity of the ecological from our theories and our need for both mystery and excitement but also psychological holding - Chris asked,
What stories do we have to offer that may hold as much mystery and excitement as conspiracies but might also offer some authentic holding that connects to a planet that is immune to such conspiracies?
Through a Glass Darkly
Conspirituality pulls into sharp focus the importance of the psychological in a time of isolation, illness and ecological emergency.Digesting the discussion, I see the various threads that open up from it - concern for how to stay connected to individuals immersing themselves in its dark literalisms, a need for a theory that explains the allure of its heady mix of paranoia and “positivity,” a desire to understand what it illuminates about our current fragile moment.
But so far we have only sought to explain where conspirituality comes from and its mechanisms. What do conspiritualists believe is happening?My feeling is that conspirituality can be read as illuminating something of deep importance to our moment.Perhaps we can read conspiracy theories’ paranoia as a distorted amplification of genuine fears for the future - fears about government, control, technology, biomedicine.Although conspiracy is a complex system of hints, fears and innuendos, rather than a single narrative, its basic plot might be this:
People in power know that the world is burning.They know that it is overpopulated.Yet they are only interested in their own power and money.Instead of taking the right actions, they want to protect their own interests.They want to control and manage you through bio-technology, digital money, social media disinformation, and if that fails through corrupt laws and police enforcement.
The conspiracy vision of what the “global elites” want to do reflects through a glass darkly the deep challenges that face those of us looking hard at the facts of the global and ecological crisis.Can the globalisation and digitalisation of money, technology, media and biomedicine prevent ecological breakdown?We may not think 5G literally causes coronavirus, but do we imagine the coming extension of the internet beyond computers into our lives - even our body and psyche - will cause social or ecological harmony?
These are difficult questions to answer, even as Trump makes way for Biden. Still, in our discussion, I see highlighted the role of compassion, reflection, a tolerance of multiple perspectives, creative thought, and an understanding that our true reality always has and always will be rooted in nature.
Our CPA Forum discussions are confidential. However when, as here, we use some comments in the Digest, this is only done with the consent of those cited.