The clown is an archetype of deception
He is ostensibly there to entertain us with his mask, his clumsiness, tom-foolery and pathos, but popular culture has also given him a sinister even murderous side, as evidenced by numerous horror films. It’s as if he’s saying when he looks at us “Who is the fool here?”
When a figure widely perceived as a clown achieves power the deception is yet more complex and treacherous. The pathos of neediness is still present, his absurdity elicits our scorn, but he can trump our scorn with his own, summoning against us the crowd who believe his story to be fundamentally true and ours to be false. At this moment our emotions twist and plunge, because our confidence in the power of honesty has been shaken. This is a testing moment, one when we realise that the comedy-turned-nightmare won’t go away with a rub of the eyes, and when we face the prospect of a long dark night for honesty.
The heading “absurdity reigns” is taken not from events in the USA but Paul McKinnon’s Sydney Dispatch article about clowning in the Australian parliament, whilst large parts of that country have been suffering temperatures in the high 40’s centigrade. In a gimmick reminiscent of James Inhofe’s snowball stunt in the US Senate, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison wielded a lump of coal, whilst rounding on the Labour opposition accusing them of having a “pathological, ideological fear of the stuff”. In a country whose government appears to be as thoroughly corrupted by fossil fuel money as the USA’s, one interesting thing about the words quoted is their dramatic irony. In a classic act of projection the speaker, whilst naming the elephant (coal), moves it across the room and in doing so seeks to turn it from a black one into a green one.
The Australian government’s bad faith and dishonesty had already been exposed last year, when it gave credence to a fictional story that a power blackout In S. Australia had been caused by that state’s use of renewables, whereas the actual cause was a storm. There may have been some softening-up going on here, ahead of the recently announced intention to invest in new coal fired power stations, the announcement of which prompted Clive Hamilton’s letter of resignation from Australia’s Climate Change Authority.
The McKinnon article anticipates that “the public’s patience with (government) inaction is likely to wear thin”, assuming that temperatures continue to set new records. Such a tipping point cannot come too soon, but what can we glean of the forces at work? In search of a more closely informed analysis, we sent some questions on awareness, appetite for climate action and energy policy in Australia to our partner organisation in Melbourne: Psychology for a Safe Climate. Carol Ride’s and Ben Nisenbaum’s responses were very informative. It is well worth reading them in full, but here are some salient impressions:
1. People fluctuate in their concern, for instance according to how recently they have suffered extreme weather. They are also deeply ambivalent about facing up to the climate issue. More than three quarters of Australians are concerned about increased droughts and heatwaves, bushfires, flooding and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a clear majority in favour of renewable energy. But inertia and conservatism is compounded by specific worries about energy reliability as well as macro- and micro-economic implications of decarbonisation. There are also specific anxieties; for instance farmers are becoming more aware of the climate threat to their livelihoods but there is frightened resistance to facing the contribution to the problem made by livestock farming.
2. Compounding and magnifying this ambivalence is a government that is actively opposed to climate action and support for renewables. As in all English-speaking countries there is a denialist element, largely associated with older, conservative males. The media plays an important part in reinforcing this, but some change is evident. Whilst the Murdoch-owned The Australian maintains its denialist stance, The Age has recently rowed back from offering such a platform.
3. The version of “power corrupts” manifested by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is seen as a classic politician’s dilemma. Whilst his awareness as an individual of the climate threat is deemed to be authentic, his over-riding wish to hold onto leadership and power has eclipsed this and he has yielded to the demands of his political group.
4. The question raised about Morrison displaying projection in accusing his opponents of pathology did not attract a criticism of amateur psychoanalysis; on the contrary, he was seen as manifesting an unconscious awareness of his own pathological position.
This analysis illustrates the need for climate psychology to take a systemic view, blending the individual perspective with the psycho-social, the economic and the political. In one of the articles mentioned in Carol Ride's response, the author declares that the programme of new coal-burning power stations supported by the Australian government is deemed a non-starter. This would be brilliant if correct, but the question about a triumph of rationality - raised below in connection with James Murray's BusinessGreen article, arises here too.
An International Phenomenon
Paul Mason also predicts public backlash against government irresponsibility but adds: “Opposition to climate science has become not just a badge of honour for far-right politicians like UKIP’s Paul Nuttall. It has become the central tenet of their appeal to unreason.” In Australia, he says, the charge is being led by Pauline Hanson’s white-supremacist One Nation Party, but the generic point is that in the UK, Europe and America as well as Australia (the rich world country most vulnerable to climate change) left-wing observers are charting this ultimately suicidal appeal of unreason, whilst assuming – and it does sound like an assumption – that reason will ultimately prevail through force of circumstance. Is this a convincing prediction, or is the escalating stress, conflict and suffering arising from climate change going to add more fuel to reactionary, anti-science and xenophobic movements?
“Sweden, Who would believe this?” (Who indeed?)
In the real world, as opposed to that inhabited by a half-awake clown watching Fox News, Sweden witnessed no terrorist outrages on 17th February. It was in fact a month of good news for climate action in that country, with the announcement of cross-party accord on a climate law by January 2018, with a commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2045. This is rendered all the more credible by the fact that the plan includes Sweden’s transport sector. Making the announcement, Prime Minster Stefan Lofven voiced concern for the wellbeing of the country’s children and grandchildren. A bit of inter-generational responsibility is a tonic these days.
The Long-Term View – where Business can Lead Government
Individual psychology, political calculation, vested interests, habit and ideology can inter-weave in a nexus of denial and obstruction. By the same token science, technological innovation, environmental awareness, concern for the future and commercial responses to these can combine as forces for constructive change. James Murray, editor of BusinessGreen, has written a piece which by no means dismisses the dangers and obstacles, but sees signs of a tipping point in favour of decarbonisation. This involves a virtuous circle of business, technology and government, in which the first two elements provide a lowering of political risk, thus encouraging the third.
From a psychological standpoint, the interesting thing about this article is the struggle between pessimism and optimism in Murray’s narrative. Are there a million versions of this playing out in all our minds? Reason tells us what we must do; that the means exist; that there at least appears to be a chance we still have time to avert the worst of climate change. But then the doubting Thomas whispers in our ear: “People are too stupid. Too preoccupied with their day-to-day worries and opiates. Too seduced by consumerism. Too easily swayed by false doubts and reassurances”.
There is one view which sees business as being just as captive to the short-termism of fashion and quarterly figures as governments are to opinion polls and the popular media. Murray’s perspective is that businesses know how dependent their survival is on long term trends. Their repeated pleas for policy consistency can be seen in this light. They may be as susceptible to ideology as governments in the sense that profit is seen as the single bottom line, but what they cannot afford is ideology which flies in the face of hard facts, whether these arise from technological innovation, climate change or customer preferences. Where business and government are in the same boat to a large extent is in their disorientation, uncertainty and anxiety arising from the ‘black swan’ events of Brexit and the US election. Here, the report Thinking the Unthinkable by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon is of interest. Climate change can be regarded as just another disrupter, but the concern must be that whilst it far transcends eco-political challenges of the US and UK black swans in importance and duration, these will distract attention from it, for a critical period of years. This was certainly one of the immediate fears, following the Brexit result.
CPA Members (and Guests) Day, 10th June 2017 9.30-5pm
Telling Better Stories...
The Guild of Psychotherapists, Nelson Square, London SE1 0QA.
There is growing interest in creating a CPA Scotland. Using the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges as a springboard for attracting members, Julian Manley (CPA) and John Thorne (Sustainability Coordinator, Sustainability in Action Group, Glasgow School of Art) are organising meetings in the course of March and April to encourage interest.
More On Our Website
Jo Hamilton on her research into the role of emotional methodologies in engaging and sustaining action on climate change.
Chris Robertson reviewing the film Denial
and (Judith Adds) don’t forget
The Climate Psychology Interviews - conversations between Nick Breeze and Adrian Tait very much worth viewing on youtube.
March 2nd 1.00 pm. Paul Hoggett, “Harbingers of the Coming Adversity: How Scientists and Activists Manage Climate Anxiety”, Sorby Room, Wagner Building, Reading University.
March 8th European Perceptions of Climate Change Study
March 18th Ecopsychotherapy: Healing and the Natural World
Speakers: Caroline Frizell, Paul Maiteny, Mary-Jayne Rust, Nick Totton
March 30th 3.00 pm. Paul Hoggett, “Climate Change: The Cost of Breaking the Silence”, Preston: University of Central Lancashire (further details from
22nd April Global action March for Science - check the internet especially social media for an event in your area;
twitter and facebook
17th June 2017 Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society
A Postgraduate Conference
We invite postgraduate students and research fellows to submit proposals for papers on psychoanalysis or psychoanalytically informed research. The deadline for submission of abstracts is May 31, 2017. Further details from Anne Worthington,
13th - 16th July 2017 6th annual Edge of the Wild eco-psychology gathering
Keynote speakers Tina Rothery Anti-fracking activist and co-founder of the Nanas and Celtic shamans: John Cantrell and Karen Ward. Call for workshops - apply by 15th March
December 1st-3rd Analysis and Activism III: More Social and Political Contributions of Jungian Psychology (Prague)
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson
Image soure: Joshua_Wilson (AUS), site:Pixabay