How can CPA adapt its purposes to the rapid and profound changes that are now impacting the climate and climate psychology, from unprecedented hostile weather to unbridled governments manipulating through lies, from a losing fight to vanquish Covid-19 to record levels of mental distress? Does it mean a shift of focus within the scope and topics CPA has developed over the years; does it mean a radical new approach?
The CPA community day in September asked similar questions: I joined a small group asking what does CPA need to be doing that it’s not doing? We wondered if, despite the seriousness of CPA discussion and the huge amounts of supported reflection we do (“an orgy of thoughtfulness” as someone put it), we succeed in learning from our actions and whether the learning feeds back into our activities and wider insight into CPA’s purposes. How do we know about the effects of therapeutic support, Through the Door, consultancy interventions?
A Scottish member pointed out that when Scotland’s CPA was formed, they replaced the strapline “facing difficult truths” with “insights for effective action”. I didn’t know that – and I find it a significant shift of purpose. However, it loses the primacy of emotional work on climate derangement with all the attendant difficulties, whose understanding and nurturing distinguishes CPA from other climate activisms, where the pain may have been set apart from the activism.
The two straplines together suggest a diversification of emphases, inclusive of the psychological processes that compromise climate awareness, and a multi-level approach that facilitates effective action. A conversation with Rembrandt Zegers brought the perspective of someone experienced in consultancy to activist organisations. CPA activists are looking to be innovative in their approaches, looking for ways to engage people beyond the therapeutic. Can CPA aim in addition for group relations and collective interventions which require much organizing and resources in order to have ‘impact’?
Here is an ambitious example. Imagine the position of the MoD Minister or civil servant who received the report (see here) on the implications of global heating on military security. He, if it is a he, may have been influenced by American “Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model (see Nafeez Ahmed’s expose and analysis here), which, according to Ahmed, supports ‘the idea is that it is better to ensure GDP growth now even if this locks-in dangerous warming, because this will mean that future generations will have far more wealth and therefore greater capacity to respond to climate catastrophe’. Those who receive the MoD commissioned report have a lot of emotional work to do to really think about what global heating means, otherwise how could such stupid thinking be possible, even if it is fully in line with current neo-liberal thinking. Where is CPA placed for a huge need like that? For such tasks, we probably need alliances.
Despite such frightening top-level blindness, in the last year or two, the climate (physical and political) itself has been doing some of the required work in facing people with its difficult truths. Organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Deep Adaptation testify to that impact. We wondered if the core activity of facing difficult truths has become something of a consolation and an end in itself, potentially accompanied by a feeling of superiority that unintentionally places the unconvinced as the other. The importance of psychoanalytic insights in understanding and containing the difficulty of facing climate reality – insights that are vital in CPA’s work – may not be such useful tools when it comes to helping people imagine themselves in a transformed future world.
My thinking was catalysed by two articles, both disturbing to me because of what they said about how deeply compromised we Moderns are by the way we have been shaped. Michael Melmed sent a recent article around the CPA forum, see here. It pays close psychoanalytic attention to technologies’ effects on our sense of time and place. They ‘stunt sensuous engagement, collapse psychic space, diminish our capacity to tolerate frustration and blind us to our dependence on worlds beyond human’. In this sense, technology is not ‘out there’, something we can put down or leave behind, but rather has shaped our desires and our personalities. Technology ‘immediates’ our relation to the earth: ‘mined, drilled, bulldozed, dislocated, discarded, sold and, nowadays, distilled into apps—and all quite invisibly to the consumer’.
Melmed concludes ‘So long as the reality of time and place—the matrix of the ecological body—is avoided we will be unable to experience, as a culture, our predicament.’ Is this not part of CPA’s task – to help relocate groups of humans back in earth’s time and place, including not only the beauty but grief at losses that this entails? At the same time, a thread on CPA’s discussion forum drew attention to a video exposing the malign effects of social media. It left me with the fundamental question of how global culture can preserve spaces and times not penetrated by our screens, especially now their use has become more extensive, persistent and an essential substitute for sensual presence. CPA’s purpose always included a wider remit than the therapeutic: its 2012 mission statement stated ‘Nothing less than a cultural transformation is needed in the direction of ecologically sustainable living to address the challenge we face. This is not alarmism, just an alarming fact.’
Systemic complexity, culture and turbulent change
The second article, by two ecological economists, Kaitlin Kish and Stephen Quilley, homes in on some “wicked dilemmas” facing left-leaning liberals who accept the principle of biophysical limits to world economic growth. In environmental politics, they say, there is a dominant assumption that the transition to green living can be effected within the liberal norms of the sovereign individual and human rights. Their analysis of systemic complexity leads them to believe that change will be more profound than that, more conflictual and involve ‘social psychological harm’.
They add that the idea of the “good life” and its underpinning mythos will need thoroughgoing reimagining as part of the ‘project of creating an alternative modernity for the Anthropocene’ (by “Anthropocene”, they refer to the complex of ecological and climate crises).
This analysis showed up the space – the space that requires a climate psychology – for psycho-cultural work in imagining what is involved in the transition that we are now living. I realise how blocked my own imagination is when it comes to a textured, realistic vision of our present and future predicament, which faces the bad as well as taking comfort from the good. Mourning the particulars of what feels lost is an appropriate place to tune in; it can bring home what is already happening. For example, every time I go out into a street and, for the first time that day, see a masked face, my heart sinks in dismay. If I am already feeling frayed, loss with its ingredients of sadness and anger reoccupy me. Wearing a mask, the smile with which I greet a wider human world does not reach its destinations.
The indispensable core in what we do
My recent reading of a French PhD thesis on anxiety within an activist climate organization highlights the central importance of the work of containment and of making anxiety-provoking experience available for thinking – work that readers will recognize as core to CPA’s practice of climate psychology. Jean le Goff writes, in conclusion:
“If there is one idea to retain from this thesis, it’s the possibility of making available for thought the anxieties that are at work in individuals and collectively. On this depends the ability to face the current situation, including what is most difficult and dangerous, and thus to develop creative and well-fitting ways of thinking and acting. The ability to process anxiety and bring it into thought is also fundamental in sustaining the long haul of activist involvement … providing a space for the different parts of who we are as individuals in our multiple identities, ambivalent attachments, desires for happiness and our precious limits.” [my translation]
CPA is good at providing this space, I find, sustaining us for the life-long haul. If we can take these core CPA resources into group-, organizational- and community-level interventions in diverse settings, we extend our reach. At the CPA community day, we recognised the diversity of theories and practices that flourish in CPA: spiritualities and rituals, workshops and cafes, decolonising climate psychology, organisational intervention, the imaginal, media savvy, research expertise. These suggest a variety of fields of intervention.
Of course, one does not exclude the other. Effective action of all kinds relies on recognizing the current point we Moderns have reached in our relation to the earth’s systems, deranged in ways that cannot be turned back. The shame and pain that will accompany this on the way involves profound rearrangement of our individualized selves; only by accepting this (no silver bullets, no exceptions for the privileged) can the necessary profound transformation be embarked.
Images all by Maya Adams, CPA member.