...recognising and understanding the disconnections which maintain our sleepwalk into the disasters of ecocide and climate disruption ...climate psychologists are the forensic psychiatrists of the climate movement
Much of Climate Psychology is about recognising and understanding the disconnections which maintain our sleepwalk into the disasters of ecocide and climate disruption. One of our founders commented some years back that climate psychologists are the forensic psychiatrists of the climate movement. And as in psychotherapy, understanding disconnections – their functions and their pathology - is inseparable from the pursuit and discovery of both connections and remedies.
One of the threads on our online discussion group has been about the need to go beyond the single narrative, especially when it villainises some group; to keep on making links, especially between individual actions and structural changes. These dilemmas are illustrated in the recent attention to land use, farming practice and soil depletion occasioned by the leaked IPCC report. Global beef production became the lead narrative (less often, red meat and all meat) and its role, globally, in desecration of a sustainable planet. Damian Carrington suggests as a possible solution the pricing of meat to reflect its environmental cost. The logic for doing so is as powerful as that of pricing carbon to reduce fossil fuel use. But as Jem Bendell has commented in another context, we don’t have the international decision-making architecture in place to arrive at or enforce an environmentally informed regulatory system.
While that is correct and important, if you look at the international situation from the point of view of capital rather than governance, corporate power, backed by a global elite who have plenty of money to put their supporters in power at the national level, provides the closest our contemporary world comes, surreptitiously, to an ‘international decision-making architecture’, with dire consequences for the planet (the death of David Koch provides a salient case in point). George Monbiot, with his peerless forensic skills, traces connections between fossil fuel money and the policy-making which it warps and corrupts. Monbiot argues that this dirty money is needed to preserve the status quo, as the destructiveness of fossil-fuelled economics becomes ever clearer and more menacing and as public protest grows. Moreover trading structures and pricing underpin consumer decisions. So, for example, Germany charges a mere 7% VAT on meat (compared with 19% on baby food or oat milk) and a proposal to raise the tax on meat to 19% is facing opposition from farming interests.
Bolsonaro and Amazon ranching interests are of especial concern: the Amazon burns at an unprecedented rate, threatening a decline to a tipping point, scientifically established, where carbon absorption changes to carbon emission. World leaders thrash around for actions that are anything like sufficient and actionable. Demonstrations took place across Brazil. President Macron undertakes to put an emergency debate at the G7 at the top of the agenda. The EU considers stopping the Mercosur trade deal between Europe and the Americas and discusses banning Brazilian beef imports. However, while this important issue tops Western media headlines, fires across sub-Saharan Africa are even more numerous (The Times, August 26th). They are a product of the “slash and burn” cultivation in a largely non-mechanised agriculture but with climate change creating ever dryer conditions, they are devastating forest habitat. In the face of these examples of heightened climate catastrophe, the on-line discussion group has created a supportive space to help face the amplifying pain and grief.
As Martin Lukacs argues, we must direct our climate and eco politics to challenge corporate power. The advocacy of a lifestyle response to climate emergency is no accident, rather it is a product of the way the contemporary neo-liberal worldview has fashioned citizens to fit, to see politics and consumption in an individualistic light. He does not ignore the connections between structural power and individual actions and choices but he urges people to stop obsessing about personal green living and support mass movements to take on corporate power: ‘individual choices will most count when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent or intrepid few’. Meanwhile, neoliberalism attempts to make unthinkable the dismantling of free market mantras, for example taking railways, utilities and energy grids back into public control. In the UK, we see this in the scare tactics used by the new populist Tory government, now showing its more extreme right wing colours, against the structurally based environmental policies proposed by the Labour opposition.
If environmental policy makers cannot countenance structural solutions, they resort, as media reports often do, to an emphasis on individual lifestyle choices. The IPCC report’s science experts stopped short of “telling” people to stop eating meat when interviewed on the media, but it emerged as a seam of tension nonetheless. Someone on the Google group commented on a parallel experience of being told something unwelcome: “Telling? I think not … more creating the space in which I found myself telling myself”. We are by now familiar, especially in Brexit Britain, with a populist right wing tactic that represents experts and scientists as members of an elite that can’t be trusted by ordinary people. A thread on our online discussion group reflected on “the need to bring structural inequality into our thinking and practice much more because if we don’t then the reactionary populists certainly will, they will construe climate change as a preoccupation of the global middle class and pose as champion of the ordinary people by advocating cheap (fossil based) energy and cheap (industrialised) food”. It is under the current conditions of austerity, alienation and disenfranchisement that green life style choices can be charged, by the ascendant populism, of being elitist in their (our) lifestyle choices.
Cheer leaders of the ascendant populist backlash against school strikers and Extinction Rebellion were sharply criticized by Gaby Hinsliff. Her opinion piece occasioned a thoughtful set of posts on the discussion group focusing on the emergence of a new strand of climate denial, differing from the central features of denial and disavowal on which CPA has tended to focus (climate change denial as primarily a response to anxiety, particularly in the case of disavowal where denial is based on a recognition of the facts but in a way that doesn’t disturb). The recent thread was exploring “a form of denial not so much based on anxiety and fear but on something more malignantly destructive and cynical”. This was linked with Gaby Hinsliff’s connection of the far right’s attacks on climate activism to what she called ‘climate crisis nihilism’. As she put it, ‘the nihilists don’t necessarily deny that the planet is frying but, essentially, they refuse to feel bad about it’. A dark variant which is manifesting in far-right circles ‘takes a perverse pleasure in destruction and regards the great mass of humanity with contempt. To feel concern, to have a conscience, is a sign of weakness (and liberalism) and is met with derision’. If we are ‘to face the fact that this kind of nihilism is emerging as a potent cultural force’, the thread continued, perhaps we must familiarize ourselves with the material being so produced.
Recently there has been a sea change, in the UK, of climate change coverage, even in many right-leaning newspapers and it is beginning to look as if there is no place left for either outright denial or total avoidance (hence the new nihilism?). Some of this has followed XR and School Strike actions. XR members visited ITV’s offices and challenged the corporation – not as expected over its coverage of XR’s actions - but over its failure to convey the climate emergency to the public. Reposted from XR’s Facebook page by CPA, the comment was that it illustrates the connections between media depiction of the emergency, intelligent activism and public awareness of the threat. ITV has notably improved with a major intervention Earth on the Edge (whose first piece took up two thirds of the news slot), but journalism sorely needs also to make appropriate links to climate threats with just about every other topic it addresses.
Partly as a result of heightened UK media coverage and activisms, polling results record the highest yet level of ‘concerned’ and ‘very concerned’ respondents. More women are ‘very concerned’ (55%) than men (48%). (In the US, poll figures show increases too.) Pollsters are mainly interested in numerical changes over time using the same questions. The head of environmental research at Ipsos MORI, who conducted the poll, observed that the last peak of concern was in 2005-6 around Kyoto, the Stern report and the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth. Then, she says, ‘climate fatigue’ seemed to set in, with concern slipping away. We’ll never quite know the contribution to ‘climate fatigue’ of disinformation by fossil-fuel companies, but disinformation is bound to provide a discursive vector for defensive processes such as disavowal. Now concern has risen hugely, how to stop ‘climate fatigue’ kicking in again? In CPA, we are likely to be interested in the relation between reported concern and action; also in unpicking the bland and unpsychological notion of climate fatigue (extended from ‘compassion fatigue’) with an understanding of the processes of ‘not thinking’ across the spectrum from climate change nihilism to needing a space for 'normal life' to protect sanity.
And to finish with, here’s a link to some profoundly important medical research findings concerning the connection between air pollution and psychiatric disorders (in the US and Denmark but presumably everywhere there is fossil fuel-based air pollution). Correlations were found with depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder and schizophrenia. Results from Danish data showed that, compared with the best air quality, the worst air quality was associated with about a 27% increase in the rate of bipolar disorder. What about autistic spectrum conditions? It is possible that planetary destruction is producing new subjectivities along the way.
WH and AT
Without growth or progress: adapting our culture to the new climate reality - Sat 7th Sept, 12.45 – 4pm @ University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy Centre - Book via EVENTBRITE
Through the Door: Three meetings have taken place for members who are developing ways to work with local communities to support their thinking about and living with the climate crisis. Further meetings are planned for:
Saturday October 5th in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, with Chris Robertson and Wendy Hollway
Saturday October 5th in Stroud with Paul Hoggett and Breda Kingston
Saturday November 9th in North London with Caroline Hickman and Chris Robertson
Saturday 12th October in Oxford: a follow-up for those who have already attended a workshop.
Booking details vary with workshop - see HERE
Handbook - worth keeping an eye as new posts arrive - most recently a Climate Psychology reading list
Blog - a reposting of a Gillian Caldwell blog including links of Gillian being interviewed by Lise Van Susteren with climate trauma survival tips
Book Reviews and Recommendations - several new recommendations here - we are posting new books with a brief line about them and links to the publisher's information. Recommendations and full book reviews welcome.
Resources - this list grows and grows
Book and resources recommendations - use our FEEDBACK page