Awakening: Climate Psychology and Beyond

Perhaps, to wake up to the danger of climate change, we must also wake up to something in ourselves…

Wakefulness is the way to life […]
So awake, reflect, watch.
Work with care and attention.
Live in the way
and the light will grow in you.

“Wakefulness”, The Dhammapada
(Thomas Byron translation)

You don’t have to change to awaken, you only have to awaken to change.

Mark Epstein, Going On Being

In 2017, I posted an essay on the CPA website, entitled: ‘Awakening. Further thoughts on Radical Hope’.1 This current piece continues the theme, since waking up is absolutely central in this twenty-first century. In the original essay, I drew attention to two essential kinds of waking up: firstly, waking up to the evidence of climate change, our part in causing it, and what it means for the future of the planet; and secondly, waking up to ourselves. Perhaps it is awareness of this second form of waking up that will help us understand our denial of the first. After all, the challenge of climate change and mass extinction calls for a change in our own nature.

The focus of ‘Climate Psychology’, according to the CPA Handbook,2 aims firstly to understand the defences of denial, the cultural factors that inhibit change and the difficulties individuals and groups face in negotiating change with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. But it also highlights “the psychological resources – resilience, courage, radical hope, new forms of imagination – that support change”. There is a problem with mainstream positivist psychology, which, in reducing “the human being to an object to be measured, controlled and then harnessed to the profit-making machine that now threatens our collective future”, fails to offer “a deeper perspective”. The CPA, in employing a ‘psycho-social’ approach, draws on an imaginative alliance of ideas and activists from depth-psychological and ecological sources, including “psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology, eco psychology, chaos theory, continental philosophy, eco linguistics and social theory”. It also aims to “illuminate the complex two-way interaction between the personal and the political”.

But is the depth of the ‘depth-psychologies’ – and the width of ecological awareness – deep and wide enough? Is it sufficient, for instance, to analyse our personal paralysis in the face of climate change? If climate change is a ‘hyperobject’ – something too big for our rational, scientific and modern minds to grasp – do we not need to call on resources that go deeper still? If our purely personal sense of agency is inadequate to meet the challenge, no wonder we deny, or fear, climate change, since it threatens to extinguish our personal identity.

A different kind of indifference

‘Indifference to disaster’, the subtitle of Climate Psychology, the collection of research papers written by CPA members and edited by Paul Hoggett,3 may, as the CPA knows, hide an array of unconscious feelings below the surface and call for a dimension of intersubjective understanding in all research work. But perhaps there is another level of ‘indifference’ that might help us face the existential dangers and empower our sense of agency at the prospect of catastrophe. What used to be called “divine, or poetic, indifference” is very different from personal indifference. On the contrary, it may be central to the psychological resources of “resilience, courage, radical hope, and new forms of imagination” that we see emerging in this new century. From a relative perspective, everything matters, every little thing; from an absolute view, nothing matters. There is a contemplative state of mind which knows – despite the horrors we are responsible for – that, in the words of the fourteenth century feminine mystic, Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well”.

The word ‘divine’ summons up for the modern mind the myth of an omnipotent and intolerant God that the European Enlightenment turned its back on several centuries ago. But perhaps we need to revisit the sense of the notion of an absolute reality, from a philosophical, psychological and practical perspective. Our conventional, progressive scientific culture is blind to the idea of nature as divine or sacred but, as forms of nature ourselves, perhaps we can begin to look within our own minds for a depth of reality that goes beyond the personal, whether conscious or unconscious.

Though we in the West have a tradition that explores this kind of philosophical and psychological depth, it has historically been persecuted as heretical by the Church, or regarded as an irrational form of mysticism by modern science, unlike in Asia where it is a tradition that has been revered and cultivated. Perhaps, we in the West can learn from a tradition of introspective thought that is founded on thousands of years of experience. In fact, the immemorial tradition of spiritual knowledge is known to most of history’s cultures; only our ‘modern’ society is asleep, or unaware of it, which connects to the way in which psychoanalysis, depth psychology, and behavioural and scientific psychologies are all essentially related to, and have emerged from, a particular cultural form and understanding of ourselves – i.e. ‘the Modern’.

Contemplative and psychotherapeutic practice

Eastern and Western cultures used to be seen as very distinctive, though we can now begin to view them as part of an integrated whole. While it is sometimes difficult to see how anyone’s individual life and activity can make a difference to the global problems we now face, at the level of consciousness, each of us can do more than we realise, particularly in the field of psychotherapy. Awareness is all.

The late John Welwood, the American psychotherapist and Buddhist, for instance, wrote for much of his life about the complementary nature of Asian contemplative and Western psychotherapy practices. He was drawn to the thought and practice of Buddhism in the 1960s, particularly through the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and, at that time, found Western psychology and psychotherapy too narrow and limited. Later, however, he came to recognise the difference between the realisation of our sense of being in any contemplative practice and the actualisation of that being in our modern way of life.

By ‘realisation’, Welwood meant “the direct recognition of one’s ultimate nature beyond the conventional ego” while ‘actualisation’ is about how we live that realisation in all the situations of our life. People can experience genuinely transformative changes as a result of an alternative course or retreat – however long or briefly – they might attend, but can find it difficult to sustain the sense of transformation when they return to their everyday life. Welwood concluded that the genuine changes have often not made sufficient difference to their sense of self, which seems to have remained intact and generates the same behaviour patterns as before.

‘Spiritual bypassing’

This is partly because Western students are not always easily suited to the meditative practice and teachings of Asia. Nor is the Western psyche, with its personal and cultural problems, well understood by Eastern ‘gurus’ or Tibetan lamas, for instance, who may have had deep insight into the mysteries of the mind but come from a cultural world that seems to us more medieval than modern. Consequently, they sometimes fail to appreciate the personal difficulties Western students experience on account of the culture of individualism and the concept of the individual self basic to modernity, and which can lead to a negative self-view. Welwood used the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe the attempts by Western students to practise ‘spiritual’ ways that are culturally foreign to them, difficulties their Asian teachers may not have appreciated:

“They (the Asian teachers) often do not understand the pervasive self-hatred, shame and guilt, as well as the alienation and lack of confidence in these students. Still less do they detect the tendency toward spiritual bypassing – a term I have coined to describe the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks in the name of enlightenment. And so they often teach self-transcendence to students who first need to find some ground to stand on”.4

Clearly, this is an area where psychological work might serve as an ally to contemplative, or spiritual, practice. It would help “to bring awareness into all the hidden nooks and crannies of our conditioned personality, so that it becomes more porous, more permeable to the larger being that is its ground”.

Beyond psychology

At the same time, Welwood recognises that spiritual work has “a much larger aim than psychological work”. It involves “liberation from narrow identification with the self-structure altogether and awakening into the expansive reality of primordial being”. Moreover, this kind of awakening can be glimpsed whether or not one is happy, healthy, psychologically integrated, individuated, or in fulfilling relationships. What Welwood was suggesting is that, prior to personal integration, “the increasingly desperate situation of a planet that humans are rapidly destroying cries out for a new kind of psycho-spiritual integration”.5

Modern-day psychotherapists, who are also concerned about the urgent nature of climate change and ecological degradation, often wonder how their psychotherapeutic work can be relevant to the current state of things. But clearly, ‘saving the planet’ means little if human nature itself does not also change, since we are responsible for the crisis in the first place. In fact, psychological work can be crucial to people who wish to ‘wake up’. As Buddhist psychotherapists like Welwood would say, it helps to be a functioning self before you can understand and practise “no-self”.

At the same time, psychotherapy can open itself to the work of transformation and contemplative awakening by engaging with the processes of a wider integration. Conventional therapy has traditionally been viewed in the medical context of pathology, diagnosis and cure. Therapy as liberation is different; less, perhaps, about changing the content of therapeutic practice and more about practitioners themselves engaging with contemplative traditions. In doing so, a new sense of well-being in the therapist communicates itself consciously or unconsciously to patients and may well be reciprocated. Moreover, personal activism is more effective as a result of professional transformation.

The Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) school is an interesting and progressive integration of cognitive and analytic approaches. Their reframing of ‘object relations’ as ‘reciprocal roles’ makes the complexity of object relations theory more understandable and practical for clients. Childhood relationships with significant others – benign or abusive – are formed internally, or reciprocally, and then taken, as a template, into adult life, conditioning future relationships. The aim of therapy is to review these reciprocal roles and ‘revision’ them, by way of beginning to free clients from childhood conditioning. The therapist works collaboratively and empathetically with a person to maximise the effectiveness of the therapy.6

What CAT and other schools of therapy don’t consider, or theorise, is the template everyone is born with – the reciprocal role a person has with the whole of life, as it were, their ecological and universal inheritance. It is more ontological than purely physical or genetic and would make sense of that mystifying Zen question about the nature of the face you had before your parents conceived you. It goes by different names – destiny or karma, for instance – but points to the resourcefulness and resilience we all have beyond, and additional to, parental or family inheritance. We may think of this as a form of soul strength, which opens us up to the infinite resources of Life with a capital L. Many therapists may be working with this potentiality, without being fully aware of it as a powerful therapeutic resource.

Awakening and Buddhism

In their introduction to The psychology of awakening – a book with contributions from many theorists and practitioners exploring the field of contemplative psychotherapy – the editors, Gay Watson, Stephen Batchelor and Guy Claxton (all Buddhist practitioners, as well as knowledgeable about the schools of Western psychotherapy), draw attention to the unfamiliarity of the concept of ‘awakening’. What is awakening? What are we waking up from, what waking up to? Academic psychologists might question its relevance to psychology. But others, particularly outside conventional academic boundaries, would argue that psychology is also the study of mind in its widest sense, which includes study of what we think of as the soul, cognition, emotion and consciousness – individually and collectively.7

Buddhism, throughout its thought and practice, has always viewed psychology in this way and, as the editors write: “At this time, both practitioners of psychology and of the path of awakening realise that they have much to gain from each other.”8 As the Dalai Lama himself has always made clear, there are, in particular, two areas of dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy. One is the investigation of mind itself – particularly as consciousness. The other is that investigation for therapeutic reasons – how to help people live healthier, happier lives.

On the one hand, Buddhism’s understanding of mind leads from orthodox science’s purely objective and detached approach to reality to a science of embodiment and inter-subjectivity, as some schools of contemporary cognitive science are currently exploring. On the other, Buddhism offers, not only theory but a way: “This is a way of practice, a cultivation, a path towards change and clear sight leading to happiness, authenticity and connection.” This is a path now recognised by more and more people, in all walks of life, as both profound and practical.

Nor is this a one-way relationship but a true dialogue. Interestingly, the authors ask:

“Can Western psychology’s understanding of ‘endarkenment’ complement Buddhism’s quest for enlightenment? Can scientific studies of consciousness and its relation to unconsciousness also help us to live more happily, more wisely, and can they be used in the service of spiritual progress?”9

The notion of ‘endarkenment’ presumably includes the exploration of the shadow side of psychological and social life, which the modern West has studied in depth. Shadow work, it should be remembered, leads to light, since light and shade belong together. Too much concentration on light neglects the shadow, but to remain in the shadow is to miss the light altogether.

Western natural and human science may have much to offer Buddhism, as it struggles and learns how to respond to a culture which is new and strange to it. Historically, Buddhism’s success in transforming other cultures has been in tolerating and understanding the nature and cultural habits of other peoples. It does so by learning wisely from them, rather than controlling and dominating. In that way it transforms itself. With respect to the modern culture of the West, Buddhism is the one ‘religion’ not intimidated by Western science. Indeed, the one great contribution it can offer us is the science of mind, in its widest and most liberated sense.

What we can learn from Asia

There are three concepts, in particular, that Asian thought – including Buddhism – can bring to Western science and which we would do well to think about. These are the realities of ‘emptiness’, ‘non-duality’ and buddha nature.

‘Emptiness’, as a translation of the Sanskrit term, sunyata, can be difficult to understand, and even intimidating to the positivist Western mind, because of its supposed material association with ‘void’, abyss, or emptiness as vacuity. In fact, it describes the mind, but also implies a world which extends our human consciousness to an awareness of space, openness, infinite possibility and fulness. It is the ‘emptiness’ of apparent forms – including the human personality – which are actually an expression of the infinite and ineffable reality, or spirit, that lies within them. It points to Life in its absolute essence. Hence the paradoxical notion of emptiness as a fulness. It is the ‘modern’ failure to understand that its own creativity is an expression of this absolute Life, or emptiness, that has led to the current global crisis, and the hopelessness and despair we feel because of it.

‘Non-duality’ – advaita, or ‘not-two’ – is based on an understanding of the unity of all things. We tend to think dualistically in terms of opposites as simply opposed, rather than also as complementary, though our poetic traditions know otherwise. William Blake, for instance, acknowledged that “without contraries there is no progress”, but he also knew they were a continuum – the contrary of contraries. His celebrated one-line proverbs in The marriage of heaven and hell – “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” or “One thought fills immensity” and, likewise, the famous “Auguries of Innocence” – share his sense that the small is as full of significance as the great:

To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

As a poet, Blake expressed the spirit of what the eminent writer on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, called “the unitive life”, a phrase which, in our own mystical traditions, captures the Eastern spirit of advaita, or non-duality.10

The third principle we would do well to think about – particularly the psychological professions – is that of buddha nature, which simply means awakened human nature. This has been characterised in Asia as ‘original sinlessness’, basic goodness or, even, perfection, despite, or including, all our flaws and imperfections. This suggests we have a source of infinite resilience within, if we know how to look for it, or simply trust that it is so.

This is in contrast to the Christian Church’s heritage of sin and sinfulness that has too often characterised our religious life and left its mark on our psychological and psychoanalytic traditions. In addition to the importance of understanding and learning from emotions such as guilt, shame and grief and the feelings of hatred, malice and envy, Buddhism, for instance, also teaches about ‘bliss’ and the joy of living, qualities that were less understood, and appreciated, by pessimistic enthusiasts such as Schopenhauer and even Nietzsche, despite having written, The gay science, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the truth of the cessation of suffering, as well as its inescapability. Grief and joy are often close to each other and sometimes it is impossible to tell tears of either apart. The key to buddha nature is about turning your life into the cultivation of a practice. Today we might think of this as ‘mindful’ activity; awareness of one’s better nature in whatever we do.

The importance of values

Another way of challenging our dualistic mind is to think in terms of values rather than ideological positions. There are three main value spheres – morality (ethics), science (truth) and aesthetics (art) – three values rather than the axis of two opposing stances of dualistic thinking. The three are a unity. Science, for instance, is also an imaginative art, as well as a quest for truth, and is best guided by an ethical truthfulness and political sensitivity. Equally, psychotherapy is both an art and a science, and should be based on ethics in its individual and social focuses.

The greatest value is the unity of each person’s heart and mind. Buddhists declare that the experience of body, speech and mind in each of us has a universal quality. We all have a potential for pursuing the Good, the True and the Beautiful, however they are conceived and felt. The personal is the political, is the scientific, is the sublime, is the universal.

Awakening today

The Buddhist writer, David Loy, called the ‘great awakening’ the most important development in human consciousness,11 evident in the increasing number of books and writings about it in current times. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and best-selling author, for instance, wrote about “the mystery of consciousness” and “the riddle of the self” in his book about the contemporary spiritual search,Waking up. The book is, predictably, a polemic against traditional religion, which, in his view, can put our minds to sleep, but it’s also a clarion call to awaken to our true nature. In his concluding chapter, he writes:

“It is within our capacity to recognise the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.”12

Freud opened the twentieth century, as it were, with The interpretation of dreams, though he also conceived of a solid scientific reality this side of our dreams. By contrast, the twenty-first century is redefining reality in an immaterial as well as material sense. Buddhism has always thought of life as a bubble or a dream, as have Shakespeare and the poets – “we are such stuff as dreams are made of” – and now we are all waking up to the dream, which, for many, also seems like a nightmare.

At the same time, we are awakening to a new sense of self and to an awareness of the difference between who we take ourselves to be and who we really are. This awakening is crucial to the political and existential crises of our times. If the strategies of the left and the true populism – the authentic ethic of the common people, the heart of democracy – are to prevail against the rich, the corrupt, the vulgar and the elite, then a psychology of an awakened consciousness is essential to its success. Human nature, itself, will always be flawed. Reforming humanity is a Sisyphean task.

But there is, within our flawed nature, a seed of wisdom and goodness, a sense of shared identity that goes beyond the individual self, a solidarity that is known as buddha (awakened) nature. In my view, this is the key to democracy. Solidarity extends beyond our relations with one another. It has an ecological dimension, but also a sense that the spirit of ecology is to be found within each of us. We are a part of nature. Nature and culture are not distinct but an interconnected unity. Human culture is an expression of the whole universe.

The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, suggested that the ecological dangers we now face mean the question of Being – who we are and “that we are” – is only too timely and that the prospect of our extinction raises these fundamental ontological questions for us in a new and urgent form. This is reflected in the teachings of the twentieth-century Indian sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi, who taught radical self-enquiry. For Ramana, the essence of meditation was to take oneself as the object and continually to ask the question: “Who am I?” This invitation to a new self-discovery may not guarantee our survival of climate change or the achievement of global social justice, but it will enhance our chances, and, at the same time, give us an experience of ourselves as the timeless and absolute beings we also are.


1. See the ‘Papers’ section of Explorations. This is also posted on my own website.
2. See the Handbook in the CPA website.
3. Hoggett, P. (2019) (Ed.). Climate psychology: on indifference to disaster. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
4. The article and quotes I draw on are from Welwood, J. (1999). Realisation and embodiment: psychological work in the service of spiritual development. In Watson, G., Batchelor, S. and Claxton, G. (1999) (Eds.). The psychology of awakening: Buddhism, science and our day-to-day lives, p.150. London: Rider. See also Welwood, J. (2002). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal transformation. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.
5. Welwood, J. (1999). Realisation and embodiment: psychological work in the service of spiritual development. In Watson, G., Batchelor, S. and Claxton, G. (1999) (Eds.). The psychology of awakening: Buddhism, science and our day-to-day lives, p.143. London: Rider.
6. See Corbridge, C., Brummer, L., and Coid, P. (2018). Cognitive Analytic Therapy. Abingdon: Routledge.
7. Watson, G., Batchelor, S. and Claxton, G. (1999) (Eds.). The psychology of awakening: Buddhism, science and our day-to-day lives. London: Rider.
8. Ibid., p.vii.
9. Ibid., p.viii.
10. Underhill, E. (2020). Mysticism. Overland Park, Kansas: Publishing.
11. Loy, D. (2003). The great awakening: a Buddhist social theory. Boston: Wisdom.
12. Harris, S. (2015). Waking up: searching for spirituality without religion. London: Black Swan, p. 206.


Anthropocene Psychology: Being Human in a More than a Human World by Matthew Adams (Routledge 2020)

Anthropocene Psychology describes the consequences of ‘being human in a more-than-human world’ - a process that is tangled with multi-species, multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary approaches, and with a priority on situated specifics.

Matthew Adams, coins the term ‘anthropocene psychology’, to describe the consequences of ‘being human in a more-than-human world’. 

He adds this is

‘a process that is tangled with multi-species, multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary approaches, and with a priority on situated specifics. ‘ (p2).

The ‘situated specifics’ he carefully explores here include the tangles around the definition of the Anthropocene itself, the reporting and transmission of Pavlov’s experiments on dogs, the morals of eating other creatures, chicken farming, voluntary shepherding, dealing with ecocatastrophe from a Maori perspective, and the idea of ‘solastagia’. I felt informed and enriched by the variety of sources the author quotes from.

Psychology at its limits

What is less clear, and particularly relevant for CPA members, is what is ‘psychological’, or relates to ‘climate psychology’ about these explorations. If I understand it right, climate psychology retains the primacy of human reaction to the stimuli of climate change and its consequences. It appears Anthropocene psychology, if it is to be a thing, will posit these reactions as one part of a multi-species, cultural or anthropological gestalt.

This type of positioning might be driven by ethical, political and ecological considerations, could it be driven by psychological ones too?  The most conventional ‘psychological’ discussion here concerns meat eating and the notion that refusal to acknowledge the cruelty and death of our dinners is a type of ‘cognitive dissonance’.  Adams critiques this position as debateable, limited, and Westernised – (although the processes involved in cultures which include vegetarianism are not discussed).

In trying to create a novel academic discourse as part of an unfolding, environmental movement which questions the basis of academic disciplines, and indeed the ontology of discourse, what is left that can actually be generalised about? In other words how to move beyond the conventional academic distanced position – to Stay with the Trouble, as Adams says, borrowing from Donna Haraway (2016)?

Changing the subject

One of the many examples discussed in this part of the book is the BBC (2017) mockumentary Carnage (handily available on Iplayer) in which the comedian and vegan Simon Amstell looks back on the history of veganism and the end of animal farming from the vantage point of an imaginary future.  Adams’ ‘take’ on the work is that Amstell uses the form of the ‘mockumentary’ to surprise our sense of normality and to make political points indirectly and powerfully. He, it seems, ‘stays with the trouble’, and by directing his humour at his own fantasies as well, makes a political utopia seem more real. I think this is a point well made – that we need to change perspective to move on from the Anthropocene.  But how can an academic discipline contribute to this?

For example, Adams traces the development of the concept of solastalgia, notes it’s largely disengaged and solipsistic connotations, and then critiques the concept from the points of view of Native peoples who have, of course, been dealing with Anthropocene loss of place for much longer, and have developed ways of understanding it as an active process (he discusses the Maori concept of tangui, as a culturally sensitive alternative). He concludes by suggesting that the sense of connection which people feel to places can be seen as an ‘unconditional allegiance’ necessary for identity to exist, and he then takes this idea forward in a discussion about the granting of rights to those places in recognition

In this discussion Adams flirts with the idea of ‘reciprocal relationality’ which is close to the object-orientated ontology which inspires Timothy Morton (2010), and seems, to me, a necessary complement to a multi-perspective valuing process. I’d have liked to have heard more about this and the other philosophical conceptualisations (for example Nagel 2001; Deleuze & Guattari 1988; Irigaray & Marder 2016) which might give grounding for a new type of decentred understanding of being which is felt or enacted rather than merely observed.

Seeing in new ways

I'd like to end with a rather lengthy quotation which gives both a sense of the style and scope of the book, which I feel is well applied to his themes, but also maybe gives a sense of what I find is missing.

To accept the Anthropocene as invitation, we must recognise and help articulate deeply felt losses as a starting point for action, but we can also strive, however awkwardly and imperfectly, to break out of the explanatory models that have for so long held ‘nature’ as an inert and malleable backdrop to a human drama, and embrace and develop a more lively, animated narrative of reciprocal relationality. This requires ‘two-eyed seeing’: ‘to learn from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of western knowledges and ways of knowing’ (Arsenault, 2018); ‘not integrating, but weaving knowledges so that each way of seeing maintains its own integrity, while enhancing perspective and broadening understanding’ (Diver et al., 2019, p. 4). (Adams pp. 135-136)

What I feel needs to be added, whether to establish a discipline or to engage an active reader, is something which contends – that  could provide options for action as well as knowledge. For example, the position that Haraway offers at the end of her discussion on eating animals (2008), which Adams quotes - of ‘killing without making killable’, that is taking responsibility for eating a subject - opens up a new set of debates on ethics and politics. If Anthropocene psychology can include these kinds of speculations, then I'm in.


Arsenault,  R. et al. (2018). Shifting the framework of Canadian water governance through Indigenous research methods – acknowledging the past with an eye to the future. Water 10(1);49

BBC (2017)  Amstell, Simon. Carnage.  Accessed -

Deleuze, G. & Guattari,F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Diver, S. et al. (2019)  Recognising ‘reciprocal relations’ to restore community access to land and water. International Journal of the Commons 13(1)

Haraway, D.J. (2008) When Species Meet

Haraway, D.J. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

Irigaray L and Marder, M. (2016) Through Vegetal Being – Two Philosophical Perspectives

Nagel T. (2001) Panpsychism

Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought


Reviewed by Ewan Davidson

book cover

Towards an Ecopsychotherapy by Mary-Jayne Rust

This is a nugget of a book. It offers practical wisdom gleaned from a 40year journey of caring for the earth. It talks the walk the author has made.

 In its radical simplicity it reminds me of another profound but deceptively easy to read book – Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. This book might have been subtitled ‘Care of the World Soul’ in that it brings that same quality of deep soulful caring into the craft of therapy. It is a work that shuns abstract language and that conceptual habit of talking about. It engages the reader directly in the material, dissolving the inside/outside dichotomy that has often dogged ecological literature.

This small book condenses the enormous range of ecological thought, political dilemmas and psychotherapeutic practice in what sometime feels like a dizzying array of views and references. Mary-Jayne skilfully offsets this compendium with poignant and moving vignettes of her work with clients both out and in doors. To have brought this range together in a meaningful way demonstrates how much digestion was involved in this work. To use a psychotherapy metaphor, it is like a mother bird having pre-digested the food for its offspring.

Does this make it too easy for the reader? While its radical simplicity may obscure the depth and complexity for some psychotherapists, this is offset by the apt choice of examples for instance on ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and the how these threads are woven together with a deft use of story. In talking more explicitly about story in ‘The Clash of Two Stories (against and with Nature), she avoids a common binary opposition that trashes modern culture and idealises past indigenous ones. For this reader, her capacity for integration of diverse and apparently non-complementary polarities was highlighted in her mythic treatment of the archetypes of the Eagle and the Serpent. In summarising the work of bearing creative tensions and our modern cultures failures, she writes (p109),

The story of the eagle and the serpent mirrors the way in which our dominant culture has been unable to hold the tension between body and mind, earth and sky, ancient and modern, emotion and thought, eros and logos, matter and spirit polarities that have moved from an equal tension to the domination of one capacity, or quality, over another.

The significant omissions for me were the Fool and the Green Man. These archetypes of that crazy, wild energy so missing in our domesticated culture are both allies of ecopsychotherapy. Who better to expose our folly than a fool and to re-enchant our disenchanted lives than the Green Man?

Notwithstanding, their omission, this book will be essential reading for all those engaged in the ecological work towards a social and cultural transformation.


Covid-19 and the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE)

“We should let no crisis go to waste” said Rahm Emmanuel (1).

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this could apply in one of two diametrically opposite ways. Either it is an opportunity for disaster capitalism, as described so graphically in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, or it is a learning opportunity for humankind to reflect on and draw back from its destructive and self-destructive rampage across planet Earth.

At the time of writing (early April 2020) attention is mainly and necessarily focussed on coping with the pandemic – limiting fatalities, “flattening the curve” to prevent overwhelm of health services, informing and instructing the public. As Rosemary Randall, co-founder of Carbon Conversations and founder member of The Climate Psychology Alliance comments it is too soon to draw any conclusions about how responses to the pandemic will be connected with, or will influence attitudes to, the CEE. There is however already a torrent of commentary on the subject, with wide-ranging views on what will emerge from this crisis.

What appears certain is that the novel coronavirus is zoonotic, involving horseshoe bats and an intermediate species - probably pangolin, also that human infection started in a Wuhan “wet market”. As Charlotte Du Cann of Dark Mountain observes at least 60% of new diseases in humans are zoonotic. Others put the figure closer to 70%. John Vidal in The Guardian echoes much of the recent commentary with his sub-headline: “Increased contact with animals (is the) likely cause of outbreaks such as Covid-19, say experts, as conservationists call for global ban on wildlife markets.” The reasoning seems irrefutable, but would enforcement be any more effective than against elephant poaching in Africa or illegal logging in the Amazon? If the bush meat trade is driven underground, it’s easy to imagine that hygiene will be even poorer than in the wet markets.

As the Ecohealth Alliance points out any chance of an effective response depends on recognition of several inter-connected or compounding issues: the global wildlife trade (worth billions) agricultural intensification, deforestation and urbanisation bringing people closer to animals. Reining in these practices would be a colossal challenge. Any chance of doing so depends on recognition not only that there are many viruses out there, potentially even more devastating than Covid-19, but that the practices in question are increasing the likelihood of viral spillovers.

Science writer David Quammen, interviewed for Emergence Magazine, points out that our relentless penetration into wildlife habitats is “pulling viruses towards ourselves” (6). Quammen, in this quietly powerful conversation, refers to humankind itself as an “outbreak species”. He reminds us that human numbers have quadrupled in a century and quotes authoritative voices which point out that outbreak populations always crash. We restrain our impact on the Earth (impact = population x consumption) or matters will be taken out of our hands. The fact that the coronavirus has no consciousness doesn’t make the pandemic any less of a warning.

Another take-away from the interview is that it was discovered in 2015 that a new coronavirus existed and the findings were written up in 2017. Scientists warned of the danger that it posed and advised precautionary measures, including taking the genome in order to produce test kits. The scientific advice went unheeded. Sounds familiar? Others, including Bill Gates, had warned that it was only a matter of time before a pandemic hit the world and criticised the miniscule allocation of resources to preparing for it.

Lockdown – a Range of Consequences
What is being revealed during the extensive lockdown? Widely observed is the dramatic drop in GHG emissions and air pollution, also a marked improvement in water clarity in various locations. This has of course come at vast human and economic cost. But the psychological question here is whether the unplanned improvement in environmental conditions will add persuasive strength to long-standing arguments that the so-called “externalised” costs of fossil-fuelled human activity have long since become intolerable. In other words, this taste of a cleaner world, however traumatic the context, might spur efforts towards radically less damaging ways of life, economically and socially.

So what signs can we read on the shape of the longer-term response? Here we have to navigate the contradictions mentioned above and, as psychologists, to be aware of the hopes and biases which might influence our reading, causing us to downplay the ambiguity and conflicting trends.

chilling example of Shock Doctrine opportunism was the news, related by Bill McKibben, “Big oil is using the coronavirus pandemic to push through the Keystone XL pipeline.” (7) This occurs against a backdrop of a US Administration pursuing a relentless agenda of reversing environmental safeguards and criminalising protest. The new twist, described by McKibben, involves the exploitation by fossil fuel interests of the current ban on assemblies.

Against this and in the same week came the news that Netherlands capital Amsterdam has committed to a post-Covid recovery plan based on one of the most promising models of sustainable economics to emerge this century. The model in question is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which integrates the right of all of humanity to have its basic needs met with the principle of planetary boundaries (as developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre).

These reports starkly illustrate how the values battle which will largely determine our future is being conducted during the pandemic. And even amongst experts in the field who are committed to climate action the scenarios envisaged still vary considerably. Carbon Brief has assembled a collection of scientific and academic opinions: Coronavirus – what could lifestyle changes mean for tackling climate change?

These are highly qualified commentators and it must be hoped that a coherent vision emerges, perhaps following Amsterdam’s example in adopting Kate Raworth’s model. This initiative demonstrates that, in a favourable political climate, and one in which economic interests are also on board with decarbonisation and ecological awareness, an Earth that is no longer being degraded by human activity can still just about be imagined. But success on a global scale will depend on public rejection of populist – free market fundamentalism in the USA, South America, parts of Europe and Australia. Economic development in Asia and Africa will also need to diverge from the 20th century model of the global North. In addition, hypocrisy and disavowal in Canada, the UK and many other countries will also have to be effectively challenged. This is a tall order to put it mildly. Whilst it may be a conceivable outcome, the immense shock administered by the current pandemic merely opens the possibility that we humans will become more aware of our precariousness, take the trouble to understand the reasons and act accordingly. If there is indeed a powerful driver in that direction, it may come from the clear warnings that our neglect of ecological realities will, if it continues, spawn further pandemics – possibly even more lethal ones than Covid-19.

Going Deeper Beneath the Surface – A Psycho-Social Perspective
Vital as the above scientific, economic, political and ethical viewpoints on the Coronavirus-CEE interface are, the field of Climate Psychology has further resources to offer, in the struggle to understand our underlying predicament.

Climate Psychology in less than a decade since its inception as a new discipline has come up with new applications and perspectives on denial, hope, leadership, apocalyptic thinking, sacrifice, loss, grief and more. One particularly fruitful line of thought which it has promoted is in the notion of cultural complexes. The usefulness of this concept rests on its reference to both unconscious process and anthropocentrism. Very briefly, instances of cultural complex include:
*The consumerist paradigm of wellbeing;
*The culture of Un-care (Weintrobe);
*Tolerance of perverse systems in which great harm in the wider community is treated as an acceptable price to pay for personal, corporate or shareholder profit;
*The conflation of financial assets with success;
*Assumptions of entitlement and dominion;
*Notions of human separateness and superiority, as opposed to the deep dependence of humans on other life forms as well as recognition of the latter’s right to co-exist with us.

Cultural interpretation of the Covid-19 experience is key. Talk of being on a war footing and of “defeating the virus” or reasserting control, whilst understandable as a reaction to a devastating threat, miss a critically important point. Framing the pandemic as a hostile and alien invasion glosses over important facts. Viruses are aeons-old, highly resilient and widespread entities. From an ecological perspective, complex life forms have always coexisted with them, albeit in a perpetual struggle for dominance. Finally, and to re-emphasise an earlier point, they are the agency which has repeatedly brought breakout species under control. We are enhancing their potency with our invasiveness and hyper-connectedness.

This final point is no doubt repugnant to an anthropocentric mind set, or to any view based on our being somehow “above” other life. The cultural challenge posed by the pandemic is that it is homo sapiens which is out of control. Regaining control, if it is to be achieved in any tenable or stable way, has to begin with ourselves – with recognition that our impact (population x consumption) is well into breakout territory. It is not moralistic but straightforward systems thinking to conclude that climate disruption and the current pandemic are clear warning signals that we are destroying the conditions in which complex life can flourish on Earth.

Militaristic thinking, command and control measures, may be familiar and temporarily reassuring. They are even saving some lives in the short term. But they are also a diversion from the necessary analysis of where and how our species is exceeding absolute planetary boundaries.

There is a paradox at the heart of all this. As Clive Hamilton argues powerfully, our entry into the new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene recognises the fact that humankind has become an Earth system in its own right. We have fundamentally altered the atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Our power is massive. But we appear to be powerless to steer the process in a direction that will be healthy or beneficial for life on Earth, including our own.

Finally, this leads us back to an issue that is ethical as well as existential. At the level of human existence, it is those who are weakest and most vulnerable who are suffering most from the changes which we are instigating on our planet. Ultimately we are all in the same boat – fantasies of colonising Mars notwithstanding. But the ones suffering now are those who have no airy rooms or gardens to go out into during lockdown, those who have no welcoming new home when their land is drought-ridden or flooded, those huddled on the Mexican border, or in Greek refugee camps. Their voice is barely audible. And with no voice at all are the vanishing species, the dying oceans and rivers, the polluted atmosphere, the shrinking forests, the impoverished land.

So the big question is whether we will race to forget the vulnerability which the pandemic has exposed, cover ourselves in all the old false securities, or let it teach us that caring for those other-than-us is ultimately caring for ourselves.

1. Rahm Emmanuel, ex-Mayor of Chicago and Bill Clinton aide. Quoted in David Quammen interview, linked in this article.
2. Defiant Earth - The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Clive Hamilton, Polity Press 2017.


This is an Emergency - Proposals for a Collective Response to the Climate Crisis

A threshold moment

It is a difficult but important time to be alive as a human being right now at this threshold moment for our species’ future. We are heading towards a global climate crisis of unprecedented proportion, with 97% of the scientific community agreeing that humans are responsible for dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate system (IPCC 2019, Hoggett 2019, Wallace Wells, 2019). We are set for disruptive levels of global warming within our lifetime and may already have passed an irreversible tipping point. No place on Earth will be spared the consequences. Unless we dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions in the next decade (IPCC, 2019), we are on course for a humanitarian crisis of unspeakable consequences. Unfortunately there are peoples, cultures, animals and ecosystems on board of this neo-liberal trajectory who have been dragged here against their will.

Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record have all occurred since 2001 (NASA/GISS, 2018). We have witnessed the increase of devastation caused by fires, floods and storms in the last years and know that weather patterns will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable. Manmade plastics have contaminated the most remote and deepest places on the planet; the ice caps are melting; the oceans are acidifying and the rates of sea level rise suggest they may soon become exponential. These are the perfect conditions for feedback loops, that will increase the pace of change.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report describes 1.5C degrees of warming as ‘dangerous’; warming around 3C as ‘catastrophic’; and warming that goes beyond 4C as ‘unkown, beyond catastrophic’ (IPCC, 2018). No nation is currently on course to meet the target of CO2 emissions needed to keep global heating to the minimum of 1.5 C, set out in the Paris agreement. In fact global emissions are rising rather than decreasing. The University of Washington’s climate impact group predict a minimum of 3C of warming by 2080 (Mote and Salate, 2009). What this means for our lifetime and the lifetime of our children is so scary to contemplate, that it breaks my heart to think what my daughter - what all of our children - will have to face.

Up to a million species are at risk of extinction worldwide. (Balvanera 2019, WWF, 2018). In the UK, reports (Carrington, 2019) point to the extinction of a quarter of all mammals and nearly half of all birds in the near term future.

Worldwide, there are around 360 million urban residents living in coastal regions that are less than 10 meters above sea level. In fact, 15 of the world’s 20 mega-cities are at risk of rising sea levels and coastal surges (Centric Lab 2019).

Countries that are less affected by adverse climate effects will be likely to face an increase in migration. The World Bank states that due to climate change, countries needed to prepare for 140 million internally displaced people, in addition to millions of international refugees by 2050 (The World bank, 2018). This is a perfect breeding ground for authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascism. We already see the effect of hostile border policies in the Global North.

Droughts, floods, storms and general temperature changes can easily result in crop failure , famine, malnutrition and put too much pressure on vulnerable food supply chains.

Of course those who already suffer from social inequality, poverty and marginalisation will feel the consequences of climate change the most. People in the Global South already experience these threats as a reality.

In the UK, Government figures show that over 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, were living in poverty in 2018 (Butler, 2018). With rising food prices this number will increase exponentially(Centric Lab, 2019). This is despite how little they contribute to the problem. Poor people consume far less than those who are wealthier, commute more via public transport, travel less, use less household energy, and consume less vanity goods. Climate injustice and the competition over sparser resources are likely to widen the social gaps that already exist in our societies and increase the risk of social unrest.

Warmer climates will also increase health risks through pollution, heat related deaths, malnutrition or the introduction of new diseases into areas whose communities are not sufficiently adapted. In 2003 alone, Europe experienced a summer heat-wave that resulted in 70,000 deaths (Centric Lab, 2019).

Given this diverse combination of stress factors and our lack of mobilisation, some academics (Bendell, 2018) predict a near-term social collapse and call for societies to prepare for this. In his much discussed ‘deep adaptation’ paper, Professor Jem Bendell (2018) broke with academic convention and spelt out what climate related social collapse would mean in terms of the ethical and humanitarian choices that we may have to face. What would we be prepared to do to protect our children? Would we be prepared to kill someone in order to defend our possessions or our food resources? Would we watch people die? Bendell has been criticised for scaremongering, but these questions reveal that there is a psychological dimension to the climate debate. How do we prepare ourselves psychologically for the uncertainty and the challenges the future holds? What psychological capacities do we need to foster and what supports us to bear unbearable news? And most importantly: what stops us from mobilising for radical change in the light of these facts?

The positivist approach has not paid off. For decades the scientific community assumed that we are logical and reasonable creatures that will adjust our trajectory if we have clear information in front of us. We have known about the risks of climate change for over 50 years and yet nearly half of the global CO2 emissions have been released into the atmosphere in the last 35 years (Ritchie and Roser, 2017), in our lifetime and on our watch. The irrational, chaotic, emotional responses of human nature were kept out of the story, which meant that our human capacity for denial, corruption and deflection has not been taken into account. We are paying a huge price for this myopia.

The failure to acknowledge the complexity of the human psyche is no longer sustainable. Climate change breaks down the artificial boundaries we have drawn between us and the world, between the personal and the public, between scientific data and our fallible human response to it. It is time to widen the lens and attend to the interconnection between the vast and wild human soul in its entanglement with a world that no longer allows us to reduce it to a mere backdrop. The effects of climate change impact on our mental health and in turn, our psychological response-ability over the next few years will alter the state of the world, one way or another. It is time for the psychotherapeutic profession to allow the world to enter our thinking, our theories and our consulting rooms.

Eco-anxiety and malignant normality

Over the last few decades depression and anxiety have spread like wildfire in the western world. More and more people sense that something is wrong without being able to name it. The fear and despair that some individuals experience in response to the ecological, social and cultural threats we are facing, has been given a label. Eco-anxiety is the new buzzword that makes the rounds amongst climate aware mental health professionals. It is often used synonymously with climate change anxiety. I would describe eco-anxiety as heightened psychological (mental, emotional, somatic) distress in response to the climate emergency. The American Psychological Association (2017) references ‘eco-anxiety’ as a likely effect climate change may have on our mental health. The term ‘anxiety’ can however be misleading, as the range of symptoms is much more diverse. It can, in more severe instances, manifest as trauma reactions, depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks etc. but shows up more frequently in higher levels of general anxiety, feelings of shock, being frightened about the future, feelings of grief, helplessness and numbness. These manifestations are creative adjustments to the current circumstances and generally a sign that we are alive and responsive to our context.

It is important to stress that eco-anxiety is not an illness or a ‘condition’ in the clinical sense. The climate emergency is extremely scary to contemplate and anxiousness is an inevitable consequence of facing the facts. Fear is a healthy emotion and only becomes problematic if the conditions needed for individuals to be heard and supported are absent. Distress in the light of climate change is therefore an entirely appropriate response to a dangerous situation. Appropriate treatment is at societal level and requires decisive political action to reduce CO2 emissions rather than an individualised and introspective approach. If eco-anxiety is treated as a pathology then ‘the forces of denial will have won’ writes Graham Lawton (2019) from the New Scientist and goes on to say ‘what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity’.

If eco-anxiety is the figure, then it arises out of a dysfunctional ground of malignant normality. It is the phenomenological field that the individual is contextualised within and not the individual that needs attention. The field has been diminished and depleted for too long whilst the focus firmly lay on the individual. The effects of this attack on our ground have been deflected or ignored too often by our profession. Climate change forces us to recognise that our sense of wellbeing is intricately linked to the wellbeing of our ecological surroundings. Maybe it is the ground that needs to become figural now.

Solastalgia, a term coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht (2005) is closely related to eco-anxiety and refers to the existential pain experienced when a place of belonging is subject to environmental degradation. The psychological harm that befalls individuals, communities or society when their environmental place of ‘home’ is in demise or when healthy ties between people and their ecological environment are severed is certainly known to indigenous cultures throughout the world and has been recognised in western societies for a while (Mitchell 1946).

Another frequently used term in relation to the climate emergency is ‘pre-traumatic stress’ or ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’, a term that has been coined by the American psychiatrist Lise van Susteren (2017). She describes it as a before-the-fact version of classic PTSD, which for most of us who live in the Global North, is about anticipated trauma rather than trauma we have already experienced. For Zhiwa Woodbury (2019a), ’Climate trauma’ represents an entirely new order of trauma, as it interacts dynamically with all categories of previous traumas and can trigger our residual personal, cultural, and intergenerational traumas that we carry within us. He suggests that we live in a traumasphere, which is characterised by pervasive and interpenetrating traumas that inhibit our innate abilities to respond to obvious dangers (Woodbury 2019b). We don’t yet seem to have developed sophisticated ways of working with the collective forms of trauma that still run through the fabric of society. Intergenerational wounds, like the split between us and the living earth for example, may sit so deep that we may not even realise that they exist. Glendenning (1994) calls the tear between us and the world ‘original trauma’ and describes how this feeling of isolation that results from it has been completely normalised in western society.

I discussed the topic of eco-anxiety and climate trauma in a BBC current affairs interview and in a subsequent article in Therapy Today (Bednarek 2019). I expressed concern about the use of clinical language, such as ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’ to describe the wild and undomesticated human suffering in relation to our ecosystem’s decline. Whilst clinical terms can communicate complex dynamics and map out the psychological terrain, the use of clinical language often calls for a clinical response. Symptoms are then seen as a sign of an individual’s malfunction that needs to be repaired, in the same way as we use weedkiller to wrestle unwanted plants to the ground. This attitude of repair is in line with our heroic culture (based on success and achievement), our individualistic outlook and our belief in progress that forms the background of a paradigm that is costing us the Earth.

There is a whole industry of self-help books and quick-fix therapy interventions devoted to eradicating unwanted feelings in our culture. Pharmaceutical companies have created a market that provides us with the means to sedate our pain, gently bringing us back into a sleepy state of mild discontent. Some forms of therapy and alternative health seem to aim for a similar appeasement. Even mindfulness practices are often decontextualised and used to disperse the discomfort that calls to us from a far distant seeming depth. But what if our symptoms are our last frayed connection to sanity? What if they are the last lifeline we have got left to re-ensouling our lives and our communities?

In my writing I try to rise up against the persistent cultural attack on the sacred connection that our grief can weave between us and the world. At precious times, when I allow my heart to break open to all the loss in the world, when I experience the weight of my shame, anger, helplessness and the bittersweet love and longing for a world that I have not related to enough, in those sacred moments, I don’t recognise clinical terms as words that do justice to the wild beauty and majesty of my resonance with the world. In fact these terms feel like an insult. Reductive terminology, based on a positivist worldview, reduce my human nature to a narrow existence. I therefore see it as an act of soul rebellion to use poetic language, wherever I can, in order to remind myself and others of the magnificence and diversity of the human soul.

Whatever words we choose to describe our distress in relation to a declining world, the biggest problem we face is not anxiety, but a malignant form of normality that is characterised by a collective state of denial. Mass amnesia and anaesthesia are the threats that threaten the world as we know it. We forgot how to live in right relationship with the Earth and with each other and we numb the pain that results from so much emptiness. The dysfunction lies in the absence of adequate mobilisation in the face of danger. The pressing issue for our profession is therefore not eco-anxiety, but the absence of it.

How can we invite the state of the world into the conversation? How do we make the malignant normality figural, especially if therapist and client both participate in the same forms of deflection? How do we grieve something we may not even realise we have lost? These questions present our profession with unprecedented problems that certainly don’t have linear answers. It is time we made space to discuss them.If we wait until it is too late and keep colluding with business-as-usual, we may well have a mental health crisis at global scale on our hands very soon, with both therapists and clients utterly unprepared to bear the consequences.

Collective deflection, denial, disavowal and a healthy sense of shame

I don’t doubt for a moment that most people are concerned about the environment and wished climate change wasn’t happening. Most people care deeply and want their children to have a safe future. So what is going wrong? We know that we are part of the problem - and yet we don’t seem to act as though we can be part of the solution. We behave as though someone else will come along and make it all go away.

The Guardian recently published data that reveals that as few as 20 companies are responsible for a third of the world’s CO2 emissions (Taylor and Watts, 2019). We have been sold the individualistic story that we should recycle more and use energy saving light bulbs, whilst big corporations have knowingly driven the climate crisis to this catastrophic point for humanity. They spent billions each year to lobby governments and hide the effects their businesses have had on the environment (Taylor and Watts, 2019). Whilst this illustrates the powerful invested interests that keep people ignorant and focussed on business as usual, we can’t altogether put all the blame on the fossil fuel industry. We have all known about the dangers of climate change for decades and chosen to stick our head in the sand. It was convenient not to dig too deep.

Hope has become a defence mechanism that comes at a high cost. Blind trust that it will all be ok in the end, that bad things only happen to other people in far away places or that a great solution will be found by clever people, resembles the attitude of a child’s wishful thinking. Robert Bly (1996) tells us that we live in a "sibling society, " in which adults have regressed into adolescents who refuse to grow up. He illustrates how the values of modern society have encouraged a move into an adolescent place in relation to the duties of citizenship. Societal norms no longer ask citizens to be honourable, generous and noble, but encourage competition and personal gratification.

But it is adults we need right now. We need people who are willing to bear the unbearable mess we are in, show up fully, mobilise and offer what they can, not because there is a guarantee that it will succeed, but because it is the right thing to do. Now is not the time to play small and wait for someone else to sort it out. What the current times are calling for is the cultural transformation from an adolescent stance into a maturity, where we mobilise in our fragile, fallible, imperfect human ways and offer what we can to be of service to something greater than ourselves. We each have gifts and resources that we can contribute. Acting as if we matter is a form of soul rebellion against so much cultural numbing and deflection.

However, there is only so much bad news anyone can take. What we can learn from mythology is that staring straight into hell will eventually turn us to stone. Psychologically we tend to dissociate when we feel unable to deal with the enormity of the challenges we are facing. Through a process that the psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe (2013) describes as ‘disavowal’, many are able to rationally engage with climate change data, whilst denying the full impact this data has on their lives. Positive bias, wishful thinking, denial, rationalisation, dissociation or numbing are all ways to deflect from the unbearable feelings we have to face. These mechanisms keep our cognitive knowledge separate from our felt and lived experience so that we can remain partially asleep, without urgency or motivation to mobilise. The more reality is systematically distorted or avoided in this way, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously and the need for further distortion increases. Whilst this process helps us to maintain an emotional equilibrium, it comes at a high cost to the Earth. When this defence is no longer possible, there is either further defence through anger and aggression or a collapse of the defence, which is likely to result in anxiety. The feeling of anxiety can therefore be a sign that there is enough support in the ground to allow a rigid deflection to dissolve.

Rather than attempting to rid people of anxiety, therapists can support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of the full spectrum of emotions, without collapsing under it or turning away.There is an emotional range within which most people can sustain strong feelings without either dissociating and numbing at one end of the spectrum or going into blind panic at the other. This window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999) between hyperarousal and hypoarousal describes the range within which we can engage with difficult truths while staying connected. Therapists trained in trauma work will know how to support self-regulation whilst facing difficult feelings. But in order to be in a position to support others, therapists will have to face their own deflections and denial of what is to come in the not so distant future. There is a need for spaces where we can support each other.

At the point at which our defences soften, shame may come to meet us at the gates to recovery. Shame, this unpopular and unwanted feeling that holds us to account for our actions, has had a lot of bad press, and unsurprisingly so. Toxic shame is responsible for a considerable amount of suffering. I am not advertising a culture of blame and guilt, but am interested instead in the aspect of shame, which helps us to regulate our sense of belonging and defends against a loss of contact in relationship (Erskine, 1994). This aspect of shame holds us to account and asks of us to make amends in order to repair the rupture that our actions or non actions have caused. Shame is linked to the societal norms, cultural trends and values of the groups and subgroups we belong to. We feel shame when we have breached these norms and so shame can be seen as the feeling that governs relationships and group cohesion.

Maybe our group has followed the wrong Gods home. The degree of shame we feel for our participation in a system that destroys our life support seems to be minimal, whilst the feeling of shame about body image, career success, personal prestige or possessions are at an all time high. Whilst many clients feel tortured about unfavourable comparisons to their peers, I have never had a client talk about the shame they carry for their contribution to the genocide of species, the responsibility for the horrors their children and grandchildren are likely to encounter or the shame of destroying the local ecology through the use of weedkillers in their gardens. This form of shame is so distant that most of us can’t feel it because it would be linked to the values of relationship and inter-being with the world rather than the values of materialism and consumerism. The diagnosis for someone who has a complete lack of shame is a psychopath and shockingly the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder in DSM-V (2013,p.661) seems to describe our relationship to the Earth pretty accurately.

I am wondering if there is a need to create supportive containers that allow us to explore our shame in relation to our attitudes towards the more-than -human presences and the generations that are still to come. How can we allow ourselves to acknowledge the prospect of ecological devastation and feel the damage our lifestyle choices and convenience options are causing to other-than-human life forms and the future of our children without becoming paralysed? This is a question we need to take on as a profession and it may require the widening of our theories and practices.

Soul rebellion: Re-claiming, Re-wilding, Re-imagining, Re-ensouling the culture of psychotherapy

In addition to the individual mechanisms of deflection, the hedonistic and individualistic values of western culture have also had their soporific effect on us. We have collectively anaesthetised large parts of our human experience in order to fit into the machinery of capitalist growth (Bednarek, 2018). Capitalism has become a way of life that manifests in the fabric of our day to day existence. It has infiltrated our towns and cities, traded the idea of community for individualism, prioritises convenient lifestyles over their consequences, sold us stories of what ‘we deserve’ and what constitutes a happy life, whilst alienating us from the land and from each other. It has become part of our relationships, our marriages and part of the ways we relate to each other and ourselves.

Horrendous things have become normalised within our field of acceptability. All too often the capitalist machinery has forced us to give up on our primary human satisfactions for the sake of meaningless work that turns us into producers and consumers of replaceable goods or services. Our life experience and self worth is frequently reduced to career paths and we often describe ourselves in terms of a job title. Many people feel unnecessary, but have become used to this level of insult to their souls. Surely we were not made to hate Mondays, live for weekends and happy hour and raise our hands quietly to be allowed to speak. Surely we are not meant to be indoors on a beautiful day and light the magnificence of the dark sky with neon lights.

We assault the integrity of our human nature on a systematic level, neglecting almost everything that gives us deep satisfaction, such as participation with the rhythms of nature, being woven into community, expressing our aliveness through touch, song and untamed and undomesticated creativity. The gestures that have made us human for millennia have given way to sitting in front of a computer screen day after day. We then go home and watch television, shop online, get drunk at weekends and plan the occasional trip into nature as a form of recreation ground. Is this the expression of what we are meant to be at the so-called height of civilisation?

Many people can’t tolerate this level of deprivation of soulfulness and meaning without numbing themselves - and yet good mental health is mostly regarded as the ability to function symptom free within the capitalist paradigm (Bednarek, 2018).

But as any recovered addict can tell you, there comes a time when the highs turn into lows, when the denied reality and all the damage that has been done comes crashing down. It is at this late hour that a tipping point signals that, in the name of survival, the soul needs to find a way back home. Awareness of impending collapse can therefore be an opportunity to open ourselves up to deeper questions of meaning that we typically postpone.

The concept of post- traumatic growth, tells us that positive, far-reaching psychological shifts can occur as a result of experiencing adversity. In that light, climate despair can invite us back to a fuller life. We can gain greater presence, depth, courage and wisdom through our willingness to step through the gateway of anticipated suffering. If we are capable of experiencing pre-traumatic stress, then we can also expand through a process of pre-traumatic growth. People often behave generously in challenging circumstances, taking care of each other, improvising creatively, connecting in ways they may not have done in everyday life. And sometimes something emerges from those connections that is so utterly beautiful that the story of who we are can change fundamentally.

The poet Wendell Berry reminds us that ‘the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings’ (1999, p.102). Miriam Greenspan, seems to agree when she describes dark emotions as potentially profound spiritual teachers. She says: “In our intervulnerability is our salvation, because awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism’ (Greenspan, 2008).

There are many acts of rebellion and one of them may be to invite each other into heartbreak. Grief is the primary way in which the heart softens. It eases the hardened places within us and helps us to remember what we have sacrificed. Grief is suffused with life force and has a distinctively subversive quality, ‘undermining our society’s quiet agreement that we will behave and be in control of our emotions (…) It declares our refusal to live numb and small (Weller 2015, p.9). If we allow the grief underneath our numbness to touch us, we can bring our exiled humanity back home and become more intimate with the state of the world. I see this act of reclamation as a form of soul rebellion.

In ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’ Francis Weller (2015) writes: ‘Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close’ (Weller, 2015 p.16). And of course sustainable change does not arise out of fear, but out of our deep love for the Earth and for each other. If we open our vulnerable hearts to the grief of what we stand to lose, we also open the gate to our gratitude for what we cherish, whilst we still can.

Grief is therefore an inevitable part of facing the current times. Nobody is exempt from it. We all face loss after loss with each new species that goes extinct. Whether doctor or patient, counsellor or client, teacher or pupil, no matter how rich or poor we are, the crisis of the environment reminds us of our shared vulnerable human nature. The question is not whether or not our hearts will get broken, the question is what meaning we ascribe to a broken heart. Do we follow our desire to patch the pieces together and guard this vulnerable heart with vigilance, or do we build up our muscle of the heart in order for it to grow and expand? Do we seek ways to avoid suffering or do we learn to bear the pain? How can we help each other to find out what lies on the other side of heartbreak?

Of course we can only let in the painful truth if we have ways of processing our grief. And so we need to remember that grief is not meant to be private; it has always been communal (Weller 2015). It is not meant to be a lonely and isolated experience that we only express in the hushed atmosphere of a psychotherapist’s consulting room.

Interestingly most private therapy rooms are not set up to allow the wilder parts of human nature to emerge. They rarely support the wailing that needs to happen for some, or the raw and untamed outbursts of suppressed rage. The environment of the therapeutic office itself makes sure that clients often keep the range of expression of their humanity contained in quiet tears, that can be wiped away with readily provided tissues. By containing our human nature so tightly, we may lose some of our magnificence, power and grandeur in the exchange. I therefore wonder whether we need to re-wild some aspects of the support we are able to offer in our profession. Whilst there is no doubt that some people will need the safety of one to one support and the clinical expertise of a well trained psychotherapist, others may need community as an anti-dote to the extreme individualism that we have all been subjected to. After all, a collective wound may require collective healing.

In a time of crisis, we have the opportunity and maybe the responsibility to re-imagine our habitual ways of doing things. Psychotherapy can support individuals to create community and to transform their fear into meaningful mobilisation. Together we can create the resources and the support to face the magnitude of what is happening. It is an act of rebellion if ordinary and fallible individuals feel empowered to re-claim their agency. Each and everyone of us carries a gift that we can contribute to the greater good. In doing so, we un-domesticate and re-wild our capacities for connection and may re-ensoul our impoverished culture along the way.

Considering our ability to face dark times, it may be useful to remember that we didn’t use to have to have an MA in grief counselling in order to attend compassionately to the fragility of our human connections. Communal rituals and ceremonies used to be a holding container for the expression of strong emotion. Nearly every indigenous culture has used ritual as a central way of maintaining the health of the community.The same is true for our central European ancestors. For tens of thousand of years, rituals provided the means by which the community addressed the need for healing and renewed its relationship with the place they lived. The urge to create ritual sits deeply in our psychic structure. Maybe it is time to remember the traditions that have operated in villages before therapists have privatised the experience of pain. Maybe we can put something else alongside individual support and take part in re-building communal containers where ordinary people are empowered to offer love and compassion to each other and remember how to hold each other in rage and in fear.

The work of the psychotherapists Joanna Macy (1999) and Francis Weller (2015) are examples of how ritual can be used to build community and affect change. Macy’s ‘the work that reconnects’ (2019) uses ritual, group work and nature based experience to support individuals to transcend the artificial divide between ‘self’ and ‘other. Weller runs communal grief rituals that have taken shape through his collaboration with the African Elder Malidoma Some, applying his own background in psychotherapy to Some’s experience of village building. Weller defines ritual as ‘any gesture done with emotion and intention by an individual or a group that attempts to connect the individual or the community with transpersonal energies (2015, p,76). He sees ritual as something that is indigenous to the psyche, but stresses that whilst we may have a lot to learn from indigenous cultures about the use of rituals in our communities, we cannot simply use their traditions and apply them to our land and our psyches. He views it as ‘important that we listen deeply, once again, to the dreaming earth and craft rituals that are indigenous to us, that reflect our unique patterns of wounding and disconnection from the land. These rituals will have the potency to mend what has been torn (and) heal what has been neglected. This is one way that we may return to the land and offer our deepest amends to those we have harmed’ (2015, p.77).

Together we can restore our dignity, learn how to love more fiercely, expand our focus beyond our own concerns and our own lifespan and include a wider range of humans and more than human presences in who we hold dear and whom we are willing to compromise for. From this perspective we may stop milking the world for our benefit and ask what the current situation asks of us, and then find the strength and the resilience to rise to it. It does not guarantee that we will succeed, but it is a liberating trajectory. Quoting the civil rights activist John E. Lewis, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

A psychology of the environment and an ecological self

Einstein famously said that we can’t expect to solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. In ‘how wide is the field?’ (Bednarek 2018) I explored the thesis that psychotherapy may need to re-imagine its discipline and expand its theories and practices in order to meet the demands of the time. John E. Mack (1995), a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, believed that we need a psychology of the environment, which requires an expanded psychology of relationship. The philosopher Arne Naess (1989) puts forward a similar idea with the notion of an ‘ecological self’, which transcends the common view of an ego-self, and sees the self as eternally embedded in the ecosphere. From this perspective environmentally conscious lifestyles can no longer be viewed as a form of altruism but need to be recognised as a form of self-interest.

Mack (1995) doesn’t believe that a mere threat to survival will be enough to create this new relationship without a fundamental revolution in the sphere of western consciousness. In his opinion, a psychology of the environment needs to include a powerful spiritual aspect that reconnects us with the divinity in ourselves and in the environment. He calls to our profession to ‘reinfuse (itself) with the imprecise notions of spirituality and philosophy, from which it has so vigorously and proudly struggled to free itself in an effort to be granted scientific status’ (Mack, 1995, p.284).

Mack proposed in 1995 (p.287) that a psychology of the environment needed to include the following elements:

An appreciation that we have a relationship with the Earth itself, and the degree to which that relationship has become inimitable to the sustaining of human lives and those of countless other species.
An analysis of traditional attitudes toward the Earth in our own and in other cultures that may facilitate or interfere with the maintenance of life.
The application of methods of exploring and changing our relationship to the Earth’s environment that can reanimate our connection with it. These approaches must be emotionally powerful, experiential, and consciousness expanding, opening us to ourselves in relation to nature.
An examination of political and economic systems, institutions, and forces from an ecopsychological perspective.
Discovering new forms of personal empowerment for ourselves and our clients, that integrate activism in the battle to protect our planet.

Widening our field of psychotherapy may therefore need to include practices which move us beyond the story of a separate self, practices which explore non-ordinary states of consciousness, and nature based practices that transcend a sense of separation from the world and our anthropocentric perspective.

The psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (2000) and his wife Christina, were early researchers into the use of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Their insights may be useful to expand the repertoire of our professional practice. In Jungian psychology the ideas of soul, archetypes and the collective unconscious transcend the merely human realm and ascribe agency to forces and presences outside of human control. Hillman (1995, p.11) observed that “the greater part of the soul lies outside the body’ and noted that we live in psyche; psyche does not live in us. He speaks of the ‘anima mundi’, the soul of the world, and sees it as an entity in its own right that acts upon us and asks us to participate in its dance. The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) stresses our state of ‘interbeing’ with a world that in his eyes has communicates with us if we re-learn to listen. These approaches may help us to re-imagine a different relationship to the world and stay open to the possibility that the world may be more complex than we currently give it credit for

Declaring a climate emergency

The psychoanalysts Rosemary Randall and Paul Hoggett (2019) conducted research with climate scientists and climate activists to establish how people who are exposed to the distressing facts of climate change on a daily basis manage psychologically. Their research showed that scientists often relied on positivist understandings of rationality in their attempts to manage their emotional responses, whilst the activists seemed more emotionally literate, building psychological support into their practice. Furthermore the activists had ways of transforming fear into mobilisation, which had a noticeably positive effect on their emotional resilience. As mobilisation is a positive way to deal with the mental health effects that the climate crisis has on us, I would like to propose actions that we can take as a professional body.

Organisations around the country are responding by declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ and committing resources to address it. Councils in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and 23 smaller local authorities in the UK have already passed motions declaring a climate emergency, as have universities such as Bristol and Exeter. In the psychotherapy profession, the first associations (British Association of Dramatherapists) and training institutes have done so too. I am therefore addressing the Gestalt Community in the hope that we will follow suit. I am reaching out, asking for help and support in acknowledging the danger we are in.

Each organisation has its own unique spirit and has to find their own co-creative way to mobilise. As an active member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, I would like to make some proposals as to how we may respond as a community. What I suggest is the following:

For the British Gestalt Community, membership organisations and training institutes to declare that there is a Climate Emergency.

For the Gestalt Community to work with partners, such as the BACP, UKCP, BPS and other national networks and mental health charities to lobby the UK and devolved governments on the psychological impact of climate change and to call on them to take wider action on making the UK carbon neutral in order to avoid a mental health crisis of unprecedented scale.

To make a commitment that all training programmes include opportunities for students to develop an awareness of how climate change and damage to the environment is impacting on individuals, and that all courses commit to incorporating environmental justice into counselling and psychotherapy practice.

For Gestalt training to explicitly consider the non-human world as a place of relationship, integrating theories and practices which explicitly explore the experience of being part of the living earth (see Field Theory, Living systems theory, Deep Ecology and Indigenous perspectives for possible inspiration). 

To commission and publish research, training materials and therapy tools, along with relevant training workshops and on-line resources, to support members to fulfil their ethical commitment to promoting environmental justice. To share good practice, seek dialogue between different schools and approaches and to bring awareness to this issue.

For the BGJ to include a category in their peer review criteria that asks contributors to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the human and the more-than-human world and to transcend the individualistic and anthropocentric paradigm.

For institutes, training providers and all conferences to pledge to make their operations carbon neutral by 2025. This could include using Skype, live streaming and/or other methods for interactive learning; working out carbon footprint year on year; establishing if the organisation is investing in fossil fuels - for example via banking - and to consider alternative options.

This paper was published in the British Gestalt Journal in 2019 following which they decided to adopt the proposal in the article about publication criteria.  Steffi's other papers are available from her website


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