Climate change and migration: how despair feeds apocalyptic imaginings

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks climate change and environmental problems have repeatedly been bracketed with the huge numbers of refugees heading for Europe. Jeremy Corbyn in his acceptance speech for the Labour Party leadership, John Kerry at a US State Department Conference and Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth in the Guardian, all argue, either that the Syrian crisis is intimately linked to climate change or that the population movements it has instigated give us an idea of what is to come. Is this true? And if – as seems to be the case – it is not, then why has this narrative grabbed the headlines and people’s imaginations?

The Syrian exodus is not about climate change

It’s certainly the case that climate change will bring more droughts and other extreme weather events. There may also be a case to be made that the 2010 Syrian drought was climate related. But it is a big jump from there to argue either that climate change was an important factor in the mass migrations from Syria, or that these mass migrations are an accurate picture of the future that climate change will bring. The recent droughts in California and Australia, for example, both thought to have some relation to climate change, have not produced civil war or mass migration, while the patterns of population movement that drought tends to bring are not those of mass migration across continents. There are other compelling, political reasons for people leaving Syria. If you want to understand how climate change is likely to affect patterns of migration or want to understand the relationship of the Syrian drought to the current civil war you will find good information on the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition’s website.

Why is the connection attractive?

So what is going on psychologically? Why does the idea of catastrophe linked to climate change grab the imagination so persuasively? Are people hoping that such stories will spur more significant action in Paris in December? Is there sadistic pleasure in promising pain to those who have ignored warnings? Is there a masochistic reward in embracing disaster imaginatively in the mind or perhaps narcissistic exceptionalism in imagining oneself as a survivor? Or is there simply a desire to avoid the real reasons for the Syrian refugee crisis?

Paul Hoggett’s article Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination offers us some more sophisticated clues. He puts despair at the heart of it. He argues that catastrophizing and apocalyptic thinking are defensive responses to despair and traces the history of this mode of thinking amongst political thinkers and movements from the Second World War to the present day. You can read the full article here – its perspective is a useful antidote to the manic urgency of some of the current commentary.

Understanding and dealing with our despair involves recognising how empty and powerless we can feel. Despair can involve a kind of psychic homelessness – in its depths we can feel abandoned, rootless and disconnected: refugees in our own minds. Seeing our psychic plight mirrored in the actual plight of refugees may help explain why the connection feels so compelling.

Paul Hoggett argues that dealing with despair involves facing the difficulty of not knowing what the future holds and holding a balance between being justifiably alarmed and destructively alarmist. It means holding onto our core human values and striving for realistic, collective responses whatever the situation we find ourselves in. And it involves recognising but rejecting the tug of the apocalyptic imagination as its illusory promise sparks to life in each of us.

Maybe easier said than done.

Rejected by the Labour Party

August 26, 2015 § 7 Comments

I’ve been a Labour voter for over 40 years and today I’ve been rejected by them as a supporter – they don’t want me to vote in the leadership election and I have no idea why. My time spent scanning the rival manifestoes has been wasted, my enthusiasm for this opening up of democracy dashed.

Their email telling me this starts with the chilling formula “We have reason to believe…” It goes on “…that you do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party or you are a supporter of an organisation opposed to the Labour Party.” No reason is given for this assertion and there is no possibility of finding out what information, gossip or hearsay has led to the decision. And they don’t offer to return the £3 either.

I made an attempt to join the Labour party in 1975. At that time you had to be a Trades Union member and my NALGO membership had lapsed as I was between jobs. The Labour party official sitting at my kitchen table scratched his head and pondered. “I could put you down as a housewife,” he said. Feminism was more important to me than party membership so I declined, unimpressed. Forty years later I am even less impressed.

I’m interested in my psychological reaction however: feelings of anxiety, a nervous racking of my brain for what the possible offence could be, a strange untethered guilt as I wonder what I could have done to deserve this response – feelings all too familiar to East Germans accused by anonymous neighbours of some unspecified offence or Americans caught up in the ravages of McCarthyism.

I don’t really wish to compare the Labour party to a police state but it does seem to share a similar paranoia, accusing innocent people in unspecified ways of unspecified offences and offering no explanation or possibility of appeal. Dark times for democracy.

Carbon Anniversaries

July 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

The meaning of anniversaries changes with history. A century ago high levels of infant mortality, and the loss of life in childbirth, industrial accidents and war meant that each year a child or life partner survived was something to be grateful for and was a cause for celebration. In modern times anniversaries have become another commercial opportunity and the most trivial of annual achievements seems to be cause for bigger and more lavish celebration. Organisations too are encouraged to celebrate their longevity but for NGOs and charities longevity can make for a bittersweet party. Most of those who campaign for social justice wish that their work wasn’t necessary but the day that they can hang up their hats for good rarely comes. They find themselves, perhaps bizarrely, celebrating their continued existence alongside the problem they had hoped to eradicate.

A tenth birthday

The issue has been on my mind because it’s ten years since Andy Brown and I set up Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the organisation that gave birth to the national Carbon Conversations project and which for some years was the focus of my attempts to bring a more sophisticated, psychosocial understanding to people’s approach to climate change.

2005 was an exciting year for us. I spent the early part of the year writing the paper A New Climate for Psychotherapy, describing the personal and social defences which I saw as inhibiting our attempts to deal with climate change. In May I presented this work at the Trajectories Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology and we returned from that weekend with a new tool – CAT’s Carbon Gym, a neat little program which calculated people’s individual carbon footprints across the key areas of their home energy, travel, food and other consumption. We immediately saw that this was the practical mechanism we’d been looking for. You could use it as the basis for a one-to-one conversation that took you deep into the things which mattered to people – their homes, families, holidays, jobs and aspirations, which (unknown to most of them) embedded high levels of carbon emissions in their day-to-day lives.

The rest of 2005 was a flurry of activity. We trialled our interview technique at the Gwydir Street party in early July, calculating over 40 of our neighbours’ footprints. By the end of that month we had set up the Cambridge Carbon Footprint website, adopted a formal constitution and applied for and been awarded grant funding from the City Council. By the end of the year we had a small, keen membership, were exploring engagement with much wider groups within the community and had come to realise that the issues our one-to-one interviews opened up for people might best be explored in small groups where the painful emotions that climate change and carbon reduction engendered could be properly faced.


Footprinting at the Gwydir Street Party, July 2005

Excitement and sadness

It’s hard now to capture the excitement and hope of that period. The government was developing the Climate Change Bill (which became the Climate Change Act in 2008), funding was available for community groups trying new ideas, the energy of the environmental movement was focused on getting the outcome we needed at Copenhagen in 2009. Andy and I believed, naively, that our organisation would be short-lived, not because it would fail but because its work would become so mainstream and accepted that we would not be needed. Ten years on it is tempting to focus on what has gone wrong – the difficulties in our own organisation, the failure at Copenhagen, the retreat by the UK government from deep engagement with the issue, the seemingly inexorable rise in carbon emissions – but perhaps it is also important to celebrate what has been achieved, albeit at a small scale.

The Carbon Conversations project lives on, managed now by The Surefoot Effect CIC. Akashi, Shilpa Shah’s ground-breaking project for CCF which ran from 2006-2008 has had a ripple effect in the environmental movement in how work with people from BAME and faith groups is approached. Psychosocial approaches are now championed powerfully by the Climate Psychology Alliance and psychology generally is on the agenda when climate change is discussed.

Raise a glass

We are no longer part of Cambridge Carbon Footprint so we will not be celebrating ten years with them. (We parted company in 2011 when its trustees decided that they were no longer interested in the psychosocial methods we had pioneered and wanted to get rid of the Carbon Conversations project.) However, we wish them well and when we’re back at CAT at the end of this month we’ll raise a glass to all who helped us get our work off the ground and hope that in another ten years organisations working on climate change will no longer need to exist.

In Time for Tomorrow?

December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

My blog has been quiet over the last six months. The reason? I’ve been writing a book with Andy Brown, In Time for Tomorrow? which will be out on January 14th, price £11.99.itft cover mid res

Here are some of the nice things people are saying about it:

“This lovely handbook covers it all, with sage guidance on delving into climate debates, reducing your own carbon footprint, and encouraging community action. It reckons honestly with the psychological impacts of a crisis that is far too easy for many of us to deny in our everyday lives…” Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and The Shock Doctrine.

“…truly remarkable…explores the landscape of hope…generates lasting enthusiasm…” George Marshall, author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

Order a copy for £11.99, including p&p by clicking the button below.

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

Or come to one of our launch events and get a copy signed by the authors:

Cambridge: Monday 9th February, 6pm – 7.30pm. Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. In time for tomorrow: Why is climate change so easy to ignore? A talk and reception with Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown. Further details from Rosie Amos

Oxford: Thursday, 12th February 2015, 7:00 – 9:00 pm, Blackwell’s Bookshop, 51 Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BQ. To book click here

Edinburgh: Thursday, 19th February 2015, 5.00 – 7.00 pm, Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI), High School Yards, Edinburgh EH1 1LZ. To book  click here.

More about the book

Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown offer empathy, encouragement and a practical path to anyone who is concerned about climate change, but can feel lost, angry or powerless. Written for their ground-breaking Carbon Conversations groups, In Time for Tomorrow? will help you minimise your impact, confront everyday denial, and give you the courage to speak out.

214 pp, full colour, illustrated with more than 80 stories from people initiating change in their personal and collective lives.

In Time for Tomorrow, by Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown, published by The Surefoot Effect, ISBN 978-0-9931211 0-4, £11.99.

What’s wrong with us? Review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate is a tour de force of uncompromising argument, backed by penetrating analysis, a gift for story-telling and a deep, human empathy for those who are suffering now – and will suffer in the future – from the depredations of a turbo-charged capitalism that is ideologically unwilling and practically unable to deal with climate change.

The systematic sabotage of neo-liberalism

Her central thesis is straightforward – neo-liberal capitalism, with its dependence on fossil fuels and its need for continuous growth, is unable to tackle climate change. Free-market fundamentalism has spent the last thirty years removing regulation, rubbishing the public sector, promoting unsustainable growth, destroying collective solidarity and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Its practices have attacked and undermined the very tools – state action, planning and investment – that are urgently needed to bring climate change under control. Its ideology has made us doubt our capacities for collective action and undermined our values of solidarity and human kindness. It has, she says, “…systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.”

Klein is clear that only concerted national and international programmes of regulation, state investment and planning, comparable to the powers taken by UK and US governments during the Second World War, have any hope of making the annual 8-10% reductions in emissions that are now needed to bring climate change under control. She sees further than this however. She argues that tackling climate change and tackling inequality and social justice are part of the same struggle and she brings a sense of enthusiasm and possibility to this challenge. The good solutions to our climate problems could also bring lives that are more just, more equal and more worth living to far more people than currently enjoy them.

Klein is not blind to the benefits that capitalism has brought to society and she is not proposing the destruction of everything that characterises our current economic system. She does however wish to see the back of the free-market fundamentalist version that has ruled the globe for the last thirty years. And she is clear that it will not leave the stage quietly. Her interviews with participants at the Heartland Institute’s meetings are chilling indeed. She is in no doubt about the struggle that we face. And she is in no doubt about the urgent need to build a political movement that cuts across the boundaries of our existing concerns.

From ecological amnesia to radical change

As Klein herself acknowledges many of her arguments are not new. This is territory that others have trodden before but she makes the arguments with renewed vigour and honesty and draws many threads together with meticulous research, compelling stories, vivid prose and a sense of hope and possibility that has been lacking from much writing on the climate in the years since Copenhagen 2009. One of the most interesting parts to me was her admission of her own past blindness to climate change and her curiosity about the mechanisms for this ‘ecological amnesia’ as she calls it. Klein understands that our psychological defences and our capacity for disavowal play a part in our collective failure to address the problem. But this is only one of many insights that Klein weaves into this complex and riveting book. Her understanding of the way that corporations work, her grasp of complex trade agreements, her capacity to outline the science and her historical understanding of our assault on nature – all these make her book stand out. But for me it is her empathy with the lives of ordinary people and the way she tells their stories as she makes the arguments for radical, long-term change that spoke to my heart.

In a week where the UK government has published its proposals for the Paris round of negotiations with the depressing statement that growth and decarbonisation are ‘both sides of the same coin’, this is a must-read book for anyone serious about making Paris deliver on what the world, its biosystems and its people actually need.

You can hear Naomi Klein speak about This Changes Everything in London on October 6th and in Oxford on October 8th.

Who’s responsible for the green crap?

December 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Climate change is often seen as an environmental issue. Why such a limited view? Many of its harms are a question of justice. Most of the solutions will come through political agreement. Our out-of-control consumption is a question of economics and desire. Our complicity in catastrophe is a mix of ideology, ignorance and anxiety.

Yet the words – ‘green levy’ ‘green taxes’ ‘green business’ and ‘green crap’ – resonate across the media along with the suggestion that this is all about some dispensable polar bears, some obscure insects and a bunch of people in woolly hats.

The green ghetto
Over the last few months I’ve heard a number of people suggest that environmentalists are somehow to blame for the fact that climate change is seen as an environmental issue. Climate change needs to come out of the ‘green ghetto’, they argue. Environmentalists have captured the green agenda, they complain. Environmentalists ‘put people off’ with their strident demands.

This one has the fingerprints of our old friend projection all over it. Blame is being offloaded by the bucket-load.
If you enquire a bit more deeply about who exactly is at fault, answers are not forthcoming. Is it the RSPB? No, they say. The Wildlife Trust then? No – not that kind of environmentalist. Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace then? No – they think FOE and Greenpeace do good work. Who do they mean? Bill McKibben? Jonathan Porritt? Caroline Lucas? No – they quite like all of them. Who then? They struggle. Maybe it’s the climate camp people. But they haven’t been around for over three years, I say, and there were only ever a handful of them. The argument rapidly collapses. My interlocutor is confused.


It isn’t the environmentalists who have labelled climate change an environmental issue at all. It’s the powerful who cynically frame it as belonging to a ‘green fringe’. These are the people who talk about ‘green crap’. Some of them do so in order to dismiss climate change out of hand, some of them do so from their half-hearted commitment to an issue that challenges their assumptions about how the world works. In a week where the Guardian reported that a mere 90 companies (primarily fossil-fuel companies) have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases generated in the industrial age, we should not be surprised at such obfuscation.

In psychological terms the process of projection occurs when one person attributes a feeling, a characteristic, an action or a responsibility to someone it doesn’t really belong to. ‘I’m not angry, you are.’ ‘He’s the most careless person I know.’ In the process called projective identification, the person who is the object of the projection comes to feel that they are indeed as described. “Perhaps I am angry…” “Maybe I am careless…” Similarly we find people from environmental organisations wondering if they are to blame for the marginalisation of climate change in the so-called ‘green ghetto’ and assuming responsibility for emerging from it.

Time to break out

Minorities live in ghettos not from their own choice but because people more powerful confine them there. If climate change is locked in a green ghetto it is not because environmentalists have put it there but because the powerful prefer to place climate change where they believe its implications will not touch them. It’s time for an uprising not an apology.

Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

October 28, 2013 § 8 Comments

Fuel poverty, along with fuel price increases, has been much in the news. But is it fuel poverty or fuel affluence that we should really be concerned about – the fuel poor or the fuel rich?

There is no doubt that fuel poverty is a serious problem. To be fuel poor is to suffer. Cold affects health. Respiratory problems, mobility problems and cardiovascular problems are all made worse. Worries about whether it’s OK to turn the heating on and whether bills can be paid are a recurrent, debilitating anxiety for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tackling fuel poverty doesn’t reduce emissions

But why are fuel poverty and carbon reduction so often spoken of in the same breath? Why is tackling fuel poverty suggested as part of the solution to climate change? The truth is that tackling fuel poverty makes little difference to carbon emissions. Poor people, living in substandard housing (rated E, F or G) generally have a fixed budget for their heating, rarely enough to keep their home warm. Through necessity, they under-heat their homes. When their homes are thermally upgraded, they spend the same amount of money. The difference is that they are now able to live at a temperature that offers them a decent quality of life. One study found that fuel use amongst the poor actually increased slightly following upgrades, possibly because people could feel more confident in a well-insulated house that keeping the heating on for a little longer would not actually break the bank.

The hidden problem of the fuel rich

So if dealing with substandard housing – which must be done – does not reduce carbon emissions amongst poor people, why is it treated as if it does? We might suspect that something else is going on: responsibility is being deflected from a problem that powerful people would prefer not to face. The problem is the fuel rich.

There are two categories of the fuel rich we might consider. Those who live in large, un-insulated houses but who can afford they bills they incur, and keep themselves snugly comfortable by pumping extraordinary quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. And those who own many of the houses lived in by the fuel poor – the landlord, rentier class who achieve their carbon-polluting lifestyles on the backs of their vulnerable tenants.

If the fuel rich insulated their own homes, there would a genuine drop in carbon emissions. They could keep their homes just as cosy at a fraction of the carbon pollution. But mostly, they don’t. Ask any architect or engineer who has proposed even the most ordinary energy-saving measures to a wealthy client, refurbishing an existing dwelling. For every one who agrees, there are a dozen who don’t. They can’t be bothered. The additional cost will add to the price of the job. The marble worktops, gold-plated taps and £50,000 kitchen units are essential. The insulation – and the environment – can go hang.

And the landlord class who own many of the properties lived in by the fuel poor? Despite tax breaks (Landlords Energy Saving Allowance) and the inducements of the Green Deal – which bizarrely would see tenants paying through bills for the improvements – most landlords do not act. Why? Greed, selfishness, stupidity and a disregard for the lives of others are all candidates.

Deflecting attention from the real carbon polluters

Psychologically we are in familiar territory. David Cameron can wring his hands. George Osborne can offer an extra jumper. The rich simultaneously affect concern while deflecting attention from their own culpability.

So what should a concerned environmentalist do? If you want to campaign for carbon reduction make your target the fuel rich, not the fuel poor. Alleviating fuel poverty is a noble aim but it does not, in itself, reduce carbon emissions. Focus your sights on those who are the cause of the problem.

Genuine carbon reduction is almost always a question of social justice. Whether we are looking at the relationship of wealthy countries like the UK to poor ones like Tanzania, or the relationship between the affluent and the disadvantaged in the UK, then the rich must reduce their impact so that the poor can achieve a decent, human standard of living.




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