Great Expectations: how do people come to terms with ecological debt?

October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over the summer I interviewed a number of people about their experiences of discovering ‘ecological debt’. The term is a useful shorthand for describing the unequal relationship between the ‘developed’ nations whose lifestyles use far more than a fair share of the world’s resources, and the countries, habitats and eco-systems that are devastated as a result. I also collected stories on the website What’s Your Pip Story? (If you want to add a story, please do.)

The complex systems that deliver us a t-shirt or a new tv obscure our indebted relationship to the biosphere. It’s not easy to connect a Saturday shopping trip or a longed-for holiday with ecological disaster. It’s a minority of people who are aware of the facts or who allow them more than a fleeting place in their mind.

I was curious about the psychological process people might go through first in letting such awareness in and then in managing to live with it. The resulting paper was presented last weekend (October 16h/17th) at a conference called Engaging with Climate Change, organised by the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

In the paper I draw a parallel with the experience of Pip in Dicken’s novel Great Expectations who has to discover that his unexpected good fortune and education as a gentleman comes from a source quite different from that he believed. He is indebted to someone he had hoped to forget. In coming to terms with this discovery, Pip runs the gamut of uncomfortable and disturbing emotion. He experiences shock, disbelief, denial, despair, anxiety, guilt and grief before becoming able to make good the debt he owes. The process changes him. He has to rethink his identity, his values and his purpose in life.

Some of the people I spoke to had indeed gone through similar life-changing experiences. Once brought into consciousness, the awareness of ecological debt would not go away. One person described it as like “…opening a credit card bill and discovering that you’d run up a bill for hundreds of thousands of pounds.” Many people told moving stories of their struggle to come to terms with and then act on the unwelcome knowledge.

Although there were similarities between Pip’s experiences in Great Expectations and those of the people I spoke to, the differences were profound as well. Whereas Pip’s story has a resolution, there is no resolution of ecological debt. However involved people are politically, whatever changes they make to their personal impact, the trauma of what is happening remains and it is extremely painful to remain in contact with this.

The wider question that I discuss in the paper is whether this painful emotional process is necessary if people are to engage with ecological debt and commit to the necessary changes. At one level I believe it is but argue that it could be made much easier to bear, through more appropriate political action.

The full paper will be available shortly. Contact me for details.

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