Defeat and defeatism

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The mood as we approach the Durban negotiations is sombre. Coming to terms psychologically with the defeat at Copenhagen will not change the political outcomes but could make a difference to campaigners’ capacities to continue the struggle.

The word defeat was rarely used in the aftermath of COP15. People wrote of disappointment and a balance of positives and negatives. Sometimes they spoke of failure but more frequently of hopes for the emissions pledges and for Cancun. As we approach Durban it may be worth remembering the hope, anticipation and enormous hard work that characterised 2009. Many people gave everything they had to campaigns to achieve a just solution and entered 2010 not just shocked, bewildered and dismayed but exhausted as well. The agreement that should have framed and supported the coming years’ work had evaporated. For many individuals and organisations, nothing made much sense any more. Whether you were involved in political lobbying, in direct action or in work on mitigation it was hard to get a clear sense of direction. In the two years since COP15 small organisations have imploded or become less active, leadership and political focus seem lacking, people have drifted away from the movement and some of its key figures have indulged in unpleasant recriminations – for example Mark Lynas’ attacks on campaigners in his recent book ‘The God Species’. While there are undoubtedly political reasons to explain these phenomena, the psychological ones are also worth considering. They relate to the experience of traumatic defeat.

Naming trauma

Psychologically, for a trauma to be recovered from it has to be named, recognised and understood. The feelings that accompany it must be experienced and witnessed and time taken to live through the painful process of realising that what you hoped and worked for is lost. Un-named, unrecognised, misunderstood or repressed a defeat of this kind can exercise a corrosive influence, foster an atmosphere of blame and recrimination and encourage false hopes.

Laura Martin Munillo, in one of the few articles to openly use the word defeat, captures the difficulty of acknowledging it. In a post written shortly after COP15 for Stakeholder Forum she says in one sentence “In Copenhagen we lost all.” A few paragraphs later she asserts, “None of the above issues have been lost.” In the first state of numbness and shock that defeat brings, this moving between acceptance and denial of the truth is common. It needs to be followed however by increasing acceptance of the reality, a working through of the painful feelings of anger, guilt and despair before the changed and much more difficult world can be engaged with. The alternative is to live in states of illusion or denial, to become bitter, to withdraw, to become depressed and hopeless or to indulge in blame, often of one’s colleagues and comrades.

Moving beyond despair

To speak of defeat often brings accusations of defeatism but in fact it is the lack of acknowledgment that produces defeatism. In ‘Requiem for a Species’ Clive Hamilton writes movingly of the process of coming to terms with the truth that it is now extremely unlikely that warming can be kept within 3° let alone 2°. His mantra ‘ Despair, Accept, Act’ could be taken as a template for the climate justice movement. What matters is to recognise both publicly and in a personal, inner sense that COP15 was a defeat, that the political process failed, that the enemies of climate justice gained ground and that democracy was too corrupted to deliver what was needed.

The public landscape

The psychological landscape was also changed for the public by COP15. If you had so far paid the issue little attention, then COP15 confirmed either that you had been right to do so or it opened you to the increasingly confident opinions of those who said it was a conspiracy of nonsense cooked up by self-interested scientists and campaigners. If you were one of the majority who agreed that it was a serious concern, then COP15 left you with your anxieties unresolved and the likelihood that you would resort to common psychological defences as a means of controlling them – repression of the knowledge, denial of its significance, projection of responsibility elsewhere. We see confirmation of this in surveys which report diminishing numbers of people concerned about climate change and in anecdotal evidence of increased difficulty in engaging the public.

Truth and strength

What was required after COP15 was a strong, truthful political statement that acknowledged publicly the incredible work of all those who had struggled to make it succeed but also acknowledged the reality of the defeat and laid out the scale of the work that therefore remained. The absence of this kind of leadership has created a psychological situation where public, political leaders and activists are all vulnerable to being caught in denial, not of climate change but of defeat.

The acknowledgment of defeat should not be a source for shame or a cause of blame. Rather it is the means by which strength can be found to continue to act.  Only when despair is spoken and shared can it be overcome and a realistic determination to continue be found. Only then is it possible to put aside false hopes and re-find the qualities of courage, perseverance, resource and skill that extreme situations demand.

Our task may no longer be to stop climate change’s devastating effects but to work for justice in the face of their likelihood. Some of the things we do may not alter. We still need international agreements. We still need to insulate houses. We still need to talk, argue and convince and take part in acts of civil disobedience. But the psychological place from which we do that may need to change.


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§ One Response to Defeat and defeatism

  • Purple Ink says:

    It’s truly disappointing that differences and defeat are replacing solutions COP17, just when nations urgently need joint action to combat climate change, the leaders and delegates do everything to prevent it.

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