Finding hope from the dark side – psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives on climate change

September 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Can grappling with the darker side of human experience help us understand the inadequate responses to climate change that we see all around us? A new book – Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives, editor Sally Weintrobe – to which I have contributed a chapter, suggests that it can.

Why is climate change so hard to deal with?

In general the inadequate public response to climate change is located variously as an information deficit, a difficulty in appreciating dangers that are distant in time or place, or as a tendency for people to seek explanations that confirm their existing cultural assumptions/status quo. Meanwhile the lack of an adequate political response is usually attributed to lack of political will and leadership, the difficulty of complex negotiations or the operation of crude nationalism and economic self-interest.

Most of these explanations hold us in the cognitive, rational realm. They don’t ask the deeper and more uncomfortable questions about the subjective experience of confronting an issue as life-changing and disturbing as this one or allow us to see the structures of feeling that characterise apparently rational political processes.

Perspectives from the unconscious

Psychoanalysis helps us explore the dark underbelly of people’s reactions. Its model of the psyche as a place of inner conflict and unconscious drives where all is not as it appears, allows us to ask the awkward questions that help us connect personal responses to their cultural context and to the socio-political landscape. It helps us examine questions such as:

  • How do people defend themselves against frightening or distressing news? What lies behind the crude assumptions of ‘denial’ or ‘apathy’?
  •  What place do the darker emotions – greed, envy, destructiveness, selfishness – play in maintaining an unsustainable status quo?
  •  How do people cope with feelings of insignificance, anxiety, despair, loss and grief at what may happen?
  •  What is hidden by assumptions of rationality and by the dominant rational discourses of behaviour change and economic self-interest?
  • What are the structures of feeling and defence that characterise the cultural, political and social systems, the policy decisions and international negotiations that have failed to deliver or which have opposed action?

Time to stop being afraid

Psychoanalysis suggests that it is important to stop being afraid of our darker feelings and bring them into the light of shared experience where they can be dealt with creatively. In my own contribution to this book ‘The psychodynamics of ecological debt’ I explore the experiences of those who try to come to terms with what is called ‘ecological debt’ and the processing of feelings of shock, disbelief, shame and guilt. In the interviews I conducted the pain of living in close contact with the knowledge of climate change was forcefully apparent, along with the depth of personal change demanded and the need for appropriate means of support.

In other articles key contributors explore the historical parallels of current denial, the effects anxiety can have on our thinking, the role of a widened idea of perversion in understanding political stasis, the nature of the human relationship to other-than-human nature, the way apathy defends against distress and the way late capitalism relies on the encouragement of narcissism. Responses from a wonderfully diverse multi-disciplinary team of academics from outside psychoanalysis make this a truly rich book.

The emergence of hope

Psychoanalysis has much to offer both to our understanding of the social processes at work in our failures to deal properly with climate change and in the creation of what I sometimes call the ‘safe spaces’ that could allow difficult emotional experiences to be confronted and lived through and the political reality to be properly engaged with. Although this is a book which deals with a dark subject it also offers a kind of hope – the hope that comes from a stronger connection to reality, an ethical realism that is in the end more sustaining than illusion.

Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. Editor Sally Weintrobe. Routledge: New Library of Psychoanalysis 2012. 272 pages. paperback: £26.99 • ISBN 978-0-415-66762-3 ebook: £26.99 • ISBN 978-0-203-09440-2

Contributors: Jon Alexander, Michael Brearley, Irma Brenman Pick, Ted Benton, Erik Bichard, Stanley Cohen, Tom Crompton, Mike Hannis, Clive Hamilton, Stephan Harrison, Bob Hinshelwood, Paul Hoggett, John Keene, Johannes Lehtonen, Renee Lertzman, Angela Mauss-Hanke, Rosemary Randall, Margaret Rustin, Michael Rustin, John Steiner, Jukka Valimaki, Bob Ward and Sally Weintrobe.


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