Talking to friends about climate change

April 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself engaged in a number of difficult conversations with friends. I met someone who one day was celebrating the purchase of some cheap outfits from Matalan and the next horrified at the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. Another friend is enthusiastically exploring consultancy opportunities in China. A third has flown half across the world for two days work in London and intends to do so again, later in the year.

Opening up difficult conversations

I repeat the same advice to people who ask me how to deal with conversations like this: listen; open up the conversation; try to understand the other person’s position; empathise with the dilemmas; explore the conflicts; try not to get angry. I still think this is good advice but are there occasions when it’s not appropriate? Definitely. There are times when you need to challenge someone, times when you should get angry and times when you might risk falling out with even your closest friends.

As a therapist I spend a lot of time trying to understand other people’s experience. Empathy is essential. It’s critical to appreciate the complexity of someone’s mixed and conflicting feelings. You need to have compassion for the anxiety that produces paralysis and for the fragile self that struggles with self-criticism and self-doubt. You need to attend to the unconscious roots of seemingly irrational behaviour and self-destructive actions. You listen; you suspend judgment; you try to help someone through the tangle to a more creative solution.

Authenticity and truthfulness

But there are also times in therapy when you challenge someone. Authenticity and truthfulness matter as well and it doesn’t help to be a pushover or to collude with someone’s self-destructive impulse. I once listened for a long time to a man explaining his distress at losing his driving licence following a series of speeding incidents. He was struggling with alcohol but had somehow avoided being breathalysed and had to date succeeded in avoiding accidents too. After a while of listening to his self-justifications, I said ‘Actually, I think the court was right.’ He was angry with me, but I was also standing up for a better part of himself, the part that knew that he was dangerous behind the wheel.

Understanding the defensive moves

These situations are always complicated. Sometimes a friend is trying to wind you up. If they can succeed in becoming the victim of your anger they can feel relieved of any guilt they feel. You will be in the wrong for attacking them. They will be the innocent party. Sometimes a friend is seeking your absolution. They want to be accepted and forgiven for acts they feel are not really justifiable. They treat you as a parent who will offer compassion for their powerlessness or their need to be special. Sometimes a friend is asking you to collude. They are inviting you to share in their denial, encouraging you to ease their guilt by joining them in pleasures it might be better to forfeit.

In the course of one of these conversations you will encounter all the defensive moves that Stoll-Kleeman and colleagues[i] describe so well in their discussion of climate change denial. Things like:

  • It’s the clothing company’s responsibility not mine
  • If I don’t buy from Matalan, the garment workers won’t have jobs
  • I’m too small to make a difference
  • The plane was going anyway
  • China needs people like us to put them on the right track
  • My contribution is unique – I have to go there to make it
  • I have to make a living
  • If I don’t do this, someone else will
  • It’s too late for mitigation

It is important to address these objections sympathetically, explore their origins, tease out their emotional charge and the social constraints that reinforce them. But it is also important to hold your ground, know when you are being manipulated and when to offer a challenge.

Gregory Bateson

In the 1970s, systems theorist and polymath Gregory Bateson expressed this moral challenge very clearly in an appeal which drew, surprisingly, on St Paul. If ever there was a man who understood the intricacies of both human relationships and ecology, it was Bateson, but here he is with a crystal clear statement of what I have elsewhere called ‘the ‘no’ of nature’[ii] – the incontrovertible fact of the limits of nature which challenge our narcissism, our phantasies of immortality and our blindness.

“The hardest saying in the bible is that of St Paul, addressing the Galatians: ‘God is not mocked,’ and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that ‘If I didn’t, somebody else would have’. The processes of ecology are not mocked.”  Bateson 1970 p.480[iii]

Sometimes this is a challenge which needs to be spoken straight.


[i] Stoll-Kleeman, S., O’Riordan T. and Jaeger, C (2001) The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11: 107-117.

[ii] Randall, Rosemary (2012) Great Expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In Weintrobe, Sally (2012) Engaging with Climate Change. London: Routledge.

[iii] Bateson, Gregory, (1970) Ecology and flexibility in urban civilisation, in Steps to an ecology of mind. 1973, Granada publishing P.480.

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§ 5 Responses to Talking to friends about climate change

  • So – how did you respond to your friends?

  • Gillian Kent says:

    Thanks, Ro, for another wonderfully clear explanation of issues we all need to clarify for ourselves. So glad I know you

    G xx

  • green2envy says:

    Ro I love your articles, you often articulate exactly what I’m experiencing or feeling about this epidemic of climate change denial. I am fascinated by the psychology of change, what makes someone take action and others not…I have been in the field of sustainability and climate change for 20 years and I try to live a life that is lighter on the planet. But I have colleagues that are working in the same field and who know, better than anyone, where we are headed and what the impacts of their actions are, yet few follow their own advice. They drive SUVS, do nothing to minimize their energy use or use local or biodegradable Products, they don’t recycle or seek out alternative ways of living lightly. The denial and hypocrisy is there even amongst “the learned ones”. What chance do we have if even these guys don’t practice what they preach? It’s a disgrace….

  • rorandall2 says:

    Interesting that I wasn’t explicit about what I said to my friends. Perhaps it felt too personal. But basically – with one I completely lost it, with another I managed a calm, assertive repetition that I felt their position was untenable and with the third it was a mixture of trying to unravel their confusion and making my own position absolutely clear.

  • rorandall2 says:

    I sometimes think that paradoxically it’s the pain of working in this field that leads some people into this kind of behaviour. It’s very hard to live day by day with the knowledge of where the world is headed. Some people manage to work through and cope with the feelings of loss and despair – a difficult process that involves acknowledging the part one’s own life plays in causing damage. Other people defend against the pain by constructing a sense of themselves as very special, unique, someone to whom the usual rules don’t apply. If they think about it at all they imagine that their contribution magically balances the damage caused by their everyday life. They tell themselves that the flight is necessary to bring their knowledge to others, that their SUV is necessary for their field equipment, or that they haven’t got time with all this sustainability work to insulate the loft. This protects them from feeling the loss they witness every day, protects them from their own sense of powerlessness and protects them from their own despairing feelings. Keeping manically busy, ‘spreading the word’means that you don’t have to unravel and work through your own complicity in the social structures and economic systems that are causing the problems. Sometimes I can hold this understanding and work with people in our field who display this kind of behaviour. Other days, like you, I just want to sound off. And sometimes I lose it completely and rant at the wrong person.

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