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.

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