September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago George Monbiot suggested in the Guardian that we should think about the psychological motivations of fracking enthusiasts. Spot on. As I wrote 18 months ago, the language of the debate is determinedly, and demeaningly masculine. But I think there is more to it than the macho fixation that George suggests. This masculine strutting is, after all, familiar from every other large engineering project you care to think of: nuclear power, space exploration, the channel tunnel. It chimes easily with the desire of large corporations to invest large amounts of money. It makes small men feel big. It’s familiar, doable and profitable.
With fracking however, government has tried to appeal to the public through the rhetoric of energy security, claiming that if we fail to exploit this resource, hard-working families will be priced out of energy, pensioners will die from hypothermia and the nation will be in hock to unreliable foreigners. Baloney, of course, since all energy is now traded on international markets and home-production guarantees nothing about price. It’s the framing that’s interesting – the appeal to security.
There’s an attempt to weld together the gung-ho metaphor of exploration with the paternalistic metaphor of security for those who are deserve it: those who belong to ‘us’ and not to ‘them’. They thus hoped to appeal simultaneously to their neo-liberal financial backers and to their traditionalist, rural constituents. This has of course back-fired, as those rural constituents feel anything but secure as they see their pleasant homes and stable communities threatened by industrialisation they would prefer located elsewhere.
A TROUBLESOME FRAME
As Alex Randall pointed out in a piece for Open Democracy 3 years ago, energy security is a troublesome frame. In this instance it has upset the apple cart for the right, but it can equally well do so for the left.
The psychological associations of appeals to security are to childhood memories of safety and care, the idea that someone will take care of us, provide for us, make sure that nothing goes badly wrong. Many of the Tory party’s traditional supporters have an ambivalent attitude to these associations. Sibling issues emerge in the fear that others may take what is rightfully yours and the security agenda slips easily into a jingoistic defence of ‘our’ energy and from there to the idea that it is justifiable to achieve energy security through armed conflict if necessary.
COMPETING MEANINGS FOR SECURITY
Alex points out in his article that while for people on the left a security agenda implies peace-building, conflict resolution and a fair distribution of resources, for those on the right it means achieving stability by any route necessary – political bullying, economic blackmail or military intervention.
In the fracking debacle, it’s the right who have come unstuck in their assumption that the security agenda will play out in the way they expected, but the left should be equally aware that this frame will not necessarily take you where you expect. You mess with people’s most basic fears at your peril.
July 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
It’s a commonplace in economics that growth in GDP is a good thing. And it’s a commonplace in psychology that awkward topics of conversation will be avoided. If something upsets the status quo – expect a defence.
There are few topics as awkward as the relationship between economic growth and climate change. As economies grow, they use more energy. And sadly, neither improvements in efficiency, techno-wizardry, or a move towards renewables is likely to solve the problem. Carbon savings made in one place free up resources to be used elsewhere. This year’s efficiency improvement is swallowed up in next year’s growth. This is what is known as the rebound effect. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
I meet a lot of people who tell me they are ‘hopeless with numbers’ or ‘useless at maths’. There seems to be little shame in the admission. I’m not brilliant at maths either. I struggled in the remedial ‘O’ level class and was relieved to be allowed to drop the subject in the sixth form. I associated it with dull blokes who tucked their trousers into their socks when cycling and earnest girls who preferred the chemistry lab to sexual chemistry.
The environment world sometimes seems full of the same dullness. People who think that telling me that the UK produces enough rubbish every hour to fill the Albert Hall, will change my mind about where to drop that aluminium can. Or that the way to my ecological heart is to stun me with the news that a tonne of CO2 would fill my house.
It’s easy to mock, but staying ignorant of numbers can also be a way of defending against the gravity of one’s impact on the climate. Here are some of the things I’ve been told in groups and interviews where we calculated people’s actual carbon footprints:
- “I think one’s spiritual connection to the environment is more important than the actual numbers.”
- “Is 15 tonnes really worse than 10 tonnes?”
- “I think numbers can distract you from the politics.”
- “Numbers are so abstract – they make my head ache and they don’t motivate me.”
- “I’d rather live an ethical life than get obsessed by numbers.”
Each of these people was struggling with the news that their carbon footprint was above average. Some of the statements contain interesting truths. Some are nonsense. Behind them lies the anxiety of being a poor environmental citizen, being asked to make changes that are hard or being accused of selfishness. Believing that numbers don’t matter is culturally acceptable and allows people to segue easily away from their discomfort.
As a teenager passing my maths GCE exam involved facing anxieties about self-image and about failure. Only then could I drop my defence that numbers were stupid and unsexy and enjoy my limited ability to use them creatively. Some people face a similar task when confronted with their environmental impact. They can’t grapple with the realities that the numbers reveal unless they can also find a way to cope with the anxiety and discomfort. So instead of realising that they have the power to make a real difference they hide behind the belief that the numbers are too difficult, boring or stupid to concern themselves with.
If you can bear it, here are just three numbers to think about.
- 15 tonnes – the average personal UK footprint – the one you are likely to have if you have an average UK income.
- 4 tonnes – the average world footprint.
- 1.5 tonnes – the level of a sustainable footprint.
If you visit the WWF website, you can make a rough calculation of your own footprint. Or you can join a Carbon Conversations group and discover, in the company of others, that it is possible to make changes to your life and that the numbers are not as frightening as you thought.
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.
- 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.
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.
April 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
Radio Ecoshock is a Canadian station run by activist Alex Smith, which syndicates to numerous community radio stations mainly in Canada and the United States but also to Resonance FM 104.4 in London.
You can listen to the interview here http://www.ecoshock.net/affiliates/20130417EcoshockPart1.mp3 or if you’re quick, catch it 7 am Thursday morning (18th April) on Resonance FM 104.4.
It’s a good one! Alex is a great interviewer and runs a terrific programme.
March 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
Last week government chief scientist John Beddington stepped down with words similar to those of the ‘perfect storm’ speech with which he took office in 2009. Then he warned that the threats of climate change combined with food, water and energy shortages would converge in 2030 in a storm of social and political upheaval. This time, in an interview with John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme his time frame had shifted. Although he made the usual caveat ‘We can’t attribute any one event…’ Beddington was clearer than many scientists who appear on radio or TV that the strange weather the UK has experienced over the last 18 months is the effect of a changing climate. Unusual drought, followed by unusual rain, followed by unusual cold is the kind of unpredictable variability that the science would predict, he said.
Beddington was unusual in making such a clear statement. Why don’t more scientists do so? Why are they so reluctant to describe current events as due to climate change? Often they cling to words like risk, bias, probability and uncertainty, which have quite different meanings in science and in ordinary language. They explain this as scientific rigour. They emphasise that they are not crystal gazers but rational men (they are usually men) offering the best opinion from what they have discovered. Science, they say, must stay neutral if it is to retain the confidence of the public. It must not get mixed up in policy or politics. It must not overstate the case.
Mixing science and politics
In other fields however scientists are not so modest, nor so careful. As Hilary and Steven Rose point out in their book Genes, Cells and Brains , some geneticists, pharmacologists and neuroscientists are keen to promise the moon, on the flimsiest of evidence, when there’s an investment opportunity in the offing. They are happy to be mixed up in techno-scientific entrepreneurialism.
The truth is that the mix-up has always been there. Science developed in lockstep with capitalism. Its discoveries fuelled the new technologies that transformed the world from the mid 18th century onwards. Profits from these successful enterprises were funnelled back into universities and research departments, resulting in new discoveries and new opportunities for capital to exploit. For the most part, scientists have thrived in this relationship.
What is different for climate scientists is that their research – if they follow through on its implications – places them out of kilter with those who might previously have seemed their natural allies. The news from climate science suggests that late capitalism with its endless pursuit of growth and its ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources is the problem. It has to change. Industrialists, financiers, politicians and the public all need to be challenged about their stake in a system that has become unsustainable.
Implicatory denial and psychic gymnastics
It is hardly surprising that climate scientists have been reluctant to be the bearers of this particular piece of bad news. In a recent post on the Climate Psychology Alliance website Paul Hoggett makes the point that implicatory denial – the term is the late Stan Cohen’s – is our common heritage when it comes to any distressing event. It is not the choice of a crazy minority but the default position of most of us and I include myself here. Most of us acknowledge briefly the truth of the news from Syria, statistics on child poverty or climate change. But we would rather not follow through with the implications. We don’t want to connect world events to our own actions. We don’t want to acknowledge our complicity in the disasters that befall others, the relationship of our comfort to their suffering or the need for our lives to change and for us to become politically engaged. In order to stay sane, we turn the page quickly.
We each have our own particular version of the psychic gymnastics that achieve this, our own way of holding incompatible facts in separate compartments of the mind. For scientists, turning away from the social and political implications of their knowledge can be achieved by stressing scientific doubt, concentrating on the uncertainties and reminding us of their objectivity. We shouldn’t be surprised when they do this: they merely demonstrate a defence that they share with the rest of us. But we should applaud when they break clear and speak out.