Who’s responsible for the green crap?

December 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Climate change is often seen as an environmental issue. Why such a limited view? Many of its harms are a question of justice. Most of the solutions will come through political agreement. Our out-of-control consumption is a question of economics and desire. Our complicity in catastrophe is a mix of ideology, ignorance and anxiety.

Yet the words – ‘green levy’ ‘green taxes’ ‘green business’ and ‘green crap’ – resonate across the media along with the suggestion that this is all about some dispensable polar bears, some obscure insects and a bunch of people in woolly hats.

The green ghetto
Over the last few months I’ve heard a number of people suggest that environmentalists are somehow to blame for the fact that climate change is seen as an environmental issue. Climate change needs to come out of the ‘green ghetto’, they argue. Environmentalists have captured the green agenda, they complain. Environmentalists ‘put people off’ with their strident demands.

This one has the fingerprints of our old friend projection all over it. Blame is being offloaded by the bucket-load.
If you enquire a bit more deeply about who exactly is at fault, answers are not forthcoming. Is it the RSPB? No, they say. The Wildlife Trust then? No – not that kind of environmentalist. Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace then? No – they think FOE and Greenpeace do good work. Who do they mean? Bill McKibben? Jonathan Porritt? Caroline Lucas? No – they quite like all of them. Who then? They struggle. Maybe it’s the climate camp people. But they haven’t been around for over three years, I say, and there were only ever a handful of them. The argument rapidly collapses. My interlocutor is confused.

Projection

It isn’t the environmentalists who have labelled climate change an environmental issue at all. It’s the powerful who cynically frame it as belonging to a ‘green fringe’. These are the people who talk about ‘green crap’. Some of them do so in order to dismiss climate change out of hand, some of them do so from their half-hearted commitment to an issue that challenges their assumptions about how the world works. In a week where the Guardian reported that a mere 90 companies (primarily fossil-fuel companies) have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases generated in the industrial age, we should not be surprised at such obfuscation.

In psychological terms the process of projection occurs when one person attributes a feeling, a characteristic, an action or a responsibility to someone it doesn’t really belong to. ‘I’m not angry, you are.’ ‘He’s the most careless person I know.’ In the process called projective identification, the person who is the object of the projection comes to feel that they are indeed as described. “Perhaps I am angry…” “Maybe I am careless…” Similarly we find people from environmental organisations wondering if they are to blame for the marginalisation of climate change in the so-called ‘green ghetto’ and assuming responsibility for emerging from it.

Time to break out

Minorities live in ghettos not from their own choice but because people more powerful confine them there. If climate change is locked in a green ghetto it is not because environmentalists have put it there but because the powerful prefer to place climate change where they believe its implications will not touch them. It’s time for an uprising not an apology.

Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

October 28, 2013 § 8 Comments

Fuel poverty, along with fuel price increases, has been much in the news. But is it fuel poverty or fuel affluence that we should really be concerned about – the fuel poor or the fuel rich?

There is no doubt that fuel poverty is a serious problem. To be fuel poor is to suffer. Cold affects health. Respiratory problems, mobility problems and cardiovascular problems are all made worse. Worries about whether it’s OK to turn the heating on and whether bills can be paid are a recurrent, debilitating anxiety for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tackling fuel poverty doesn’t reduce emissions

But why are fuel poverty and carbon reduction so often spoken of in the same breath? Why is tackling fuel poverty suggested as part of the solution to climate change? The truth is that tackling fuel poverty makes little difference to carbon emissions. Poor people, living in substandard housing (rated E, F or G) generally have a fixed budget for their heating, rarely enough to keep their home warm. Through necessity, they under-heat their homes. When their homes are thermally upgraded, they spend the same amount of money. The difference is that they are now able to live at a temperature that offers them a decent quality of life. One study found that fuel use amongst the poor actually increased slightly following upgrades, possibly because people could feel more confident in a well-insulated house that keeping the heating on for a little longer would not actually break the bank.

The hidden problem of the fuel rich

So if dealing with substandard housing – which must be done – does not reduce carbon emissions amongst poor people, why is it treated as if it does? We might suspect that something else is going on: responsibility is being deflected from a problem that powerful people would prefer not to face. The problem is the fuel rich.

There are two categories of the fuel rich we might consider. Those who live in large, un-insulated houses but who can afford they bills they incur, and keep themselves snugly comfortable by pumping extraordinary quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. And those who own many of the houses lived in by the fuel poor – the landlord, rentier class who achieve their carbon-polluting lifestyles on the backs of their vulnerable tenants.

If the fuel rich insulated their own homes, there would a genuine drop in carbon emissions. They could keep their homes just as cosy at a fraction of the carbon pollution. But mostly, they don’t. Ask any architect or engineer who has proposed even the most ordinary energy-saving measures to a wealthy client, refurbishing an existing dwelling. For every one who agrees, there are a dozen who don’t. They can’t be bothered. The additional cost will add to the price of the job. The marble worktops, gold-plated taps and £50,000 kitchen units are essential. The insulation – and the environment – can go hang.

And the landlord class who own many of the properties lived in by the fuel poor? Despite tax breaks (Landlords Energy Saving Allowance) and the inducements of the Green Deal – which bizarrely would see tenants paying through bills for the improvements – most landlords do not act. Why? Greed, selfishness, stupidity and a disregard for the lives of others are all candidates.

Deflecting attention from the real carbon polluters

Psychologically we are in familiar territory. David Cameron can wring his hands. George Osborne can offer an extra jumper. The rich simultaneously affect concern while deflecting attention from their own culpability.

So what should a concerned environmentalist do? If you want to campaign for carbon reduction make your target the fuel rich, not the fuel poor. Alleviating fuel poverty is a noble aim but it does not, in itself, reduce carbon emissions. Focus your sights on those who are the cause of the problem.

Genuine carbon reduction is almost always a question of social justice. Whether we are looking at the relationship of wealthy countries like the UK to poor ones like Tanzania, or the relationship between the affluent and the disadvantaged in the UK, then the rich must reduce their impact so that the poor can achieve a decent, human standard of living.

 

 

IPCC report, hope and the left-right debate

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were hopeful in the run-up to publication of the new IPCC report that politicians would finally show leadership. At some level I shared that hope, but I also recognised the queasy unrealistic feeling I’d experienced during the collapse of the Copenhagen COP15 talks when I fantasised that Obama was going to fly in and settle everything for the good of humanity and the world. I knew it was a fantasy. And it grew in proportion to the hopelessness of the situation.

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground

For climate change to be dealt with, fossil fuels have to be left in the ground. The more you understand about the paradoxes of energy efficiency, the rebound effect and the dilemmas of economic growth, the less likely it seems that the current economic system and current economic models can cope with the problem. This may go some way to explaining the current preoccupation with the fact that climate change seems to have become an issue that belongs to the left.

For many years conservation and environmental concerns seemed non-party political. If anything, it was the left who – fearing that progress might be denied to working people and less developed nations – saw these concerns as a cover for reaction and inimical to the left-wing agenda. As the scale of the problem has become apparent, with its challenge to just about every norm and assumption of contemporary western life, it’s the right who are panicked by the (realistic) possibility that capitalism and the survival of humanity are incompatible. They’re choosing capitalism – head-in-the-sand, bone-headed, neo-liberal capitalism – and their method of attack is to deny the science.

Reframing the political debate

Two recent publications shed an interesting light. In a recent interview with Salon , Naomi Klein repeated her argument, (first made in an article in the Nation in 2011) that in cosying up to capital and espousing so-called market based solutions to climate change, the big green groups have failed to engage with the deeper problem – the fact that capitalism-as-we-know-it is incompatible with any real solution to climate change. The right meanwhile are only too aware of this incompatibility – hence their enthusiastic denial of the scientific facts.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) have published an interesting report ‘A new conversation with the centre-right’ which explores how discussion of climate change can be framed to appeal to an audience that is rapidly in danger of disappearing either into indifference or into the arms of their more extreme, denialist friends.

Both publications attempt to re-frame the political debate. COIN’s report recognises the importance of keeping the right talking and thinking outside the frame of denial. Klein’s challenge pushes the green establishment to wake up and put a critical economic hat on for once.

The ugly face of capitalism

Meanwhile, up in the Arctic, the ugliest face of capitalism, supported by corrupt government, tries to crush those who protest. As the Greenpeace activists face imprisonment on trumped up charges of piracy for their protest at the Gazprom rig, we can count ourselves warned. This is how capitalism behaves under threat.

I notice myself feeling weary. Hope and fantasy bear a troublesome relationship. The fantasy that publication of the IPCC report would see a resurgence of genuine leadership and a serious challenge to the status quo was comforting. It seemed to offer hope. In the same way, denialists hope that climate change isn’t happening, big green groups hope that market-based solutions will crack it, an apathetic public just hopes that it will all go away. Fantasists, all of us.

On the back foot, struggling and afraid, it is not surprising that fantasy is attractive. But in desperate times real hope can only come from a more sober place – from the recognition of a darker reality and our own humanity, from a belief that relationship, justice, equality, other species and habitats all still matter. We have what we have. What is, is.

It’s a fight, and it’s looking increasingly dirty.

Donations to Greenpeace can be made at http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/

Security, masculinity and the fracking debate

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.

ENERGY SECURITY

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.

Economic recovery, carbon emissions and the obsessional defence

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 »

Does ignorance of numbers help people defend against their impact on the climate?

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.

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.

Carbon Conversations on Radio Ecoshock

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.

Last week, Alex did an interview with me, mainly about Carbon Conversations but also about issues of loss and climate change, based on my 2009 paper.

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.

Funny weather, funny feelings and what we expect from scientists

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.

How our unconscious memories of bullying help the corporate thugs – Electricité de France and the No-Dash-for-Gas activists

February 27, 2013 § 5 Comments

Were you alarmed by the recent news that Electricité de France (EDF) plans to sue the 17 protestors who last October occupied one of its power stations in protest at the government’s new ‘dash for gas’? I was. It was a kind of low-level fear in the gut. 5 million pounds – how could ordinary people ever find such a sum? I found my mind turning to my house, my pension, my income, all the material things that make life feel marginally safe. Better be careful, I thought.

Corporate bullies

What goes on when a big corporation makes a threat like this and someone like me, who wasn’t even there, automatically fears for their own safety? The answer is that unconscious memories have been triggered. I’m back in the school playground. I’m alone. I’m small. I know that I have not understood the unwritten rules and that even if I have, they will be changed to disadvantage me. Fight is not an option. Flight is not an option. There is only endurance, avoidance and – perhaps – survival. « Read the rest of this entry »