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 »

Eradicating ecocide: why business leaders must step up to the challenge

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s a short piece I wrote for the Guardian this week: Eradicating ecocide: why business leaders must step up to the challenge At the bottom you’ll find a link to a really interesting conference organised by the Climate Psychology Alliance, exploring the psychological implications of Polly Higgins Eradicating Ecocide campaign. Polly herself is the keynote speaker, the respondents are psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe and ecopsychologist Sandra White and I will be helping facilitate the day’s workshops and discussions. It’s on Saturday 16th March at the Refugee Therapy Centre in London. Book now. This is one not to miss.

The Green Deal – great offer or another example of denial at work?

January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Green Deal is the government’s latest offer on climate change. Is it a good offer or another policy that colludes with people’s desire that climate change shouldn’t really affect their lives?

Denial and disavowal

Denial is a familiar idea in relation to climate change. Its most common form is not the outright “black-is-white” argument of the denialist industry but the common capacity to keep the awkward knowledge split off in one part of the mind so that ‘life as usual’ can go on. Psychoanalysis often refers to this as ‘disavowal’. People know and don’t know simultaneously. Uncomfortable knowledge is shelved. The awkward facts of climate change are put in a separate box. In this way the anxiety, guilt and disturbance they cause can be managed.  Loss doesn’t have to be faced. Anne Karpf described this process well in her recent Guardian article Climate change, you can’t ignore it  and I discussed it in my piece The Id and the Eco in Aeon magazine a couple of months ago.

Also familiar are the contradictory statements and policies of governments and big institutions as they respond to pressure from vested interests and stakeholders. BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the Treasury and DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change) set off in mutually opposing directions. The ‘joined-up government’ trumpeted by the Blair administration in 1998 as a solution to ‘wicked’ problems like climate change was quietly dropped. Cameron and co have no interest in reviving it.

What is less familiar is the way a process of denial can be enacted within a specific public policy. This is an altogether more insidious process as it contributes to confusion in the public mind, reinforcing and legitimising the status quo of disavowal. The government’s Green Deal, launched this week as a programme to upgrade the UK housing stock, is a sad example.

The need for big changes

In 2006 the government-commissioned Stern report was clear. Stern argued that dealing with climate change required investment of 1% of GDP a year in order to avoid much greater costs later on. Stern later agreed that his figures were optimistic and that 2% was more realistic. Others suggested that even that was inadequate. What was not up for debate was the fact that climate change will cost money. Priorities need to be realigned and the economy transformed.

When you come down to specifics, research on the UK housing stock is equally clear. Both Brenda Boardman’s research for Oxford University and energy modelling done by DECC and the Scottish Government show that we can’t meet our obligations under the Climate Change Acts unless almost all the possible upgrades to existing houses are made. This includes a long list of projects whose costs outweigh their monetary savings.

So what does the Green Deal offer? It provides loans to householders and landlords that are recouped through energy companies making a charge on fuel bills. At its heart is the idea of the ‘Golden Rule’. No upgrades to housing should be made that cost more than the savings that can be made on energy bills.

Perversion and the avoidance of reality

This is a policy which simultaneously accepts and denies reality – the process at the heart of disavowal. On the one hand the Green Deal acknowledges that something must be done to reduce the energy demand of UK housing. On the other it suggests that this is a matter of choice not necessity, that no loss to the individual will be involved and that the key consideration is financial. Many of the actions which in reality are needed are placed out of the frame, along with the arguments for taking any of them.

The perverse lie at the heart of the Green Deal is the idea that each energy-saving action should have a ‘payback’ time. When governments in the 1960s provided grants for toilets, bathrooms and electricity in the nation’s run-down Victorian housing, the ‘paybacks’ on these works were not calculated. The motive was to provide decent, healthy housing for all the population. In the 21st century a similar programme is needed to transform the housing stock to cope with climate change – a programme needed once again because it is the necessary, decent, human thing to do.

The Green Deal policy could be seen as a prime example of what Paul Hoggett[1] (in his essay Climate change in a perverse culture) describes as a perverse culture, where processes of thinking have been corrupted and policy-makers operate in an ‘as-if’ world where it becomes more important to appear to do something than to actually make a difference. This is a world in which evasion, half-truths and collusion thrive. Morality is blurred. Targets are substituted for actions. Tricks are preferred to truth. Complexity provides a smokescreen for ineffectiveness.

Newspapers from the Guardian to the Daily Mail have predictably picked up on the problems at the heart of the Green Deal. Its confusing rules, complex processes and muddled finances are easy to pick holes in. Sadly, instead of offering leadership that spells out the unpalatable truths, accompanied by genuine incentives to make meaningful change, the Green Deal both colludes with a public that prefers not to face the issue and provides a framework for further denial.

[1] Hoggett, Paul (2012) Climate Change in a perverse culture in Weintrobe Sally (ed.) Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge

Will 2013 shift people’s indifference about climate change?

January 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

In December the Guardian asked me to write a short piece predicting what I thought 2013 might bring in regard to sustainability and business. My feeling is that we face a much more difficult situation than we did 3 years ago and that we need to examine what lies behind the feelings of indifference we encounter so strongly. You can read the full piece here:


The id and the eco

December 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Thinking about climate change makes people feel helpless and anxious – but that’s why we must talk about it openly.

Take a look at his piece I wrote for Aeon magazine

Smart kettles and social practices: can we design our way to sustainability or do we need to understand the meaning of what we do?

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

In a recent post on the Green Alliance blog Chris Sherwin argued that better design was the route to more sustainable behaviour. A more psycho-social approach suggests that understanding the meaning of what we do may be just as important.

Sherwin’s example was the kettle. It may be responsible for 4% of UK household emissions, so reducing that figure would be useful. Sherwin’s answers are better water-level indicators, bringing back the old-fashioned whistle and convincing people that water at 90ºc is still fine for making tea. (George Orwell, author of the classic essay ‘A nice cup of tea’ would not agree about that!)

Social practice

Like many ordinary household behaviours boiling the kettle and making the tea is what social scientists call a ‘social practice’. It is heavy with meaning. People feel that the way they do it matters. It expresses relationships and values. It symbolises and expresses people’s sense of identity. It’s done slightly differently in different families. It may be part of a negotiation around leisure and work time or symbolise willingness to share troubles. It connects people into wider systems of trade and power. In the home context tea-making is strongly linked to people’s sense of themselves as home-makers, generous, maternal or caring. In the workplace the tea break and how long it takes is a key element in employer-employee relations.

The meaning of small acts

A while ago, I asked a number of people to reflect a little more deeply on why they overfilled their kettles. These are some of the answers they gave:

“It means I get a longer break – it makes staring out of the window and day-dreaming legitimate. If I put in the right amount I’d be in and out of the kitchen in seconds.”  Joe used the kettle to ‘steal’ a few more minutes from his employer. He didn’t have the status or perhaps the courage to take the break he wanted. Putting in just the right amount of water would remove his daydreaming time or leave him hanging around in the kitchen feeling anxious that he would be challenged.

“What if there isn’t enough for everyone? I’d feel awful if someone had to wait while I started again. It feels like meanness, being ungenerous.” For Sheila, the behaviour was deeply connected to her sense of herself as a generous, loving person. She also kept the heating and lights on throughout the house in order to make it feel welcoming should anyone drop in. Putting in just the right amount of water would make her feel she was being selfish and lacking in her role as home-maker.

“It gives me time to lay out the tea-tray.” Doris was in her 80s. She followed a familiar ritual of putting milk in a jug, arranging cups and saucers, adding a slice of cake or two biscuits on a favourite plate, warming the pot and making a small pot of tea. This all went on a trolley ready to be wheeled through to the sitting room. The time it took to boil a full kettle of water was perfect for these preparations. A whistle part way through or even the click of a half-empty kettle turning itself off would have made her jump and interrupted the calm of this comfortable process. She saw the suggestion of boiling a small amount of water as an intrusion into her life by busybodies who didn’t understand what it meant to be old.

Would a smarter kettle have helped? Maybe. Design may make the shift to a new social practice easier but if it robs people of customary satisfactions, frustrates valued relationships and identity or blocks symbolic meanings it is likely to be resisted.


The denial of despair – does unacknowledged despair compromise action on climate change?

October 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

We’re used to talking about the denial of climate change but are we seeing another kind of denial at present – the denial of despair?

In Al Gore’s 2006 film, he speaks of the need to find ‘…the place between denial and despair…’ – the place from which it is possible to act on climate change. It was a perceptive phrase. It catches the psychological truth that one source of denial may be an unacknowledged despair that anything can be done. In those more hopeful times it made sense to encourage people to believe that runaway climate change could be prevented and that their actions mattered. It could truthfully be said in 2006 that despair was not the most appropriate emotion.

A changed situation

The situation in 2012 is quite different. The last year has seen increasingly disturbing weather events – droughts, floods, wildfires and unusual weather patterns – being attributed by scientists to climate change, and all taking place against a backdrop of rising CO2 emissions and the failure of international action. The view that IPCC predictions were conservative is being borne out. The world seems set on a pathway to 4 or possibly 6 degrees of warming.

In the face of this, despair may be an altogether more realistic reaction and the people one might expect to express it would be those working closest to the action – scientists, policy makers, campaigners and community activists. It is an emotion that is rarely given voice however. « Read the rest of this entry »

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change, the London Olympics, and the defiance of death

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Amongst all the hype, excitement, goodwill and enthusiasm, what does the London Olympics tell us about people’s relationship to the other-than-human world? Where does the rest of the natural world fit in this spectacular paean to human endurance and the perfectibility of the human body? It is easy to detect a flavour of bread and circuses in the whole endeavour but at a deeper level we are in a realm where politics and myth unite. « Read the rest of this entry »