October 31, 2019 § 1 Comment
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October 19, 2019 § Leave a comment
The phrase ‘climate anxiety’ has hit headlines in the last few months and a lot of people have been asking me about it – what it is, how common it is and how to cope.
I prefer to talk about ‘climate distress’, partly because it doesn’t have the overtones of a diagnosis, and partly because people are usually describing a whole range of painful feelings, many of which are not anxiety.
It’s normal to be upset
For a long time, many people have kept the real meaning of climate change at bay – they know what it is, know vaguely what it means but have refused to let its full impact hit them. This has become much harder over the last year: public protest has made it difficult to escape.
The feelings which arrive when you let yourself think about the climate crisis properly can be overwhelming. People describe feeling shock, feeling disorientated, being pole-axed by fear and knocked sideways by their own sense of powerlessness. Sometimes there is a panicky sense of disbelief – ‘This can’t be true, surely it’s not true.’ Often people are angry. Sometimes there are terrible feelings of guilt and shame, particularly if you are someone who has ignored the facts for a long time.
It’s important to recognise that these feelings are normal. They are the feelings we all have when we receive a piece of very bad news, something which – like the death of someone close to us – is life-changing.
Recovering from the first shock, understanding the knowledge properly, integrating it into daily life, deciding how to respond and what to do, are tasks which take time and are rarely complete. As with grief, we return to the pain again and again.
In the depths of it we cannot imagine ever being free of its horror. It may not help to be told that the acuteness of feeling will pass but most people do gradually develop a greater sense of calm, a slightly surer sense of what to do and the ability to continue to live in the face of the loss.
Three things which help: action, support and integration
In research into the experiences of climate activists Paul Hoggett and I found that three things made an immediate difference:
- involvement in action helped people feel less powerless;
- the support of others – talking, sharing, being together – helped people explore and work through the pain of knowledge;
- integrating the knowledge through adjustments to their own lives and plans for the future – for example finding work in the sector or giving up flying – produced a new feeling of purpose.
In the longer term it was critical that the actions taken were both commensurate with the problem and compatible with some kind of normal life. Many of the people we interviewed had gone through a period of unsustainable, manic activity which had resulted in burnout.
In the resolution of this burnout people seemed to come to a different place. They held on to the urgency and need for action but no longer read the climate news compulsively and no longer talked endlessly about the detail and terror of the facts. These informed everything they did but they were able to park the knowledge and give more balanced attention to what needed to be done.
Finding the right action for you
Action on climate change doesn’t necessarily mean involvement in direct action. Important though this is, not everyone is able to take part and there are many other political campaigns (on transport, air quality, food for example) and many personal actions (lobbying MPs, letter-writing, changing one’s own life-style) that can also make a difference and give you back some feeling of agency.
When you just can’t cope…
Problems arise if you can no longer shut knowledge of climate emergency away but are unable to respond to it meaningfully. You may lack support and others to talk with. Your life may be so locked in – to a high-carbon lifestyle or simply to the responsibilities of work and family – that you cannot find time or space to do anything effective. Alternatively, you may be so caught up in the urgency of action, traumatised by both the knowledge of the climate emergency and the difficulty of achieving change, that you cannot stop long enough to find support for yourself.
This is when people can become seriously depressed or anxious. Some become preoccupied with the terror of imminent disaster. Some masochistically punish themselves by immersing themselves repetitively in each new scrap of bad news. Some burn out.
These are times when professional help may be useful. If you’re affected like this, you may be able to find a therapist independently but the Climate Psychology Alliance is also developing a network of therapists who are knowledgeable about climate issues and who can offer support. You can contact them here.
March 14, 2019 § 2 Comments
It’s a long time since I’ve posted anything, so here’s an update. I spent most of 2017 recovering from a serious illness and major operation but 2018 saw me fully recovered and active once more with various aspects of climate change and psychology.
2018 proved a year in which climate change returned to a small measure of public prominence, prompted in part by the disturbing hot summer which swept across Europe, in part by the increasingly alarming predictions made by scientists and in part by the renewal of political activism in the launch of Extinction Rebellion.
Any serious political change requires a huge broad-based movement however and that in turn requires people to be able to talk about this frightening and distressing subject in ways which help others relinquish the defences they have used to protect themselves from it. In 2018 I returned to running a workshop I first offered back in 2007, ‘Conversations about Climate Change: talking with family, friends and colleagues’. It focuses on the difficulties people so often experience when the subject enters conversation – feeling silenced, pigeon-holed, embarrassed or upset. I ran it for the Scottish Climate Psychology Alliance in April, for ‘Eco-Savvy’ on Arran in June, for the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Members’ Conference in October and for Letchworth Transition group in November.
2018 also saw the publication of the paper I wrote with Paul Hoggett ‘Engaging with Climate Change: Comparing the Cultures of Science and Activism’ which is available here or by emailing me direct.
More recently I’ve been involved with Chris Robertson in facilitating the Climate Psychology Alliance’s ‘Through the Door’ workshops for therapists and counsellors who want to bring their skills to the climate movement. I was also very pleased to be invited to deliver one of the lectures in this year’s Cambridge Climate Lecture Series. It was a big departure for CCLS to include something other than science in the series and I was delighted to be made so welcome. My title was ‘Climate, Psychology, Conversation: the unconscious dynamics of how we talk about climate change’ and you can view the lecture here. Even more enjoyable was the accompanying workshop which I ran for Sixth-Formers called ‘Finding your Voice’ about climate change.
I’m hoping I can offer both these workshops to more audiences in the future.
September 30, 2015 § 2 Comments
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.
July 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
The meaning of anniversaries changes with history. A century ago high levels of infant mortality, and the loss of life in childbirth, industrial accidents and war meant that each year a child or life partner survived was something to be grateful for and was a cause for celebration. In modern times anniversaries have become another commercial opportunity and the most trivial of annual achievements seems to be cause for bigger and more lavish celebration. Organisations too are encouraged to celebrate their longevity but for NGOs and charities longevity can make for a bittersweet party. Most of those who campaign for social justice wish that their work wasn’t necessary but the day that they can hang up their hats for good rarely comes. They find themselves, perhaps bizarrely, celebrating their continued existence alongside the problem they had hoped to eradicate.
A tenth birthday
The issue has been on my mind because it’s ten years since Andy Brown and I set up Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the organisation that gave birth to the national Carbon Conversations project and which for some years was the focus of my attempts to bring a more sophisticated, psychosocial understanding to people’s approach to climate change.
2005 was an exciting year for us. I spent the early part of the year writing the paper A New Climate for Psychotherapy, describing the personal and social defences which I saw as inhibiting our attempts to deal with climate change. In May I presented this work at the Trajectories Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology and we returned from that weekend with a new tool – CAT’s Carbon Gym, a neat little program which calculated people’s individual carbon footprints across the key areas of their home energy, travel, food and other consumption. We immediately saw that this was the practical mechanism we’d been looking for. You could use it as the basis for a one-to-one conversation that took you deep into the things which mattered to people – their homes, families, holidays, jobs and aspirations, which (unknown to most of them) embedded high levels of carbon emissions in their day-to-day lives.
The rest of 2005 was a flurry of activity. We trialled our interview technique at the Gwydir Street party in early July, calculating over 40 of our neighbours’ footprints. By the end of that month we had set up the Cambridge Carbon Footprint website, adopted a formal constitution and applied for and been awarded grant funding from the City Council. By the end of the year we had a small, keen membership, were exploring engagement with much wider groups within the community and had come to realise that the issues our one-to-one interviews opened up for people might best be explored in small groups where the painful emotions that climate change and carbon reduction engendered could be properly faced.
Excitement and sadness
It’s hard now to capture the excitement and hope of that period. The government was developing the Climate Change Bill (which became the Climate Change Act in 2008), funding was available for community groups trying new ideas, the energy of the environmental movement was focused on getting the outcome we needed at Copenhagen in 2009. Andy and I believed, naively, that our organisation would be short-lived, not because it would fail but because its work would become so mainstream and accepted that we would not be needed. Ten years on it is tempting to focus on what has gone wrong – the failure at Copenhagen, the retreat by the UK government from deep engagement with the issue, the seemingly inexorable rise in carbon emissions, and more personally the disagreements in CCF that led to our resignations – but perhaps it is also important to celebrate what has been achieved, albeit at a small scale.
The Carbon Conversations project lives on, managed now by The Surefoot Effect CIC. Akashi, Shilpa Shah’s ground-breaking project for CCF which ran from 2006-2008 has had a ripple effect in the environmental movement in how work with people from BAME and faith groups is approached. Psychosocial approaches are now championed powerfully by the Climate Psychology Alliance and psychology generally is on the agenda when climate change is discussed.
Raise a glass
We are no longer part of Cambridge Carbon Footprint so we will not be celebrating ten years with them. (We parted company in 2011 when its trustees decided that they were no longer interested in the psychosocial methods we had pioneered and wanted to get rid of the Carbon Conversations project.) However, we wish them well and when we’re back at CAT at the end of this month we’ll raise a glass to all who helped us get our work off the ground and hope that in another ten years organisations working on climate change will no longer need to exist.
September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate is a tour de force of uncompromising argument, backed by penetrating analysis, a gift for story-telling and a deep, human empathy for those who are suffering now – and will suffer in the future – from the depredations of a turbo-charged capitalism that is ideologically unwilling and practically unable to deal with climate change.
The systematic sabotage of neo-liberalism
Her central thesis is straightforward: neo-liberal capitalism, with its dependence on fossil fuels and its need for continuous growth, is unable to tackle climate change. Free-market fundamentalism has spent the last thirty years removing regulation, rubbishing the public sector, promoting unsustainable growth, destroying collective solidarity and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Its practices have attacked and undermined the very tools – state action, planning and investment – that are urgently needed to bring climate change under control. Its ideology has made us doubt our capacities for collective action and undermined our values of solidarity and human kindness. It has, she says, “…systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.”
Klein is clear that only concerted national and international programmes of regulation, state investment and planning, comparable to the powers taken by UK and US governments during the Second World War, have any hope of making the annual 8-10% reductions in emissions that are now needed to bring climate change under control. She sees further than this however. She argues that tackling climate change and tackling inequality and social justice are part of the same struggle and she brings a sense of enthusiasm and possibility to this challenge. The good solutions to our climate problems could also bring lives that are more just, more equal and more worth living to far more people than currently enjoy them.
Klein is not blind to the benefits that capitalism has brought to society and she is not proposing the destruction of everything that characterises our current economic system. She does however wish to see the back of the free-market fundamentalist version that has ruled the globe for the last thirty years. And she is clear that it will not leave the stage quietly. Her interviews with participants at the Heartland Institute’s meetings are chilling indeed. She is in no doubt about the struggle that we face. And she is in no doubt about the urgent need to build a political movement that cuts across the boundaries of our existing concerns.
From ecological amnesia to radical change
As Klein herself acknowledges many of her arguments are not new. This is territory that others have trodden before but she makes the arguments with renewed vigour and honesty and draws many threads together with meticulous research, compelling stories, vivid prose and a sense of hope and possibility that has been lacking from much writing on the climate in the years since Copenhagen 2009. One of the most interesting parts to me was her admission of her own past blindness to climate change and her curiosity about the mechanisms for this ‘ecological amnesia’ as she calls it. Klein understands that our psychological defences and our capacity for disavowal play a part in our collective failure to address the problem. But this is only one of many insights that Klein weaves into this complex and riveting book. Her understanding of the way that corporations work, her grasp of complex trade agreements, her capacity to outline the science and her historical understanding of our assault on nature – all these make her book stand out. But for me it is her empathy with the lives of ordinary people and the way she tells their stories as she makes the arguments for radical, long-term change that spoke to my heart.
In a week where the UK government has published its proposals for the Paris round of negotiations with the depressing statement that growth and decarbonisation are ‘both sides of the same coin’, this is a must-read book for anyone serious about making Paris deliver on what the world, its biosystems and its people actually need.