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 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 »

Siblings, justice and equality – Joseph Rowntree report finds that fairness and a sense of obligation matter for climate change

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

In thinking about people’s motivations to act on climate change, have we ignored the influence of one of the crucial relationships of family life – that of siblings?

Many appeals to the public pander to people’s self-interest and materialism, seeing them as individuals with narrow, individualistic concerns. The short-termism of this approach has been criticised very effectively from a values perspective. Commentators like Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser point out the failure of such approaches to build deeper cultural change. They argue convincingly that it is the values opposed to this individualism – values based on concerns bigger than self – that need to be triggered if we are to address multiple social ills. Justice and equality figure strongly amongst these values but the psychological dynamics that lie behind them are not often discussed.

Siblings are the template

Sibling relationships provide the template for lateral relationships with peers in adult life and can profoundly affect people’s ideas on justice and equality. The childhood refrain ‘It’s not fair,’ echoes in the adult world in arguments about just rewards, entitlement, equality and free-loading. We can hear it in current arguments about ‘hard-working families’, ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘irresponsible bankers’.

Sibling relationships are characterised on the positive side by solidarity, loyalty, co-operation and willingness to share. The discovery of one’s inventiveness and creativity often arrives (along with mischief and devilment) in first friendships. On the negative side of sibling relationships lie rage at having been displaced, rivalry, envy and the suspicion that someone else may be getting a better deal or swinging the lead. And it is amongst childhood peer networks that we often get our first taste of bullying, of ‘might is right’ and the destructive power of taunts and teasing. « Read the rest of this entry »

Why the language of fracking demeans women and nature and closes off debate

April 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

The recent recommendation by government advisers that “fracking” for shale gas is safe to resume is bad news for anyone concerned about climate change. But is the way this issue has been framed – the language and metaphors through which it is represented – a help or a hindrance?

The term ‘fracking’ is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which rock fissures are forced open with a mix of water and chemicals to release gas trapped deep below the earth’s surface. It is also a euphemism – popularised by the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica – for the word ‘fuck’. Geoscience and associated industries remain male-dominated (only 8% of US geology professors are women for example) so the term was almost certainly adopted into the industry by men, easily drawn to a sanitised expletive which at a deeper level expresses disturbing but not uncommon ideas about the relationships between men and women and the relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. « Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing the safe inner space to climate change communication

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Research has given us a lot of good ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ on how to communicate about climate change. It tells us that:

  •  information doesn’t by itself change people’s minds
  • confirmation bias means that people seek out facts that confirm their existing views
  • people find it hard to understand risks that are not immediate and tangible
  • fear appeals have mixed effects

However we rarely talk about the inner state of the person we are communicating with and how this relates to the creative, innovative, whole-hearted and committed responses we need. If we are to help people avoid the flight into false certainty and paranoia that I wrote about last month, what kind of emotional state should be trying to foster? « Read the rest of this entry »

35 British Standard Objections to Change

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Workplace resolutions about sustainability can easily dissolve in the face of uncooperative colleagues or a recalcitrant manager. Are people just being pig-headed, or is there more to it?

’35 British Standard Objections to Change’ is a list I first came across in the 1980s while preparing training materials for the Local Government Training Board. The list starts ‘Our work is different,’ and ends ‘We haven’t got money for this at present’. On the way it covers such gems as ‘We’ve been doing it that way for 25/15/10/5 years’, ‘We’ve never done it before’, ‘We tried it once before’, No-one’s ever tried it before,’ ‘Nothing new about it. We’ve been doing it all the time,’ ‘It’s so completely new to us,’  ‘The boss/committee/staff/clients/Treasurers/Personnel won’t like it’…and so on.  The list captured the culture of local government bureaucracy at the time and produced wry smiles from anyone who had tried to shift the entrenched attitudes of people who were accustomed to their routine ways of doing things. You can see the full list here.

Resisting change

The idea that change is resisted through cultural attitudes and social systems is an important one, first suggested in the work of Jacques and Menzies-Lyth where they identified anxiety as the key factor driving resistance. Most people are made anxious by demands for change. The demands may:

  • imply criticism of the status quo or suggest that work is not being done efficiently or effectively;
  • call into question people’s ideas about their core purpose and tasks. In relation to sustainability, business people may be faced with questions about the morality and viability of their business area. Is it inherently destructive? Does it have a future in a changing world?
  • threaten loss – of familiar tasks and goals, relationships or responsibilities;
  • have practical implications such as redundancy, heavier workloads or additional responsibility;
  • touch more primitive anxieties. This seems particularly true of climate change where fears of having done irreparable damage or guilt about greed can easily be stimulated.

Relying on the system

In the face of such anxiety, defensiveness is natural. What is unique about organisations however is the opportunity to frame the defence in terms of the organisation’s culture and systems. In each of the ‘British Standard Objections’ recourse was being made to some aspect of the culture or workplace system that was seen as part of the natural order or beyond the individual’s influence. In 1980s local government, this tended to be the well-established routines, roles and hierarchies of an inward-looking bureaucracy.

Modern business culture is quite different of course but the process is the same. Where 1980s local government employees fell back on the idea of an inevitable and unchanging bureaucracy, modern, private sector employees invoke the structures of the market, the attitudes of the customer or the arcane practices of the IT department to explain why – although they might like to – they will not be taking action. Do any of the following sound familiar?

Contemporary standard objections

‘It’s not competitive’, ‘It won’t be profitable’, ‘There isn’t a market’, ‘It will inhibit innovation’, ‘The board/customers/IT department/sales department won’t like it’, ‘We can’t afford it’, ‘We haven’t got time for it’, ‘It will reduce efficiency’, ‘It’s not viable for a small company’, ‘It’s not viable for a large company’…and so on. The full list can be found here, along with the original 35 British Standard Objections to Change. Often such responses conceal an underlying anxiety. This may be about climate change itself or about the process of change and the threats that it brings.

Making space and time to address these anxieties is essential. Although systems have to be reviewed and new procedures or technologies initiated the anxieties stimulated by demands for change must also be understood and dealt with. If they are not addressed, they will fuel resistance to change, usually through a strong defence of the existing system and culture.

(This piece first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business site)

See my chapter in the new volume edited by MaryJayne Rust and Nick Totton Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis, due from Karnac in February 2012.


Defeat and defeatism

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The mood as we approach the Durban negotiations is sombre. Coming to terms psychologically with the defeat at Copenhagen will not change the political outcomes but could make a difference to campaigners’ capacities to continue the struggle. « Read the rest of this entry »

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