The Northern Hemisphere continues its journey towards winter and the year’s end. Today is Halloween, and the clocks have just gone back an hour here in Britain, heralding slightly brighter mornings than of late, but also deeper, darker evenings.
However, I rather like the cold days and dark evenings, as I’m of a slightly antisocial disposition, and it keeps people generally in their boxes, indoors with the windows shut. There’s less noise – apart from the infernal fireworks of course. But after next weekend, they too will begin to fall silent, thank goodness, giving way to some blessed peace, quiet, darkness and silence.
Now I’ve said all that, back to climate matters. No, not my “100 Years of Climate Change” series, which has sadly fallen by the wayside and will have to be salvaged in one or more catch-up posts before the end of the year (if I bother). This is about the psychology of climate change.
Something I’ve noticed over the last year or so especially is that just as public opinion has started to go against the great war on carbon dioxide, legions of psychologists have been drafted in to turn back the tide and get us all on message again. That may not be strictly correct, on second thoughts, as they seem to be volunteering themselves rather than being actively recruited.
Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m writing about – a conference called “Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic Perspectives” that was held at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London on the weekend of 16th and 17th October. It is described thus:
“How does our knowledge of climate change affect our sense of identity? What might underlie issues of connection with, and disconnection from, the natural world? How do we understand the denial of climate change?
Speakers from the field of psychoanalysis explored these and other questions with scientists, environmentalists, writers, educationalists and policy makers. The conference aimed to achieve a better understanding through interdisciplinary exchange.”
Talks included “Great Expectations: some psychic consequences of the discovery of personal ecological debt”, “Unconscious obstacles to caring for the planet” and “Climate change denial in a perverse culture”. Speakers included Dr Rosemary Randall, who writes and lectures on psychological approaches to the problem of climate change, Dr Renee Lertzman, who is concerned with the relations of psychoanalytic research and theory with contemporary environmental crises, and Mrs Sally Weintrobe, whose most most recent paper was on “runaway greed and climate change denial.”
(I recognise myself totally in that last bit, as I pig out on Halloween chocolates – no trick-or-treaters this year, what a shame – and scoff at catastrophic global warming. Runaway greed and climate change denial – c’est moi!)
Andrew C Revkin of the New York Times blogged about it last Thursday, and posted a report about the event from attendee Dr Lertzman, who explains her concept of the “myth of apathy”, which as far as I can make out, explores the idea that while people generally appear not to care about climate change, they actually do, but are finding it difficult to express that care, as it is involves facing up to scary feelings of loss.
Anyway, you can read the rest of it here, and highly fascinating it is too. My theory about this matter is a lot simpler than Dr Lertzman’s as it involves the recognition that most people actually do not care about climate change. They care about the environment, which is a different thing entirely – clean air, clean water, conserving nature, preventing pandas and tigers from going extinct. But after having been told for so long that sea levels are rising dangerously and we could all be under water before too long, it cannot have escaped many people’s attention that when they visit Victorian seaside resorts, they can find local features that were just above high tide 150 years ago and which are still just above high tide now. Or that there are plenty of other signs that climate change catastrophe is stubbornly persisting in its failure to materialise.
Here’s a comment I left on the Dot Earth blog:
“This is highly interesting, but what I really want to know is why there has not, to my knowledge, been much (or any?) psychological research into the elements of guilt, angst, aggression and self-loathing that have been, to some extent, part and parcel of Western environmentalism from the days of Paul Ehrlich’s gloomy predictions of overpopulation and resource depletion in the 1970s through to the catastrophic global warming scare that seems to have peaked in the last 3 or 4 years, and through to the next great alarm (the signs are that it could well be biodiversity.) It would indeed appear to be a fertile ground for researchers and I’m curious as to whether any work has been done in this area.
If psychologists are generally avoiding that subject and instead casting the spotlight of their attention on the topics covered above (loss, mourning, denial, resistance to change, etc.) while accepting without question as “givens” the reality of impending catastrophe, the mental illness – for that is what they are discussing – of the majority of us who are unconvinced that there is an impending catastrophe, and the need to make us compliant, that is highly interesting too.
And if it there was some actual investigation into the matter and it turned out – as I believe is the case – that we, the unconvinced majority, are in fact not unconsciously terrified, in denial of our anxieties, etc., but are on the whole mentally healthy, robust, rational, optimistic and generally confident, what then for the environmental movement? Also – what then for the politicians and bureaucrats whose careers have thrived in this climate of fear and for the mental health professionals they have enlisted to bring us into line?”
For this is what intrigues me. Why are psychologists apparently not interested in the sort of end-times, doomsday terrors of the catastrophic climate change proponents, Malthusians, Peak-Oilers and similar scare merchants? Why are they, almost as one, turning their attention on us, the unconvinced majority, with a view to getting us to support drastic CO2 mitigation policies, not through our taxes and energy bills (we’re already doing that) but with our thoughts and feelings? Why exactly is this so important to them?
I don’t have a ready answer, but hope to explore this subject in many blogs to come.
I’ll leave you with a seasonal message from Dr Steven Moffic, a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Wisconsin (watch – if you dare! – the entire video here.)
“… instead of using psychiatric techniques to reduce excessive anxiety, shame and guilt, for global warming these emotions will need to be increased in the unconcerned. This kind of help runs counter to our usual goal of not making people feel worse. But remember that at times we need to make our patients more anxious or guilty, when we want them to be more compliant.”