By Rick Williment, registered psychotherapist, climate activist
The disciplines of psychology and psychotherapy have a contribution to make to humanity’s greatest collective struggle: the urgent, dire need to find meaningful responses to the rapidly escalating climate and ecological crises. These crises that imperil so much that we love; so much that we belong to; so much that we depend upon.
How we language and represent these crises is significant to how we find our response. There is a world of difference between framing our predicament as ‘climate change’, so scientifically accurate and neutral and observational, and Greta’s ‘The House is on Fire!!’, so emotive, so alarming, and so activating. How cool and factual should we be as our world fries before our eyes? Could it be that we are compromised in our capacity and willingness to engage emotionally with these threats, and have our actions informed by our emotional life?? Are we stymied by our emotional avoidance??
A key aim I have in writing this article is to stimulate reflection on some of the emotional and psychological dimensions of the crises. I do so as a practising psychotherapist, immersed in the art and science of tending to psychological, behavioural, emotional and relational wounded-ness, and as someone transfixed by the unfolding climate and ecological catastrophes.
Our species, so uniquely capable of rational thought, is clearly not organised by that same capacity. Despite overwhelming, indisputable data, we collectively march on with our short-term desires in mind – global CO2e emissions were a record high of 36.3 gigatonnes in 2021, that is, 36.3 billion tonnes. We allow production, consumption and emissions at this level, even though we understand rationally that our emissions are destroying ecosystems, that we have crossed six out of nine planetary boundaries, that, as the UN said in April this year, “unless governments everywhere reassess their energy policies, the world will be uninhabitable”. Our behaviour is highly irrational! If this pattern was manifested in an individual they would hopefully be referred for treatment, if not interred for incarceration. But what can we do about this irrationality?
One ‘climate psychologist’ in a recent workshop suggested we have a collective ‘eating disorder’ of sorts. “What are we SO hungry for?” She asked. Another suggested we have a collective addictive disorder – we are compelled to consume and also gamble at any and every cost. Another climate psychologist frames our pathology as ‘narcissistic entitlement’ – hyper-individualism emboldened by ‘rights’ to pleasure and comfort and security and enabled by denial of the ‘externalities’. Perhaps all these are valid, but interestingly they also represent attempts to understand the cultural collective – and use frameworks from the study of individuals to consider the whole, or at least the cultures of the ‘developed’ north. Yes, imperialism, colonisation, white supremacy and undoubtedly toxic patriarchy/ masculinity are drivers and we would make a dreadful error to lay responsibility at the feet of the individual, alone. But let’s look at some of the individual level part, in the understanding it also reflects the collective and cultural.
We try to avoid emotional pain, and yet life is so full of it. And perhaps we are exposed to more pain since suffering on every corner of the planet is downloaded into our phones and devices, constantly. The master psychotherapist, Jon Fredrickson, echoing the Buddha says “Everyone we love, will die, and everything we have we will lose, either before or at the moment of death”. It is so understandable that we develop mechanisms to minimise our distress. We try to inoculate ourselves from grief, from our anger, from our fear, and from our guilt. We try to construct ‘successful’ lives and identities where we experience pleasure, status, comfort, security. Yet as Adrian Tait, co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance says “if we have not been racked by grief over what is happening, then we are shutting its meaning out of our hearts and bodies”
To what extent do these tendencies to both avoid emotion and to favour comfort, drive our irrational way of life? Might our reflexive, unconscious and defensive mechanisms for avoiding our tender hearts, render us neutered, immobilised, and passive in the face of these enormous threats??? In my view, and in the view of my climate psychology colleagues, this is a critical part of the analysis. The film ‘Don’t Look Up’ parodied our distraction and obsession with nonsense. Yet, there was no mistake that the movement Extinction Rebellion identified itself ‘in love and rage’. Emotional engagement – that is truly allowing our feelings to arise, over and over again is essential if we are to take a powerful stand. And do these circumstances require us to take a powerful stand??
I suggest that focusing here, emotionally, is hard, and may require that we seek help, although not necessarily professionally. So-called ‘climate cafes’ aim to create a space where thoughts and feelings are welcomed. I’ve been attending one monthly for the past year. The best moments are when we make space for the deeply personal; for grief, and rage and love and guilt to be felt and heard. Though as with any emotion, the feeling part isn’t the end point. Feelings are a source of information. They tell us what we need to attend to.
In 2018, after absorbing as much as I could manage on the climate crises, I walked alone by the Waikanae river. Headphones playing Cohen’s ‘If it be your will’ over and over as I held the significance of all that we are destroying, corrupting, and for the nightmare future we are bequeathing our children’s children. Waves of grief followed. It was such a relief to be washed in those tears. Tears of love, of terror, of rage. And then I had the impulse – it simply arose and was not contrived – to lay down my life in a hunger strike. To align with everything alive that is suffering and dying. To make my most powerful statement. I do not suffer from depression, nor suicidal ideation, but this impulse, born from deep feeling, led me to undertake a 20 day hunger strike for climate justice at parliament in 2020. I feel very glad I did this, even if it hasn’t generated change in a visible, tangible way.
And I commit myself to feeling as openly and fully as possible, and to ’listening’ carefully for my best action. I invite you who has read this far, to do so too.
- IEA Global Energy Review: CO2 emissions in 2021, flagship report 2022, retrieved from iea.org
- Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities, Journal Environmental Science and Technology, Persson, Carney Almroth et al, 2022, 56, 3 pp 1510-1521.
- UN climate report: It’s ‘now or never’ to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. news.un.org
- Fredrickson, Co-creating Safety, 2021, p. xiv
- Tait, in Bendell and Read, p. 106, 2021.