Original article published in the New York Times
October 28, 2010, 3:24 pm
‘Shrinking’ the Climate Problem
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
I’ve written here before about the substantial part of the climate challenge that isn’t out in the world of greenhouse gases and coal furnaces, but within the human mind.
Still, I was intrigued earlier this month when I heard from Renee Lertzman, a research fellow in humanities and sustainability at Portland State University, that she was speaking on “the myth of apathy,” the subject of a book she’s writing, at “Engaging With Climate Change: Psychoanalytic Perspectives,” a meeting of psychoanalysts and behavioral researchers in London.
In regarding the polarized, confused, paralyzed discourse around global warming for more than two decades (including my own focus on the field for so long), I’ve sometimes thought that Freud would have had a field day in this realm. Now his successors may be starting to dive in. (The photograph below is from the Freud Museum in London.)
Lertzman sent a link to the “Beyond the Couch” Web site of the Institute for Psychoanalysis, which held a fascinating list of talks at the meeting, including “Unconscious obstacles to caring for the planet,” “Engaging with the natural world and with human nature” and “Climate change denial in a perverse culture.”
I invited Lertzman to send a Dot Earth “post card,” which you can read below, followed by a brief set of followup questions and her replies:
I’ve just returned from speaking at the international headquarters of psychoanalysis, the Institute of Psychoanalysis, established in 1913 in London…. I imagine this was the first time eminent psychoanalysts, environmental professionals, activists and scholars have gathered within these hallowed halls to contemplate our current environmental predicaments. For two full days, almost two hundred people came together to “shrink” the climate change crisis….
Psychoanalysis may be most popularly known as an insular and esoteric relic of the Victorian era. However, it’s come a long way since Freud; this event ably demonstrated that psychoanalysis is an essential voice on these matters. At least it is, if we want to address the messiness of how the human mind can cope with such overwhelming issues.
What are the unconscious dimensions of climate change? Is it possible that anxiety and fear are profoundly impeding our abilities to respond proactively and creatively to our impending crises? How can we explain the inertia and paralysis on the part of both the public and our politicians?
While most psychological research on climate change is fixated on attitudes, behavior and cognition (i.e. barriers to action), psychoanalysis is mainly concerned with the ubiquity of the unconscious in everyday life. The concept of a “barrier” or “apathy” dissolves, as it’s assumed we all have conflict, ambivalence, contradictions — the bread and butter of psychoanalytic theory.
Topics ranged from consumption, identity and our disavowal of the human dependence on nature to issues of loss and mourning as we face a new relationship with oil, and the psychic complexities of inaction.
I was delighted to witness this historic event and the sense that finally, after much time, psychoanalysis was finally able to take stock of its environment and life outside of the consulting room. The psychoanalyst Hanna Segal wrote two decades ago about the insidious silence in the psychoanalytic community on political and social travesties.
Now it appears the silence may be breaking, and we can glean what we can from those whose work is about resistance to change, loss and mourning, anxiety and denial. We need these perspectives. I hope this signals a shift in the right direction.
I followed up with some questions:
Q: So what is the “myth of apathy” in the context of human reactions to the science pointing to a building risk from human-driven climate change?
A: The myth of apathy is the idea that apathy itself is a misleading and damaging concept, and tells us nothing about why people may find it difficult to take in, or respond to, human-driven climate change threats. The label of apathy presumes “what you see is what you get.”
Those working in psychotherapeutic fields know that nothing can be further from the truth. So reframing the myth of apathy presumes care and concern. The mantra in environmental sectors is, “We have to get people to care.” The “myth of apathy” presumes people do care but we need to consider how to support, channel and foster that care. This means investigating what may be complicating our creative and reparative impulses.
This includes recognizing that how we manage anxiety, particularly unconsciously, can lead to numbing, denial, projection (it’s all their problem), victimization (and I am not speaking of actual victims here) and so on. Psychoanalysts called this “splitting” — the ability to split up the world and our internal experiences so we don’t have to feel anxiety, pain or fear. If we leverage tools from the psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic disciplines — such as how to support people in facing the truth about ourselves and our lives without “splitting” — we begin to see that what we may need to be doing is attending primarily to anxiety and loss first and then figuring out how to change behavior, second.
At the moment, we seem to have it the other way around, and are focused mainly on engineering human behavior, without consideration of unconscious, affective dimensions of these extremely challenging and often frightening problems. We need both: attention to “barriers” to action, and acute sensitivity to what may be happening emotionally that makes this so difficult. A psychoanalytic perspective places these dimensions in the foreground, and assumes that if we get to the root of the matter, behavior change will follow. Psychological work in this area, while important, continues to focus on conscious dimensions and behavioral change.
Q: Were there any powerful take-home points from the session on unconscious obstacles?
A: The most powerful take-home points were John Keene’s comments concerning anxieties when faced with actual limitations that climate change and other serious environmental issues present (i.e. our exploitation of non-renewable resources). Keene joins this up with how humans behave in groups, and how groups function to help manage our anxieties. Keene noted, “Many commentators are surprised at how difficult humans find it to change their behavior on the basis of sensible advice or of learning from experience. Facts are troublesome – stories and ideologies are easier.”
We often turn to others in social settings for stories and ideologies to help manage anxieties and seek comforting answers. Keene contends, “While thinking is hard enough for an individual in quiet contemplation, thinking clearly and acting in a group setting generates anxiety roughly in proportion to the size of the group. Here the individual is exposed to the risks of shame and criticism, isolation, fears of loss of one’s identity or at worst losing one’s mind. Our moral functions (super–ego functions), which push us to act in accordance with our ideals, and guard us from self-harm, operate largely out of awareness but become conscious as the voice of conscience or a sense of anxiety or alarm.”
Keene continues, “As I have suggested there is a universal tendency in group life for individuals groups and cultures to find people, structures and ideologies into which they can project their responsibilities in order to return to a childlike state. The cultural expectations that we grow in are the medium in which our individual super-egos swim and develop. As the world economy and its dominant business models drive the present surge towards growth with increasing pressure on the earth’s resources, this is probably the place to start to look at hope for the recovery of the world patient.”
All of this speaks to the fact that guilt, blame and moralizing don’t get us very far; that groups can actually hinder constructive environmental action; and that anxiety may be the largest unconscious obstacle to action (which is the theme of my work as well).
Q: What was your reaction to the session on climate denial in a perverse culture? what was the nature of the “perversion”?
A: “Perversion” here means something entirely different from what we commonly think of as perverse (i.e. “perverted”) — and is apt for thinking about how our culture is responding to human-driven climate change material. Paul Hoggett discussed how perversity (as a psychoanalytic concept) is a form of cultural behavior that functions in preventing coming to terms with loss — where outright rejection of reality becomes tenable. It is related to denial, but more insidious as a mode of conduct that is pervasive in corporate culture and particularly the financial institutions.
Hoggett drew on Susan Long’s work, The Perverse Organization and Its Seven Deadly Sins, as it applies to how we are dealing with climate change. The “sins” include prioritizing individual pleasures, instrumental relationships, and the collusion of others in the denial of reality. This is considered “perverse” behavior and has become normalized in our culture. At its essence it is an avoidance of reality on a massive scale, and an indulgence in omnipotent fantasies in order to avoid any sense of loss or sacrifice. Less clear is the antidote to a perverse culture — but we can imagine it relates in part to the support of intrinsic values, constructive group discussions and a recognition of the problem.
Q: My sense is that real action to change course on trends that matter (energy choices, balancing engineered and ecological systems) will only come if humans move away from “woe is me” and “shame on you” in considering environmental challenges and look inward for the source of problems — and solutions. Does your work, and the discussion at this meeting, reinforce or challenge that view?
A: These perspectives certainly reinforce the notion that we must look “inward” for the source of the problems: how we got into this situation in the first place, what sorts of mental, emotional, social and cultural forces shape our relations with nature, and what may be impeding our capacities for creative, reparative responses. A psychoanalytic view accepts that taking a moralizing or punitive tone supports the super-ego — our internalized task master — which leads usually to outright rebellion, and doesn’t get us very far. The same goes for using scare and alarm tactics.
My work, and the views reflected at this meeting, advocate both acknowledging the frightening or difficult aspects of these issues, and finding techniques to help people tap into our huge creative capacities. It’s a solutions approach but recognizes the emotional aspects of how we get to solutions. Our technological innovations require “engagement” — and “engagement” is about our emotional and affective investments in the world. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about our capacity for concern as the basis of an ethics; that we have these capacities but they are fostered through creativity (and what he calls “play”).
So yes, it’s about looking inward with as much compassion as we can muster. Think of the therapist and the patient; does the therapist admonish the patient? Or provide support for facing the difficult truth? And then setting about finding creative avenues for action and collective responses.