Climate and the psyche
Ro Randall is a psychotherapist and long time climate change activist. Among other works, she is the author of Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives. She spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty.
Typically psychoanalysis is characterised as an inward looking approach to mental health, emphasising the effects of upbringing and the power of an individual's unconscious. In contrast you argue for the importance of societal factors, including the knowledge of catastrophic climate change, to psychoanalytic practice. Why?
The simplest way of looking at this is to observe that social, political and environmental events impact on the minds of individuals. They produce emotional responses in all of us – responses which can range from horror to empathy, from concern to indifference. At one end of the scale, public events can create space for people’s imaginative creativity. At the other end they may trigger primitive anxieties to do with survival and existence.
If public events become traumatic or even just begin to pose threats to people’s well-being or accustomed ways of life, then we might expect to find psychological reactions to this, just as you would to any other threat. Psychoanalysis suggests that these psychological reactions are unlikely to be simple and straightforward. It assumes that the individual psyche is a place of conflict, typified by competing desires, impulses and injunctions, a system with many parts in dynamic interplay, shaped by personal history where individual responses are shaped as much by unconscious desires as by rational understanding and decision. Most critically, psychoanalysis argues that the human mind is equipped to defend against too much painful experience and most people unconsciously resist engaging with matters that will be too disturbing.
So although on the one hand you might expect that people would become anxious, guilty, stressed, sleepless, despairing or depressed about the news of catastrophic climate change, on the other hand you might expect that they would bring all their complex defences to bear on the matter. These defences can manifest as apathy and indifference as Renee Lertzman describes, as outright denial as we see in some reactions to climate change, or in compensatory activities which numb or distract from awareness. You might see the preoccupations with shopping and acquisition of material goods in this light. More dangerously you might anticipate the projection of the problem elsewhere, with excluded or less powerful groups being blamed.
What is critical in determining how people react is often how safe it is to respond openly and with the full range of affect. When politicians and global corporations fail to take responsibility or offer mixed messages about the seriousness of the problem, this may produce states of confusion or increase the indifferent and apathetic defences in the population as a whole. Psychotherapists talk about the need for ‘containment’ – some sense of safety and trust – if difficult subjects are to be thought about. The absence of such containment produces confusion, defensiveness and a retreat into irrationality. People become unable to solve problems creatively. In the privacy of the consulting room this containment is provided by the therapist. In the public sphere it is more likely to result from leadership, the narratives used, the realism of the solutions suggested and the opportunities for genuine citizen involvement in shaping them. If people can’t express, share and symbolise these difficult experiences the long-term effect is likely to be an increase in irrationality, apocalyptic thinking, denial or self-destructive activities, none of which are good for anyone’s mental health.
What I have described above is a simplification however. It suggests that there is an inner mind and an outer reality and of course that is not really true. It is probably more helpful to think about the co-creation of complex psycho-social realities where there is a dynamic relationship between what we like to think of as ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. Paul Hoggett’s work on structures of feeling (in his book Politics, Identity and Emotion) is very helpful in delineating some of the ways that economic, social and institutional forces create or block the possibilities for social experience to be expressed, processed and symbolised. This makes it clear that there are political, and not just personal consequences when we fail to deal adequately with the ways that people feel about major world events. Individual mental health may suffer but we may also find ourselves gripped by social movements that actively refuse to deal with the difficult subjects of the day.
In an article you wrote in 2010 you claimed that:
"In this late modern period, psychoanalytic concerns have shifted from Freud’s preoccupations with the vicissitudes of instinctual life to a preoccupation with the self and questions of life-meaning and identity. The questions and issues that patients bring to the consulting room have changed."
Why do you think that the concerns of patients have shifted to these more existential questions?
People’s experience of themselves is different in different social periods. To be young now is a very different matter from being young 50 years ago for example. As someone who was young in the 1960s I suppose I’ve witnessed this shift from a world of relatively stable social roles and expectations to one characterised by fluidity and uncertainty. The questions: “Who am I? What do I want to be?” wouldn’t have made sense to my parents, were novel and exciting to my generation, and are commonplace and the stuff of endless self-help books today.
Sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman and Anthony Giddens describe this late modern period as one where questions of anxiety, choice and identity dominate personal life. The solid reference points of the modern period, defining role, place, rights and responsibilities have been replaced by a myriad of competing and confusing choices. You don’t grow up knowing where you fit in and what the future holds for you. Identity is no longer a given, something which people are born into, but something to be constantly constructed and in particular to be shopped for, whether the shopping is for actual material objects, or for lifestyle, career or relationship. One can be, or aspire, to anything, while human bonds are provisional, temporary and contingent. Even people whose lives are in reality very constricted are encouraged to imagine that the world is their oyster and that they could – through winning the lottery, or appearing on reality TV – become who they desire to be.
Wrapped up in this of course are the demands of capital. Putting it rather crudely you might say that not only is capital’s need for a flexible workforce well served by a population that must turn its hand to anything but capital’s never-ending need for new markets is well served by a population that is pre-occupied by the self. Goods can be marketed as meanings to identify with, the hope of change can be invested in objects, shopping can become the preferred means of exercising power.
Psychologically, what this does is make people more narcissistically vulnerable – questions of self-esteem, shame, the boundary between self and other, the integrity and representation of the bodily self for example, become more critical in people’s lives and so this is what appears in the consulting room.
You have suggested that there are serious psychological consequences for those engaged in climate campaigning . Can you describe those consequences?
I’ve been concerned by the extent of ‘burn-out’ I’ve come across – in particular states of exhaustion, the development of cynicism and despair. But also the opposite of these in the form of a kind of ‘pollyanna-ish’ defensiveness where people convince themselves that all is solvable, either through technology or through local community action. I think both of these tendencies have increased post-Copenhagen, along with a tendency for campaigners sometimes to blame each other rather than the powerful actors in the political system. This is a common response amongst groups experiencing failure – you begin by minutely examining the reasons for the lack of success and end by attacking each other or alternatively withdrawing altogether.
There is also a dynamic where campaigners become the conscience of society, carrying the responsibility that others find too hard or too unpalatable to acknowledge. In this role, where they carry the guilt of others, they are vulnerable to projections of being moralising or alternatively that they are saintly and heroic. These kinds of projections are one of the ways that wider society can ignore the issues campaigners raise. The effect on campaigners is either that they act in to the projection, becoming inwardly overwhelmed and outwardly more angry, moralising or saintly. I described these processes in more detail in my 2005 paper ‘A new climate for psychotherapy?’
It’s hard to put yourself constantly in the position of knowing about difficult or traumatic events, particularly if your efforts to change things meet with constant indifference and opposition. You can’t avoid being distressed, anxious and angry about what you encounter so we shouldn’t be surprised by these responses. Again, what I think are needed are opportunities for reflective practice – situations where people can safely talk about their responses to the increasingly difficult circumstances of their work. I don’t think there is much tradition of this amongst campaigners and it would be interesting to explore how to develop it.
Given the likely awesome consequences of climate change and the increasingly dim prospects of averting disaster is despair not an appropriate response? Can one be both happy and aware of the terrible realities of climate change?
Yes. Despair is an appropriate response, but it’s important to see despair as part of the process of coming to terms with loss. It is no longer possible to believe that we will avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change and that is a terrible knowledge to absorb. It will produce in anyone who allows themselves to face it, the blackest, bleakest moments. However, to remain consumed by despair, to be despairing about everything, to insist on the primacy of this personal emotional response, is in the end to be in a narcissistic place. There has to be a process of coming through the rage at the idiocy of the politicians, the sadness at the destruction of the natural world, and the grief at what future generations will face, to the knowledge that there are still ethical decisions to be taken and responsible actions that matter. We cannot avert the consequences of climate change but we can still work for a world that faces those consequences equitably, justly and responsibly. And we should not punish ourselves for our failure to do more by refusing to take joy in a sunset, or delight in a child’s first steps or laugh and crack jokes with friends.
Freud is famously credited with seeing the purpose of psychoanalysis as to transform “…hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” (The quote is from the last paragraph of Studies on Hysteria.) It might be best to hope, not to be happy, but to hope to develop the strength to face what the future brings and to anticipate finding in that future times of love, joy, generosity and exuberance, as well as times of struggle and hardship.
You can learn more about Ro and her work at her website.
Alex Doherty is a co-editor of New Left Project. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7
Except where otherwise noted, content on the New Left Project site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License
About Ro Randall: I am a psychoanalytically trained psychotherapist and have been involved in the environmental movement since my 20s when I was part of the editorial collective of ‘Undercurrents’ magazine. I founded the Cambridge based charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint, and developed the award winning Carbon Conversations project which uses a psychological, small-group approach to helping people reduce carbon emissions.
I am the author of ‘A New Climate for Psychotherapy?’, an exploration of resistance to action on climate change, of ‘Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives’ and of ‘Carbon Conversations‘ the handbook used by Carbon Conversations groups.
I also facilitate workshops on climate change communication and community engagement and offer consultancy to business on employee engagement in carbon reduction. I was previously a lecturer with the Open University and an independent consultant for the development of distance learning materials.
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