Having briefly discussed the lack of political interest in the emergency, we can now look at general psychological issues, which hinder our response.
There are two strong features in the psychology of our responses to the climate emergency, which came out at the Summit.
Firstly recognition of the emergency presents us with an existential crisis. Acts that were praiseworthy and brought success, can now be perceived as harmful. Going along as we have been going along does not make sense. Indeed, most of what we do in our lives does not make sense. Consumerism is destructive, travel can be destructive, expanding growth can be destructive, seeking profit can be destructive, and so on. The expansion of self into the globe is potentially destructive, yet the alternative of narrow racist nationalism, lack of world wide commerce and interaction seems equally destructive. The forms of meaning within which our lives are embedded, seem fragile, and provide no guidance for life. This is psychologically disruptive and disorienting.
Secondly, our political rule of action is neoliberalism and ‘free market’ theory. Neoliberalism does not work in the way it is supposed to, as markets become subject to power-in-the-market through oligopoly (when a few corporations control a particular market) and plutocracy (rule by wealth in general). Markets are never free. Changing from this set of presecriptions for the world, is difficult because it is so entangled with our systems of power, order and suppression. It is inherently used to rejecting, or co-opting, challenges to its rule, rather than listening to information it regards as hostile.
One of the many problems of neoliberalism is that it reduces almost everything to numbers that refer to money and profit. This means that, as a directive, if an action brings established companies profit (especially if of low personal risk to highlevel managers), then it must be done, and also that whole realms of human experience become demoted and ignored, unless they can be manipulated to get people to attack those people who are suspicious of neoliberalism. This includes any recognition of a complex psychology, or even of feeling itself. Let alone our dependence on ecology.
These two factors means that our main social habits, patterns of life, patterns of power, ease of getting on with others, sense of meaning, ways of interpreting reality, and so on, lead us to deny the seriousness of the climatic situation and suppress awareness of our pain in relationship to the changes going on around us; the mass death, the burning, the strange weather, the threat of what is to come. Awareness brings pain and dislocation. We cannot be completely unaware of the crisis, nowadays, without a degree of effort, or without attempts to blame others for our pain. Humans are good at denial, and it can be useful up to a point. But in this case it is helping to perpetuate our own destruction, and suppress our selves as manifested in our feelings and understandings.
There is a possibility that we are encouraged in this response, precisely because the neoliberal life is so psychologically unsatisfying that we do not value ourselves, or that we actually might enjoy the release of the destruction of this narrow life. Destruction might satisfy our hatred of ourselves, the way we live, and our sense of confinement.
The crisis is frightening in itself, but when tied to these other factors can be overwhelming, so the desire to live peacefully, with equinamity, perhaps in the ‘spirit’ can also lead to suppression of information about the crisis, the feelings associated with it, and constructive discussion about it.
Indeed the media and the political Right have generally tried to stop recognition of climate crisis, and to turn climate change into a subject people are too frightened to talk about. People feel they will be attacked, humiliated, or inadequate. They may think the science is too complicated and they may get it wrong, or they would not know what is inncorrect in someone else’s assertion. Even the most open news sources may undermine their own articles on climate change by finishing with doubt. Or media may portray a heatwave with pictures of people at the beach, rather than people in ambulances. This lack of public conversation, and recognition of helps make climate emergency seem an intractable problem, and reinforces the idea that there is a real debate about whether climate change is happening, or whether it is humanly caused.
Even the climate movement seems generally ‘afraid’ of feelings, apparently thinking that fear or grief, for example, will lead people astray; but these feelings are a non-detachable part of human response to the crisis, and if ignored will undermine the work we do.
As Margaret Klein Salomon argued at the Summit, fear tells us to protect ourselves and those we value; it can move us into action. Fear is a warning and fear can be a fuel. If you are not frightened of climate change then you are not really alive – at the best you are probably suppressing your awareness of the situation we are in, and thus not reacting to it appropriately.
She went on to argue that grief also tends to be locked out, yet many of us grieve for the world we have lost, the animals, ecosystems and people who have been destroyed or severely injured. Grief is an expression of love and fellow feeling. We grieve because the loss matters, and because we feel the connection that has gone. By feeling the grief we feel, we are taking in the truth of the situation, and opening our way to something new. This world is dying, but with recogition of grief, we can start to build a new one.
Sally Gillespie suggests that discussing our feelings and understandings with like minded people, in places which are safe, furthers our ability to act, and overcomes the sense of isolation which is encouraged by the media and the Right. Simply listening to others and recognising these feelings can give people a sense of their own solidity and reality, and of the possibility of action. It makes the crisis real, and the possibility of response real.
The facts of climate change can be overwhelming, we can zone out when hearing them, and we need to acknowledge the feelings that arise so that we can process the information and its connection to our daily lives. Without these forms working together and acknowledging feelings and problems, we can enter a cycle of individual disconnection which reinforces established powers and destructive patterns. We are ecologies as much as we live in an ecology, and we need to acknowledge this reality.
Listening to reality and to others, implies the importance of listening to those things we are unconscious of, which we may find in fantasies and more particularly in dreams. Dreams themselves are modes of perception. Learning to live with these modes of awareness is vital to our response and to our psychological health, as we deal with the crisis which our society would rather did not exist.
Denying and suppressing feelings and distress takes energy, quite a lot of energy in muscle tension amongst other things. When we are able to acknowledge the feelings and share them with others so they seem normal and we can come to accept them and let them flow (rather than try to hold them in place), then we have a lot more energy with which to do things with, including protest and political (and other) action against climate change. We become alive again, and can honour life.