George Marshall (author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change [1], [2]) gave a really interesting talk/discussion to the Climate Psychology Alliance last night, and this is a two part summary and comments.

He opened by pointing out two things

  1. That we have already started to slip into probably irreversible climate change (not only the recent massively high Australian floods, but even more importantly the recent temperatures in the polar regions)
  2. We need to understand our possible psychological responses to this ongoing disaster.

He began by saying that psychologically, we have been guided by our approach to problems by a myth of the hero.

Essentially in that story, the hero (often with unexpected aid) faces up to the challenge (the monster, the wizard, the king, the enemy army etc) and defeats the challenge and all is restored to its right place, or a new piece of culture, picked up in the adventure, is added to the cultural repertoire (fire, iron, a magic weapon, some new understanding, a new god, etc). Essentially all is solved.

However, he went on to suggest that climate change is not a monster which can be slain, or an enemy which can be defeated anymore. We have left it too late. Climate change is now more like a terminal disease, which will keep getting worse, or an attack in which the missiles and bombs never stop and will never stop. The effects are out of control; in term of a human life time, they probably without end or resolution. The hero myth is not useful to us, and may even sabotage our responses.

I’d like to suggest that there are other hero myths which might be more useful. In these the hero makes a tragic mistake, or their strengths, successes and overconfidence lead to failure and death, while the rest of the world often carries on. We can think of the end of King Arthur and the Round Table, a burst of ‘civilisation’ comes to an end through Arthur’s attempts to keep himself safe. Oedipus’s valour leads to famine and shame. Hercules’ bravery and agression leads to an intensely painful death.

What we face seems more easily generalised into something like Toynbee’s challenge and response idea. Sometimes a culture succeeds and changes (or changes and succeeds), but people often fail to deal with the challenge. A recurring theme is that this happens because those in power keep the old and previously successful ways of functioning going despite the fact those ways of success are now deadly and destructive. Just as fossil fuel burning is now deadly and destructive and needs to be phased out.

The effects of a continual storm, or impossible to deal with disaster, is socially common. Many indigenous societies have withered for a long time under colonialism, and a violence which was inconceivable to them. Some of these societies have also survived under hideous conditions, and many are being brought back. This will probably not be exactly the same as what was lost, but the movements help restore something and to regain the fight for people’s lives and ways of being. This is success.

It may sound hideous but we, whose societies participated in this cruelty and destruction, may now be able to learn from these rebirths when we face up to the climate change we have also created. This could also be seen as part of the way that indigenous societies are succeeding. And it is interesting how many people in the climate movement, seem to have been influenced by directly received (public) indigenous teachings or been influenced by books written by indigenous authors. This appears to be part of the growing eco-consciousness.

Toynbee implies that successful responses to new challenges often involve a new religion or cosmology. In this sense a religion or cosmology is a way of understanding the world and perceiving the world, which has a large symbolic component.

I suspect that a religious response is extremely likely to result during climate change, as climate change has to be represented symbolically: its too big to perceive directly; it is way too complex to enumerate all the possible factors involved; it’s unpredictable; its not controllable, etc. Given this kind of state a response will have to involve a completely new (to capitalism) world view or religion. It’s clear enough that our current views will not work, and are not working to deal with the problem. It is also probable that the variant which arises will not be consciously designed, but emerge from unconscious processes of pattern seeking and symbolisation. This process does not have to result in a beneficial conception, we could argue that Nazism was an unconscious symbolic response to the crises of the post WW1 era, and it was not beneficial at all.

The process is dangerous, but it will happen, and in processes like Q, and ‘Trumpism’ you can see the delusional versions occurring, in some forms of eco-consciousness you might see the constructive forms emerging. The point is to be aware it is happening, and that it has both good and bad sides.

The next article in this series will discuss Marshall’s list of psychological states.