How can we get our fears ‘in proportion’ when even climate scientists cannot clearly discern the future contours of this threat?
Many people who seek therapeutic help are consumed by thoughts of impending disaster in their private lives. The objects of such fearful ruminations are many – imagined illnesses, set backs and failures, social humiliations – but whatever the focus, the terror can be so intense that it is sometimes referred to as ‘catastrophic anxiety’, as the self literally feels as if it is falling apart and one’s world is coming to an end.
We can be traumatised by our own imaginations as well as by real life disasters (Boulanger, 2007). But the terror of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was almost wholly mediated by the imagination – nuclear war never came, it was the thought of it that was terrifying. In a similar way, climate change threatens the imagination with excess. How can we get our fears ‘in proportion’ when even climate scientists cannot clearly discern the future contours of this threat?
When an individual suddenly becomes aware, in more than an intellectual way, of the enormity of the threat of climate change, they can easily flip from a state of denial to one of overwhelm, in which the threat is experienced catastrophically. This can lead to paralysing distress, equivalent to a psychological trauma, which can have significant mental health impacts.
There is growing evidence of such impacts in western societies. The Climate Psychology Alliance has established a network of members who are able to offer group or one-to-one therapeutic support to individuals experiencing such distress (Through the Door).
People are more likely to feel overwhelmed if they feel alone and helpless. When climate change feels like the elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about, a ‘socially constructed silence’ is created that isolates us. So, creating a local climate (at work, with friends, etc) in which the heat can be taken out of talking about climate change can counter isolation. As important is the sense of agency, the feeling that there are things you can do, feeling you have some power means that you are much less likely to feel overwhelmed by fear and despair.
However, whilst activity can be the antidote to despair, there is the danger that activism can become a defence against feeling, a kind of hyper-activity which is unsustainable and leads to burnout.. There is good evidence to suggest that activism is best sustained by a conscious moving away from an intense preoccupation with the facts. These are not ignored, but they are put into the background, rather in the way that someone with a difficult medical condition makes the effort to concentrate on life, rather than the illness (Hoggett and Randall, 2018).
Looking back through history, we can see how societies have been gripped by fears of imminent catastrophe during periods of great social upheaval. Catastrophist movements such as the Crusades announced the coming of the end of the world. To the extent that such movements believed that ‘the chosen’ would be saved, they were also apocalyptic (Cohn, 1970). Today, many Christian fundamentalists in the USA have an apocalyptic outlook, believing themselves to be in the ‘end times’ and looking for signs (and climate change furnishes plenty of floods and fires) of the Second Coming. Their ranks overlap with a growing army of Preppers, ranging from quasi-military groups to billionaire hedge fund managers buying up boltholes on pristine tracts of New Zealand countryside.
Some (Lasch, 1984) have argued that catastrophist and apocalyptic trends now saturate mainstream culture, including film and literature. As the following extract from an interview with a supermarket checkout worker indicates, these trends now provide the backdrop to our everyday lives:
“I remember watching, erm, The Day After Tomorrow…Oh God, I loved that film. I can’t afford it mostly, but I have seen it so many times…I love disaster films…I know everything to do, I know all the countries to go to if anything terrible happens. I am telling you, I am well planned.”
The danger is that survivalism becomes a facet of everyday life, encouraging us to live day by day, avoid attachments and long-term commitments except to one’s own immediate group, to keep our heads down and maintain vigilance. It is sometimes said that once people understand it is our collective survival which is at risk from runaway climate change they will fight like hell. To the contrary, people committed only to survival are more likely to be preparing their refuge, whether this is in their mind, in the hills or, like Elon Musk, in outer space.
Boulanger, G. (2007). Wounded by reality: understanding and treating adult onset trauma. Mahwah, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Cohn, N. (1970). The pursuit of the millennium. London: Paladin.
Lasch, C. (1984). The minimal self: psychic survival in troubled times. New York: W.W. Norton.
Hoggett, P. and Randall, R. (2018). Engaging with climate change: comparing the cultures of science and activism. Environmental Values, 27: 223-243.