Splitting processes divide what should remain whole, but they also work to destroy connections
Dividing what should be whole
Do we have the psychological capacity to face up to our destructiveness as a species without either despairing of humankind or clinging with religious fervour to the idea of human progress? If we are unable to hold the tension between despair and hope, we end up splitting one from the other, creating an either/or opposition in the process. When we fail to contain the tensions, contradictions, ambiguities, dilemmas and paradoxes of life, we then ‘split’ reality into binary polarities. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the nature/human binary and, having split humankind from nature, modern society then splits reason from emotion, equating the latter with the feminine.
All or nothing/Now or never
Splitting can affect our capacity for engagement with environmental issues when it results in an ‘all or nothing’ approach. We throw ourselves into an all-consuming commitment which, because it is all consuming, demands an immediate return. Then, when reality proves recalcitrant, despair sets in. As one activist put it:
...there’s definitely a danger of tying your whole sense of worth and purpose to this challenge that is so much bigger than you and is never ending (Hoggett & Randall, 2018)
This binary is often linked to another which is ‘now or never’. In climate change work this is manifested in the belief that ‘we must all act now or it will be too late’, a belief that can all too quickly slip into the perception that it is already ‘too late’, and that processes have already been unleashed which are irreversibly leading us to catastrophe.
Not making the connections we should
Splitting processes divide what should remain whole, but they also work to destroy connections so that things that should add up no longer do. This failure to make connections is a common defence in relation to our environmental destructiveness. Here, a retired scientist talks about his daughter, who ‘considers herself to be quite green’ but also ‘shops for England’:
...she doesn't follow that logic or train of thought to the fact that these things are being made in sweatshops and then put on aircraft and shipped over here. So part of some of the connections are made, but they don't actually make any difference. (Tollemache, 2017)
Taken to extremes, this failure to connect can lead to bizarre inconsistencies. Visiting Shell’s headquarters, George Marshall was struck by the fanatical obsession with health and safety of a company which was busy destroying the planet (Marshall 2014). Paradoxically, many fossil fuel companies manifest characteristics of a ‘green’ company culture. The following comes from an interview with someone who was close to the inside workings of one such organisation:
...there is a certain amount of kind of, erm, rather worthy continental European, you know, green living in the company sometimes, so sometimes you do go to parties, company parties in London, at which people comment how terrible it is you can't get around London on a bicycle, which seems strange (he laughs). (Tollemache 2017)
This example also shows how processes such as splitting need to be understood systemically, as they become manifest in networks, cultures and organisations as well as within the individual mind. Splitting can therefore lead to socially normalised but disassociated states in which, on the one hand, we know about climate change and yet carry on with life as if we didn’t know. Donna Orange (2017) refers to this as ‘double-mindedness’, a kind of living in two worlds.
Hoggett, P. & Randall, R. (2018). Engaging with climate change: Comparing the cultures of science and activism. Environmental Values, 27, 223-243.
Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. London: Bloomsbury.
Orange, D. (2017). Climate crisis, psychoanalysis, and radical ethics. London & New York: Routledge.
Tollemache, R. (2017). Thoughts and feelings about climate change: An in-depth investigation. Bristol, UWE: Unpublished PhD thesis.
Photo above: The rift in the Larsen C ice shelf. John Sonntag/NASA/AP.