The Scream

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How can we get our fears ‘in proportion’ when even climate scientists cannot clearly discern the future contours of this threat?

Catastrophic anxiety

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.

Overwhelming feelings

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).

Managing anxiety

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).

Catastrophist movements

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.

Survivalism

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.

References

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.

kids

When people become ‘climate aware’, if they are not part of an engaged community, feelings of powerlessness can easily lead to frustration, despair and depression.


‘Agency’ is the ability to act or have an effect. In sociology, it is contrasted with the social structures that shape people’s actions. A subjective sense of agency is a major factor in wellbeing. Individuals experience agency, or the lack of it, in very different ways depending on personality, culture, social position and other circumstances. It can include being able to influence the course of our own lives, make things or shape events. It is bound up with our relatedness to human and non-human others and so our ability to influence them or resist being influenced by them, and to act with them or independently of them (Burkitt, 2016).

Limitations on agency in the climate crisis

Surveys generally show high public concern about climate change, but low uptake of actions to address it. People’s agency is limited by the scientific and political complexity of the climate crisis, by the diversity of advocated responses and by controversy about what is worth doing. High carbon lifestyles are ‘locked-in’ by social and other influences. Considerable personal agency is needed to behave contrary to norms such as eating meat, driving or flying. That includes developing knowledge and narratives that justify non-conforming choices, and being able to cope with their emotional and social implications.

Rational actors, influencing and messaging

Scientists and NGOs have mostly assumed that, given the right information, people would do the right thing. Communicators would impart ‘the truth’, influencing audiences to adopt low-carbon choices. This assigns agency to the communicators and passivity to the audience. Some campaigners have moved on from this ‘information deficit model’ but there is still a search for the right way to influence people, rather than to support them in finding their own agency.

Community and relational agency

When people become ‘climate aware’, if they are not part of an engaged community, feelings of powerlessness can easily lead to frustration, despair and depression. On the other hand, identifying with a group engaged with ecological crisis does increase people’s agency – sustaining pro-environmental behaviours, or gaining influence in the wider system. They also report improved well-being through congruency of their actions, values and identities (Veenhoeven et al, 2016).

Organising for collective agency

There is increasing adoption of organisational structures that respect individual agency while cultivating collective agency – for example, in Extinction Rebellion’s ‘self-organising system’. Activists are learning from management schools, with ideas about ‘learning organisations’, listening leadership and congruence of practices with espoused values (Wheatley, 2005; Argyris and Schön, 1996).

Activism has also been strongly influenced by spiritual and faith-based approaches to nonviolence, for instance via resources and practices shared through the Movement for a New Society (Green et al, 1994). Spiritual activism can involve work on self-awareness and self-relinquishment in focusing on ‘right action’ and non-attachment to outcomes. Rather than pushing or directing, this implies sensitive responsiveness, nurturing the conditions for things to happen and then ‘flowing like water’.

References

Burkitt, I., (2016). Relational agency: relational sociology, agency and interaction. European Journal of Social Theory, 2016, vol. 19(3), 322-339.

Venhoeven, L.A., Bolderdijk, J.W. and Steg, L. (2016). Why acting environmentally-friendly feels good: exploring the role of self-image. Frontiers in Psychology, November 2016, vol. 7, article 1846.

Argyris, C. and Schön, D.A. (1996). Organisational learning II: theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Wheatley, M.J. (2005). Finding our way: leadership for an uncertain time. San Francisco, CA: Berett-Koehler.

Green, T., Woodrow, P. and Peavey, F. (1994). Insight and action: how to discover and support a life of integrity and commitment to change. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Welcome to the CPA Handbook of Climate Psychology!

Our aims through this handbook

  • to develop shared understandings of what is meant by ‘climate psychology’
  • to provide a valuable online resource  

Each entry of about 500 words in length defines a concept, explains its importance to climate psychology, and provides links to relevant literature. 

How to use the Handbook

  • Read the entry on Climate Psychology;
  • Browse other entries as your interest takes you, using the alphabetical index on the left; the Handbook is not intended to be read "cover to cover";
  • We link the different concepts within the text;
  • A reading list, presented in Appendix 1, gives the theoretical background to the idea of climate psychology, with a chronology and examples from the literature of the development of the idea;
  • The Handbook will unfold over time: an unfolding work of ‘the commons’;
  • More about the project, its history and future, can be found in Appendix 2.

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