Blog post

Finding hope from the dark side

Oct 2, 2012 by | 1 Comment

Can grap­pling with the darker side of human exper­i­ence help us under­stand the inad­equate responses to cli­mate change that we see all around us? Ro Randall, one of the con­trib­utors to a new book Engaging with cli­mate change: psy­cho­ana­lytic and inter­dis­cip­linary per­spect­ives (edited by Sally Weintrobe), sug­gests that it can.

Why is cli­mate change so hard to deal with?

In gen­eral the inad­equate public response to cli­mate change is loc­ated vari­ously as an inform­a­tion deficit, a dif­fi­culty in appre­ci­ating dangers that are dis­tant in time or place, or as a tend­ency for people to seek explan­a­tions that con­firm their existing cul­tural assumptions/status quo. Meanwhile the lack of an adequate polit­ical response is usu­ally attrib­uted to lack of polit­ical will and lead­er­ship, the dif­fi­culty of com­plex nego­ti­ations or the oper­a­tion of crude nation­alism and eco­nomic self-interest.

Most of these explan­a­tions hold us in the cog­nitive, rational realm. They don’t ask the deeper and more uncom­fort­able ques­tions about the sub­jective exper­i­ence of con­fronting an issue as life-changing and dis­turbing as this one or allow us to see the struc­tures of feeling that char­ac­terise appar­ently rational polit­ical processes.

Perspectives from the unconscious

Psychoanalysis helps us explore the dark under­belly of people’s reac­tions. Its model of the psyche as a place of inner con­flict and uncon­scious drives where all is not as it appears, allows us to ask the awk­ward ques­tions that help us con­nect per­sonal responses to their cul­tural con­text and to the socio-political land­scape. It helps us examine ques­tions such as:

• How do people defend them­selves against fright­ening or dis­tressing news? What lies behind the crude assump­tions of ‘denial’ or ‘apathy’?
• What place do the darker emo­tions – greed, envy, destruct­ive­ness, selfish­ness – play in main­taining an unsus­tain­able status quo?
• How do people cope with feel­ings of insig­ni­fic­ance, anxiety, des­pair, loss and grief at what may happen?
• What is hidden by assump­tions of ration­ality and by the dom­inant rational dis­courses of beha­viour change and eco­nomic self-interest?
• What are the struc­tures of feeling and defence that char­ac­terise the cul­tural, polit­ical and social sys­tems, the policy decisions and inter­na­tional nego­ti­ations that have failed to deliver or which have opposed action?

Time to stop being afraid

Psychoanalysis sug­gests that it is important to stop being afraid of our darker feel­ings and bring them into the light of shared exper­i­ence where they can be dealt with cre­at­ively. In my own con­tri­bu­tion ‘The psy­cho­dy­namics of eco­lo­gical debt’ I explore the exper­i­ences of those who try to come to terms with what is called ‘eco­lo­gical debt’ and the pro­cessing of feel­ings of shock, dis­be­lief, shame and guilt. In the inter­views I con­ducted the pain of living in close con­tact with the know­ledge of cli­mate change was force­fully apparent, along with the depth of per­sonal change demanded and the need for appro­priate means of support.

In other art­icles key con­trib­utors explore the his­tor­ical par­al­lels of cur­rent denial, the effects anxiety can have on our thinking, the role of a widened idea of per­ver­sion in under­standing polit­ical stasis, the nature of the human rela­tion­ship to other-than-human nature, the way apathy defends against dis­tress and the way late cap­it­alism relies on the encour­age­ment of nar­cissism. Responses from a won­der­fully diverse multi-disciplinary team of aca­demics from out­side psy­cho­ana­lysis make this a truly rich book.

The emer­gence of hope

Psychoanalysis has much to offer both to our under­standing of the social pro­cesses at work in our fail­ures to deal prop­erly with cli­mate change and in the cre­ation of what I some­times call the ‘safe spaces’ that could allow dif­fi­cult emo­tional exper­i­ences to be con­fronted and lived through and the polit­ical reality to be prop­erly engaged with. Although this is a book which deals with a dark sub­ject it also offers a kind of hope – the hope that comes from a stronger con­nec­tion to reality, an eth­ical realism that is in the end more sus­taining than illu­sion. There is a feast of stim­u­lating and important ideas in this book which brings a much-needed depth per­spective to our under­standing of human responses to cli­mate change.

Engaging with cli­mate change: psy­cho­ana­lytic and inter­dis­cip­linary per­spect­ives. Editor Sally Weintrobe. Routledge: New Library of Psychoanalysis 2012. 272 pages. paper­back: £26.99 • ISBN 978−0−415−66762−3 ebook: £26.99 • ISBN 978−0−203−09440−2

Contributors: Jon Alexander, Michael Brearley, Irma Brenman Pick, Ted Benton, Erik Bichard, Stanley Cohen, Tom Crompton, Mike Hannis, Clive Hamilton, Stephan Harrison, Bob Hinshelwood, Paul Hoggett, John Keene, Johannes Lehtonen, Renee Lertzman, Angela Mauss-Hanke, Rosemary Randall, Margaret Rustin, Michael Rustin, John Steiner, Jukka Valimaki, Bob Ward and Sally Weintrobe.

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • I’m curious. The book appar­ently takes per­spect­ives entirely from one side of the debate; none at all from the other. It seems to me there are a lot of inter­esting psy­cho­ana­lytic ques­tions about why people throughout his­tory believe in stories of impending apo­ca­lypse, feel guilty about leading com­fort­able lives, make a virtue of sac­ri­fice and stoicism, believe in a ‘Golden Age’ before mod­ernity ruined everything, and so on. The modern vari­ations on this pur­it­anism (over such things as arti­fi­cial chem­icals, radi­ation, cli­mate change, genetic engin­eering, over­pop­u­la­tion, vac­cines, pro­cessed foods, and resource deple­tion) have made fas­cin­ating new adapt­a­tions to the modern social envir­on­ment such as their invoc­a­tion of Scientific Authority, and integ­ra­tion with anti-capitalist eco­nomics. I would have expected there to be psy­cho­lo­gical research focus­sing on points across the whole range. So is this selectivity because the book is written for a spe­cific polit­ical pur­pose and high­lights research to sup­port its point, or is it because the publicly-funded research agenda really is that unbalanced?

    If the latter, why do you think that might be?

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