Emotions, Activism and the Climate Crisis
I was invited by Angela Mutum to contribute a piece to this newsletter under the theme of ‘We are not alone’. She specifically asked me what as a therapist and activist I could offer to someone she charmingly referred to as an apath-ist. My immediate personal response is that she could take a look at the work of the American psychologist Renee Lertzman, who in Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement (2015) links apathy to unexpressed feelings of loss. Bearing in mind that the readers of this newsletter will be mainly (Gestalt) therapists I will pitch it as best I can without being a Gestaltist myself. ‘We are not alone’ has serious resonances with the topic of the Climate Crisis. Once upon a time it implied a belief in extra- terrestials, and as for Bezos, Branson and Musk with their hubristic urge to escape this planet, I’m not going there.
So I have opted for an FAQ format, while being all too aware that the questions I am posing are not currently regularly asked by most therapists. I should also make it clear that the answers I provide are mine and potentially idiosyncratic, and therefore not the last word, not necessarily conclusive. Rather my intention is to provoke further thinking and dialogue between readers and within whatever circles they inhabit. I will proceed on the basis that the climate crisis is inherently inseparable from the concurrent ecological crisis, and so for brevity am adopting the widely used acronym, the CEE (Climate and Ecological Emergency).
Before I kick off I would like to acknowledge the moving and impactful prologue for this piece that Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb has provided us with in the previous newsletter: ‘Living in a 50 Degrees Environment’. I especially appreciated her call to remain present to the CEE and her anticipating that in conditions of extreme heat, yes in Europe, many may simply fall asleep and never wake up. Could there be a metaphorical ring to this as well, given the widespread resistance to really staying up to speed with what is happening?
What is the range of emotions involved?
A common shorthand or suitcase phrase is eco-anxiety. This can be unpacked to reveal: fear, panic, terror, horror; grief over the destruction, lives lost and species rendered extinct ; also solastalgia, the mourning of a lost connection with a home environment; despair and dread; resentment and anger, especially at the injustices involved; confusion and frustration; guilt and shame; hope and hopelessness. This list is indicative, not exhaustive. However I would suggest particular attention should be paid to two further phenomena associated with the CEE.
Freud distinguished signal anxiety as having a valid function in alerting us to an external and real danger, from neurotic anxiety deriving from an often repressed internal conflict. Either or both may be implicated in reactions to the CEE and therapists need clarity here as to what they are witnessing. Secondly, as a body psychotherapist, working with the concept of somatic compromise, I am mindful of those sensations that simultaneously reveal and conceal (as does imagery in dreaming) emotions felt to be too disturbing to consciousness to be felt directly by the subject, and hence are translated into feelings of nausea or depression or untethered anxiety, – here is a further challenge for therapists from the CEE. Neurological level activation of the fight, flight and freeze reflexes in the face of traumatic overwhelm also needs consideration.
What are the population level denials we need to become familiar with and recognise?
Four are delineated by the GTDF collective in their chapter in Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (2021). I had best quote them directly:
“The denial of systemic violence and complicity in harm (the fact that our comforts, securities and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else); the denial of the limits of the planet (the fact that the planet cannot sustain exponential growth and consumption); the denial of entanglement (our insistence on seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than ‘entangled’ within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent) and the denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face.”
‘We are not alone’ nicely summarises the third denial. Should you detect any of these within yourself then what will you do about it? If you detect any of these in your client’s material do you just let it pass or do you find a way to reflect this back to the client so she or he can better put her or himself in question?
How about the importance of maintaining therapeutic neutrality?
This requirement is in tension with the therapist’s inevitable potential for influence for better or for worse. Here, given the extrapsychic nature of the CEE (but again note the above reference to ‘entanglement’), any process based investigation depends on whether the therapist concerned has what John Rowan (1983) has termed ‘the fourth ear’. In the context of the present discussion this means the capacity to pick up the already present reference(s) to or preoccupation with CEE issues. In Gestalt language whatever here is figure that arises out from ground. To be able to hear and bear this material the therapist must avoid pathologising reality-based anxieties (e.g. ‘isn’t this perhaps all about your feeling that your parents let you down?’). The obverse of this is when the CEE is the therapist’s agenda and not the client’s. However the nature of this crisis is such that all on earth are immersed in it, hence sooner or later therapists and their clients will have to face it together. Just like they do now within the pandemic, a parallel totality.
What are the potential contributions of therapists to resolving the CEE?
There are specific common psychological defences that on the one hand therapists are already well acquainted with, which come into play when people are faced with the CEE; while on the other hand these are what the general population happily falls into and has little grasp of. Take the classic gestalt spectrum of projection (e.g. ‘it’s the Chinese polluting the atmosphere with all that coal they are burning, isn’t it!’); introjection (the uncritical ingestion of advertising imperatives to consume more, newer and more impressively); retroflection (e.g. ‘don’t tell me what to do, it’s a free country! Anyway, aren’t we already f***ed!’); confluence (inability to disagree with prevailing sentiments and risk unpopularity by taking a position); deflection (‘can we change the subject please?’).
Even more relevant will be the therapeutic capacity to reflect and confront disavowal, doublethink and splitting, the most pervasive responses to the CEE. I would add that any therapist with trauma training who finds herself either by chance or by choice at frontline CEE events, and is called upon to provide psychological first aid, will recognise the immediate physiological defences, especially dissociation, and should be able to provide necessary extra-sessional holding and some debriefing to restore presence and equilibrium .
In summary psychotherapists have a psychological knowledge base providing indispensible tools and potential interventions (e.g. when to contain and when to discharge) for the whole range of ways in which people incapacitate themselves; with the knock-on result that the citizen level mobilisation necessary to shift governments and corporations into taking the action needed mostly goes missing.
What is the relevance of psychoanalysis?
At first sight it’s pessimistic metapsychology and it’s cerebral bodymind splitting (the body immobilised on the couch) might suggest that it’s a recipe for insularity, passivity and detachment. And didn’t someone say that insight is the booby prize? I would suggest a different evaluation. Firstly the optimism of humanistic psychology, within which Gestalt sits, needs to be tempered by a thorough appreciation of essentially unconscious defences, the homeground of psychoanalytic theory and majorly implicated in the collective failure to deal with the CEE. Secondly psychoanalytic thinkers have been more prepared to engage with the problem of radical evil, once again evident in today’s world as unrestrained greed, cynicism that motivates greenwash, narcissistic omnipotence, uncare and psychopathy. These are the personality traits and behaviours that are evident in governments and corporations turning a blind eye to the CEE, and disastrously prioritising business as usual. Thirdly in Britain it is the psychoanalytic community, with some input from integrative psychotherapists, that has taken the lead through publications and conferences in developing the psycho-social analyses without which the prospects for resolving the CEE will remain very poor.
Is there a necessary confrontation of ideologies?
An ideology is an unexamined system of beliefs and values i.e. what communities commonly take for granted. When the subject is an unconscious adherent, an ideology will be particularly hard to bring into view and thus make available for interrogation. I personally take the view that within a therapy context nothing is sacred, ergo nothing is exempt from questioning, including those who would do well to put themselves in question.
Certain forms of religious ideology that many find frankly lunatic are easy to spot but more difficult to deconstruct. Examples would be the merger of an evangelical Christianity with right wing Republicanism in the USA and Islamic fundamentalism in the form of Isis in the Middle East and the Taliban in Afghanistan as medievalist manias that legitimate the subjugation of women. Likewise the recent rantings of conspiracy theorists (Quanon and the Great Reset,- but with a grain of truth in the latter) and anti-vaxxers (vaccine doubters who take a personal agnostic position are excepted as non-ideological, in fact doubt is an ideological solvent).
However the ideological deformation of subjectivity that I’m really focusing on here, that is powering the CEE and the associated business as usual, is much closer to home: neoliberalism, the contemporary incarnation of capitalism. While on the face of it neoliberalism is a mild and normative ideology its social impact has been toxic and vicious. This ideology is encapsulated in Thatcher’s disgusting maxim: ‘There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families’. This is the ideology that over the last forty years has been insinuated into and assimilated by the mainstream of British society, exactly as she intended it to be. Its vectors of individualism (up your game!), the performance principle (see Marcuse 1972) and responsibilisation (you as an individual are to blame for your plight, there are no structural factors involved) together function as substantial barriers to the collective consciousness and solidarity that resolving the CEE demands.
When deep personal journeys take account of the extrapsychic social context, therapeutic thinking and praxis can function as an acid bath for the dissolution of ideology. So…..how counter cultural is Gestalt therapy these days, asks this survivor from the sixties?
Are there concurrent emergencies related to the CEE?
Yes, broadly speaking, there are two. The first has been staring us in the face for two years and to some extent has eclipsed a growing concern with the CEE. The collapse of the species barrier that once naturally protected humans has contributed to the current world health crisis through urban encroachment on forest and other natural habitats, laboratory experimentation and globalised travel and supply chains. Also intersecting with the CEE are world -wide social justice crises,- racism, gross economic inequalities, and continuing gender oppression, othering and sexism.
Like the CEE the pandemic and the social justice crisis are hyper-objects i.e. phenomena that are overwhelming and accordingly very difficult to get our heads around. All three bring it home that ‘we are not alone’. Despite most therapists being white and middle class, the majority are female and perhaps this is an occupational saving grace, through the social conditioning to be carers.
Is there a prospect of collapse?
Growing numbers of people believe it is on the cards. There is currently little sign that the necessary momentum and prioritisation will develop in time to avert a catastrophic rise in CO2 emissions. COP26 was a flop, governmentally speaking; as nearly all previous gatherings largely have been, except for Paris in 2015. The real will to act was outside the conference on the streets. Inside the 500 plus fossil fuel lobbyists successfully exerted their new strategy, delayism and diversion (bogus solutions such as markets for carbon trading and carbon capture technology were debated or presumed).
The British host was otherwise preoccupied and paid a fleeting visit, by plane of course. What he can’t lie about he ignores. Current ‘pledges’, the so-called nationally determined contributions, even if these were to be fulfilled, – which is anyway unlikely, mean the world is on track for 2.4 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This is the conservative estimate. Much of the science suggests 3.5 degrees or more is probable, due to the feedback loops that are already underway with incalculable results. A very large proportion of the planet will become uninhabitable.
Marx predicted that capitalism would be unable to resolve its contradictions, not least of which are the planetary limits to growth (see the aforementioned second denial), a fact its core ideology quite literally cannot afford to recognise. Human hubris and the profit motive are up against the earth systems (also known as Gaia) and humanity can only be the loser. Indeed ‘we are not alone’.
What are the potential angles of engagement for therapists?
I am suggesting that there is a tragic situation unfolding; and tragedy involves ignored limits .Tragedy is familiar territory for therapists, – as it is for artists and priests. New and experimental framings are called for in emergency situations. Walk and talk therapy has lately been taking sessions out of the consulting room into the outdoors. This can bring the ecologiclal dimension closer. Therapists in the heart of towns and cities could accompany their clients, individual and/or group onto the streets and then return indoors. Thereby one might bring extrapsychic factors into the therapeutic process, e.g. by adopting the situationist practice of the derive (drift). Gestalt practitioners could bring the cycle of arousal to this experience.
More obviously and perhaps less contentiously, the seeds of engagement, – and let’s call it that for the moment as ‘activism’ may conjure up too many spectres, are to be found outside the hour, away from your client base. The majority of our lives are spent in one kind of group or another. This is where compassionate and psychologically aware leverage can be exerted. As Professor Andrew Samuels, the distinguished post-Jungian analyst, author and former Chair of the UKCP, reminds us, therapists are also citizens (The Political Psyche 1993). We live out our lives in various interest groups and communities, including, but hopefully not restricted to, our professional groupings; even if some therapists approximate hermit crabs, protected within the shells of their client’s lives.
Supportive social movements already exist for CEE aware therapists to get engaged through, to be active, if not activists. Contact the Climate Psychology Alliance, – Steffi Bednarek, a Gestalt practitioner, locates herself there, and is writing lucidly (2018 and 2019) on CEE matters; find your local Extinction Rebellion group or connect with XR Psychologists; investigate the Deep Adaptation forum who are developing pre- and post-collapse perspectives. There is a spectrum between ‘soft’ environmentalist pathways and ‘hard’ edge activism. ‘We are not alone’.
Finally I would add that for Planet Earth and its inhabitants, human and non-human, to so to speak become your clients, it is a great help to have travelled in the pre-pandemic era and in the time before flying became a questionable activity. The value lies in having directly seen the lifeworlds of people in the South, as opposed to virtual experience. That is where the CEE has already landed, creating havoc. Personally I cannot forget the south of Madagascar, now suffering mass starvation; the Namibian desert, now facing extended drought; a village I visited on the Indonesian island of Flores that not long after I learnt was wiped out by a tsunami, this giving me an appreciation of the terrible death toll and displacement from the flooding of Mozambique; and being half Australian I know the huge area of New South Wales that was incinerated in the 2020 bush fire inferno. There but for the grace of God go I. ‘ We are not alone’.
Can you suggest any further relevant reading or films to watch?
If you only read one book it ought to be The Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, subtitled Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the culture of Uncare (Weintrobe 2021). Also recently published, a close second and referred to earlier, is Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (Bendell and Read 2021). Plus two earlier visionaries: Felix Guattari, a radical French analyst, wrote The Three Ecologies (2000); and Joel Kovel, also from the psy field and a former Green Party USA candidate for the Presidency, wrote The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (2002). And for Gestaltists interested in Perls’ highly topical engagement with the extrapsychic, the text must surely be Bernd Bocian’s Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933 (2010). As for films, so many now on the CEE, but ones of the moment have to be the satirical ‘Don’t Look Up’ and the most radical of David Attenborough’s documentaries: ‘Breaking Boundaries’.
Guy Gladstone recently retired from The Open Centre in London, after 37 years running several weekly ongoing groups and a range of w/e theme workshops. He continues to supervise and provide group process facilitation. A member of The Climate Psychology Alliance, and since early 2019 in Extinction Rebellion, he makes occasional street theatre appearances as The Fossil Fool, and experiments with public outreach through XR Crisis Talks and the Heading for Extinction talk.
He also contributes Climate Cafes for environmental organisations and pro bono support or coaching for activists. Email: [email protected]
Bednarek, S. (2018). How wide is the field. Gestalt therapy, capitalism and the natural world. British Gestalt Journal, 27(2), 8-17.
Bednarek, S. (2019). Is there a therapy for climate change anxiety? Therapy Today, 36 (June)
Bendell,J .& Read, R. (eds).(2021). Deep adaptation: Navigating the realities of climate chaos. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bochian, B. (2010) Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933. Berlin: EHP.
Guattari, F. (2000). The three ecologies. London: Continuum.
Kovel, J. (2002). The enemy of nature: The end of capitalism or the end of the world? London: Zed Books.
Lertzman, R. (2015). Environmental melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement.Abingdon: Routledge.
Marcuse, H. (1972). One dimensional man. London: Sphere Books.
Rowan, J. (1983). The reality game: A guide to humanistic counselling and therapy. London: Routledge.
Samuels,A. (1993) The political psyche. London: Routledge
Weintrobe.S. (2021). Psychological roots of the climate crisis: Neoliberal exceptionalism and the culture of uncare. London. Bloomsbury Academic.
This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.