Therapy is no place for a lie, so I had better begin with truth. The new year will demand that the media output is accordingly hopeful. The first theme of this inexpert climate therapy column was supposed to be “hope”. New year, old problems but with a chipper twist of enthusiasm for wrenching out our bad habits and saving the planet. In 2019 you will be met with a screen full of tips for wellness and newness. Few column inches will be consecrated to the fact that last year you did not solve the environmental challenges humanity faces. Few media outlets will remind you in the first fortnight of 2019 about the problems we didn’t leave behind in 2018.
I tried to start the new year on a positive note like the rest of them but I’ve a drone in my bonnet. The week before Christmas some pesky, “brainless” (The Sun), “eco-warrior lone-wolf” (The Sun again), “fat idiot” (WTF, Jeremy Clarkson) was zipping around the fringes of Gatwick airport. My family was scheduled to fly out and join me in Norway for Christmas, so we collectively held our breath for the lone-wolf to stop driving through the sky (drone, not Santa) in time for Christmas.
While the cat and mouse palaver unfolded, I happened to be on the phone to Liam Geary Baulch, an Action Coordinator at Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is an activist organisation which practices non-violent civil disobedience to protest inefficient government action against climate change. Geary Baulch is an artist and activist who focuses his research on the mental health of activists and climate scientists. He was pleased to talk to me about the feelings that climate change brings up but which we push deep down and have allowed to fester beneath our social conscience for decades.
Climate scientists and activists have written in the press for a number of years about their climate change related distress, and yet little has been done in the way of a public therapy session. Geary Baulch and I talked about the trauma of losing our planet’s biodiversity. We discussed hope and how to mobilise the public through emotive campaigns. I wondered if it was fair to condemn one group of people for deploying emotionally charged public speech and praise the other when it suits my agenda.
And then I asked, “it’s not you guys behind the drones is it?” A selfish question to a person already carrying the weight of emotional labour for another. Geary Baulch graciously corrected me, letting me know that Extinction Rebellion puts their name to their actions. Extinction Rebellion did have reporters ring in that day with the same question, though. Doing something is more hopeful than sitting ducks. A tale of hope and action is attractive.
People find Extinction Rebellion’s emotive language and approach to climate action comforting. Geary Baulch explains that the Extinction Rebellion talks across the country have created crucial support systems for members of the public who need to talk about their emotional responses to climate fear. “That human, emotional level of dealing with this is how we have grown. Whenever we’re doing actions physically on the ground, with people on the streets, that’s when our reach expands massively. I think there is something inspiring about it.”
On April 15 of 2019, Extinction Rebellion will stage their International Rebellion Week. I hope this year the media will make more space to cheer on a growing number of climate activists demanding systemic changes against climate inaction.
Phone call with climate activist over. Try to write about hope. Drink a beer and take a nap because it’s December 20 and no one else is replying to emails. Most of my writing takes on shape in the moment between wakefulness and napfulness anyway.
The image of the drone followed me into my lull. Was an “eco-warrior” out there making a stand against people like my family who were pumping carbon into the air to join me for a Christian festival of pretending? Still now the drone mystery has not been settled, but people were excited at the prospect of someone taking radical action against polluting infrastructures. It is like an arty b-list film where the plot is never resolved and instead it is the unfolding of the protagonist’s self-awareness which takes centre-stage.
I could not write about hope without addressing the reality that I have not changed my consumer habits enough this year. I still take planes, buy plastic, recycle sloppily, eat meat and fund H&M’s natural resource depletion. I feel the familiar dredge of guilt rather than a wave of fresh hope.
Guilt can root itself so deeply in ourselves and our relations that we barely notice it is there, and this prevents the actions for change that we urgently need to take. We are caught in our own systems and things and systems of things. Is it unreasonable to expect us to identify that beneath the noise, we feel desperately guilty about our environmental inertia? Lots of us are not doing enough, aside from refusing a plastic straw in our gin and tonic, to prevent the climate catastrophe rearing up on us.
We feel guilty before we achieve change. Guilty for not quitting, or starting, something we should. We do feel calmer once we start our homework, our tax return or begin an overdue, difficult conversation. Until we talk about our collective and individual culpability we cannot begin to dig up the insidious guilt that steels us against progress. We should begin the new year backwards, by addressing the old lies we tell ourselves: that it will be ok, that science will solve it and that the human disposition for pretence has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis.
Humans made this mess, some humans more than others. A human approach to understanding the emotional complexity of inaction is worth a run. My top 2019 tip: a novel public resolution to solve a sticky problem is all the newness we need this year.
It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”
Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.
For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.
It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.
Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.
If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.
Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.
To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.
It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?
Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.
Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”
There is much to discuss, after all.
Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.