On Friday 31 January 2014, I was on the train to London from my Devon home and passed through Dawlish. Through the window a grey sea raged, with waves perhaps six foot high, and I thought to myself, ‘If these were 30 foot, this line would really be in trouble.’
I was going to London to take part in a conference jointly organised by the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) and the Institute for Group Analysis, entitled ‘Sleepwalking into catastrophe: environment, crisis and the group’. A motivating theme underlying the conference was the psychology of climate change denial. As Paul Hoggett, Chair of the CPA, said in his introduction to the day, 97 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real, substantial, created by human activity, and with us now. So the key questions are why and how do we as a society remain blind or asleep to this, and as a consequence fail to take the steps urgently needed to change course?
I returned safely on Sunday but the very next day the line at Dawlish was partially washed away and two days later it was dangling in the air, unlikely to be repaired for many weeks. Two weeks later, as I write this, the floods and storms continue to rage, increasing numbers of people are displaced from their homes and workplaces, and the Government’s COBRA committee is meeting regularly to address the crisis.
My peer supervision group was cancelled due to flooding. One member of the group, who for several years made great efforts not to fly because of its impact on the climate, flew the next day to the other side of the world for nourishment, sun and yoga. It’s not that she doubts that climate chaos is real, that it is having a huge impact on the planet and is caused by human activity. She believes all this but, like many of my friends who did not fly for years, she is living with the contradictions of it all. She does what she can, but wants some of the joy of travelling. It is very hard to refuse to fly while many around you continue to blithely hop around the world, organising holiday events or venues and encouraging other people to fly to them.
This is my world today. Perhaps you recognise it.
I have been passionately involved in ecopsychology since the early 1990s. For over two decades I have been excited by the question of what western psychology – counselling and psychotherapy – can offer to the process of halting and transforming our collective destruction of the living systems of our beautiful planet – the living systems on which we depend for all physical aspects of our lives and, I would say, for the very health of our souls.
From where does this destructiveness arise? We have learned so much about how to transform personally addictive and destructive patterns into new life-affirming ways of living. How can we apply this learning to our collective situation? What would a genuinely ‘green’ psychology, one that incorporates our relationships with the greater-than-human world alongside our relationships with each other, actually look like?
I enjoyed reading the interview with Courtland Lee in the September 2013 Therapy Today1 in which he speaks of the desirability of counsellors addressing the interface between the ‘micro’ of our day-to-day work and the ‘macro’ of the big political picture in which that work takes place. He calls for the development of ‘global literacy’ so that we all truly become citizens of the world with a global awareness. I would add that ecological literacy, or development of an earth-based wisdom, is an essential part of global literacy.
This is at one level a huge territory, but I would like to summarise here some of the key insights that frequently arise when people come together to enquire into these issues.
Models of ‘pathology’ in individual psychology, from analytic to cognitive behavioural to humanistic, all tend to map easily onto the collective behaviour that is so destructive – the ‘industrial growth society’. The conference I have just attended was particularly interested in applying group analytic theory to our collective responses to climate change. Ro Randall, founder of a UK national project called Climate Conversations and before that Cambridge Climate Footprint, spoke of the initial great success of the latter project, but also of the great difficulties it went on to face. She explored possible psychological explanations for this, for example in terms of resistance and splitting as defences against the perception of overwhelming threat. Morris Nitsun, an NHS consultant psychologist, psychotherapist and group analyst, talked about the ‘anti-group’, about the aspects of group life that are unconsciously destructive rather than constructive, about possible envious attacks on future generations.
This is one approach; others can be found in the classic US anthology Ecopsychology: restoring the earth/healing the mind;2 in the more recent UK anthology Vital Signs: psychological approaches to ecological crisis, edited by Mary Jayne Rust and Nick Totton,3 and in Sally Weintrobe’s anthology Engaging with Climate Change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives.4 The Transition Movement, which began with Transition Town Totnes, near where I live, incorporates inner, psychological, spiritual and consciousness dimensions within a broad and very practical environmental movement.5
We seem to be living in a time of radical disconnection from the earth and from the other species and life forms with which we share her. There is a pervasive mentality that only we humans matter, we are separate from and superior to other life forms and have an unalienable right to, literally, exploit them as ‘resources’. This attitude is often termed ‘anthropocentrism’, and functions in the same way as other oppressive attitudes, such as sexism or racism.6 It is associated with a hostile desire to control, and a fear of our dependence on ‘nature’, which is seen as somehow not us. Simultaneously we idealise this ‘nature’, and use our longing to re-connect with it to sell the cars that do such damage to our environment or take holidays in places we have not yet spoilt.
When we do somehow find the spaces to come together and share our experience of our denied relationship with the other-than-human, there are often powerful stories to tell. There is often grief at what we are losing, fear for the future, anger and frustration at not knowing how to change the course of our society, guilt and confusion about what we consume, and a sense of resignation. Sometimes a depressed layer akin to self-hatred appears: ‘The earth will be better off without us.’
However, when it is possible to bring this unspoken part of consciousness to awareness and speak and feel about it, with the support of others, the magic often starts to happen. Some of the despair is released. We are already starting to reconnect. The insight arises that the current system in its unsustainable aspects does not in any case tend to make us happy; the things that are deeply satisfying to the human soul – love, relationship, beauty, creativity, service, spiritual growth, successfully meeting challenges rather than avoiding them, giving up addictions, prayer and praise, compassion, peacemaking, singing, dancing, community – are all inherently sustainable.
Any means we use to connect or reconnect with the greater-than-human world – from our pets to our gardens, from stargazing to wildlife watching, from wilderness treks to playing in the park – is intrinsically healing. Green views in hospitals accelerate recovery rates,7, 8 as does living with a pet. Gardens in prisons and schools have proved to do us good, and therapy with torture survivors is supported by doing it whilst working on an allotment.9 The holding offered is far greater than that of an individual human’s listening.
This is essentially good news – we live in a time where profound transformation is called for and is being asked of us.10, 11
‘The Great Work before us, the task of moving modern industrial civilisation from its present devastating influence on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence... when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive earth community... is our great work and the work of our children.’12
However, if the support is not there to realise this and to connect with ‘something greater’ that can support us to go forward, then the situation can seem overwhelming, and we tend to go numb. Hence the ‘denial’ as a defence against what is happening. As Weintrobe points out, there is ‘denialism’ – a conscious and orchestrated political campaign, connected with vested interests in the status quo, and there is ‘negation’ – an initial shocked ‘No!’ that is part of a healthy grieving process and soon becomes the capacity to begin to face the difficulty. Most problematic, she argues, is ‘disavowal’, where we somehow know but don’t know at the same time and, because of this contradiction, can become increasingly irrational in insisting on ‘not knowing’.4
The consistent failure of the media and politicians to name climate change and to respond appropriately to what is already here, or imminent, as something major and ongoing, not a one-off blip in the weather that will be over in a few days, is surely an almost unbelievable example of denial and denialism. What is the effect on us all of repeatedly watching news items that move swiftly from some piece of climate news – fires in Australia, the US polar vortex, floods in Asia, hurricanes in the Philippines and Central America, and now flooding in the Somerset levels and the Thames Valley – to the ‘good news’ about economic growth? Not some carefully thought through, new and sustainable economic growth, but the same old-fashioned, old paradigm sort, like car production, that is causing such devastation to our planet. This is cognitive dissonance on a grand scale, and does seem to be rendering us entranced, unable to think or see clearly. I remember John Snow speaking passionately on Channel 4 News from the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. These days he is regularly to be seen asking the weather reporter why some extreme weather event, such as flooding, is happening, and receiving the utterly insufficient reply: ‘Because of this weather front.’ The answer might as well be, ‘Because it’s raining’!
So how are we to come out of our trance, our denial, and wake up and change course? How can we possibly address the mess we are in, without being able to see, name and describe it?
I think counsellors and therapists have much to offer, as well as perhaps to learn.
How many readers of Therapy Today have explored their responses to these questions in their own counselling or in their own training courses, and are willing to go there with their clients? Perhaps increasing numbers of us have, and perhaps these conversations are happening more and more, now nature is calling us so loudly here in the UK to ‘Wake up’. My strong encouragement is to ‘go there’; these are profoundly important conversations. But also I wonder how many of us find that the subject somehow never seems to come up. And if it doesn’t, I wonder where we think it leaks out: in a sense of unreality, alienation, and fear of the future? In despair, cynicism, and the many symptoms and faces of soul loss? How is it to be young, or a young parent, in this time of denial of danger? Really, what does it do to our psyche when we see the effects of our destructive behaviour all around us and yet pretend we do not; pretend, like any addict, that there is no deep malaise, that it’s just a passing issue that will soon sort itself out naturally and, in any case, we didn’t create it, it’s not our responsibility?
My hope is that as a profession we will increasingly step up to meet this challenge, rather than avoid it.
Joanna Macy is one woman who has stepped up amazingly. She wrote: ‘If the Great Turning should fail, it will not be for lack of technology or relevant data so much as for lack of political will. When we are distracted and fearful, and the odds are running against us, it is easy to let the mind and heart go numb. The dangers now facing us are so pervasive and yet often so hard to see – and painful to see, when we manage to look at them – that this numbing touches us all. No one is unaffected by it. No one is immune to doubt, denial or disbelief about the severity of our situation – and about our power to change it. Yet of all the dangers we face, from climatic change to nuclear wars, none is so great as the deadening of our response.’13
We know that what can most support us to open up when we are overwhelmed is the presence of an open heart: the practice of compassion, courage, love and gratitude. So my question is this: ‘What would it mean to bring profound and intensely tender compassion, presence and love to our shared situation of human-induced climate chaos, ecological destruction, denial and confusion?’ I’d like to end with a Native American prayer:14
Give us hearts to understand,
Never to take
From creation’s beauty more than we give,
Never to destroy wantonly for the furtherance of greed,
Never to deny to give our hands for the building of earth’s beauty,
Never to take from her what we cannot use.
Give us hearts to understand that to destroy earth’s music is to create confusion,
That to wreck her appearance is to blind us to beauty,
That to callously pollute her fragrance is to make a house of stench,
That as we care for her she will care for us.’
Hilary Prentice is an integrative psychotherapist working in private practice on Dartmoor in Devon. She was co-founder of the UK Ecopsychology Network, and also of the Heart and Soul/Inner Transition dimension of Transition Town Totnes.
1. Feltham C, Lee C. We are citizens of the world. Therapy Today 2013; 24(7): 36-38.
2. Roszak T, Gomes MR, Kanner AD (eds). Ecopsychology: restoring the earth/healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books; 1995.
3. Rust MJ, Totton N (eds). Vital signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis. London: Karnac; 2012.
4. Weintrobe S (ed). Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge; 2013.
5. Prentice H. Heart and soul: inner and outer with the transition movement. In: Rust MJ, Totton N (eds). Vital signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis. London: Karnac; 2012.
6. Prentice H. Cosmic walk: awakening the ecological self. Psychotherapy and Politics International 2003; 1(1): 32–46.
7. Cooper Marcus C. Healing gardens: therapeutic benefits and design recommendations. New York/Chichester: John Wiley & Sons; 1997.
8. Cooper Marcus C, Sachs NA. Therapeutic landscapes: an evidence-based approach to designing healing gardens and restorative outdoor spaces. New York/Chichester: John Wiley & Sons; 2013.
9. Linden S, Grut J. The healing fields: working with psychotherapy and nature to rebuild shattered lives. London: Francis Lincoln; 2002.
10. Eisenstein C. The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2013.
11. Macy J, Johnstone C. Active hope: how to face the mess we are in without going crazy. Novarto, CA: New World Library; 2012.
12. Berry T. The great work: our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower; 1999.
13. Macy J, Brown M. Coming back to life: practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers; 1998.
14. In: Roberts E, Amidon E (eds). Earth prayers: 365 prayers, poems, and invocations from around the world. San Francisco: HarperCollins; 1991: 118.