It is a difficult time to be a human right now. We have known that we have a detrimental impact on the world’s ecosystems for decades and yet, on our watch, the effects of climate change have worsened to the point of threatening the extinction of many animals and plants, as well as our own.
Climate change clearly breaks down the artificial boundaries we have placed between scientific knowledge and our psychological response to it. Human health and wellbeing is no longer something we can view as separate from the world we live in. The effects of climate change impact on how we feel and in turn, the state of the world depends on our ability to wake up and respond adequately. It becomes clearer and clearer that our wellbeing is intricately interwoven with the wellbeing of the Earth and that self care cannot be separated from the care for the world. This book tries to understand the deeper psychological issues that govern the way we impact on the world and in turn how the state of the world impacts on us and our mental health.
Paul Hogget (who is also the co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance) presents the work and research of 12 colleagues from the newly emerging field of Climate Psychology. In his introduction, Hoggett points out that so far political elites operated with a crude and simplified model of human psychology, that is essentially akin to Spock in Star Trek. The ‘spokist approach’ assumed that humans were logical creatures that sought to act in rational (e.g. self interested) ways on the basis of logical processing of available information. This ‘spockism’ found expression in the continued belief that information is the key to change, that once the right information is communicated in the right way, people would act reasonably and engage in the change that is necessary.
The fact that nearly half of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere were emitted in the last 35 years, whilst we knew about climate change and its devastating impact, shows that other psychological mechanisms are at work here. These have been neglected for too long and at a high cost to the Earth. Hoggett discusses how the positivist paradigm of control over nature, including human nature, seems to have brought us to the brink of extinction. The book calls for a wider perspective and presents psycho-social, unconscious and emotional aspects of the human psyche in relation to climate change.
The book is divided into two parts, with the first part focusing primarily upon the methods used to generate and analyse data and the second part presenting and discussing the outcomes of research. As a psychotherapist in private practice, the richness of the discussion in the second part spoke more to my personal interests. All authors call for different ways of knowing that need to be given their rightful place alongside cognitive and analytical perspectives and apply this in their research methodologies through aesthetic, embodied, sensory, imaginal, associated and situated approaches to data collection and interpretation.
I deeply appreciated the breadth of the research presented, which touched on a wide range of societal aspects and is highly relevant
Renee Lertzman highlights the importance of ‘deep listening’, by which she means listening with an empathic and nonjudgemental research attitude, which is particularly important in research with participants whose views about climate change seem very different to our own.
Caroline Hickman makes a case for the use of imaginal forms of conversation with children. ‘If climate change was an animal what would it be and what would it say?’ In order to do justice to the more playful and imaginal ways of knowing, that both adults and children can engage in, she includes imagery, metaphor, symbols, feelings and intuitions in the interview process with 5-17 year olds.
Nadine Andrews’ uses metaphor analysis in her interviews with sustainability managers who work in governmental institutions and often feel marginalised.
Rosie Robison’s research focuses on the emotion work of those engaged in multi-stakeholder collaboration.
The theme of different ways of knowing is taken into the dreamworld by the last two contributions. Sally Gillespie’s research focused on action-research with climate activists. Much of the work with the group pivoted upon identifying and containing perceived dualities such as optimism and pessimism, life and death, empowerment and disempowerment. Through dreamwork, discussions and work in the imaginary realm, the participants noticed their increased capacity for tolerating complexity and uncertainty, as well as an increased capacity to hold the tension between opposing viewpoints, which resulted in a liberating transformation of consciousness.
Julian Manley and Wendy Hollway describe an event in the climate change field which combined artwork and dream work, by using a Social Dreaming Matrix to assist with imagining ‘the imaginal’, something associative and rhizomatic, embracing the bizarre-seeming and sensing the affect.
The second part of the book focuses on the findings generated by qualitative and psycho-social influenced research rather than methodologies deployed.
Jo Hamilton provides a range of civil society initiatives, like psychotherapy, mindfulness, nature connection, yoga, etc., which offer containment to those first developing an awareness of the implications of climate change.
Rembrandt Zegers beautifully reminds us how the capacity to trust our senses allows us to learn from nature (from horses, cows and glaciers) and how this learning can be used to lead others.
Recent survey data suggests that most people know about climate change, and even acknowledge the human element to it, but remain relatively indifferent to it. Gill Westcott looked at the ways in which denial becomes embedded in everyday organisational life, in order to reconcile the awareness of climate change with conformity to the social norms and expectations of ‘business as usual’
Tollmache’s research focussed on London’s middle class. His participants manifested complex and contradictory thoughts and feelings about climate change. His interviews illustrate the concept of denial and provide useful information about the process of negation, disavowal, literal, implicatory and interpretive denial. Silence is discussed as another form of denial and the participants/ real or imagined sanctions to breaking that silence are explored.
In the last chapter Rosemary Randall and Paul Hoggett look into the contrasting cultures that climate scientists and activists operate within and how this impacts on their personal coping strategies. The activists were more emotionally aware, whilst the scientists mostly relied on scientific rationality and neutrality as coping mechanisms, which left them less equipped to deal with the emotional and ethical challenges thrown up by their work.
This book gives a fantastically diverse overview of aspects in which individuals are affected by climate change and illustrate how people try to make sense of times in which the ground shifts underneath our feet. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in an overview of the diverse new field of climate psychology.
Steffi Bednarek is a Gestalt psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer. She is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance and works in private practice in Brighton. She offers incubation spaces where mental health professionals can attend to their own climate grief and make sense of the impact and demand on our profession.
She has been a Head of Counselling and Mental Health in Higher Education, managed counselling and mental health services for the charitable sector, and worked as an international consultant and trainer for several government ministries, the Human Rights sector and national and international charities.
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