‘This is an emergency’ -
proposals for a collective response to the climate crisis
A threshold moment
It is a difficult but important time to be alive as a human being right now at this threshold moment for our species’ future. We are heading towards a global climate crisis of unprecedented proportion, with 97% of the scientific community agreeing that humans are responsible for dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate system (IPCC 2019, Hoggett 2019, Wallace Wells, 2019). We are set for disruptive levels of global warming within our lifetime and may already have passed an irreversible tipping point. No place on Earth will be spared the consequences. Unless we dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions in the next decade (IPCC, 2019), we are on course for a humanitarian crisis of unspeakable consequences. Unfortunately there are peoples, cultures, animals and ecosystems on board of this neo-liberal trajectory who have been dragged here against their will.
Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record have all occurred since 2001 (NASA/GISS, 2018). We have witnessed the increase of devastation caused by fires, floods and storms in the last years and know that weather patterns will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable. Manmade plastics have contaminated the most remote and deepest places on the planet; the ice caps are melting; the oceans are acidifying and the rates of sea level rise suggest they may soon become exponential. These are the perfect conditions for feedback loops, that will increase the pace of change.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report describes 1.5C degrees of warming as ‘dangerous’; warming around 3C as ‘catastrophic’; and warming that goes beyond 4C as ‘unkown, beyond catastrophic’ (IPCC, 2018). No nation is currently on course to meet the target of CO2 emissions needed to keep global heating to the minimum of 1.5 C, set out in the Paris agreement. In fact global emissions are rising rather than decreasing. The University of Washington’s climate impact group predict a minimum of 3C of warming by 2080 (Mote and Salate, 2009). What this means for our lifetime and the lifetime of our children is so scary to contemplate, that it breaks my heart to think what my daughter - what all of our children - will have to face.
Up to a million species are at risk of extinction worldwide. (Balvanera 2019, WWF, 2018). In the UK, reports (Carrington, 2019) point to the extinction of a quarter of all mammals and nearly half of all birds in the near term future.
Worldwide, there are around 360 million urban residents living in coastal regions that are less than 10 meters above sea level. In fact, 15 of the world’s 20 mega-cities are at risk of rising sea levels and coastal surges (Centric Lab 2019).
Countries that are less affected by adverse climate effects will be likely to face an increase in migration. The World Bank states that due to climate change, countries needed to prepare for 140 million internally displaced people, in addition to millions of international refugees by 2050 (The World bank, 2018). This is a perfect breeding ground for authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascism. We already see the effect of hostile border policies in the Global North.
Droughts, floods, storms and general temperature changes can easily result in crop failure , famine, malnutrition and put too much pressure on vulnerable food supply chains.
Of course those who already suffer from social inequality, poverty and marginalisation will feel the consequences of climate change the most. People in the Global South already experience these threats as a reality.
In the UK, Government figures show that over 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, were living in poverty in 2018 (Butler, 2018). With rising food prices this number will increase exponentially(Centric Lab, 2019). This is despite how little they contribute to the problem. Poor people consume far less than those who are wealthier, commute more via public transport, travel less, use less household energy, and consume less vanity goods. Climate injustice and the competition over sparser resources are likely to widen the social gaps that already exist in our societies and increase the risk of social unrest.
Warmer climates will also increase health risks through pollution, heat related deaths, malnutrition or the introduction of new diseases into areas whose communities are not sufficiently adapted. In 2003 alone, Europe experienced a summer heat-wave that resulted in 70,000 deaths (Centric Lab, 2019).
Given this diverse combination of stress factors and our lack of mobilisation, some academics (Bendell, 2018) predict a near-term social collapse and call for societies to prepare for this. In his much discussed ‘deep adaptation’ paper, Professor Jem Bendell (2018) broke with academic convention and spelt out what climate related social collapse would mean in terms of the ethical and humanitarian choices that we may have to face. What would we be prepared to do to protect our children? Would we be prepared to kill someone in order to defend our possessions or our food resources? Would we watch people die? Bendell has been criticised for scaremongering, but these questions reveal that there is a psychological dimension to the climate debate. How do we prepare ourselves psychologically for the uncertainty and the challenges the future holds? What psychological capacities do we need to foster and what supports us to bear unbearable news? And most importantly: what stops us from mobilising for radical change in the light of these facts?
The positivist approach has not paid off. For decades the scientific community assumed that we are logical and reasonable creatures that will adjust our trajectory if we have clear information in front of us. We have known about the risks of climate change for over 50 years and yet nearly half of the global CO2 emissions have been released into the atmosphere in the last 35 years (Ritchie and Roser, 2017), in our lifetime and on our watch. The irrational, chaotic, emotional responses of human nature were kept out of the story, which meant that our human capacity for denial, corruption and deflection has not been taken into account. We are paying a huge price for this myopia.
The failure to acknowledge the complexity of the human psyche is no longer sustainable. Climate change breaks down the artificial boundaries we have drawn between us and the world, between the personal and the public, between scientific data and our fallible human response to it. It is time to widen the lens and attend to the interconnection between the vast and wild human soul in its entanglement with a world that no longer allows us to reduce it to a mere backdrop. The effects of climate change impact on our mental health and in turn, our psychological response-ability over the next few years will alter the state of the world, one way or another. It is time for the psychotherapeutic profession to allow the world to enter our thinking, our theories and our consulting rooms.
Eco-anxiety and malignant normality
Over the last few decades depression and anxiety have spread like wildfire in the western world. More and more people sense that something is wrong without being able to name it. The fear and despair that some individuals experience in response to the ecological, social and cultural threats we are facing, has been given a label. Eco-anxiety is the new buzzword that makes the rounds amongst climate aware mental health professionals. It is often used synonymously with climate change anxiety. I would describe eco-anxiety as heightened psychological (mental, emotional, somatic) distress in response to the climate emergency. The American Psychological Association (2017) references ‘eco-anxiety’ as a likely effect climate change may have on our mental health. The term ‘anxiety’ can however be misleading, as the range of symptoms is much more diverse. It can, in more severe instances, manifest as trauma reactions, depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks etc. but shows up more frequently in higher levels of general anxiety, feelings of shock, being frightened about the future, feelings of grief, helplessness and numbness. These manifestations are creative adjustments to the current circumstances and generally a sign that we are alive and responsive to our context.
It is important to stress that eco-anxiety is not an illness or a ‘condition’ in the clinical sense. The climate emergency is extremely scary to contemplate and anxiousness is an inevitable consequence of facing the facts. Fear is a healthy emotion and only becomes problematic if the conditions needed for individuals to be heard and supported are absent. Distress in the light of climate change is therefore an entirely appropriate response to a dangerous situation. Appropriate treatment is at societal level and requires decisive political action to reduce CO2 emissions rather than an individualised and introspective approach. If eco-anxiety is treated as a pathology then ‘the forces of denial will have won’ writes Graham Lawton (2019) from the New Scientist and goes on to say ‘what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity’.
If eco-anxiety is the figure, then it arises out of a dysfunctional ground of malignant normality. It is the phenomenological field that the individual is contextualised within and not the individual that needs attention. The field has been diminished and depleted for too long whilst the focus firmly lay on the individual. The effects of this attack on our ground have been deflected or ignored too often by our profession. Climate change forces us to recognise that our sense of wellbeing is intricately linked to the wellbeing of our ecological surroundings. Maybe it is the ground that needs to become figural now.
Solastalgia, a term coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht (2005) is closely related to eco-anxiety and refers to the existential pain experienced when a place of belonging is subject to environmental degradation. The psychological harm that befalls individuals, communities or society when their environmental place of ‘home’ is in demise or when healthy ties between people and their ecological environment are severed is certainly known to indigenous cultures throughout the world and has been recognised in western societies for a while (Mitchell 1946).
Another frequently used term in relation to the climate emergency is ‘pre-traumatic stress’ or ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’, a term that has been coined by the American psychiatrist Lise van Susteren (2017). She describes it as a before-the-fact version of classic PTSD, which for most of us who live in the Global North, is about anticipated trauma rather than trauma we have already experienced. For Zhiwa Woodbury (2019a), ’Climate trauma’ represents an entirely new order of trauma, as it interacts dynamically with all categories of previous traumas and can trigger our residual personal, cultural, and intergenerational traumas that we carry within us. He suggests that we live in a traumasphere, which is characterised by pervasive and interpenetrating traumas that inhibit our innate abilities to respond to obvious dangers (Woodbury 2019b). We don’t yet seem to have developed sophisticated ways of working with the collective forms of trauma that still run through the fabric of society. Intergenerational wounds, like the split between us and the living earth for example, may sit so deep that we may not even realise that they exist. Glendenning (1994) calls the tear between us and the world ‘original trauma’ and describes how this feeling of isolation that results from it has been completely normalised in western society.
I discussed the topic of eco-anxiety and climate trauma in a BBC current affairs interview and in a subsequent article in Therapy Today (Bednarek 2019). I expressed concern about the use of clinical language, such as ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’ to describe the wild and undomesticated human suffering in relation to our ecosystem’s decline. Whilst clinical terms can communicate complex dynamics and map out the psychological terrain, the use of clinical language often calls for a clinical response. Symptoms are then seen as a sign of an individual’s malfunction that needs to be repaired, in the same way as we use weedkiller to wrestle unwanted plants to the ground. This attitude of repair is in line with our heroic culture (based on success and achievement), our individualistic outlook and our belief in progress that forms the background of a paradigm that is costing us the Earth.
There is a whole industry of self-help books and quick-fix therapy interventions devoted to eradicating unwanted feelings in our culture. Pharmaceutical companies have created a market that provides us with the means to sedate our pain, gently bringing us back into a sleepy state of mild discontent. Some forms of therapy and alternative health seem to aim for a similar appeasement. Even mindfulness practices are often decontextualised and used to disperse the discomfort that calls to us from a far distant seeming depth. But what if our symptoms are our last frayed connection to sanity? What if they are the last lifeline we have got left to re-ensouling our lives and our communities?
In my writing I try to rise up against the persistent cultural attack on the sacred connection that our grief can weave between us and the world. At precious times, when I allow my heart to break open to all the loss in the world, when I experience the weight of my shame, anger, helplessness and the bittersweet love and longing for a world that I have not related to enough, in those sacred moments, I don’t recognise clinical terms as words that do justice to the wild beauty and majesty of my resonance with the world. In fact these terms feel like an insult. Reductive terminology, based on a positivist worldview, reduce my human nature to a narrow existence. I therefore see it as an act of soul rebellion to use poetic language, wherever I can, in order to remind myself and others of the magnificence and diversity of the human soul.
Whatever words we choose to describe our distress in relation to a declining world, the biggest problem we face is not anxiety, but a malignant form of normality that is characterised by a collective state of denial. Mass amnesia and anaesthesia are the threats that threaten the world as we know it. We forgot how to live in right relationship with the Earth and with each other and we numb the pain that results from so much emptiness. The dysfunction lies in the absence of adequate mobilisation in the face of danger. The pressing issue for our profession is therefore not eco-anxiety, but the absence of it.
How can we invite the state of the world into the conversation? How do we make the malignant normality figural, especially if therapist and client both participate in the same forms of deflection? How do we grieve something we may not even realise we have lost? These questions present our profession with unprecedented problems that certainly don’t have linear answers. It is time we made space to discuss them.If we wait until it is too late and keep colluding with business-as-usual, we may well have a mental health crisis at global scale on our hands very soon, with both therapists and clients utterly unprepared to bear the consequences.
Collective deflection, denial, disavowal and a healthy sense of shame
I don’t doubt for a moment that most people are concerned about the environment and wished climate change wasn’t happening. Most people care deeply and want their children to have a safe future. So what is going wrong? We know that we are part of the problem - and yet we don’t seem to act as though we can be part of the solution. We behave as though someone else will come along and make it all go away.
The Guardian recently published data that reveals that as few as 20 companies are responsible for a third of the world’s CO2 emissions (Taylor and Watts, 2019). We have been sold the individualistic story that we should recycle more and use energy saving light bulbs, whilst big corporations have knowingly driven the climate crisis to this catastrophic point for humanity. They spent billions each year to lobby governments and hide the effects their businesses have had on the environment (Taylor and Watts, 2019). Whilst this illustrates the powerful invested interests that keep people ignorant and focussed on business as usual, we can’t altogether put all the blame on the fossil fuel industry. We have all known about the dangers of climate change for decades and chosen to stick our head in the sand. It was convenient not to dig too deep.
Hope has become a defence mechanism that comes at a high cost. Blind trust that it will all be ok in the end, that bad things only happen to other people in far away places or that a great solution will be found by clever people, resembles the attitude of a child’s wishful thinking. Robert Bly (1996) tells us that we live in a "sibling society, " in which adults have regressed into adolescents who refuse to grow up. He illustrates how the values of modern society have encouraged a move into an adolescent place in relation to the duties of citizenship. Societal norms no longer ask citizens to be honourable, generous and noble, but encourage competition and personal gratification.
But it is adults we need right now. We need people who are willing to bear the unbearable mess we are in, show up fully, mobilise and offer what they can, not because there is a guarantee that it will succeed, but because it is the right thing to do. Now is not the time to play small and wait for someone else to sort it out. What the current times are calling for is the cultural transformation from an adolescent stance into a maturity, where we mobilise in our fragile, fallible, imperfect human ways and offer what we can to be of service to something greater than ourselves. We each have gifts and resources that we can contribute. Acting as if we matter is a form of soul rebellion against so much cultural numbing and deflection.
However, there is only so much bad news anyone can take. What we can learn from mythology is that staring straight into hell will eventually turn us to stone. Psychologically we tend to dissociate when we feel unable to deal with the enormity of the challenges we are facing. Through a process that the psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe (2013) describes as ‘disavowal’, many are able to rationally engage with climate change data, whilst denying the full impact this data has on their lives. Positive bias, wishful thinking, denial, rationalisation, dissociation or numbing are all ways to deflect from the unbearable feelings we have to face. These mechanisms keep our cognitive knowledge separate from our felt and lived experience so that we can remain partially asleep, without urgency or motivation to mobilise. The more reality is systematically distorted or avoided in this way, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously and the need for further distortion increases. Whilst this process helps us to maintain an emotional equilibrium, it comes at a high cost to the Earth. When this defence is no longer possible, there is either further defence through anger and aggression or a collapse of the defence, which is likely to result in anxiety. The feeling of anxiety can therefore be a sign that there is enough support in the ground to allow a rigid deflection to dissolve.
Rather than attempting to rid people of anxiety, therapists can support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of the full spectrum of emotions, without collapsing under it or turning away.There is an emotional range within which most people can sustain strong feelings without either dissociating and numbing at one end of the spectrum or going into blind panic at the other. This window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999) between hyperarousal and hypoarousal describes the range within which we can engage with difficult truths while staying connected. Therapists trained in trauma work will know how to support self-regulation whilst facing difficult feelings. But in order to be in a position to support others, therapists will have to face their own deflections and denial of what is to come in the not so distant future. There is a need for spaces where we can support each other.
At the point at which our defences soften, shame may come to meet us at the gates to recovery. Shame, this unpopular and unwanted feeling that holds us to account for our actions, has had a lot of bad press, and unsurprisingly so. Toxic shame is responsible for a considerable amount of suffering. I am not advertising a culture of blame and guilt, but am interested instead in the aspect of shame, which helps us to regulate our sense of belonging and defends against a loss of contact in relationship (Erskine, 1994). This aspect of shame holds us to account and asks of us to make amends in order to repair the rupture that our actions or non actions have caused. Shame is linked to the societal norms, cultural trends and values of the groups and subgroups we belong to. We feel shame when we have breached these norms and so shame can be seen as the feeling that governs relationships and group cohesion.
Maybe our group has followed the wrong Gods home. The degree of shame we feel for our participation in a system that destroys our life support seems to be minimal, whilst the feeling of shame about body image, career success, personal prestige or possessions are at an all time high. Whilst many clients feel tortured about unfavourable comparisons to their peers, I have never had a client talk about the shame they carry for their contribution to the genocide of species, the responsibility for the horrors their children and grandchildren are likely to encounter or the shame of destroying the local ecology through the use of weedkillers in their gardens. This form of shame is so distant that most of us can’t feel it because it would be linked to the values of relationship and inter-being with the world rather than the values of materialism and consumerism. The diagnosis for someone who has a complete lack of shame is a psychopath and shockingly the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder in DSM-V (2013,p.661) seems to describe our relationship to the Earth pretty accurately.
I am wondering if there is a need to create supportive containers that allow us to explore our shame in relation to our attitudes towards the more-than -human presences and the generations that are still to come. How can we allow ourselves to acknowledge the prospect of ecological devastation and feel the damage our lifestyle choices and convenience options are causing to other-than-human life forms and the future of our children without becoming paralysed? This is a question we need to take on as a profession and it may require the widening of our theories and practices.
Soul rebellion: Re-claiming, Re-wilding, Re-imagining, Re-ensouling the culture of psychotherapy
In addition to the individual mechanisms of deflection, the hedonistic and individualistic values of western culture have also had their soporific effect on us. We have collectively anaesthetised large parts of our human experience in order to fit into the machinery of capitalist growth (Bednarek, 2018). Capitalism has become a way of life that manifests in the fabric of our day to day existence. It has infiltrated our towns and cities, traded the idea of community for individualism, prioritises convenient lifestyles over their consequences, sold us stories of what ‘we deserve’ and what constitutes a happy life, whilst alienating us from the land and from each other. It has become part of our relationships, our marriages and part of the ways we relate to each other and ourselves.
Horrendous things have become normalised within our field of acceptability. All too often the capitalist machinery has forced us to give up on our primary human satisfactions for the sake of meaningless work that turns us into producers and consumers of replaceable goods or services. Our life experience and self worth is frequently reduced to career paths and we often describe ourselves in terms of a job title. Many people feel unnecessary, but have become used to this level of insult to their souls. Surely we were not made to hate Mondays, live for weekends and happy hour and raise our hands quietly to be allowed to speak. Surely we are not meant to be indoors on a beautiful day and light the magnificence of the dark sky with neon lights.
We assault the integrity of our human nature on a systematic level, neglecting almost everything that gives us deep satisfaction, such as participation with the rhythms of nature, being woven into community, expressing our aliveness through touch, song and untamed and undomesticated creativity. The gestures that have made us human for millennia have given way to sitting in front of a computer screen day after day. We then go home and watch television, shop online, get drunk at weekends and plan the occasional trip into nature as a form of recreation ground. Is this the expression of what we are meant to be at the so-called height of civilisation?
Many people can’t tolerate this level of deprivation of soulfulness and meaning without numbing themselves - and yet good mental health is mostly regarded as the ability to function symptom free within the capitalist paradigm (Bednarek, 2018).
But as any recovered addict can tell you, there comes a time when the highs turn into lows, when the denied reality and all the damage that has been done comes crashing down. It is at this late hour that a tipping point signals that, in the name of survival, the soul needs to find a way back home. Awareness of impending collapse can therefore be an opportunity to open ourselves up to deeper questions of meaning that we typically postpone.
The concept of post- traumatic growth, tells us that positive, far-reaching psychological shifts can occur as a result of experiencing adversity. In that light, climate despair can invite us back to a fuller life. We can gain greater presence, depth, courage and wisdom through our willingness to step through the gateway of anticipated suffering. If we are capable of experiencing pre-traumatic stress, then we can also expand through a process of pre-traumatic growth. People often behave generously in challenging circumstances, taking care of each other, improvising creatively, connecting in ways they may not have done in everyday life. And sometimes something emerges from those connections that is so utterly beautiful that the story of who we are can change fundamentally.
The poet Wendell Berry reminds us that ‘the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings’ (1999, p.102). Miriam Greenspan, seems to agree when she describes dark emotions as potentially profound spiritual teachers. She says: “In our intervulnerability is our salvation, because awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism’ (Greenspan, 2008).
There are many acts of rebellion and one of them may be to invite each other into heartbreak. Grief is the primary way in which the heart softens. It eases the hardened places within us and helps us to remember what we have sacrificed. Grief is suffused with life force and has a distinctively subversive quality, ‘undermining our society’s quiet agreement that we will behave and be in control of our emotions (…) It declares our refusal to live numb and small (Weller 2015, p.9). If we allow the grief underneath our numbness to touch us, we can bring our exiled humanity back home and become more intimate with the state of the world. I see this act of reclamation as a form of soul rebellion.
In ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’ Francis Weller (2015) writes: ‘Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close’ (Weller, 2015 p.16). And of course sustainable change does not arise out of fear, but out of our deep love for the Earth and for each other. If we open our vulnerable hearts to the grief of what we stand to lose, we also open the gate to our gratitude for what we cherish, whilst we still can.
Grief is therefore an inevitable part of facing the current times. Nobody is exempt from it. We all face loss after loss with each new species that goes extinct. Whether doctor or patient, counsellor or client, teacher or pupil, no matter how rich or poor we are, the crisis of the environment reminds us of our shared vulnerable human nature. The question is not whether or not our hearts will get broken, the question is what meaning we ascribe to a broken heart. Do we follow our desire to patch the pieces together and guard this vulnerable heart with vigilance, or do we build up our muscle of the heart in order for it to grow and expand? Do we seek ways to avoid suffering or do we learn to bear the pain? How can we help each other to find out what lies on the other side of heartbreak?
Of course we can only let in the painful truth if we have ways of processing our grief. And so we need to remember that grief is not meant to be private; it has always been communal (Weller 2015). It is not meant to be a lonely and isolated experience that we only express in the hushed atmosphere of a psychotherapist’s consulting room.
Interestingly most private therapy rooms are not set up to allow the wilder parts of human nature to emerge. They rarely support the wailing that needs to happen for some, or the raw and untamed outbursts of suppressed rage. The environment of the therapeutic office itself makes sure that clients often keep the range of expression of their humanity contained in quiet tears, that can be wiped away with readily provided tissues. By containing our human nature so tightly, we may lose some of our magnificence, power and grandeur in the exchange. I therefore wonder whether we need to re-wild some aspects of the support we are able to offer in our profession. Whilst there is no doubt that some people will need the safety of one to one support and the clinical expertise of a well trained psychotherapist, others may need community as an anti-dote to the extreme individualism that we have all been subjected to. After all, a collective wound may require collective healing.
In a time of crisis, we have the opportunity and maybe the responsibility to re-imagine our habitual ways of doing things. Psychotherapy can support individuals to create community and to transform their fear into meaningful mobilisation. Together we can create the resources and the support to face the magnitude of what is happening. It is an act of rebellion if ordinary and fallible individuals feel empowered to re-claim their agency. Each and everyone of us carries a gift that we can contribute to the greater good. In doing so, we un-domesticate and re-wild our capacities for connection and may re-ensoul our impoverished culture along the way.
Considering our ability to face dark times, it may be useful to remember that we didn’t use to have to have an MA in grief counselling in order to attend compassionately to the fragility of our human connections. Communal rituals and ceremonies used to be a holding container for the expression of strong emotion. Nearly every indigenous culture has used ritual as a central way of maintaining the health of the community.The same is true for our central European ancestors. For tens of thousand of years, rituals provided the means by which the community addressed the need for healing and renewed its relationship with the place they lived. The urge to create ritual sits deeply in our psychic structure. Maybe it is time to remember the traditions that have operated in villages before therapists have privatised the experience of pain. Maybe we can put something else alongside individual support and take part in re-building communal containers where ordinary people are empowered to offer love and compassion to each other and remember how to hold each other in rage and in fear.
The work of the psychotherapists Joanna Macy (1999) and Francis Weller (2015) are examples of how ritual can be used to build community and affect change. Macy’s ‘the work that reconnects’ (2019) uses ritual, group work and nature based experience to support individuals to transcend the artificial divide between ‘self’ and ‘other. Weller runs communal grief rituals that have taken shape through his collaboration with the African Elder Malidoma Some, applying his own background in psychotherapy to Some’s experience of village building. Weller defines ritual as ‘any gesture done with emotion and intention by an individual or a group that attempts to connect the individual or the community with transpersonal energies (2015, p,76). He sees ritual as something that is indigenous to the psyche, but stresses that whilst we may have a lot to learn from indigenous cultures about the use of rituals in our communities, we cannot simply use their traditions and apply them to our land and our psyches. He views it as ‘important that we listen deeply, once again, to the dreaming earth and craft rituals that are indigenous to us, that reflect our unique patterns of wounding and disconnection from the land. These rituals will have the potency to mend what has been torn (and) heal what has been neglected. This is one way that we may return to the land and offer our deepest amends to those we have harmed’ (2015, p.77).
Together we can restore our dignity, learn how to love more fiercely, expand our focus beyond our own concerns and our own lifespan and include a wider range of humans and more than human presences in who we hold dear and whom we are willing to compromise for. From this perspective we may stop milking the world for our benefit and ask what the current situation asks of us, and then find the strength and the resilience to rise to it. It does not guarantee that we will succeed, but it is a liberating trajectory. Quoting the civil rights activist John E. Lewis, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?
A psychology of the environment and an ecological self
Einstein famously said that we can’t expect to solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. In ‘how wide is the field?’ (Bednarek 2018) I explored the thesis that psychotherapy may need to re-imagine its discipline and expand its theories and practices in order to meet the demands of the time. John E. Mack (1995), a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, believed that we need a psychology of the environment, which requires an expanded psychology of relationship. The philosopher Arne Naess (1989) puts forward a similar idea with the notion of an ‘ecological self’, which transcends the common view of an ego-self, and sees the self as eternally embedded in the ecosphere. From this perspective environmentally conscious lifestyles can no longer be viewed as a form of altruism but need to be recognised as a form of self-interest.
Mack (1995) doesn’t believe that a mere threat to survival will be enough to create this new relationship without a fundamental revolution in the sphere of western consciousness. In his opinion, a psychology of the environment needs to include a powerful spiritual aspect that reconnects us with the divinity in ourselves and in the environment. He calls to our profession to ‘reinfuse (itself) with the imprecise notions of spirituality and philosophy, from which it has so vigorously and proudly struggled to free itself in an effort to be granted scientific status’ (Mack, 1995, p.284).
Mack proposed in 1995 (p.287) that a psychology of the environment needed to include the following elements:
An appreciation that we have a relationship with the Earth itself, and the degree to which that relationship has become inimitable to the sustaining of human lives and those of countless other species.
An analysis of traditional attitudes toward the Earth in our own and in other cultures that may facilitate or interfere with the maintenance of life.
The application of methods of exploring and changing our relationship to the Earth’s environment that can reanimate our connection with it. These approaches must be emotionally powerful, experiential, and consciousness expanding, opening us to ourselves in relation to nature.
An examination of political and economic systems, institutions, and forces from an ecopsychological perspective.
Discovering new forms of personal empowerment for ourselves and our clients, that integrate activism in the battle to protect our planet.
Widening our field of psychotherapy may therefore need to include practices which move us beyond the story of a separate self, practices which explore non-ordinary states of consciousness, and nature based practices that transcend a sense of separation from the world and our anthropocentric perspective.
The psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (2000) and his wife Christina, were early researchers into the use of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Their insights may be useful to expand the repertoire of our professional practice. In Jungian psychology the ideas of soul, archetypes and the collective unconscious transcend the merely human realm and ascribe agency to forces and presences outside of human control. Hillman (1995, p.11) observed that “the greater part of the soul lies outside the body’ and noted that we live in psyche; psyche does not live in us. He speaks of the ‘anima mundi’, the soul of the world, and sees it as an entity in its own right that acts upon us and asks us to participate in its dance. The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) stresses our state of ‘interbeing’ with a world that in his eyes has communicates with us if we re-learn to listen. These approaches may help us to re-imagine a different relationship to the world and stay open to the possibility that the world may be more complex than we currently give it credit for
Declaring a climate emergency
The psychoanalysts Rosemary Randall and Paul Hoggett (2019) conducted research with climate scientists and climate activists to establish how people who are exposed to the distressing facts of climate change on a daily basis manage psychologically. Their research showed that scientists often relied on positivist understandings of rationality in their attempts to manage their emotional responses, whilst the activists seemed more emotionally literate, building psychological support into their practice. Furthermore the activists had ways of transforming fear into mobilisation, which had a noticeably positive effect on their emotional resilience. As mobilisation is a positive way to deal with the mental health effects that the climate crisis has on us, I would like to propose actions that we can take as a professional body.
Organisations around the country are responding by declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ and committing resources to address it. Councils in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and 23 smaller local authorities in the UK have already passed motions declaring a climate emergency, as have universities such as Bristol and Exeter. In the psychotherapy profession, the first associations (British Association of Dramatherapists) and training institutes have done so too. I am therefore addressing the Gestalt Community in the hope that we will follow suit. I am reaching out, asking for help and support in acknowledging the danger we are in.
Each organisation has its own unique spirit and has to find their own co-creative way to mobilise. As an active member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, I would like to make some proposals as to how we may respond as a community. What I suggest is the following:
For the British Gestalt Community, membership organisations and training institutes to declare that there is a Climate Emergency.
For the Gestalt Community to work with partners, such as the BACP, UKCP, BPS and other national networks and mental health charities to lobby the UK and devolved governments on the psychological impact of climate change and to call on them to take wider action on making the UK carbon neutral in order to avoid a mental health crisis of unprecedented scale.
To make a commitment that all training programmes include opportunities for students to develop an awareness of how climate change and damage to the environment is impacting on individuals, and that all courses commit to incorporating environmental justice into counselling and psychotherapy practice.
For Gestalt training to explicitly consider the non-human world as a place of relationship, integrating theories and practices which explicitly explore the experience of being part of the living earth (see Field Theory, Living systems theory, Deep Ecology and Indigenous perspectives for possible inspiration).
To commission and publish research, training materials and therapy tools, along with relevant training workshops and on-line resources, to support members to fulfil their ethical commitment to promoting environmental justice. To share good practice, seek dialogue between different schools and approaches and to bring awareness to this issue.
For the BGJ to include a category in their peer review criteria that asks contributors to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the human and the more-than-human world and to transcend the individualistic and anthropocentric paradigm.
For institutes, training providers and all conferences to pledge to make their operations carbon neutral by 2025. This could include using Skype, live streaming and/or other methods for interactive learning; working out carbon footprint year on year; establishing if the organisation is investing in fossil fuels - for example via banking - and to consider alternative options.
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