If you were that way inclined, you could say that the biblical weather we’ve been having this past week – perfectly timed to coincide with start of the Doha climate talks – was some thundering deity disgorging its watery wrath over the British isles. These deluges have been the worst for five years, and come on the heels of Hurricane Sandy – climate change is literally lapping at our doors. And yet 2012 is likely to be the ninth warmest year on record. A study published in the journal Science showed definitively that Greenland is losing ice mass at five times the rate of the early 1990s. The climate is undeniably ”weirding”.
I am not a climate-change denier. On the contrary, ever since I interviewed the environmentalist Mayer Hillman for this newspaper 10 years ago, when he predicted most of what’s happening today, I’ve understood that we’re in the throes of something serious. I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn’t me, guv.
Indeed, when I hear apocalyptic warnings about global warming, after a few moments of fear I tune out. In fact I think I might be something worse than a climate-change sceptic – a climate-change ignorer.
The fuse that trips the whole circuit is a sense of helplessness. Whatever steps I take to counter global warming, however well-intentioned my brief bursts of zeal, they invariably end up feeling like too little, too late. The mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large.
In this I’m not alone. I asked two colleagues about their attitudes to global warming. One, a 48-year-old man, said he thought about it often, was angry about the role of big business, but as to his own interventions, “I do feel it’s like pissing in the wind really – I don’t know why I bother.” The other, a 57-year-old politically engaged man, admitted – “and I don’t say this with any pride” – that he rarely thought about climate change: it simply doesn’t interest him. When pressed, it turned out that he recycled, signed petitions to conserve old buildings and didn’t drive, but quickly realised that he couldn’t sustain his contention that “I don’t harm the environment”.
In Engaging with Climate Change, a major new book edited by Sally Weintrobe and described by Naomi Klein as “persuasive” and “powerful”, 23 different authors, among them psychoanalysts like Weintrobe herself, help explain how we can both know and not know something at the same time. Paul Hoggett, professor of politics at the University of West of England, identifies a repertoire of defensive strategies; I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve used them all. They include: other people are worse than me/it’s all the fault of someone else (blame-shifting); they’ll come up with something (technoptimism); make hay while the sun shines (hedonistic fatalism). Then there’s the view that the earth is so old and large, it can withstand the depredations of puny humans. I’d add another: climate-change fatigue. It’s all too easy to become inured to the warnings – the “yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before” defence.
Yet according to American researcher Renee Aron Lertzman, we care not too little about the degradation of the environment, but too much: most of us are trapped in a kind of “environmental melancholia”. Lertzman conducted fieldwork in a polluted edge of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin. Her interviewees, none of them environmental activists, expressed sadness and anxiety about a particular beach or river bank, but also spoke with nostalgia, as if these places no longer existed. They had disconnected from the threatened sites, which had ceased to be alive for them. What might look like apathy was in fact another expression of hopelessness, a lack of belief that repair was possible.
Weintrobe believes that our defences get mobilised because of our difficulty in bearing the anxiety excited by global warming. (As my friend Karen puts it, we ignore what we cannot bear.)
Our reliance on Mother Earth and worries about its sustainability echo our early dependence on our mother, restimulating primitive childhood anxieties about loss and annihilation, and the fear that our most urgent needs won’t be met. They also put us in touch with our destructive rapaciousness, greed and shame that we may have spoiled the world for future generations, indeed for our own children. It’s gratifying to learn from psychoanalysis of our unconscious feelings of grief and guilt for our part in endangering the planet; when analysts remind us of the role played by our inner omnivorous, omnipotent infant (arrogant, aggressive, with an inflated sense of entitlement), not so great.
The uncomfortable truth is that, unless and until our lives are directly affected by climate change, most of us have ambivalent feelings about making significant personal changes to avert some future catastrophe.
In my own case there always seem to be more pressing immediate concerns like what are we going to eat tonight – at that moment food miles matter less than what I’m going to pick up on my way home and cook fast. Psychotherapist Rosemary Randal is blunt: “People want change – but only a little bit. They want to stop climate change, but they also want all the things that are causing it.” In a major article in Rolling Stone magazine last summer, the environmental writer Bill McKibben argued that “since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders”. The first step, therefore, is to come clean about our ambivalence, rather than disown it because we “shouldn’t” be feeling it.
This isn’t putting individuals on the couch while letting corporate polluters and transnational despoilers off the hook. As Weintrobe told me: “We feel as individuals but our defence mechanisms are socially shaped and produced by a culture.”
Global warming is structured deep into our way of life: you can’t just graft fair trade, carbon-free elements on to it. Not while greed is seen as an economic virtue and frugality an economic vice. See the ads that invite us to “Be paid to shop”. Or the new prepaid debit card for eight-16-year-olds, presumably on the grounds that it’s never too early to learn how to spend, spend, spend. (How about 1,000 free Nectar points for being born? Why not wean babies on pureed Big Macs with fries?)
The culture of acquisition renders invisible everything that can’t be counted, calibrated or consumed. The ideology of the market has so penetrated every corner of our lives and thinking that any alternatives have become delegitimised, dismissed as unrealistic or pie in the sky and therefore literally unthinkable. Our imagination has been colonised. In experiments people encouraged to think about financial concerns were less motivated to address environmental problems.
So how do we get beyond despair? Not, apparently, through campaigns that generate guilt: the book argues that apocalyptic warnings are counter-productive. If you accept the idea that we retreat from overwhelming anxiety, then generating more fear and guilt will just paralyse us even more, and is an excellent way of recruiting more ignorers. As Ed Miliband has observed, Martin Luther King never inspired millions by saying “I have a nightmare”. The quick fix, meanwhile, denies the painful, deep feelings engendered by climate change, and what a complex business it is to reverse it.
Myself, I’ve got a bad dose of all-or-nothingism: if I can’t do something big, I do nothing at all. Since I can’t save the planet, will a set of new chair covers from Ikea really do much more damage? Might as well buy a smartphone since Indonesia has already been devastated by tin-mining. What we need to develop instead, says Weintrobe, is a sense of proportion about our own responsibility: this enables us to make some kind of active and creative reparation. But first we’ve got to go through certain psychic processes: to mourn what successive generations, including our own, have done to the earth; to work through difficult emotions, like anger, sadness and grief, so that we are able to bear the anxiety and face the reality. These are hard psychic tasks that can’t be done alone, only through joint effort in a social community. The Carbon Conversations groups that Rosemary Randall runs are one way of reducing our carbon footprints in tandem with others. Another is the Transition movement, through which people in communities support each other to develop practical, local initiatives for life beyond oil.
Many of us, though we wouldn’t want to admit it, are with Groucho Marx when he said “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” It’s going to take a huge cultural change to counter our unbridled narcissism, which demands immediate gratification, and inculcate the idea that we’re just trustees of the earth instead. The Hungarians have a parliamentary commissioner for future generations.
I was particularly struck by the book’s emphasis on the ecological debt we run up if we use more than our fair share of finite resources. I’m the bargain queen (my daughters too). We have learned to build human costs into our calculations – did a Bangladeshi girl put in five poorly paid hours to make this? But I am haunted by Randall’s revelation of the impact of our cheap T-shirts on the ecosystem of Uzbekistan, which provides Europe with one third of its cotton. Each T-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to make. I can never look at a T-shirt in the same way again.
Activists can’t dodge questions of inequality. To do so would feel like another instance of the developed world’s lack of generosity towards the developing world, the rich’s indifference to the poor. But I don’t buy the idea that the global financial crisis makes environmental concerns the luxury of elites: it’s the poor who are most affected by floods and soaring world food prices.
Campaigner Aubrey Meyer’s strategy, contraction and convergence, builds equity in to the process of reducing emissions. Once you let go of both the desire for the quick fix or single panacea, and the conviction that nothing we can do makes a difference – ie a sense of either omnipotence or impotence – you create room for a plethora of different creative solutions. After all, the Berlin Wall came down, apartheid ended and you can’t now smoke in a pub. As for me, I know I’ve got to tackle my tendency to invest things with magical properties – the perfect rug, or pair of boots, will solve all my problems – and the sense of elation that consuming promises to bring.
The book has helped me to make small personal changes (and not immediately deride them for their paltriness): like washing clothes less often. I don’t walk around in dirty, smelly clothing, but instead of throwing things into the washing machine I now dab clean all but large stains (it’s what the nail-brush was invented for).
My teenage daughter has gone further: with the help of WWF, she has calculated her carbon footprint and made 14 eco-changes, including buying products with recyclable packaging and switching off lights (so the environment gets her to do what her mother couldn’t).
The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein talked about the importance of the human capacity to hope. She believed that reparation – the desire to make right and restore – develops when we face ambivalence: our negative, destructive impulses can then be modified by our caring, protective ones.
The environmental activist Shaun Chamberlin has developed a similar concept, that of dark optimism, which involves facing dark truths while believing unwaveringly in human potential. In these turbulent times, fellow ignorers, let’s dust each other with dark optimism.
Guardian readers can get 20% discount off Engaging with Climate Change, via the Routledge website, using the discount code ECCG12.
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