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Radical Hope and Cultural Tragedy

RadicalHopeWorkshop reports to follow.  See also Tony Cartwright's paper on the theme of Radical Hope

Introduction: why the psychology of climate change?

Psychiatrist and climate activist Lise Van Susteren, has co-authored a report on the psychological effects of climate change that predicts Americans will suffer “depressive and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides, and widespread outbreaks of violence,” in the face of rising temperatures, extreme weather, and scarce resources. She coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to describe the grief, anger, and anxiety that is triggered when asked to look at the evidence of global warming. She thinks that the counsellors and psychotherapists are not even close to recognising the intensity of psychological impact. It may be the biggest symptom of unconscious process in humankind that psychotherapists could attend to.

If as a global society we cannot reduce our carbon emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of a 4 degree rise in global warming over pre-industrial levels by 2100.The UK's Met Office research is more pessimistic: 4 degrees by 2060. For a psychotherapist under 40 years of age that means 4 degrees within your lifetime, let alone the lifetime of your children and grandchildren. Neither calculation takes into account changes in the Arctic taking place now - methane release from both warming seas in the 361,400 square mile East Siberian Shelf and warming land hitherto gripped by permafrost, plus amplifying feedback mechanisms such as loss of the reflective albedo effect as ice cover shrinks.

In Engaging with Climate Change Sally Weintrobe distinguishes between denial and disavowal. Denial as negation occurs when we are still in some relationship to what is denied, a death or other loss, where denial is part of a process that can travelled with support: ‘negation denies but does not much distort the shape of what is denied’. In contrast disavowal is more pathological - a more fixed state where lies and distortions are present. It happens when
• Reality is too obvious to be simply denied by negation
• There is anxiety that the damage is already too great to repair
• There is felt to be not enough support and help to bear the anxiety and suffering that the knowledge of reality brings

A Conference: Radical Hope and Cultural Tragedy

The articles posted come mainly from the workshops of a recent Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) conference - Radical Hope and Cultural Tragedy. In the CPA’s endeavour to attend to the unconscious processes involved in the denial and disavowal of climate matters, we drew on Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation in which he explores the story of the leader of the Indigenous Crow nation.

Plenty Coups had a boyhood vision-quest dream of the buffalo disappearing, which was interpreted by the tribal elders as foretelling the destruction of their way of life as warrior hunters, leading to a profound loss of meaning and identity as a hunter warrior tribe. This apparently hopeless situation that could easily have induced despair, was turned around by Plenty Coups facing into the abyss of his tribal annihilation and yet being open to new vistas that included the White man.

The hope was radical because the Crow needed to be true to themselves and yet a transformation of their culture was required beyond their imaginings; in Lear’s words “radical hope … is aiming for a subjectivity that is at once Crow and does not yet exist”.

He adds, “Plenty Coups' story raises profound ethical questions that transcend his time and challenge us all: how should one face the possibility that one's culture might collapse?” Facing Climate Change calls for us to aim for a human subjectivity both true to ourselves and yet involving a transformation of our culture beyond our imaginings.

Ferocious Tenderness

Jay Griffiths, first keynote speaker and author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, opened the conference with an eloquent, impassioned evocation of the richness of indigenous knowledge, often raped and besmirched by colonialist endeavours. Land is, by contrast, mind medicine.

She proposed that we behave as if the pseudo-climate of economic policy and profit must remain stable at all costs, instead of the needs of the real climate. In the context of neglecting our kinship with the futures of our children and grandchildren, and all species, she called for kindness, that cannot bear extinction and fights despair with ferocious love.

She reminded us that if the world warms by 4 degrees we lose 85% of the rainforest; even 2 degrees, largely seen by many as unavoidable, kills off 20-40%. This would contribute to global disaster, given the crucial role played in regulating our climate (the Amazon forest alone stores half the world’s rainwater), and such would be the cultural loss, we would “Kill pity, crack down on kindness, pour mercury over metaphor”. The devastation would, she said, be the equivalent of bulldozing the sculptures of Rodin, burning the entire Oxford English Dictionary, napalming the Berlin Philarmonic.

Active Hope: Cultivating Inspired responses to Planetary Crisis

Chris Johnstone, psychiatrist, coach and our second keynote speaker gave a taster of the ideas in his book, co-authored with Joanna Macey, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy.

After inviting the 90-strong audience to register the extent of their concern about the state of the earth (very strong) and how well developed we perceive the state of our collective response (weak), he suggested that to recover from hopelessness we need to be “Nourished, Energised, Empowered and Inspired To Act For Life On Earth”, and led us through a series of moving exercises where we first acknowledged our gratitude for what supports us in life, and then spoke of what aches or breaks our heart when we consider the condition of the world.

Seeing through these eyes of gratitude and compassion we were then invited to identify what purpose might be acting through us, and what visible expression there might be of this purpose manifesting itself in the next seven days.

Radical Hope and working with the end of meaning in our work

Meaning making is very much part of what we do as psychotherapists and so often this is a painstaking endeavor, especially if it has been absent before in someone’s life.

So when hope is absent, and the situation ecokes despar - even the complete loss of meaning such as confronted by Plenty Coups when his culture was devastated -there may seem no way to respond. It may be a case of waiting for something that does not yet exist, "Waiting without hope", as TS Elliot secribed in The Waste Land.

Rather than hope as an escapist delusion,let us draw on this capacity as psychotherapists to bear the awfulness of a situation and bring a radical hope to the environmental crises we face. This can amount to looking through the window/mirror of our consulting room and utilising these tools in a wider collective context.

This taking ourselves outside the consulting room is not just ‘outdoor therapy’, but away from our comfort zones into the very many multi-disciplinary discourses about climate change. The workshops of the conference exemplify the possibilities of work inside and outside the therapy space. Paul Hoggett writes of Social Dreaming, Sarah Deco describes the use of story, Sally Weintrobe brings some personal reflections, Chris Robertson and Richard Wainwright describe practically facing into catastrophe and Adrian Tait shares his impressions of an interview with ‘Mac’ Macartney, an inspired and inspiring leader figure in the field. Nick Totton adds to these his reflections on how Climate Change comes into the consulting room.

All our skills are desperately needed to contribute to a containing structure in which we can face the collapse of happenings and a terrifying loss of meanings that is more than personal, where denial and disavowal thrive. Through this holding, fresh meanings may be incubated of what it is to face reality and be human.

As Lear says:

“It is one thing to dance as if nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened - the collapse of happenings - and then decide to dance”.


Conference report written by Judith Anderson