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First, therapy. Second, praise. Third, sacrifice. Fourth, apocalypse

This is one of several presentations from the CPA conference  London The Psychology of Climate Action: New Perspectives on Leadership November 2016

Andrew Samuels has built up a practice as a political consultant working with leaders, parties and activist groups in several countries. He was one of the two co-founders of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility and is a former Chair of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. He is Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex and a Jungian training analyst. His many books have been translated into 21 languages and the relevant ones are The Political Psyche (1993), Politics on the Couch (2001), and A New Therapy for Politics? (2015). His website is well known for its 'rants', spontaneous talks on a range of topics delivered straight to camera.

starlings.jpgWhat a meaningful time to hold this conference, as climate change slips ever further down many or even most political agendas.

Here’s a summary of the short talk that follows. First, I’ll link up some aspects of what I call ‘therapy thinking’ and climate change. Then, in the second section, I will assert that it’s time to praise humanity and human artifice not to bury them, and pick out some items well deserving of praise. The next and third section takes a look at the political desirability and advocacy of sacrifice by those able to manage it and sets this in an economic context. Finally, I will probe what I see as a sort of addiction to apocalypse operating in the West just now.

Here’s the summary of the summary: First, therapy. Second, praise. Third, sacrifice. Fourth, apocalypse.


In assigning me this title, the organisers have given me an unlikely task. Do climate activists or therapists ever really want to be in the centre? Of the people? A real mass movement? Can they be happy anywhere except on the margins? Or, if they do struggle to move into the mainstream, aren’t they inevitably going to betray their values and ideals? Or waste their time?

Or, as George Marshall noted in his critique of Leonardo Di Caprio’s environmental film ‘Before the Flood’, those celebrities and big names warning ever so articulately of the climate change catastrophe that looms are making things worse. Why? According to Marshall, they simply ‘ignore entirely the global zeitgeist of popular cynicism about political leaders and institutions.’

Seriously, there is a key question to ask, and what follows is an inevitably partial and unsatisfying answer. If the facts – the truth – are known, then why is it proving so difficult to get majority buy-in for the policies and actions that are needed? Is there a collective psychological problem? Or is the language and rhetoric being used by climate change campaigners not really working? Answering these questions is what I am struggling with in this talk.

So - I’ve been developing what I call ‘therapy thinking’ in relation to politics for more than 30 year in too many books for comfort. I have pointed out that such an activity is truly transpersonal, for politics, like spirit and soul, links people to each other and to whatever else is on the planet.

Therapy thinking in the context of climate change has become suspiciously easy. Therapists find it easy to be right when it comes to politics– because one invokes the ‘maddening rectitude of the psychotherapist’ in which the goal is to prove one’s cherished theories – of archetypes, object relations, self-actualisation – to prove them correct above all else. That is why every single psychoanalytic comment on Donald Trump is 100% correct, even when they contradict. Easy to be right.

Some of the recent history of therapists’ engagement with climate change has not been inspiring or reassuring. As the ex-chair of UKCP who encouraged the creation of a climate change policy as part of a diversity, equality and social responsibility agenda, I can only regret and deplore what seemed to have happened when the proposed climate change policy went to the next Board. Tree Staunton, who co-wrote the policy with Judith Anderson, quotes some dispiriting responses by members of the Board in a recent piece on the matter: ‘This is a minority view’. ‘Without sufficient grassroots support’. ‘What does this have to with psychotherapy?’ ‘Political ideologies have no place in our work’.

So it may be a case of ‘put not thy faith in therapists’.

This first section is coming to an end. It consisted of some critical comments on the role of therapists and therapy thinking in relation to climate change. The next section makes a positive proposal of what could be done to bring climate activism in from the margins.


If we really and truly and seriously want to mainstream ecopsychology and the psychological approach to climate change, then now is also the time to praise human artifice. On one level, I am thinking of praise not judgement for the entire dynamic range of human emotions - positive ones such as joy, hope and inspiration - and the negative and more difficult ones such as lust, greed, envy. It’s impossible to pick and choose; to select only what is nice and appealing. Vitality is not the same as morality, after all.

It’s also time to praise our cities, those great achievements of human creativity, aesthetics and social organisation. To praise our squares and piazzas, to praise our restaurants and rejoice in the drinking of alcohol or of coffee, to praise traffic and modern communications. To praise, too, brothels and hospitals, banks and schools.

This celebration is missing from much environmental discourse, as it has been from the beginnings. I don’t think it is helpful to use the language of psychopathology – for example, as George Monbiot often does. Here’s an example: ‘We need to kick our addiction to driving’.

Alongside praise of artifice, it is also time to guard against any still remaining idealisation of Nature - for this is politically useless and intellectually weak. No-one really knows what ‘Nature’ means.
In his seminal book Man and the Natural World, Keith Thomas showed that our present conception of Nature has a complicated history. But it has a history. Nature changes its nature, so to speak. Thomas sets out the trajectory wherein by around 1800 the world was so irradiated by science, technology and industry that people felt ‘begrimed, endarkened and smelly’. So they sought a sunny, clean and fresh antidote. If they could afford it, they bought country estates. If not, they merely dreamed of pastures and sang hymns about them. This swing to the opposite end of the spectrum – what Heraclitus and Jung called enantiodromia – led to and created the modern, romantic notion of Nature. We created Nature!

But by the end of the 19th century, we see another swing. This time against Nature. The fight back was led by Nature’s great opponent Artifice. My favourite novel in this direction is A Rebours (Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans who was a huge influence on Oscar Wilde. This book, in all its imaginative perversity and impossible elaboration, is a paean of praise to artifice and I want to propose Huysman’s thoughts like these for us to play with now:

‘Nature has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes. In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture. Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?’

I’ll conclude this section by saying one more thing on the topic of human artifice, which is what I have ended up praising.

At an ecopsychology conference in Oxford in 2009, I gave a workshop also entitled ‘Against nature’. In it, I distributed sample phials of many perfumes that Selfridges very kindly gave me. In pairs and threes, participants used the perfumes, applied them to each other, and compared notes. It was a smelly old exercise and a lot of fun.

Before we did the exercise, I asked who in the audience of around 150 ecopsychologists wore perfume or its male equivalents. Only one person said that she did. I asked who read fashion magazines in which perfumes are widely advertised. None, though one person said guiltily that she did it in the dentist’s waiting room.

I then said that this showed why environmental activism might possibly fail and why ecopsychology had truncated itself. For those in the room had, at least as it seemed to me in the moment, got completely cut off from the role artifice plays in ordinary human life. Cut off, when you get down to it, from humanity itself. As far from the mainstream as one can get.

I am as frightened of the destruction of the planet as many people in the ecopsychology world. But I am also convinced that, if you look in the right way, there is much of value in the fripperies of fashion and consumerism and it is elitist to deny it. Depth is hidden on the surface.

I hope it’s clear that I am not repeating the nostrum, more honoured in the breach than in the observance,that climate changers need to stop telling people that they are being very bad boys and girls indeed. Of course, this won’t work. But what I am adding is something positive that can be conveyed about aspects of life everyone shares in to some extent or other.

That is the end of the section that has delivered an exploration of how we position nature and artifice. The next section moves on to consider the idea of sacrifice.


In this much more depth psychological section, I am in effect linking the psychology of climate change with the whole question of sacrifice. It is becoming a consensus amongst those who write about climate change and sustainability that the climate crisis and imbalances of wealth under capitalism and globalisation are linked. Economic sacrifices are needed.

Because of this consensus, I have been wondering what some ideas about sacrifice might contribute, with climate change and economic justice in mind. We know that people will make sacrifices for their children, or for the sake of a cause they believe in, or in the hope of greater benefits in the future (what the economists call 'opportunity costs').

However, sacrifice is a much deeper and wider psychological and historical theme. Sacrifice lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions (the aborted sacrifice of Isaac) but is much, much older as a propitiation of the Gods. Asceticism has a long cultural history as does martyrdom.

In Jungian psychology, we talk of the sacrifice of the ego for the flowering of the wider personality in individuation. In art and religion, we contemplate the sacrifice of autonomy and control to something experienced as ‘other’, whether inside or outside the self.

Maybe the time has arrived for psychologically minded people to begin to find an emotional basis for a programme of economic sacrifice, calling and naming it as such, rather than waiting for governments to bring it about by fiscal legislation or some other compulsory method - which they are anyway reluctant to do for electoral reasons.

That’s all there is time for on sacrifice. I think it is important, if we are vthinking of changing the thrust of climate change or any other environmental campaigning, to find a new way of conveying the value, not only the desirability, of sacrifice. If I had longer, there are a number of fascinating experiential exercises concerning sacrifice that we could do. Anyway, now we come to the promised last section on catastrophe and apocalypse.


I want to discuss why, when it comes to climate change, it is still quite often a case of ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. I want to give my own suggestion as to why there is the denial, disavowal and despair so many climate change psychologists write about in such interesting ways.

Yes, what follows is exaggerated - but as Theodore Adorno wrote ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’.

This is about what is called ‘Apocalypticism’ - the belief that there will assuredly be an apocalypse. The term apocalypse originally referred to a revelation of God's will, but now usually refers to the belief that the world will come to an end very soon, even within one's own lifetime.

This belief is usually accompanied by the idea that civilization will soon come to a tumultuous end due to some sort of catastrophic global event.

The notion that the world is coming to an end is fairly called ‘archetypal’, found in all religions, paths and ‘ways’. This is what gives apocalypse the power to possess groups and individuals. Is this what has happened in relation to climate change? If so, then we have the beginnings of a theory as to why so many people in the Western countries have so little interest in the matters we are discussing today.

Climate change and planetary degradation inspire images of an apocalypse which one would imagine to be horrid but which may be oddly pleasing and reassuring. The breakdown will happen, nothing to be done about it. And that could be for some people an oddly reassuring thought.


Image of Lake Karachay - Image Courtesy:

Perhaps some people think we deserve to perish like this.
Perhaps it is a shadow element for many people here today, including me. It exists alongside our excitement at the idea of radical hope, the rise of a responsible tending for the planet, and the flowering of depth psychological interpretation of climate change denial, disavowal and despair. We desire, we actually want the whole terran temple to crash down. It is a tad exciting, a macabre spectator sport, a form of political pornography, masochism in an environmental setting.

Why do I end my talk on this note? Because I feel obliged to say, in inflated and prophetic mode, it is the very love of catastrophe that contributes to our paralysis. Apocalypse NOW, apocalypse as soon as possible. We climate change campaigners can’t move to the centre if we don’t think about this thing of darkness that is holding us back.

To die:—to sleep:
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished