Agency in climate psychology
My involvement in Climate Psychology Alliance stems from a wish to understand, with others, how humans can empower and motivate ourselves and each other to stop the destruction that we are part of.
From conversations in CPA, I know this concern with developing agency in relation to the climate and ecological crisis is widely shared. It is implicit in CPA’s by-line, facing difficult truths, and in the focus on ecoanxiety and denial. Facing such feelings is part of therapy – seeking pathways through suffering and perhaps towards greater wellbeing. Agency is central in most understandings of human need and wellbeing. Through developing a sense of agency, people are better able to live with suffering and trauma. Without agency, it is especially difficult to face the feelings that arise from awareness of crisis. Responses such as denial, dismissal and disavowal may be reasonable for an individual who is powerless to change anything.
Agency and effectiveness
A neighbour preparing for an Extinction Rebellion action explained to me that everything else has failed; only XR and the School Strikes have made a difference in addressing the climate crisis. This is the line taken in the standard XR “Heading for Extinction” talk. The XR theory of change is essentially that massive disruption will force government to act.
I’ve put a lot of energy over the last four decades into some of the approaches that XR considers failures or greenwash, so have I been wasting my time? Perhaps. I’m not a rebel; I don’t share the “rage” thing. But I was involved in XR for a while in 2019 and even joined a national working group, partly hoping I might be useful and appreciating the sense of community around climate engagement. XR has helped to bring about an unprecedented public awareness of the climate crisis, and to shift the language used in the media and in government. It’s hard to say what impact it has had on UK or global GHG emissions – or to separate its influence from others. I suspect UK policy responds more to John Gummer (“Lord Deben”) and the Climate Change Committee.
Finding our agency in complex systems
My paper Agency in Climate Psychology, shared in CPA in 2021, talked about the multiple complexities in the systems giving rise to the climate crisis. A single powerful actor (like “the government”) is unlikely to be able to bring about change. We need all kinds of action, by individuals and collectives of all kinds, including movements like XR, school strikes and Black Lives Matter. The diversity and complexity of human psychology and situation means that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to developing or experiencing agency. This is a blessing as we can find different ways to engage or participate alongside others in system change, rather than pretending to ourselves that we can make it happen.
We may be able to control some things. Subjective agency is linked to our freedoms to shape our lives into the future – to have a safe home, warmth and food security, or to raise children. Experiencing agency might also include being able to choose not to contribute to the crisis – refraining from the use of fossil-fuel based products and services including motorised transport, and adopting a local, plant-based diet based on regenerative agriculture. Each of these choices involves other people to some degree. They are only possible if we have the capacity to live contrary to current social norms – which might depend on having money, skills, knowledge, and supportive relationships.
The hard problem - influencing others
We most often get stuck in our climate engagement when our agency needs are focused on influencing or changing others. We might want them to behave in particular ways, or we might want to do something ourselves that requires their cooperation. But the attempt to influence can imply an assertion of one person’s agency over another’s. The influencer might be claiming superior knowledge or using emotional manipulation. Campaigns for personal or collective action on climate change mostly take one of these forms. Activism mostly works with the assumption that certain people and institutions hold the power, and we need to influence them to do things that they would not otherwise. It is easy to move from that assumption to another: that those people and institutions have the wrong information, values or motivations. And then to another: that they are the wrong people to be in those positions. But changing the type of people in positions of power generally involves conflict and pain, and does not necessarily solve the original problem.
In 35 years of running workshops, speaking and writing on climate responses and sustainable living, people have occasionally told me that they have engaged in activism or changed their lives because of something I said or did. But mostly I find they need to work things out for themselves. They need to act on their own ideas, pursue their own inquiries, do their own sense-making, find people they respect or feel able to learn from, and also find people they disagree with, against whom to define themselves. My words and actions are just part of that mix.
Relational disciplines for healthy agency
There are many useful tools and practices. I find Nonviolent Communication a helpful discipline for taking care not to make assumptions about others’ intentions, for being clear about my own needs, thoughts and feelings and inquiring into those of others. Spiritual traditions bring much insight to the development of intersubjectivity. From the Vedas, “thou art that”, and “Atman and Brahman are one”; in Buber’s terms, this is about the I-and-thou relationship; and in Quaker language it is about answering that of God in the other. These insights relate closely to principles of psychotherapy. If I am answering that of God in you, I will treat you with love and respect (unconditional positive regard). I will endeavour to understand your thoughts and be sensitive to your feelings. I will also trust that your actions are right for you at this time. I will not try to change you although I might support you in your intention to change.
Spiritual activism works with principles like these in seeking to further the flourishing of all life. It understands that healthy agency is not an expression of the individual, but of archetypal or transpersonal power channelled by individuals and collectives. It recognises that life on Earth is at stake and we live in a time of great urgency, yet one of the greatest needs is for individuals to put our egos aside, to be patient, to be non-attached to the outcomes of our own actions. Indeed, we take action because it is the right thing to do, regardless of its effects. And spiritual activism understands the need of the activist for community – to have a shared space of deep reflection, mutual examination, discernment and support, nurturing the values and practices that enable us to be channels for agency.
Laurie Michaelis has worked on human dimensions of sustainable energy and climate responses since the 1980s. He was a lead author for several IPCC reports and set up a charity supporting Quakers in developing community approaches to sustainable living. He is currently helping in local projects to support household energy saving.
Lead Image by Wendy Hollway
Two diagrams by Laurie Michaelis