...a fatal exploitation of the earth’s generosity ...
We welcome Wendy Hollway to the newsletter editorial team; she and Adrian Tait have collaborated for this edition.
Afterword on Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg’s rEUnaissance speech (featured in last month’s letter) was recently screened at a parents’ support meeting, based on CPA’s ‘Through the Door’ programme. It gave rise to the thought that, if climate work has anything in common with psychotherapy, this girl’s message can be likened to Habib Davanloo’s model of brief psychotherapy. This is an approach in which the client’s resistance is vigorously challenged. It aligns with the view that gentler, open-ended approaches to therapy are a recipe for doing little, over a long timescale. As another proponent of time-limited therapy put it, there may be an unconscious collusion to pretend that the process can go on forever.
To paraphrase Greta’s message even more brutally than last month’s letter did, she says to the world’s leaders: “You’re failing. You’re lying. You’re betraying us. Cut the crap.” Whatever help she receives with the writing, it takes something unusual for a child to speak this forcefully to a group of adults, and with the eyes of thousands more upon her. Greta’s insistence on giving us the panic is entirely appropriate. Firstly as a provocation to penetrate our disavowal of the ongoing extinctions and secondly as a naming of the extinction anxiety of us as a species (not as separate individuals).
A member of the group mentioned above, who has a child with a similar diagnosis to Greta’s, commented on the challenges of living with black-and-white thinking.
Ability and Disability
Hard-talking therapist to the atrophied world of global politics is one take on the young Swede, now Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Another take is that she has remedied her own disability with activism. She has spoken publicly about turning her Asperger’s to advantage. As CPA member Tree Staunton has commented: “Isn’t Greta Thunberg’s story (one of) healing from mental illness through action?”
This apparent pivoting from mental disability into a position of powerful leadership holds echoes of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia. In that story, a young woman who has been crippled by depression finds her moment of fearless clarity and is able to support and comfort those close to her, in the days and hours leading to the death of planet Earth. The common theme is of a mental feature, a flaw, which takes a heavy toll on the sufferer and others but (in a situation of extreme threat and demand which would cause most of us to buckle) elicits something extraordinary. It has (in Jungian language) a numinous, even archetypal feel to it. Combined with the vulnerability of a child, the effect is disarming, dumbfounding.
“The Time is out of Joint”
Hamlet goes on to say: O cursed spite; That ever I was born to set it right! Greta makes no such complaint, but her speeches direct shame at the out-of-jointness of the ‘adult’ world – a world so saturated in fossil fuels, so immersed in and compromised by a destructively entitled culture that it requires our children to lead us. The Observer’s is one of the voices saying it’s shameful that children need to take the lead. We don’t need to idealise childhood as a time of carefree innocence to be disturbed as well as inspired.
Culture Wars Revisited
George Marshall has, by his own account, metamorphosed from a shouter to a listener. In this TEDX talk he explains why. He doesn’t help us with the grief, anger and despair many of us feel about the 40-year obstruction of climate action driven and orchestrated by fossil fuel money. But he does argue, as cogently as any, that Greens and Lefties have played into a disastrous political polarisation and cultural divide. You could say that his mission is to break open the echo chambers. We should be wary of conflating Brexit chaos and climate chaos or assuming that social collapse is the only possible scenario. Nonetheless, in what is probably a first for this newsletter, here is a Daily Mail article by Dominic Sandbrook, in which he argues that the Brexiters who recently disrupted traffic on English motorways, juxtaposed with the opposing march and petition, contain a hint of the danger of civil war in Britain, comparable to the ongoing strife driven by the gilets jaunes in France and (although he doesn’t say so) also to the culture wars in the USA, which have been highlighted by himself and others.
Forget the wrong preposition in Sandbrook’s title, the dog whistle tropes about Waitrose customers and the BBC’s “wall-to-wall” coverage of the People’s Vote march; he is making a worryingly convincing point. Social media and the AltRight have their shares of blame to carry for this one, but conflict over competing versions of power and authority is as old as humanity. And, beyond Sandbrook’s canvas, the ravages of climate change and ecological meltdown that will increasingly be felt by humanity are surely fuelling conflict and will greatly raise the prospects of more to come.
It’s easy to forget last month’s weather unless it was very unusual. Records keep tumbling, in a gently as well as violently sinister way. So here is a reminder that, just a month ago, the UK experienced its hottest Winter day. And if we are indeed in the midst of a social tipping point, a breaching of the wall between the socially popular topic of weather and the social taboo around climate could be a part of it. Here is a challenge to the BBC to help bring down that wall.
A Social Tipping Point?
Climate change talk has altered markedly in the last year or so. Deniers appear to have lost control of the conversation (although the fossil fuel lobby has not –yet – lost control of its interests). The patient and painstaking work of scientists is not contested in the same flagrant way as formerly.
The above is however an oversimplification. Media coverage is infuriatingly inadequate as recent XR actions recognised. Even when the BBC reports new scientific findings (and no longer gives airtime to deniers) the information is compartmentalised, surrounded by blithe assumptions about the future as if climate change will have no bearing on ‘business as usual’. Climate change in the present tense – examples of it already happening in the present – is only beginning to break the surface of media treatment. The recent cyclone Idai, over South Eastern Africa, ‘one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the Southern hemisphere’, barely occasioned a mention of climate change. David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth is impressive not only for its powerful conveying of the climate science but because he reads the events in a way that makes sense of the already-happening and makes it possible to understand climate change effects as an existential threat.
In CPA and beyond, there seems to be emerging a recognition that the focus on scientific evidence, so crucial until recently in attempting to promote climate awareness, is no longer central. It can even feed in to a rather obsessive appetite for more and more facts (echoing a wider culture where commercial interests demand ‘more research’ before they change their earth-polluting business models). Of course we need to know the facts but not in an objectifying, distancing way. This is now happening in massive surges of public concern and provoking a growing demand for the kind of support services that CPA is well placed to provide. We are working with people who know and feel about the evidence, who therefore need to digest the existential implications.
CPA’s Role in the Community
Three in a series of “Through the Door” workshops for CPA members have taken place, exploring the ways in which some have begun to organise groups and one-to-one support and providing a space for us to feel contained in sharing our own experiences in thinking the unthinkable. Not therapy as such but therapeutic support. More are being planned, including in the North of England. It is an opportunity for creative thinking on an experienced and well qualified base: nothing quite like this has been required of psychological support before.
Activism goes Viral
The extraordinary demand for Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper (over 200,000 downloads) and his subsequent reflections testify to the politico-cultural change that is taking place. I was recently sent similar reflections, Facing Extinction by Catherine Ingram. Both Bendell and Ingram appear to draw deeply from Buddhist practices to help them face the existential threat.
Most impressive, of course, is when this capacity to face climate change turns into action. Extinction Rebellion, still only six months old, has grown exponentially and expanded from the UK into 35 countries, welcoming all comers. We have already talked about school strikes, which attracted over 1.4 million participants in 123 countries.
A very new protest to watch is birth strikers, started only a few weeks ago in the UK by Blythe Pepino, a 33 year-old woman who has decided ‘not to bear children due to the severity of the eco crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat’. At first it was a personal decision but when she joined XR she realised that birth striking was ‘a really powerful way of communicating the severity of what is going on’. It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale which politicised women’s reproduction across a massive audience when Margaret Atwood’s novel was made into a film. Pepino’s action was provided with useful publicity when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high profile green Democratic US Congresswoman, legitimated the question by asking ‘whether people should have kids in a climate-ravaged world’. A woman-led American organisation Conceivable Future focuses on the threat to reproductive justice of climate and demands an end to fossil fuel subsidies. They ask why we live on a planet where there is such a carbon cost to having a child. Kamalamini’s book Other than Mother ‘explores the parenthood decision from an ecopsychological point of view; acknowledging the impact of pro-natalism on the biosphere and other-than-human life in this damaging anthropocentric age’.
I wonder if birth striking is a way in which the issue of population could demand more attention in the climate catastrophe conversation. What does the lack of attention signify? An attempted conversation with a climate-involved friend recently highlighted the political sensitivity. When I ventured the opinion that the earth’s population was unsustainable, I was met with a ferocious response, the gist of which was that it was tantamount to a eugenics politics to even think of such a thing; that I was thinking like an Aryan. However, it seems to me that we must risk thinking transgressively, while being aware of the history.
The concept of overpopulation can be thought through the earth’s carrying capacity, or in less utilitarian terms, a fatal exploitation of the earth’s generosity to human species’ energy consumption. The earth, current population about 7.7 billion, has a carrying capacity of between 4 and 16 billion (presumably the range of projections here references the wide variation in energy consumption, rather than – or as well as – statistical uncertainty) which means that it has already – probably – exceeded its capacity. Earth Overshoot Day
"And how could it not? Every new human passenger on this Earth comes equipped with necessary requirements that need to be met to safeguard his or her existence and flourishing. That person will require food, water, shelter, clothing, energy, materials, technology, transport, infrastructure, space and security and will, in turn, exude residues and waste, alter habitats and pollute the atmosphere, soil and watercourses.
Even if each and everyone of us contributes in an almost imperceptible way, 7.6 billion and rising is a tremendous number that our minds can’t even begin to conceptualize, with all of those trivial impacts amounting to profound transformations".
João Abegão.Human Overpopulation Atlas
Most of the left- and right-wing positions that politics bequeaths us are based on a blind anthropocentrism that is now collapsing under the evidence of alarming species death. Extinction is not just a human threat. Life is interconnected and we need a transformed world view, for example when thinking about population. The biologist Lynn Margulis, who worked with James Lovelock, provides an unsentimental example in Symbiotic Planet (1998): ‘the planet will not permit our populations to continue to expand (…) runaway populations always collapse’ (p128). In this shocking statement, our anthropocentrism is brought down to size: we are just another species subject to the laws of interconnected nature.
Wendy Hollway is an Emeritus Professor in Psychology at the Open University. She helped to found Psycho-social Studies in the UK and co-edits the Palgrave book series ‘Studies in the Psychosocial’. She has recently co-written with Julian Manley a chapter for the book Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster in that series, edited by Paul Hoggett. (Out next month.) Their chapter is based on a Social Dreaming, Art and Climate Change event.
There are a few places left for Saturday 13th April Social Collapse: Probability and Pychological Challenges with Jem Bendell and Ro Randall with an array of workshops in the afternoon. All the information and booking details are here
As mentioned above more "Through the door" workshops are in development and also follow up workshops for those who have already attended. Interested in planning one where you are? - do get in
Save the dates:
CPA Annual Conference Saturday June 8th at the Guild of Psychotherapists in London - details will be available at the Social Collapse day and circulated shortly after.
Saturday June 22nd in Bristol and in September in Edinburgh joint events in planning with Greenhouse on Cultural Change in a time of Social Collapse
It is easy to forget our website though it has plenty of traffic and more at this time of raising awareness. Take a look at the Resources page and let us
If you want to be inspired read John Thorne's piece "Truth and Hope" here on the CPA Scotland page and we will be uploading presentations from previous talks on the Scotland page shortly.
Newsletter image: Earth by Andre Masson from Wikiart