...struck by fatalism? ...
What difference can I make?
I have just read Jonathan Franzen’s book The End of the End of the Earth. I was fascinated to hear what this world famous novelist would say about climate change. I came away being very struck by his political fatalism something which, I think, is representative of a strand of thinking within the conservation movement as a whole. Take this as an example:
“The earth as we know it resembles a patient with bad cancer. We can choose to treat it with disfiguring aggression, damning every river and blighting every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can adapt a course of treatment that permits a higher quality of life, still fighting the disease but protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.”
Franzen’s argument, recently restated by Charles Eisenstein in Why I am afraid of global cooling, is that climate change is simply too big for us to do anything other than to prepare for it humanely and that our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now. As a passionate ‘birder’ Franzen insists that love is a better motivator for action than guilt.
Well I think he parodies the motivation for climate change activism here, as if all guilt was of the kind that persecuted us rather than also taking the form of a loving desire to make good. I think we come across this kind of persecutory guilt and resentment when trying to engage liberal people around climate change. In my experience they will often respond to such overtures with something like “well if you can convince me that (changing my electricity supplier/eating less meat/etc. etc.) will make a difference then I might be prepared to do something”. I think this is how progressives do fatalism. The person expressing this view appears to indicate that if they are given a reasoned case for taking action they will certainly do so. Of course the temptation is to then provide this reasoned case, to which they will then proffer their reasoned reply, and before you know it you’re engaged in yet another fruitless argument in which each party feels that the other is becoming increasingly unreasonable.
Recently I’ve found myself checking my own experience, on the occasions when I’ve been involved in political action over the last forty years was it in order to “make a difference”? And on every occasion (Bosnia, Poll Tax, the Miners Strike) my recollection is that I got involved because I felt I had to act. It simply seemed the right thing to do, almost like a force of necessity, a compulsion, was acting on me and through me. In fact I can distinctly remember, far from feeling that I wanted to make a difference, at the beginning of the Miners Strike I said to myself “we’re not going to win this” but, with many others who probably felt like me, I resolved to act nevertheless.
In fact I’ve come to loathe that phrase “to make a difference”, a phrase that became popular roughly at the same time in the late 1980s as empowerment-rhetoric was appropriated by neoliberalism from radical politics. I think of these phrases as representative of the can-do, ‘active voice’ which can triumph over all odds and which is so central to the modern self-optimising and enterprising self. And of course one of the ‘odds’ that can be overcome is nature, including our own bodily nature.
In contrast I much prefer the ‘passive voice’ with its emphasis on constraints, limits, loss and vulnerability. It is from this position that we don’t ‘choose to act’ but rather ‘feel impelled to act’. It feels more like surrendering to something rather than asserting our will.
And here I’m reminded of the fascinating discussion of ‘activism’ between two panellists – Nadine Andrews, a CPA member, and Erica Thompson, a climate scientist - at the Tavistock event Ecology, Psychoanalysis and Global Warming: Present and Future Traumas which was held this December. Having been labelled an ‘activist’ in the Tavistock brochure Nadine took the opportunity to question what was meant by ‘activism’ and then reframed it through the question ‘how do we all engage with the forces acting upon us?’ What if we initially yielded to these forces to harness and make use of their energy rather than meeting them head on with direct opposition and resistance, which is very effortful and difficult to sustain for long. She noted that passion has a forcefulness about it that can be experienced by others as harsh- so are there ways of expressing passion with a ‘soft’ force? Given that all of us in the West are inextricably caught up in the modern consumer lifestyle Erica was reminded of the first step in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery programme: accept your powerlessness. Erica, who now lived more or less off-grid in Wales, also reflected that she felt much more powerful now that she was living her truth than when she was trying to persuade or change others.
Nadine also spoke of letting go of our desire for a particular outcome, something echoed by Ro Randall and Andy Brown in their Carbon Conversations Handbook. If you’re having a conversation with someone about climate change the worst thing you can do is to go in with an agenda to change or influence them, it more or less guarantees that you’ll fuck up. And we know this from the world of psychotherapy, that paradoxically, to be effective the psychotherapist needs to abandon her desire for the patient to change, to get better, and so on. Only by doing this can she really ‘meet’ the other in all the other’s difference and strangeness. This is what the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin means by ‘surrendering’ to the other.
Letting go of the desire to achieve an outcome is also crucial to creativity. I always remember coming across a human development trainer in the late 1980s whose brochure claimed that at the end of her training participants would be able to do X, Y & Z, she had a series of bullet points with skills and competences which would successfully be ticked off upon completion of her programme. I’d never come across this kind of certitude in training and development work before. Someone said to me at the time that this approach, which was becoming increasingly popular at the time, was about ‘filling buckets’ whereas what we’d always imagined we were in the business of doing was ‘lighting fires’. Fires have energy and unpredicatablity, once you light a human fire you don’t know what the outcome will be. I think this should guide our approach to action.
When we set up the Climate Psychology Alliance several years ago we didn’t have an outcome in mind. We could see a gap or absence that needed to be responded to in some way and as it has grown I think we’ve learnt to surrender to it rather than try and control it. Who knows where and what it will be in another five years and that’s precisely what is exciting about it, the not-knowing. Again I’m reminded here of another internalised guide that many psychotherapists use in their work. This is the idea of ‘negative capability’, that is staying with the non-knowing, captured in Keats’ famous phrase: “when a man is capable of being in doubts and uncertainties without irritable reaching after fact or reason”.
Warm thanks for use of the image to the artist Glenn Morris from Vulgar Earth a not for profit artists collective, promoting awareness and discussion of contemporary Social, Political and Environmental issues.
Through producing engaging, emotive and stimulating art exhibitions and events, we take a thought provoking and emotionally charged look at the beauty and vulgarity of human relationships with the natural world and our current disassociation from it. Each member is an independent artist who adds their voice and vision to a collective message for change.
Rest by the Wayside. (Glenn Morris. 2014) - The work was originally shown in an exhibition called ‘Journey’ in 2014 with two pieces of text. One was an extract from a book by Richard Jefferies and the other Glenn wrote to go with the piece.
Over the years, many people have made a connection with nature, the environment that they inhabit and the beauty of life. Those that have allowed their very being to absorb the wonders that surround them, through good fortune or sensitivity, have also felt acutely the fragility of the very things that they hold so precious.
Only with change will people benefit from the richness and bounty of the Earth, but change will only come when the majority of people understand that society in its present form cannot, and will not provide what is the birthright of all people. Without such an understanding, we may sit awhile and reflect, but ultimately we must, once again, step back onto a path over whose direction we have no control.
"Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope. Consider the grasses and the oaks, the swallows, the sweet blue butterfly - they are one and all a sign and token showing before our eyes earth made into life. So that my hope becomes as broad as the horizon afar, reiterated by every leaf, sung on every bough, reflected in the gleam of every flower. There is so much for us yet to come, so much to be gathered, and enjoyed. Not for you or me, now, but for our race, who will ultimately use this magical secret for their happiness. Earth holds secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals. My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man's existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory. Hence it is that a flower is to me so much more than stalk and petals. When I look in the glass I see that every line in my face means pessimism; but in spite of my face - that is my experience - I remain an optimist. Time with an unsteady hand has etched thin crooked lines, and, deepening the hollows, has cast the original expression into shadow. Pain and sorrow flow over us with little ceasing, as the sea-hoofs beat on the beach. Let us not look at ourselves but onwards, and take strength from the leaf and the signs of the field. He is indeed despicable who cannot look onwards to the ideal life of man. Not to do so is to deny our birthright of mind".
Richard Jefferies. The Life of the Fields. 1884