CPA Newsletter February 2018 - The Unthinkable Anthropocene

Does a Rupture in Earth’s History Count as News?

A new scientific paradigm, already presaged, was consolidated by Paul Krutzen and Eugene Stoermer with their introduction in 2000 of the term ‘Anthropocene’.  It heralded the dawn of a new era in the Earth’s geological history.  As Clive Hamilton explains in his 2017 book Defiant Earth, the concept is grounded in Earth System science, which views  our planet holistically, that is to say as a complex, evolving and interactive system encompassing the hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere and atmosphere.  James Lovelock’s 1980 Gaia paradigm, already popular, thereby gained scientific respectability.  The Revenge of Gaia becomes official.  Climate change is, more than ever, impossible to regard as an isolated issue. 
So what’s unthinkable about this and what does it have to do with climate psychology?  We know that scale and complexity is part of the problem; another is timescale.  The Anthropocene is a crunch between the human and geological dimensions of the world in more than one way.  In media commentary even yesterday’s news is already vanishing.  The Anthropocene, while the time of its onset is debatable, has taken hold in the post-World War 2 ‘Great Acceleration’ – a period of escalating resource demand and planet-wide disruption.   In geological time, this depletion and destabilisation has happened in less than the blink of an eye.  For us, the event  spans the slow vastness of a lifetime.   Climate psychology might consider whether it has any tools to offer to help broaden our view and bring into sharper focus the terrible fast-slow crunch of our planet’s reaction to human activity. 
Is the Anthropocene a Story People are Willing to Hear?
CPA took a close look at story-telling in 2017.  We need stories to give life to dry facts, to sustain or create individual and collective meaning, to enchant, entertain and stimulate us, to reinforce values and to offer hope or reassurance.  Is the Anthropocene story likely to become audible and comprehensible outside (or for that matter, even within) the ‘climate community’?  For those who have been hit by the convulsions of our increasingly angry Earth, both evidence and compassion tell us not to expect much joining of the dots, at least in the short term.  The hope and reassurance usually comes from communities uniting to re-build, from mutual support, from the generosity of others.  If there is a reinforced value to be gleaned from the traumatically lived story it is that of adversity bringing out the best in people.  So there can be a recovery of sorts and for some, without the underlying Earth story being heard.  And the chilling counterpoint to these partial recoveries is that it is not just the physical fabric of civilised life in the Holocene that is threatened (eg drowned cities) but the social fabric too.  The Anthropocene seems likely to be marked by escalating civil conflict, wars, atrocities and barbarism.
The prospect of total  homeland loss, as in Pacific island states that are disappearing under the sea, does heighten awareness.  The Marshall Islands achieved a significant voice at Paris.  There is also anecdotal evidence from CPA colleagues in the USA that the devastating California fires of 2017 have done some burning away of denial.  And the role of plastic in the killing of our seas seems at last to have broken through into the public mind, leading to policy action and pressure on offending corporations.
The climate community - scientists, activists, enlightened politicians, journalists and numerous concerned people, is not to be underestimated.  Time, inertia and vested interests are ranged against it , but these challenges can have a galvanising effect, as we see in Trump’s America, or rather anti-Trump America.  But nor should the coherence or effectiveness of the climate movement be overestimated.  Much of Hamilton’s book is devoted to a critique of philosophical positions which purport to heighten environmental awareness and action, but in effect (as climate psychology would put it) serve as defences against seeing either humankind’s responsibility for the Anthropocene, or the enormity  of what is approaching.  
Central to the task of a psychological engagement with the Anthropocene is recognising the emotional and cultural unpalatability of the story.  It is one of ongoing adversity, which we must prepare ourselves for and seek to moderate in every way still possible.  To illustrate what a bleak scenario we are considering, take the biosphere.  This is being radically altered; it will probably survive in some form but plant and animal life is being extinguished rapidly.  We all know this, but how many of us are willing to contemplate trying to hang on to a largely barren planet, where jellyfish are the dominant ocean life and on a land where all other large vertebrates  have gone and insects are the big winners?  Perhaps the proposition that the Anthropocene is irreversible can be reconciled with the familiar line that we still have time to avoid the worst consequences. Hamilton clearly believes so, in offering what we might characterise as his version of radical hope.  At the heart of his position is the conclusion:
There is no promise of a happy ending in the Anthropocene narrative. It is not a story we want to believe in; it is one we are compelled to accept.  ……  How can it mobilise a social movement if it is borne of failure and cannot promise progress?  Yet it is enough for a narrative to serve a truth-telling function, to explain where we are and who we are becoming.  After all, the old narratives promised progress but failed to tell us the truth…. (Defiant Earth, pp 78-79)
A central pillar in Hamilton’s radical hope then is his view that the truth of the Anthropocene will become compelling, will cease to be unthinkable because it can no longer be avoided, and that this point will be reached in time for (some of) us to adjust to life on a radically altered Earth.  A ‘Marshall Islands consciousness’ as it were.  In the meantime, the spectre of the Anthropocene continues to evoke denial.  Three versions can be spotted: a shocked negation of the grim reality of what we have done and are doing, a flight into the myth that humans can invent the technology to fix any problem, or the fantasy that we can exist in our own autonomous bubble, here or perhaps on Mars.  Shocks have sharply varying consequences.  At this moment, the value of climate psychology can perhaps be judged by whether it is able to help mobilise a useful response to the prospect of the Anthropocene.  CPA plans to work on this subject in the months ahead.
Back in the Bubble
While we wait or struggle with the pace of Anthropocene consciousness, the usual contradictions and evasions are visible in the daily, weekly and monthly news.  Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian analyses the way tribal politics and echo chambers collude in keeping the inconvenient truth at bay.  Like Hamilton, he believes that the lies will find out their perpetrators.  To accelerate this desirable outcome, he argues for the use of ‘techno-cognition’, a blend of technology and psychology to help break down people’s barriers to the truth of climate change. 
Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben hail mayor de Blasio’s decision to divest New York’s pension fund from the fossil fuel industry.  But professional commentators and our own American colleagues share mixed views on the depth of commitment to climate action that this signifies.  Here in the UK, whilst we are in the main spared full-blown denial from government, we continue to see efforts to keep up appearances, belied by numerous contradictory actions.  January brought a rich crop of both: the Guardian laments the slow and vague environmentalism evident in the Northern Forest proposal.  De Smog UK exposes the Trade Department’s support for more drilling by BP.  Reuters observes that it’s business as usual for Shell.  Perhaps the most notorious friendship of all between our government and fossil fuels is evident in the backing of Cuadrilla’s fracking ambitions, as mentioned here by BusinessGreen.  Anxieties persist about the UK government relaxing its broader environmental standards (and indeed about a cabal of politicians determined on this course) once Brexit has happened.  The latest iteration of that concern is voiced by the coalition of prominent environmental groups ‘Greener UK’.
In Australia, as in the USA, there are impressive contrasts to idiocy at the federal level on energy and climate change.  South Australia, in pursuit of 100% renewable energy by 2030, will start construction this year of the world’s largest solar thermal plant.  This follows Elon Musk’s headline-grabbing battery storage system built last year for the same state. 
Now the Rich World is Suffering Too
It has often been observed that the poor world, which has done least to cause climate change, is suffering disproportionately.  One of the striking features of the past year is how many places in the rich world are now being hit.  We have all seen images of the post-wildfire mud slides in Montecito, California.  Cape Town, South Africa has joined the list and is now seriously threatened by a three-year drought that has led to dwindling reservoir levels and serious concern about drinking water supplies.  If there is a positive to be found in this phase of the climate emergency, it is the hope that the rich world will get more serious at the level of global mitigation, rather than simply throwing money at local adaptation.
Fear and Hope
Already posted on CPA’s discussion forum, the article on fear and hope by Guardian USA columnist Lucia Graves is worth another mention.  She reflects on the impact last year of David Wallace-Wells’ July and October articles in New York magazine.  Wallace-Wells came up with dire climate warnings which synchronised well with  2017’s devastating severe weather events in the USA and the Caribbean.  It was amongst the year’s most viewed and discussed material on climate change.  Michael Mann was dismayed by the level of alarm it would transmit.  Maybe there is evidence here that Clive Hamilton is right about people (at least enough of them) being sick of failed and deceitful narratives.  A situation devoutly to be wished – let us hope that this is what Wallace-Wells has tapped into, as opposed to the defensive catastrophism identified by Paul Hoggett in his ‘The Apocalyptic Imagination’, which was published by CPA five years ago last month. 
CPA’s ‘Staying with the Trouble’
This event in Bath on 10th February has attracted greater than expected interest.  Our host, Bath Centre for Psychotherapy and Counselling, has been able to offer us a larger room than the one originally booked and, at the time of writing, there are a handful of places still available.  If you are interested and have not yet booked please make an enquiry via our This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and await confirmation that there is a place for you before making any payment. Booking form here.
We are purchasing recording / transmission equipment in time for the event.  If you cannot attend but are interested in the live streaming of part of the day, please also register your interest. There will be a small optional charge for live streaming.


Adrian Tait
On behalf of the Executive Committee

Editorial support from Chris Robertson and Paul Hoggett

Photo source: New Atlas

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We are a diverse community of therapeutic practitioners, thinkers, researchers, artists and others. We believe that attending to the psychology and emotions of the climate and ecological crisis is at the heart of our work.


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