As I joined the Climate Psychology Alliance recently, I thought it would be interesting for this month’s Climate Digest to bring the perspective of someone new to the CPA and new to trying to set up conversation spaces such as Climate Cafés.
I’m not entirely new to the perspectives developed by the CPA however: I conducted Ph.D. research on the French climate movement Alternatiba, and it was after I discovered Sally Weintrobe’s edited book, Engaging with Climate Change1, that I decided to focus on how activists deal with anxiety. Since I finished this work, I’ve felt the urge to translate it into something useful for activists and professionals working on environmental issues. One way of doing this is, in my opinion, to offer spaces to help them recognize, name, share and face climate anxieties, among the various emotions that come with climate action. Until recently, my attempts to do this felt difficult, leaving me with a sense of frustration. Here is the question I asked in the Climate Café Workshop facilitated by Rebecca Nestor and Gillian Ruch in May:
"I’m trying to organise a climate café in a climate movement in Paris. I got in touch with the "activist well-being" group, they seemed enthusiastic at first but when it gets to choosing a date, people stopped answering in the Telegram group. It seems that there is a time issue, people being too busy, and I suspect also a resistance to open the Pandora’s box of our feelings. The rhythm of work in this movement is unsustainable for many people. By proposing a Climate Café I want to promote self-care but perhaps I’m doing the opposite by adding one more thing to the to-do list. Any thoughts on how to deal with resistances people may have, and with time issues?"
One of the participants of the formation then told about how she had been reluctant, for a long time, to come to spaces such as Climate Cafés that she felt were "downer spaces". As an activist, she was doing a lot of things and was hoping that they would make a difference. But after a while, she said, "I realized this is such a complex problem that we have to sit in uncertainty, we have to sit in not knowing. When you’re very action focussed you don’t want to sit."
I was struck by this expression, "sitting in uncertainty". I wouldn’t know how to translate it in French, but I want to try and illustrate it with the video of a circus performance. Erwan Tarlet is a French circus artist, specialized in spikes, aerial straps, and jaw suspension. In 2020, he competed in the Festival du Cirque de Demain (Tomorrow’s circus festival), an event gathering young artists from many countries. Shortly after the beginning of the performance, he chose not to demonstrate his technical skills, but to use this platform to ask a simple question, written on his body: "DEMAIN?" (Tomorrow?).
I invite you to take a moment to watch his performance if you wish. I have to say I had to force myself a little to watch the video entirely, and not fast forward. When it became clear that nothing more was going to happen, other than a capital question suspended in the air, I anxiously checked the time left. But as the performer is doing less and less, more and more is happening. Some people are clapping, some sound unhappy. For me, this performance channels a strong and beautiful emotion.
I’m amazed at how the performer uses the power of art – creating beauty with uncomfortable feelings, allowing us to be in touch with them. Isn’t this closely connected with what we’re trying to do when we’re offering Climate Cafés, opening a space to connect with our feelings about an uncertain future?
Sometimes, something happens that allows us to feel, not only to think, and that creates a different form of understanding. Before the Climate Café formation, I would intellectually understand the resistances some activists might have, but I was emotionally more focused on my own need to feel useful and on my frustrations about things not going fast enough. When the participant talked about her past reluctance to go to what she feared would be "downer spaces", this changed my perspective and allowed me to connect with my feelings and needs as a participant.
It’s a lovely experience joining the CPA. Shortly after you become a member, you receive an invitation to come to a "community garden": "a place for new members, and those circling back from the margins, to explore what you would like to bring to this community and how CPA might help you". This is a one hour and a half meeting on Zoom, with a round of presentation, breakout rooms, and the invitation to talk on a metaphor: the facilitators proposed that we take a break, choose an object in our environment, and use it to express our thoughts and feelings. I had chosen the first thing that fell on me and looked pretty, a cherry blossom petal, but didn’t have much to say about it. "Sometimes, the metaphor comes later", said one of the facilitators. I was happy to feel that it was fine not to respond so much to the proposition, to be mostly silent and listen (I have to say I was pretty impressed to hear how much the other participants were able to elaborate on snail trails and cat litter). The second event I attended started with a "dreaming matrix", with participants sharing dreams and associated thoughts. Before joining the meeting, I was anxious I would be asked to share a dream too, moreover in English (I dream in French). Same thing as before attending a Climate Café, my initial worries (will I have anything to share? Am I feeling anything about climate change right now?) were quickly appeased when the facilitators said that silence was fine and that nobody should feel obliged to share anything. My point is, what I benefited the most from these first experiences was being offered the possibility not to say much, or to remain silent. And it is interesting to notice that during the Climate Café workshop, one of the things that raised anxiety among the participants was the fear of being faced, as facilitators, with silent people, or worse, a silent group.
Let me formulate a hypothesis there: as facilitators, our need to control what happens, our fear of silence or resistance, might result from defences against our depressive anxieties. I’ve noticed in myself the following pattern of thought. Whenever I read, hear, or am reminded of distressing facts about climate change, my mind quickly jumps to what I can do to help repair it. For a long time, this has been writing my thesis; now it is, among other things, organizing Climate Cafés to help those working on these issues consciously work through their feelings. And my thought then continues: "but if I’m contributing, I’d better do it quickly, because climate change is progressing quickly too!" Hence my frustration when this process takes time: what is happening is that these delays are bringing back my deeper anxieties about the climate.
Our need to feel useful can sometimes come as an obstacle because it gets in the way of listening, observing, relating to what others are going through. I’m reminded of the definition Hanna Segal gives of defensive reparation, as opposed to true reparation. Defensive (or manic) reparation happens when the subject tries to "repair the object in such a way that guilt and loss are never experienced"2. Acting can allow us to escape depressive anxieties, but this comes with a cost: we might try to control things, demanding that reparation be instantaneous, like magic. But things take time. Holding the tension between the urgency of climate action and the limits of what we can do is difficult and painful because it means recognizing that we won’t be able to do enough. However, this could be the condition to take meaningful actions, that involve taking the time to listen, observe, contain.
The problem when we identify a defence is always the same: we can see the problems it might cause, however, we know that as a defence, it is used against anxieties that can be felt as unbearable, and we are reminded to respect the need of individuals and collectives to protect themselves. This is why I would like to end with a metaphor.
Here is a picture of columbine seedlings I planted some time ago. When I sowed them, nothing happened for what seemed like a very long time. I kept them humid but really, I had almost entirely lost hope when the seeds started to sprout. This could be a metaphor for the kind of action that can sprout when we accept to sit in uncertainty for a while. When you plant a seed, you do not try to control the plant. You focus on care, bringing the elements it needs, and you cannot do otherwise than respect the time it takes. I connect this to the CPA motto, "facing difficult truths". When we say that it matters being able to face difficult feelings, when we identify that taking action can be used as a defence against them, we do not mean that we should stop doing so and live forever in anxiety. Rather, it means that we can let go just a bit, trusting that we do not have the world’s weight on our sole shoulders, extending just a bit the time window between distressing thoughts and action-focused thoughts. That we can sit a little longer in those uncomfortable feelings when they arise, and observe if this allows something different to sprout.
Jean Le Goff
Jean Le Goff received a Ph.D in sociology from the Université de Paris, teaches Social Work in the Paris region and is working to develop the links between ecological issues and psychosocial research and practice in France. He is also a circus enthusiast. If you would like to connect with him, email
(1) Weintrobe, S. (ed.). (2013). Engaging with Climate Change : Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Hove, UK : Routledge.
(2) Segal, H. (1964). Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. London, UK : Karnac Books.
Lead image photo: Erwan Tarlet’s political performance at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, Paris, 2020 (credits : V. Thénard Béal)