"typically clear and feisty" ...
This is one of the opening lines in Greta Thunberg’s speech on 21st February to the Civil Society for rEUnaissance. It is typically clear and feisty, with a strong riposte to the counter-narratives of the student strikers acting irresponsibly, or being manipulated. So Greta’s words need no interpretation, but we can still take a moment to reflect on the seismic effect of her voice, along with those of the thousands of children around the globe who are speaking out, taking action and catching the ears and eyes of both public and media.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Girl
We all know by now that the time for an orderly transition out of the fossil fuel economy passed about 40 years ago. We know a lot about why that didn’t happen and that the name of the game now is damage limitation – expensive (though less so than the alternative) and patchy. Or do we? Perhaps that is the depressive conclusion, a resigned sense of the human super tanker with sluggish controls and a crew fighting over them, as it ploughs on toward the deadly rocks. What if there is a voice strong enough to call the crew to order, shame them for their negligence and stiffen their sinews?
If moral conviction, steely focus and courage are capable of pulling off the near-miracle now needed, then perhaps Greta and her compatriots are in with a chance. But as she herself says, echoed by George Monbiot, that chance depends not on her but on the response. The Green New Deal, Extinction Rebellion and every fighter for climate and Nature, must coalesce to overcome the forces of cynicism, greed and denial. CPA’s own conversations have reflected both our tendency to argue and fragment and our capacity to celebrate common cause.
One thing we may be learning is that an injection of the uncompromised simplicity of youthful vision was exactly what this hour required. There is a paradox here. Politics is so often synonymous with fudge, compromise and watering-down. We keep hearing about ‘broad churches’; we muddle through. But Greta, for all her physical smallness and outward vulnerability, seems to draw her strength from realisation of a key point – one that has been made so often but is usually ignored in the hubris of human self-importance. This is that the laws of physics, chemistry and biology do not strike compromises with humans and their systems. As Guy McPherson puts it; “Nature bats last”.
Here is another paradox: it is as if Greta has read Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth, has viewed the Anthropocene, which after all we are already entering. But in her own defiance, in an act of transcendent leadership, she is saying to the elders, the compromised, the resigned, the comfortable: No, this must not be; you may not perpetrate this outrage on my generation and future generations. You must stop. I’m not interested in your problems or excuses. You must find a way to change course because the course you are on is one of horror, destruction and suffering.
Grandparents and grandchildren often get on in a way that parents and their children do not. This friendly dynamic was not, at least as the media portrayed it, the most prominent feature in Dianne Feinstein’s (US Senator and ex-mayor of San Francisco) recent meeting with a bunch of schoolchildren aged 7-16 years. Feinstein has, by conventional standards, a strong record on climate effort, but on this occasion she found herself in dispute with the children over the economic and political prospects of the Green New Deal. But she and the children did meet. Hunger for sensationalism probably meant that the common cause was not the most exciting story. Fossil-fuelled economics vs a habitable planet is the biggest story ever, even if many of the story-tellers and their listeners are still in a drugged trance. It will be played out in countless theatres; it will ebb and flow and it will be very messy.
Talking to Children
There are legitimate concerns about how adults communicate with children about the climate and ecological emergency. One which surfaced strongly in the CPA members discussion group last month concerned the ‘Blood of our Children’ stunt by XR. This discussion was rich, thoughtful and nuanced. Children vary greatly, according to age and personality. Given the scale of the global threat which affects all our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, the challenge of striking a balance between under-protection and over-protection is a particularly tough one. Perhaps once again the children will surprise us.
David Wallace-Wells talks to Amy Goodman
A lot has already been said about Uninhabitable Earth, that much-read article in New York magazine, and now the book. The Amy Goodman interview usefully summarises much of Wallace-Wells’ argument and contains hints on how his position has evolved since the article was published. For instance, he has clearly reflected on his filmed argument with Michael Mann in which the latter admonished him over the danger of demoralising people by appearing to rule out hope. Literally, he explains, the uninhabitable Earth is hyperbole – the probability of this Armageddon is small, but the fact that it is even a possibility is serious enough.
He and Mann now seem to be more aligned over the importance of fighting against every increase in emissions, every half-degree of temperature rise. But Wallace-Wells is not pulling any punches about our current course. He also aligns with Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion in arguing that the problem is not fear but complacency. The ‘Don’t Scare the Horses’ argument is rapidly losing ground at the moment, but politicians and public have a lot of catching up to do.
This author, though he touches on psychologically critical subjects such as fear, hope and complacency, is not operating from a perspective that is strongly informed psychologically. Powerful as his impact has been, his work is liable to disappoint climate psychologists. For instance, he does not draw on the rich resources that CPA and overs have to offer on climate denial. And his marginalisation of individual responsibility in favour of political action – treating these as binaries, ‘either-or’ choices, displays a lack of psycho-social awareness.
The Anthropocene as a Concrete Matter
At a guess, most of us have some awareness of the huge CO2 emissions tied up in the production of cement and concrete. We also talk about ‘concreting over the landscape’. This Jonathan Watts article Concrete – The Most Destructive Material on Earth is an impressively wide-ranging summary of the harm it is doing. The article includes a psychological point, that our use of concrete is a way of obliterating, smothering and subduing Nature. The results of this effort at domination are coming back to haunt us.
In conclusion, we need the energy, drive and excitement of the global movements mentioned in this letter. We also need to bear in mind the immensity and momentum of the juggernaut which humankind has created. Paradox is everywhere; we need fear and hope, tolerance and impatience, realism and vision, tenacity and letting-go.
CPA – Events and Activities
Jem Bendell will be in conversation with Ro Randall in London on Saturday 13th April. The theme is Social Collapse: Probability and Psychological Challenges. The price of this event is very reasonable, even before the 25% discount for CPA members. Details here.
There is a video link and brief report of Jem Bendell speaking Bristol with Toni Spencer here
Not a CPA event but Ro Randall is giving a lecture on "Climate, Psychology, Conversation: the unconscious dynamics of how we talk about climate change" at 7pm on March 7th as part of the Cambridge Lecture Series. You can go in person or listen on line. Information here
The third Through the Door workshop takes place in Bristol on 30th March and is now open to non members. Details here
Our Annual Conference will be at the Guild of Psychotherapists on 8th June with the morning devoted to presentations from the soon to be published book of research papers by CPA members "Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster" (see also below). The afternoon will be workshop based and offers of or interest in particular workshops are
CPA Research and Publications Group
CPA is setting up a research and publications group to provide a focus for this aspect of our work around climate psychology. In the last few years we have begun to coordinate our work in this area. As a result the edited book "Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster" will be published by Palgrave in May and the online Handbook of Climate Psychology is being developed on the CPA website. Twelve CPA members or close affiliates have produced chapters for the book based upon their research around human responses to climate change. The first six chapters highlight new methodologies, the last six, new findings.
There is much more we can do. CPA could undertake small unfunded or funded pieces of research of its own, commission further edited volumes of papers produced by CPA members, develop a coordinated response to intervening in activist and practitioner magazines, and so on. CPA advocates an inclusive idea of ‘research’, one that includes clinical research, action research, and the use of one’s own experience as well as qualitative and psycho-social research. If you are a CPA member and would be interested in participating in this online grouping do get in touch with Paul Hoggett at