Most of us would probably agree that good is more likely to come out of our work if we are operating out of appreciation for the gifts of individual life, of the natural world and yes, of civilisation.
In Climate Psychology that appreciation coexists with a painful struggle to comprehend the destruction now going on at all of these levels as a result of human activity. This tension has been given a sharp twist by the protest suicide in April of civil rights lawyer David S. Buckel in a Brooklyn park. Emails he sent to local news outlets stated that his “early death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
His suicide note, apologising for “the mess” of his self-immolation, evidenced concern for others and tallied with the comment of his colleague Camilla Taylor who described Buckel as kind to everyone with whom he worked.
This event has generated more comment in our members’ forum than any other in CPA’s history. Immediate reactions were wide-ranging: shock, puzzlement, sadness, anxiety, disapproval, empathic feeling, respect. These reactions have morphed into a variety of concerns - ethical objection to suicide, speculation about Buckel’s mental health and fears that the consequences, rather than heightened awareness will be demoralising, even a dangerous example to others.
Washington-based psychiatrist, climate activist and CPA member Lise Van Susteren’s letter published by the New York Times on 18th April, covers several of these bases: the complex forces underlying suicide, the global incidence of climate-related suicide (writer’s note: consider the thousands of Punjabi farmers who have killed themselves in recent decades), the risk of psychological contagion. Lise states her view very clearly: “The antidote to rage and despair, with climate change as the catalyst, is not individual self-destructive protest, but collective engagement in political action.” This appears to rule out the possibility that one person sacrificing their own life could ever help to foster engagement.
The NYT link above also includes a letter from two suicide prevention activists which denies that “Mr Buckle’s final note provides meaningful clues about what prompted him to take his life.” This starkly reveals how a supposedly humanitarian agenda (discouraging suicide) can itself do violence to an individual’s capacity to clearly know, or right to state, the meaning of his own actions. It is one thing to suggest that there is more to the suicide than meets the eye, even to view it as misguided, but quite another to dismiss out of hand the reason given by Buckel himself. This judgement conveys no empathy whatever for feelings of anger and despair, rooted in love and concern, about the tenacity of fossil-fuelled living or denial of its hugely destructive consequences. Philosophically, it is miles from the position outlined in James Hillman’s book Suicide and the Soul. He advances the view that the aim of preventing suicide at all costs is an ego fixation based on fear of losing control and not one that is empathic to the needs of the soul. What deep differences this subject reveals.
Perspectives on Suicide
Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of Sociology, is best known for his work on suicide and his radical claim that personal feelings are not purely personal. Late 19th century statistics were primitive and some of his ideas have been challenged, but his multi-variant approach to the subject was ground-breaking and his finding, for instance, that a person’s sense of wellbeing does not correlate positively with wealth has stood the test of time. He discovered strong links between a given society’s level of cohesion and its suicide rate. His view on the importance of social, alongside individual, determinants included a categorisation of suicide under various headings, which included altruism. On the evidence of Buckel’s suicide note, he is a strong contender for this category.
Durkheim realised that capitalism, for all its rewards, can easily lead to feelings of meaninglessness and failure. We can only guess at what he would have made of a social backdrop in which prevailing norms and the dominant political ideology have elements that can themselves be regarded as suicidal. Perhaps there will be a more rounded consideration of this incident in time, one which includes Polly Higgins’ concept of ecocide. Whether or not we see value in Buckel’s suicide, Higgins’ perspective might lead us to ‘pay our respects’, to recognise as key context the notion of collective suicide through the destruction of planetary life.
Returning to Durkheim, his findings include a positive correlation between education level and suicide. He interpreted this as a kind of occupational hazard – a tendency for the development of critical faculties that can lessen the individual’s identification with society’s values. But complex societies contain many sub-cultures and it remains something of a mystery as to what led David Buckel to conclude that his death would be the best expression of his values and feelings. Perhaps there is a clue in the word “reflects” (as in his statement that his death “reflects what we are doing to ourselves”). Was there some notion in his mind that the violence of suicide would help to uncover the manifold violations comprising ecocide? It’s not hard to imagine that he hoped his action would encourage others to reflect more seriously on our current path. In Durkheim’s notion of altruistic suicide, personal survival is eclipsed by other values and sacrifice is an honourable course. History tells us of numerous cultures in which this was considered normal. Buckel may well have concluded that no amount of asking nicely would lead to adequate reflection or serious enough action.
Optimism of the Will
As personified by Bill McKibben, it’s possible to be brutally clear about the situation and at the same time unrelenting in the fight for climate sanity. Elizabeth Allured (New York City) posted a comment in the CPA discussion group which both demonstrates the same spirit and is relevant to the David Buckel story. Her words, referring to Michael Bloomberg’s decision to personally cover this year’s lapsed US commitment to the Paris climate agreement, are worth repeating: “As a counterpoint to the current US administration’s destructive efforts to roll back environmental standards, and the ensuing feelings of despair among many here, we have a former New York mayor stepping up. The scientifically well-informed who are also philanthropists may instil hope and become role models for the rest of us to give more even when leadership is opposed to it. Though the amount given by Bloomberg is small relative to his fortune, the act is strong symbolically, another way of speaking truth to power.”
So once again, we’re back to radical hope. Courage means neither flinching from the facts or prospects of violent climate disruption, nor being demoralised by the wilful ignorance and perverse ideology of those who resist action. And whilst there is no denying these dangerous elements or the cultural complexes which sustain and are sustained by them, there are strong voices besides Bloomberg’s, saying what must be said. Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s deputy prime minister, is a shining example with her absolute clarity that there’s no rational point in saying that net zero emissions by mid-century cannot be achieved, because it must be achieved. True, even that goal is probably not enough, but that does not invalidate the struggle and the ratchet was always a sine qua non of the Paris vision.
France, in the person of Emmanuel Macron, has again been at the centre of things. Many of us had been wondering whether Macron’s cosying-up to Donald Trump could possibly be worth it, but his speech to both houses of Congress sharply rebuked the US President on a range of policy issues. The Iran nuclear deal may have been top of the agenda, but the fact that there is no planet B also came across loud and clear. Some will have been surprised at how widely this speech was welcomed. One likely reason is that, given an administration now packed with sycophants, strong critical voices from another quarter are like gold dust.
Something Will Turn Up
Kevin Anderson and others have argued powerfully against relying on luck. In the 21st century context of climate change and what Rosemary Randall calls ‘ecological debt’, Mr Micawber’s reincarnation can be heard in the form of blithe confidence about human ingenuity - the techno-fix around the next corner. We are right to call out the folly of this as a basis for complacency and inaction, but this does not of course mean that we’ll be able to get through without some big slices of luck. One such slices hit the news last month when we heard about the inadvertent discovery by scientists of a mutant enzyme that eats plastics. Safe deployment and scaling up remain to be seen, but the dismantling of plastic molecules would take re-cycling to a new level and potentially halt one of the greatest scourges on planet Earth.
The XPrize Foundation, aiming at a carbon conversion technology by encouraging a range of experimental methods is both a more deliberately targeted and a more speculative venture. It’s impossible to say what may come of these lines of enquiry, but the caveat as always is moral hazard. It would be reckless in the extreme to ignore the health of Nature’s own carbon sinks, such as that provided by vegetation through photosynthesis.
Books and Reviews
Donna Orange’s Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis and Radical Ethics is one of the most important contributions to climate psychology of recent years. Elizabeth Allured’s scholarly and wide-ranging review is very much to be welcomed and CPA can be proud to count both Donna and Elizabeth amongst its USA members.
Several of our UK members have contributed to Unpsychology magazine, a publication edited by Steve Thorp. Steve, who will be participating in CPA’s Annual Conference on 9th June, writes:
Unpsychology Magazine – Climate Minds Anthology
‘“..climate change is like the tip of the iceberg visible to the human eye, while just beneath the surface of our collective consciousness a far greater crisis is playing out.” Planetary Hospice, Rebirthing Planet Earth by Zhiwa Woodbury.
The fourth issue of Unpsychology Magazine – The Climate Minds Anthology was published at the end of March. In this issue there is some wonderful and evocative writing and artwork around the theme of the climate emergency. It is available free of charge to download, and you can get your copy here.
Please don’t forget our back-to-back London events in June. These are on 9th June our Annual Conference titled Climate Psychology, children, young people and education and on 10th June a workshop: Mythos: the Anthropocene in Stories, Symbols and Creative Imagination. Both these events will be held at The Guild of Psychotherapists in Southwark. The Annual Conference (formerly Members Day) is free to CPA members and there is a package deal for non-members enabling them to attend both events for just £40.
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Next Thursday we will be sending out a subscription confirmation email to ensure that our mailing list is compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union’s new privacy law, coming into effect on May 25th, 2018. We will need you to confirm your subscription to further receive our newsletters and keep you updated with our events and workshops.
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Chris Robertson and Paul Hoggett