Irish author Colm Toibin, in his 2017 novel House of Names, weaves a dark and disturbing tale,
built imaginatively on the story-telling of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. The slow and violent wreckage of human lives which the book depicts is set in motion by Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, to enlist the help of the gods in his military goals. He succeeds in his ambition, but the repercussions are dire.
The term ‘sacrifice’ always refers to the giving up of something valuable in favour of something deemed greater, whether or not there is religious belief involved. From a psychological perspective it spans a wide range of motive and awareness. When we contrast a sacrifice like Agamemnon’s with the altruism in the colloquial term ‘making sacrifices’, a number of things become clear. Both the meaning and consequences of a sacrifice hinge on what is most valued and desired, on the quality of consciousness informing the choice and on the relationship of the one making the sacrifice to the person or thing being sacrificed. Power relations loom large here.
The following news items from the past two months were selected for inclusion in this letter before a theme was chosen, but in each instance these questions around the archetype of sacrifice shed some light on what is happening. We see paraded before us the gods of political ambition and popularity, of economic growth and monetary wealth, of career security and shallow reassurance. Sacrificed to these, all too often, are commitment to the diversity of life on Earth and the elements of a benign planetary system. Despite all the knowledge available to us the choice may be unconscious. But the disturbing conclusion is that an existential issue is, in effect, of lesser concern than the personal or temporary aspiration. At the other extreme, there are people willing to give up their freedom or even their lives to resist the march of destructive exploitation.
It has been clear for years that the IPCC has a case to answer over serious underestimation of the severity of the climate threat. A recent meta-study by Professor Donald A. Brown of Widener University Commonwealth Law School homed in on the “Ethical Issues Raised by IPCC’s Consistent Underestimation of Climate Change Impacts”. A few days later, the Observer carried an article, headed “Climate study ‘pulls punches’ (in a special UN report) to keep polluters on board.” Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute, warned that the effect of this will be to obscure the urgency of the situation. Climate Change News carried a response from Myles Allen, a lead co-ordinating author, denying the charge. CPA member David Wasdell (also mentioned in last month’s newsletter) was asked for his view on this dispute. Here is his response:
Thanks for getting in touch. Have been through the draft of the IPCC AR5SR1.5 text when it was first leaked earlier in the year. Deeply concerned at the conservative levels of scientific analysis embedded in the text, which clearly favour the on-going concerns of the fossil industry, while eliding all implications of the climate dynamic emergency as indicated in the Bendell paper (Deep Adaptation: a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy), and reinforced by the PNAS ’Hothouse Earth’ submission.Bob Ward is completely justified in his critique of the influence of nation states whose economies are dependent on the income from fossil energy. As a modeller and lead author, Myles Allen has a long history of defensive conservatism in response to outputs from the IPCC. This is not the first time he has been active in attacking any critique of scientific collusion with the all-powerful fossil energy lobby. It will be interesting to note textual changes in the final version of the Summary for Policy Makers when it emerges from the political agents’ review in early October (where even further dilution of the material can be expected). This is a critical issue and CPA needs to be kept in the picture.Happy to go public with these comments. Hope that helps for now.
CPA members Paul Hoggett and Ro Randall recently had a research article published in Environmental Values (2018, vol 27, pp.223-243) which threw further light on the issue of scientific conservatism. Their findings, based on recent interviews with climate scientists, revealed ways in which the culture of science deterred climate scientists from public engagement, encouraged detachment from otherwise disturbing findings and bred caution in the minority who did try and engage with policy-makers. Go to www.whpress.co.uk/EV/EV2709.html
China’s Previously Unrevealed Coal Plants
In an article published by Grist we learn through satellite images that China, which burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, is continuing with construction of coal plants that were officially scheduled for cancellation. All serious studies agree that, for us to have a chance of limiting climate disruption within some notional level of manageability, rapid cessation of coal use must occur.
UN Environment Chief Criticised over Frequent Flying
A criticism frequently heard from ‘sceptics’ is that policy-makers, environmentalists and climate scientists all display a marked disinclination to curb their own carbon emissions. Noble exceptions exist – climate scientist Kevin Anderson being a case in point. As previously noted, there has been quite heated debate within CPA itself, with some members stating that they can see no sense or benefit in denying themselves air travel. This takes us into the ethical and psychological realms of individual impact vs being part of a collective struggle.
Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment, certainly appears to excel at both globe-trotting and rule-bending, which can only add fuel to those sceptic charges of hypocrisy. Presumably Solheim’s is a case of splitting and exceptionalism, rather than a belief that it’s now too late to make any difference.
Exxon, Chevron and Occidental in ‘U-Turn’
What should we make of the fact that these US corporations are to join the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative? The accompanying pledge of $300m towards research into lowering climate change pollution might appear trivial, viewed alongside the $24bn that Exxon alone expects to devote to capital expenditure this year. The Bloomberg article depicts the move as a response to pressure from climate activists and investors. One narrative would be that this is greenwash, a sop to the trouble-makers. But the article concludes with a mention that 350.org, leading the global divestment movement, has received pledges from funds managing no less than $6 trillion.
350.org’s objectives and a secure future of the fossil fuel industry are of course irreconcilable. Given that the position of the idiocracy currently running the USA government is one of blanket defiance of science, environmental concerns and human rights, it is interesting to speculate on the reasoning and motivation of Exxon et al. Might theirs be a move that is symbolic but not ‘merely symbolic’ - one grounded in pragmatism and objectivity, as distinct from the government’s hubris? We have no grounds for believing that the oil majors have ceased to place their corporate interests ahead of planetary health, but they may be quite good at reading writing on walls, or at least at calculating their bets.
Trump Administration Wants to Make it Easier to Release Methane into Air
This one is for anybody who thinks the term “idiocracy” is out of place!
Climate and the Media
In last month’s newsletter, Chris Robertson homed in on CPA’s contribution to the effort to challenge the BBC over its notions of responsibility and balance in climate coverage and climate-weather linking. The direct responses to our letter were not very thoughtful or encouraging but we learned soon afterwards that the BBC is to offer training on the subject to its reporters. The subsequent news, from the editor of The World Tonight and Newshour, is that the corporation is intent on increasing its coverage of climate change.
There is still a surprise value when the Daily Mail carries something half sensible on climate change, on this occasion in the form of an article by ex-leader of the Conservative party Michael Howard. Yes, Margaret Thatcher did have a science degree, was the first world leader to flag up the climate problem and supported the creation both of the IPCC and the Hadley Centre. Howard, a member of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s advisory board, deserves credit for this piece. Trusted messengers speaking the truth in largely denialist circles are worth something. Sadly however, there was little follow-through by the Thatcher government and this probably reflects both a systemic weaknesses in market democracy and the active denialism which gained influence within her party. Neither free market ideology nor vested interests were going to be sacrificed in a hurry.
Buzzfeed gave us the information in August that “YouTube is Fighting Back against Climate Misinformation”, with help from Wikipedia. This is “part of its ongoing effort to combat the rampant misinformation and conspiratorial fodder on its platform”. Luminaries Jim Hanson, Katharine Hayhoe, Michael Mann and Anthony Lieserowitz have given cautious approval, whilst some of the usual suspects have sought to characterise it as a sacrifice of free speech on the altar of propaganda.
In contrast with some signs of modest progress in the UK, CPA colleagues in the USA have anecdotally reported a decline in climate coverage. Richard Pauli has mentioned this in his newsletter but carried this CBS interview with meteorologist Jeff Beradelli as an exception to the rule.
Three Anti-Fracking Protestors Jailed
The list would be incomplete and skewed without mention of the three men who were sent to prison for terms of up to 16 months last week for their resistance to Cuadrilla’s fracking in Lancashire. They have put their freedom on the line, in an act of civil disobedience against a grossly undemocratic alliance of central government authority and corporate interests. This puts them in the same category as the ‘valve-turners’ in America who risk being branded as terrorists.
Alongside all the psychological and psycho-social ideas that are more familiar to CPA discourse, sacrifice is a powerful theme when applied to climate engagement. As things operate at the moment, the dominant trend is to sacrifice future well being for present gratification, the health of the commons in favour of personal or corporate profit, collective security for individual gain. Jem Bendell, in the title of his much-discussed paper, refers to the tragedy of climate change. It is a human tragedy that the ancient Greeks would have recognised, but on a scale that would probably not have been imaginable to them and is barely imaginable now.
Much more could be said and has been said, for instance about the ‘no sacrifice’ delusion in the green growth idea and the chilling ruthlessness of ‘sacrifice zones’ as described so vividly by Naomi Klein. The latter relates closely to the thinking of Donna Orange on ‘othering’, which in a way leads us back to Agamemnon and Iphigenia and the issues of gender, race, class and human domination of the other-than-human world that occur across societies and through history.
This letter could be taken as signposting the advance of a new dark age. But we need to face that possibility in order to resist it; that is the double-edgedness of imagination. We still have choices, as grassroots protesters and a very few politicians have demonstrated. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern’s recent address to the United Nations has had many plaudits and calls on us to remember that choices exist, different visions by which we might live. A sharpened awareness of the kind of sacrifices embedded in those choices may not be comfortable, but is part of the imaginative effort that acquaints us with our darkness and can help us to avoid collapsing into it.
Recent and Forthcoming Events with CPA members involved
The Active Roots story with Gloria Granell was filmed and will be posted on the CPA website
Cometh the moment - when malignant normality and collective denial fail - 20th October 2-6pm Queen's Wood After a first venture into the woods last July exploring Remorse, Re-storying and Re-enchantment, Sarah Deco and Chris Robertson will be making a second adventure trip. This workshop seeks to open a space in the woods in which we can seek guidance from the other-than-human as to how to bear the pain, grief and loss of a coming storm. Details
Catastrophe or Transformation: Being a Therapist in a time of Climate Change: Science meets Psychology Sunday 21st October 2018 10.00am – 4.00pm at BCPC, 1 Trim Bridge Bath BA1 1HD Catastrophe_or_Transformation_-_October_Conference.pdf
Confer: Small Earth 8th-11th November Suffolk Psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers ask: can we return to living within the terms of Earth's ecosphere? Details
Tavistock and Portman Clinic: Ecology, Psychoanalysis and Global Warming - Present and future traumas 8th - 9th December Global warming is the most important concern threatening humankind today. It can be both frightening and traumatic. It is a reality, which is often denied or disavowed. Powerful economic and political interests appear to shape the public debate but these often have their origins in the individual and/or collective psyche. It is a problem of such huge magnitude that it seems to defy understanding and definition. Details
Interesting Goings-On Elsewhere
However distinctive CPA’s culture and focus might be, we are part of a much wider struggle for climate awareness. The ‘Partners’ section of our website reflects this.
Readers may be interested in this Climate Outreach report on Talking climate and building common understanding in Canada: Climate Outreach have been working with local partners to start a new conversation about climate change in Alberta, Canada where few issues are as divisive as climate change and the future of energy. But in Alberta, often thought of as 'climate change ground zero' for being the home of Canada's oil sands, people are calling for more respectful and constructive conversation.
Messages From The Blue Planet isn't a documentary, it's a combination of poetry and polemic; touching on politics, economics and psychology - no statistics, no talking heads, no celebrities, no air travel, just feeling and perspective on the unfolding Climate Emergency. The video may appeal to a psychology audience because it envisions what the planet might say if it could speak, a perspective that enables communication around some often taboo subjects.
Adrian Tait, with editorial support from Kate Evans, Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson