Sunday, February 19


A long article, but it could be helpful . . .

Gaia and Psychology

John Mead

There seem to be a vast number of questions and possibilities about the relationship of Gaia to psychology. On which should we concentrate?

For example:- Is there such a thing as Gaian morality? Whence are our values? Is the human psyche wholly the product of earthly forces? What should we make of the words of Sir Thomas Browne: "There is surely a piece of divinity in us, something that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun"; or of the words of the Church of England collect for Tuesday in Easter week, which speaks of God's grace "putting into our minds good desires", which certainly sounds like a psychological process. Is that process in fact performed by Gaia? Or if we are the consciousness of Gaia, as Lovelock suggests, are we also the conscience?

Then there are questions about our power to avert climate catastrophe. According to Lovelock, we can save ourselves, but only with the help of nuclear energy. But, he says, it is ludicrous to think that we can save the world – by the end of the century the earth's temperature will have risen by 8C. But in that case, in what sense can we save ourselves, since the Exeter conference of climate scientists last February concluded that a 2C increase is the utmost compatible with climate stability?

In order to make the discussion rather more manageable, I suggest that we leave to one side for the moment the recent predictions of Lovelock, and go by those of the IPCC and of the Exeter conference last February. They are the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. The latter are not at present predicting inevitable disaster, though they certainly say we have very little time in which to avert it – at the utmost ten years.

If we ask, what is the importance for Gaia of the topic of psychology?, is it simply of academic importance?, we must surely reply:- for the moment the future of the planet rests in the hands of the collective human psyche. To what extent should we also assume that our interests, rightly understood, are identical with those of Gaia?

We may then ask: What, in terms of psychology, is the current global situation?

When we consider the scale of the threat to the global climate, and therefore to human life, the imminence of the threat, and the almost total failure to take action that might avert it, it is surely obvious that our entire culture, indeed our entire civilization, and with it our collective psyche and state of motivation, is in a most extraordinary mess. As Jung put it, the whole psyche is in a state of uproar. At times it seems to me that this mess to some extent invades our own discussions here in the Gaia network. The future of human civilization, and even of the species, now hangs upon the individual and collective psyche.

That invites us to take seriously another set of questions. Are neurosis and psychosis partially, perhaps largely, the product of disturbances in our relationship with the planet, or perhaps in the planet itself? If so, would that not justify and indeed require in psychotherapy from time to time the kind of interpretation reported by Terrance O'Connor, who interrupted a client's obsessive, self-absorbed soliloquy by asking "Are you aware that the planet is dying?" If the Gaia thesis is correct, would it not be surprising if the current global situation, however repressed in the unconscious, had no effect on the human psyche?

This might be the moment at which, if we had time, we might discuss the whole concept of anima mundi. Lack of time, the urgency of the crisis we have neglected for so long, pervades the whole situation. As Jonathon Porritt says in his recent book on the destructive effects of capitalism on the environment, we just don't have time to work out a more satisfactory political and economic system. We have somehow to make now, at once, the necessary reductions in CO2 emissions.

For it appears that global catastrophe can be averted only if we in the rich countries very rapidly take action to reduce CO2 emissions, reductions so radical that they will require the end of affluence and its replacement by a way of life far more modest.

We have therefore to ask: What motivation is needed to avert this catastrophe, and why is it not available? That question takes us to the heart of the collective mess. Even to describe the mess is quite difficult. But let me try.

What I am attempting is a survey of the main psychological features of the UK scene.

If the climate scientists are right, we are as a civilization confronted by a very terrifying prospect. In this company I need hardly spell out the details. Sir David King has said that if we carry on as we are, by the end of the century Antarctica is likely to be the only habitable continent. Lovelock thinks it is already too late to avert disaster. The IPCC predicts that by 2050 there will 150M environmental refugees. The Exeter conference last February gave us at most ten years in which to make the very radical reductions in CO2 emissions needed if catastrophe is to be averted. As George Monbiot has said: "We are not facing the end of holidays in Seville because Seville has become too hot. We are facing the end of human existence."

We have to take account of spiritual as well as political and psychological outcomes. The World Council of Churches warns that the number of victims of climate change and the scale of the disasters affecting them may exceed the human capacity for solidarity, and that "love may grow cold". Dr. Rowan Williams speaks of "the horror of a world of spiraling inequality" and warns that "When we speak about environmental crisis, we are not to think only of spiraling poverty and mortality, but about brutal and uncontainable conflict", a remark echoed by Lovelock, who speaks of a future of "a broken rabble led by brutal war lords". Dr.Rowan Williams fears that "We may as a species cease to be capable of some vision of universal justice".

Lovelock himself seems even to be inviting us to abandon such a vision – and to be advocating in its place a policy of sauve qui peut. He speaks of seeking to preserve civilisation – but is not civilisation at its best based on such a vision?

That is the prospect. It invites us to ask two questions:-

(a) How does one live with all this? – this is a very real psychological problem.

How are people responding to this prospect?: and

(b) Why is that response so inadequate, so unequal to the task before it?

So first, how does one live with all this? It is indeed a terrifying prospect. Yet the vast majority of people are not in a state of terror, or even of anxiety.

First, there are those who somehow manage to find the strength to recognize pretty fully the main dimensions of our global situation. They are a tiny minority. That recognition can be psychologically and emotionally pretty demanding and costly. I know personally some of the leading members of this group. They experience daily feelings of horror, grief, rage, depression, despair. In general, the fuller and more expert their knowledge, the deeper their pessimism.

I am myself frequently possessed by such feelings. Often I have said to myself: "John, you must find something more cheerful to think about". And I have sought peace of mind both in the insights of depth psychology, more of which later, and in the teachings of Christianity. Thus I have turned to a passage such as the following from St. John of the Cross:

Keep your heart in peace; let nothing in this world disturb it: all things have an end.

In all circumstances, however hard they may be, we should rejoice rather than be cast down, that we may not lose the greatest good, the peace and tranquility of our soul.

If the whole world and all that is within it were thrown into confusion, disquietude on that account would be vanity, because that disquietude would do more harm than good. To endure all things with an equable and peaceful mind, not only brings with it many blessings to the soul, but also enables us, in the midst of our difficulties, to have a clear judgment about them, and to minister the fitting remedy for them.

I discussed this passage, not long before his death, with the late Hugh Montefiore. I said I simply did not know how to implement its advice. He replied that he doubted that one should even try to do so – that the most one could say was: "Underneath are the everlasting arms".

As for depth psychology, that might traditionally seek to interpret one's anxiety by tracing it to some intra-psychic conflict or trauma. As a psychotherapist myself, I certainly cannot rule that out. But it seems not to do justice to the objective realities.

That is the first group. Several of its members describe what they call a "road to Damascus" experience, which led them to recognize the frightening realities of the global predicament.

The second group is far larger, and less clearly defined, but it needs neither religion nor psychotherapy to protect it from rage, depression and despair, for it already has something more effective than either – denial. This denial can be individual or collective. As long as we are in denial about climate change we are free from the very painful feelings listed above. But we are also free from any motivation to take action to avert it.

Hence the answer to my second question: Why is the response so inadequate, so unequal to the task before it? must be: the prevalence of denial make an adequate response impossible.

It follows that denial, individual and collective, is by far the biggest obstacle to be overcome if there is to be any hope of averting climate catastrophe.

Denial about climate change remains widespread in the UK public. But this is but one manifestation of a much wider and more fundamental denial, one that has been described by a variety of writers, notably the distinguished Christian economist Herman Daly in Beyond Growth. Writing of the concept of sustainable development, he refers to the shift it requires in our vision of how the economic activities of human beings are related to the natural world, one which involves replacing the economic norm of quantitative expansion (growth) with that of qualitative improvement. In his own words:

"This shift is resisted by most economic and political institutions. Enormous forces of denial are aligned against it, and to overcome them requires a deep philosophical clarification, even religious renewal". (My emphasis).

The most superficial reading of the finance pages of the media confirms Daly's words. They all take utterly for granted the vital need of growth for a healthy economy. The necessity of growth is the first article of faith in our economic credo. And the trouble about climate change is that it constitutes, if taken seriously, a most formidable challenge to that credo. As the World Council of Churches have recently said: "Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions run against the dynamic of the present project of society based in ever-expanding production and consumption. A vision of society is at stake".

Hence the need for denial to protect that vision. But what is meant by denial in this context? Obviously it is not just conscious deliberate dishonesty. The academic economists do not begin each day with the conscious resolve to tell lies to their students. Nor is it just ignorance, though ignorance certainly abounds. It refers rather to the honest rejection at a conscious level of some truth or fact which at a deeper level is known about however incompletely, but which is avoided because of the fear and anxiety which it arouses. Denial is much more intractable than ignorance. The latter can be corrected by more information. But for denial, information is water off a duck's back. All the water is immediately shed, apart from a few drops. These indeed sparkle for a moment in the sun. Then the duck gives its feathers a brisk little shake, and the status quo is restored. Denial is a "defense mechanism". It defends the individual from some truth which he cannot afford to acknowledge because to do so would expose him to overwhelming feelings of horror or shame or confusion. It therefore defends that basic clarity and peace of mind which we all need if we are to carry on with our lives, and to which we all therefore tend to cling. To remove it plunges us at once into a desperate struggle to redefine our identity and somehow to bring a new order into what has become for the time being frightening chaos in our understanding of ourselves and of the world. In some shape or form, denial tends to some degree to be a permanent feature of human life. Thus it is axiomatic in psychotherapy that "we all need our defenses". As T .S. Eliot says "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". Hence the enormous resistance to attempts to remove denial.

Collective denial is to a much higher degree the product of social forces, and to understand it takes us into the realm of social psychology – particularly conformity and cognitive dissonance. Society needs to guard and preserve as does the individual certain fundamental assumptions if the peace of mind of its members is to be maintained. In our current culture these include those basic economic assumptions referred to by Daly in the passage quoted above. We are socialised almost from birth to take those assumptions utterly for granted. The forces of conformity to group norms are central to this process. They act to maintain the massive states of denial to which Daly refers. We are thus defended against any threat to what may be called our cognitive vested interests.

We need to look at our own emotional involvement in this vast and frightening process, and in the conscious and unconscious forces at work. For the alternative to denial is to be conscious, conscious of what is at stake - nothing less than the future of the planet as a place able to support human life in sufficiency and peace, and conscious also of our feelings about the situation – for it is quite possible, and quite common, for people to be in denial about their own feelings. One common way of doing this is to say: "Well, disaster is inevitable, there's nothing anyone can do about it, so we might as well have a good time – for our holiday let's fly to Turkey or India." Despair thus becomes a sedative rather than a spur.

But to contemplate fully, without denial, the extent of all that is now at risk, the magnitude of the vested interests to be overcome, and the brevity of the time still available to put things right, is almost certainly to encounter anxiety, and even at times depression and despair. There must be for all of us the unconscious temptation to avoid that emotional pain by re-entering to some extent the refuge of denial, perhaps by apathy, perhaps by excited "manic" activity in some other direction, perhaps by the fatalism, which releases us from action by declaring that disaster is inevitable, so there's no point in doing anything.

As the WCC says:

"The threat of climate change is of such magnitude that it surpasses the human capacity to react. People tend therefore to protect themselves by pursuing their present way of life"

And a leading eco-psychologist, Joanna Macy, has written: "The perils facing life on earth are so massive and unprecedented that they are hard to believe. The very danger signals that should rivet our attention summon up the blood and bond us in collective action, tend to have the opposite effect. They make us want to pull down the blinds and busy ourselves with other things".

Discussion ensued to which these notes are added:

If that is the prospect we face, and that is the response to it, one of denial and apathy, effectively blocking the actions needed to avert catastrophe, two points need to be stressed.

First, that it is only in response to massive public pressure that the politicians will take the necessary measures in time to avert climate catastrophe;

Secondly, that the chief obstacle to be overcome in the generation of that pressure is the psychological state of denial with regard to climate change which currently informs UK public opinion.

So what are the remedies? Are there any?

I believe there are. But they all stem from one major remedy, without which most of the others cannot be implemented. The key to it lies in those words of Joanna Macey. "The very danger signals that should rivet our attention summon up the blood and bond us in collective action, tend to have the opposite effect. They make us want to pull down the blinds and busy ourselves with other things".

That is the tendency that at present undermines all our efforts. It is that that we must combat. We must, that is to say, deliberately set out to join forces, to meet together, in small groups, and discuss both our understanding of the situation, and our feelings about it, and how we are to achieve collective action. That means sharing those feelings – of despair, impotence, anger, depression, etc. In this matter it is fatal, spiritually and psychologically, to be isolated. Dr. Rowan Williams described this well when he spoke, in his Environment Lecture, of the need to overcome denial by promoting "new and secure relationships enabling us to confront unwelcome truths without the fear of being destroyed by them".

Like many of my contemporaries, I recall the Munich Agreement of September 1938, and the years leading up to the second world war, a time of denial in some ways similar to our own. T.S. Eliot wrote of his horrified reaction to that event, that what he felt was "not a criticism of government but a doubt of the validity of a civilisation".

No such doubt assails Lovelock about the validity our current civilisation. On the contrary, he believes we should seek above all to preserve it, here in the UK, and without concern for the rest of the world. Furthermore, he says, "You can't have civilization now without electricity."

And of course, if he is right, you can't have electricity without nuclear energy. Just where that leaves Africa, South America, much of SE Asia, etc., in terms of "civilization", let alone Iran and much of the Middle East, Lovelock does not explore. For him, the one thing really worth preserving in today's terrible global predicament is the civilization that has led us into it. This idea, surely, is another example of the dreadful mess affecting our collective psyche and moral consciousness.

On 8th January, 2000, the Tablet published an extraordinarily prescient article, "Beware Apocalypse", about climate change, by the late Adrian Hastings. He, like Lovelock, predicted disaster. He called on his readers "to recognize that global catastrophe is in the judgment of hard realism very likely to come upon us". But his advice was very different from Lovelock's. We should, he said, "prepare ourselves and small communities of sanity and faith to live undespairingly within it. Even inside a concentration camp or on the deck of the Titanic there is a Gospel to preach and a pattern of behaviour reflective of that Gospel. There is little time to lose in preparing ourselves mentally for Christian life in the very hardest of times".

Obviously, whether one is a Christian or not, the demands on our collective psyche in terms of sanity and faith are now formidable. I set out – last September – to describe in this paper the current psychological landscape of the UK. Now, four months later, it is evident how rapidly, and at times dramatically, that landscape is changing, in ways that at times encourage one to hope that denial of the threat of climate catastrophe is at last beginning to evaporate. Such hopes have of course surfaced from time to time in the recent past, only for denial to be reestablished as before. But one such hopeful sign is the remarkable readiness of an increasing number of people publicly to reject air travel for holidays.

As I write, Clare Short is presenting to the UN Commission for Social Development the argument for a civilization based upon equity and upon respect for the earth's ecological limits. If adopted, that would mean a commitment to the policy of Contraction and Convergence (of the Global Commons Institute), and to a radical reduction in the affluence of the rich countries. And in the USA, Al Gore is apparently having extraordinary success in his efforts to persuade Americans to take seriously the threat of climate catastrophe, an issue which even the evangelical right is beginning to discuss.

All these issues need somehow to be integrated and made coherent within the collective psyche of the UK, and of the rich world in general.

We are certainly perilously near a "tipping point" in terms of climate change. It seems possible that we are also near a "tipping point" in terms of public awareness and readiness to act. What is now needed – and with great urgency – is the establishment of that capacity for collective action of which Joanna Macey speaks, and which at present is rendered impotent by the psychologically divisive effects of denial. We need to use that collective action to put massive pressure on politicians to take those measures which can yet save our civilization and the future of human life.

John Mead.

February 9, 2006

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