We know the science of climate change. We know the facts and figures of climate change. We know the future scenarios. We know that we know.
Yet, do we know what happens inside our heads, our hearts, and our guts? Do we know how we respond internally, psychologically, and emotionally.
When we hear and see all the reports on climate change and what is happening to the planet it is as though we are witnessing a death. Not just any death. But the death of an old, trusted, reliable friend and provider. To some, it is the death of their mother – Mother Earth. To others it is the death of civilisation, of humanity.
As we know from the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross,2 almost 50 years ago, when faced with death we exhibit five responses: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Could it be that when we witness the death of something as large as humanity or the Earth, that these responses play out in our collective psyche?
The response of denial is easy to pick. We see it every day from many politicians, bureaucrats, corporate heads, and conservative think-tanks. We see anger as well, with anger being the motivating emotion for some climate change activists.
Depression, however, may be the hidden response to climate change. In the face of overwhelming statistics, science and stories, it is easy to see how many of us can slip into a depressive response. This may range from cynicism, through despair, all the way to avoidance and withdrawal.
The stories of the effects of climate change arrive in our inboxes every day; on TV, in newspapers, via social media. We have been aware of these stories since 1990 (the year the first IPCC3 report was published) and they came slowly, almost like a trickle. There are now more of them, and they are becoming more and more disturbing. In the 25 years since that first IPCC report, the stories tell us that things have got worse.
Overwhelming, frightening, disturbing. It’s all hopeless. No wonder the response for many of us is depression. Our minds tell us that it is all hopeless and that we are powerless. Our psyches respond by telling us to go and hide in despair, where we give up and withdraw. All our conditioning tells us that despair is a personal problem. And our culture tells us (especially men, but women are not immune) to be positive, keep your chin up, don’t cry, man up (be a man), get over it, or cheer up.
Our emotions, especially ones like sadness and despair, are viewed as “bad’ and to be shut away inside us, where no-one else can see them. When we do so we personalise what is in reality a collective response. Personalising our despair we then repress it, and in doing so, isolate ourselves from others, and from the root cause of our despair – our collective psychology. Then we feel bad about feeling bad, only deepening the despair and withdrawal.
Transforming the Question
So, the question now transforms itself. Instead of asking why do people not give a stuff, we ask: how can we enable people to move from a place of despair, withdrawal or cynicism to a place of life-affirming hope and action?
The first answer would seem to be to resist the urge to continually bombard us all with the statistics, facts and figures of climate change destruction. Instead, we could look at the work of educators such as Joanna Macy, Bill Plotkin, John Seed, Tom Atlee and others. Their work helps answer the question by moving from despair to life-affirmation.
Joanna Macy, for example, began her work in the 1980s with the publication of her work Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age.4 Over the years Macy (now in her 80s) has refined her thinking and practice to acknowledge the despair we feel and to offer us a way out. She calls it the Great Turning and advises that the way out of our despair is to start by actively experiencing that feeling. By doing so we come to recognise that our pain for what is happening is a message that we, and the Earth, are all inter-connected. Through a variety of exercises Macy guides us to unblock our feelings of despair and depression and discover a life-affirming approach to life and what happens around us.
For the reader who wants to know more, check out these websites:
- www.joannamacy.net (the work of Joanna Macy)
- www.animas.org (based on the work of Bill Plotkin – eco-psychologist)
- www.co-intelligence.org (based on the work of Tom Atlee – an advocate of co-creation and co-intelligence)
1. Recent reports suggest that 93% of the Great Barrier Reef is now severely bleached.
2. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in 1969 based on her work at the University of Chicago medical school.
3. IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC has now published its fifth report, released in November 2014.
4. Joanna Macy, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, New Society Publishers, 1983