What Does Psychoanalysis Have to Tell Us About Climate Change, and What Do We Do With It?
Written by Phoebe A. Cirio, MSW, LCSW
“It is worse, much worse than you think.” With that sentence David Wallace Wells begins his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. This book is about what life will be like on his planet, after we exceed 2 degrees of warming. In fact, we are on track to hit, 3 or 4 degrees of warming by 2100. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, something that depends largely on the burning of fossil
fuels, was supposed to never surpass 400 parts per million(ppm.) That benchmark was hit in 2016, and by 2018 it was averaging 411 ppm. Wallace-Wells says “…climate change, which is not just the biggest threat human life has ever faced but a threat of an entirely different category and scale. That is, the scale of human life itself.” How is it possible to conceive of the wholesale extinction of the human race? And yet, unless as a whole population we do, the generations to come, beginning as early as 2050 may not be able to experience life as we know it. There will be massive migrations of people from low-lying areas because of rising oceans. There will be wide swaths of Africa, India, and Europe that will be subject to prolonged droughts. The portions of the American West that will burn in the summer months will increase
5-fold. We must be able to think of this, and plan for a solution or there may not be an future for our species.
Writing in The New Yorker (31 Jan 2022), Joshua Rothman tells us, we need to “Build wind farms, solar farms, and other sources of clean energy. Start an Operation Warp Speed for clean power: improve energy storage, and make small, cheap, power systems for rural places. Tax carbon, reform agriculture, and eat less meat. Rethink construction, transportation, and manufacturing. Study the glaciers, the permafrost, the atmosphere, the oceans. Pilot some geoengineering schemes in case we need them. Rewild large parts of the Earth. And so on…” This is an extensive plan, but also achievable, with effort. We know what needs to be done now, in order to prevent catastrophe. Additionally, climate change will not affect everyone the same way. Poorer people and nations will be disrupted far more than wealthier
nations. Although no one will be unscathed, the effects of our neglect will not be distributed evenly.
Psychoanalyst Donna Orange, tells us that we find ourselves in the grips of “climate trauma.” We are paralyzed and suffer from a “double-mindedness.” We know we must do something, but in the face of the scale of the problem, and the seeming intractable power of moneyed and powerful interests, we are unable to act. What then must we do? We, in the resource-rich First World, must mourn the injuries inflicted on our indigenous populations. In mourning the harm we have caused, we can free the energy that is locked-up in denying the real threats of a changing climate. Orange further suggests that we must relinquish the egoism of out First World point-of-view. This POV has us seeking to “know the world.” But this drive to know does not lead us to seek learning from others, rather we seek to perfect the world– to remake it as we imagine it should be. She tells us that this passion for knowing… “destroys the hermeneutic space where understanding emerges, creativity flourishes, indigenous cultures live, and individual, irreplaceable human beings must not be crushed.” Rather, we need authentic engagement with the people from other places in the world, who may have ingenious solutions to the challenges of climate change that the wealthier First World may not have considered. Respectful collaboration between these groups is essential for our collective survival.
Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change herself, and collaborated with other psychoanalysts to articulate some of the psychological defenses which interfere with our taking effective action to halt, and ultimately reverse, man-made climate change. Part of our difficulty lies in a deeply-embedded belief that we hold dominion over the earth. This results in our having no psychological conflicts about trying to control and dominate nature. Part of our challenge in arresting the progression of climate change is we have to confront this unconsciously-held belief. This belief is buttressed by several forms of denial, including “denialism” where false information about threats to our environment is promulgated; “negation,” a defense against anxiety, which is the unconscious saying that what is, is not. And “disavowal,”
wherein the significance or magnitude of the threat is minimized. Human beings employ these defenses to mitigate anxiety.
Weintrobe discusses the two types of anxiety from which people suffer: reality-based, and narcissistic. Disavowal, which minimizes the impact of threats to our existence with the thought that somehow, we will escape being affected, can abate both types of anxiety. Reality-based anxiety derives from a healthy part of our minds that can thrive when we have accurate information about our world. This is the
part of one’s mind that could be activated by the information provided in the first paragraphs of this essay. But there is also narcissistic anxiety which makes use of defenses such as projection, and denial. This anxiety tries to make things that are scary go away, thus it is inherently destructive. The healthy reality-based part of us fears that we will be harmed by the narcissistic anxiety, which will just try to pretend things are not as bad as they are. In other words, climate change is a genuine threat to human existence, and we have every reason to be scared about the changes coming in the next 20 years, particularly because a part of all of us, will try to pretend it’s not as bad as it is.
So, what do we do? Weintrobe argues that we require support from one another to face the facts. Each one of us can do a part in changing the threats to the environment upon which we all depend, but change of the magnitude we need, will only come from collective action which requires national, corporate, and civic engagement. Orange suggests that we place our preference on the other. We must not be as concerned with our own fates, and instead think of the needs of others. If everyone did that, there could be a general move away from what is convenient for me now, to thinking about how our own actions affect those other people with whom we live on this planet.