Nature, death and denial – psychoanalysis tackles climate change

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has spent more time than most people studying the human mind, but that doesn’t mean she responds any differently when faced with a human dilemma.

When she got locked out of her car in the middle of nowhere, with little prospect of help for a few days, she reacted instinctively. She immediately wolfed down her share of a stash of dried peaches – the only food she and her husband had between them.

Mrs Weintrobe made this confession at an interesting conference at The Institute of Psychoanalysis last week exploring psychoanalytic perspectives on climate change. A series of eminent speakers told us that deeply held psychological traits such as fearing death, prioritising short term gains (as Mrs Weintrobe did in her story) and avoiding painful emotions are crucial to understanding the human response to climate change.

One of the best talks I saw was on climate change denial. Psychoanalyst and Professor of politics Paul Hoggett pointed out that climate change denial is “a cultural phenomenon we all take part in, not the domain of certain groups of ‘deniers’”.

Referencing Tim Kasser and Clive Hamilton’s work he talked about two types of coping strategies that many people use to avoid feeling anxious, threatened or guilty about climate change:

1. Outright denial. This is where people don’t admit there is a problem at all, and involves arguments like “scientists all disagree”, “nature can adapt”, “humans aren’t causing the problem”, or simply avoiding any information about climate change. It consists of supressing both the facts and emotions related to climate change

2. Partial denial or “maladaptive coping strategies”. Here people accept some or most of the facts, but shield themselves from the emotional implications. It could involve tactics like blaming the Chinese, offsetting emissions or taking small actions to ‘do your bit’, seeking pleasure as a distraction, and unrealistic optimism – “technology will fix it”.

What’s interesting is that although the first category gets the most attention, the majority of people are probably in the second – including environmentalists who recycle and save energy at home but take regular long-haul flights. These “maladaptive coping strategies” can be just as damaging as outright denial to our efforts to cut carbon, and are likely to increase as awareness of the climate change grows.

Alongside denial, some of the speakers I saw analysed the relationship between humans and nature (including talk of love, fear, disconnection, and, bizzarly, orifices), the relationship between humans and machines, the psychological effects of capitalism and the causes of environmental apathy.

All this threw up interesting insights, some of which chimed well with the evidence we already have from psychology and the social sciences. But what can people trying to combat climate change do as a result of these insights?

Frustratingly little attempt was made to address this question at the conference. In fact when a member of the audience asked what the next stage will be after denial, the panel answered: “the fear is it will be survivalism, anxiety and despair.” Not exactly fighting talk.

One comment

  • We know, from recent opinion surveys around the world, that only a (decreasing) minority of people now believe in the AGW hypothesis.

    This post therefore implies that you think that the majority people are suffering from some sort of mass mental illness, whilst only you and your minority of co-religionists are sane.

    Can we know what qualifications you have to make this rather bold judgement?

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