2013. Psychoanalysis as social intervention: why silence is not an option. Quarterly Bulletin of the American Psychoanalytic Association Spring/summer 2013 issue

Psychoanalysts have a checkered past when it comes to speaking up on social issues. We have been rightly criticised when applying knowledge from ‘I’ to ‘we’ in reductionist or ahistorical ways. Also, I think we have not sufficiently appreciated just how much help the averagely open and curious person needs to understand our concepts as used today; and, help to see that psychoanalysis, as social intervention, is absolutely not about suggesting “psychoanalysis for everyone”, a very frequent misconception.[i]

It is vital we engage with the community rather than isolating ourselves from it. It is good for the community, good for us and also good for the development of our theory. Only by engaging in dialogue with the public and with other disciplines, including disciplines closer to our own,[ii] do we bump up against limits to the usefulness of our concepts and ways of seeing. But equally, only through dialogue can we see more clearly where what we have to say is of vital importance.

I have edited a new book, Engaging with Climate Change that strives to be a psychoanalytic intervention. The book is a sustained dialogue between psychoanalysis and other disciplines. All 23 authors worked hard to make the book understandable to the general reader and as jargon free as possible, while doing justice to the complexity of the subject and the ideas. If the book did not reach people at a level where they felt related to and could begin to recognize themselves as part of the problem and the solution, it had no potential to be a social intervention.

This interdisciplinary dialogue led to new ways of seeing. Not an application of psychoanalysis, the book enables one to adopt a third position where one can see individual and social side by side, note some commonalities in structure, and in places see more clearly the limits of psychoanalytic understanding. The book led me to conclude that any generalizations about relationships between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are liable to be misplaced: rather, the relationships need working out afresh in each study.

My experience with the book has so far left me with some optimism about getting our ideas across to other disciplines and to the public. In our current ‘anti mind’ culture, many people seem hungry for deeper understanding of themselves and their world, and their ears are wide open.

An example of that receptivity is that climate scientists and policy makers have tended naively to assume that if you simply tell the public the facts about climate change, they will take them on board. But world renowned climate scientist Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at University College London, has argued in a recent paper in Nature Climate Change,[iii] that exposure to a psychoanalytic way of understanding has led him to see the inadequacy of this idea. He cites a paper on anxiety in Engaging with Climate Change in making this case to other climate scientists.[iv]

Political analyst and activist Naomi Klein[v] also drew on a psychoanalytic understanding of how we may defend against anxiety when she endorsed the book as: “A powerful riposte to the notion that climate communicators have only two options: relentlessly terrify the public, or try to fool them into action without mentioning the word ‘climate.’”

Rapley and Klein recognize a psychoanalytic way of understanding is an important part of the picture. So does British journalist Anne Karpf. In a review of Engaging with Climate Change in The Guardian newspaper,[vi] she said the book helped her understand her disavowal and see she was a “climate ignorer” as she put it. Reading her review, I realized we have much to learn from journalists like Karpf about how to put things in simple ways, especially her saying, “… when I hear apocalyptic warnings about global warming, after a few moments of fear I tune out. … The fuse that trips the whole circuit is a sense of helplessness”.

Karpf’s article drew a strong response from the public, as evidenced by comments on the web. People recognized themselves as both ignoring the problem and finding it too much to bear. And, of course, psychoanalysts no less than others get into the state of mind Karpf describes.

Climate change is often thought of as too hard to understand, best left to others. But the book argues most of us have grasped the big simple picture, and are in a state of disavowal about it. Disavowal – turning a blind eye – is identified in the book as the most prevalent current form of climate change denial. I think the disavowal operates in similar ways to the way in which white South Africans distanced themselves from knowing about the apartheid regime and their collusion with it. The issue is how to remain undisturbed by a way of life that deep down one knows is unsustainable and morally wrong. Fudge the arithmetic? Shift the blame? Paint a rosier picture? All of these and more?

But bringing in morality may also, in Karpf’s imagery, blow a fuse that can trip our mental circuitry as it stirs feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. Who of us wants to see ourselves as colluding with something destructive to life itself? A key psychoanalytic point is that with disavowal the more we push reality to the margins the more our underlying anxieties – about survival, about guilt – of both depressive and paranoid schizoid kinds – build up, leading us potentially to resort to further disavowal. As I argue in a chapter in the book on our anxieties about climate change, disavowal defends against anxieties but also exacerbates them.

A chapter by Paul Hoggett[vii] goes into how our disavowal of climate change is best understood not in individual terms but as part of a perverse culture of disavowal, one that is organized, underpinned by instrumental values, and based on fraudulent and ‘as if’ thinking. Disavowal within a perverse culture enables people to split off their compassion and concern and remain morally undisturbed by this. It enables people not to count the true cost of their actions. An example of ‘as if’ thinking on climate change discussed by Hoggett is the way governments set targets for carbon emissions they have little intention of keeping to.   Hoggett draws on psychoanalytic ideas on perverse organizations and on Susan Long’s (2008)[viii] analysis of Enron as a perverse organization in making his case. John Steiner in his discussion of Hoggett’s paper in the book says it left him feeling depressed. He situates his depression within a Kleinian framework as the realization that our attempts to protect what we love have been too feeble and that we are faced with real damage. He argues for knowing as much as possible about the perverse culture and our collusion with it. As psychoanalysts we are well placed to help people to think about what internal factors may fuel the disavowal.

It is as individuals that we suffer when we face the truth about climate change, particularly with how to keep a sense of proportion about how much to blame we individually are. A chapter by Renee Lertzman argues our apparent apathy is less a sign of our not caring about environmental damage and more of our caring too much, and of our being in a state that might be diagnosed as of suffering a collective underlying environmental melancholia. As psychoanalysts we know that in melancholic states we can be stuck in a pass the parcel between “none of my fault” and “all my fault”, where a sense of proportion, of ordinary mea culpa, may be lost.

The awful legacy of the perverse culture and of denialism (the active, often industry funded, sowing of obfuscation and doubt in the mainstream media)[ix] is that in offering such support to our disavowal – its underlying aim – it fosters conditions that make it more and more difficult for us to bear the truth about climate change. However, for psychic well-being and emotional resilience as well as literal survival, we cannot do without the truth.[x]

As we become less able to remain undisturbed by mounting evidence of climate change we may succumb to fatalistic propaganda that it is all too late –another possible blowing of Karpf’s emotional fuse – and end up feeling hopeless, concluding we might as well now adjust to the new tough situation of climate instability while carrying on with perverse business as usual. More disavowal. It is true that it is by now too late to prevent significant damage. It has happened. But it is not too late to take action to mitigate further damage, and this could make all the difference to the lives of ourselves, our children and their children.

As psychoanalysts, we have vital knowledge and a unique perspective to offer about many aspects of our response to climate change. This includes our difficulty in accepting damage we are implicated in, particularly when it is irreparable; about how excessive guilt makes repair difficult, and how this can lead us – worryingly – to attempts at manic restitution rather than making real but limited repairs.

We know that to bear profoundly difficult truths, we need non-judgmental understanding, support and containment of anxiety. With climate change we need this support from our community leaders. And, here we run up against a further problem. Most research on how to communicate about climate change, used by policy makers, bypasses people altogether – people, that is, as conflict driven and ambivalent, and with interiority, mind, subjective experience, hopes, anxieties and moral quandaries. Most studies have focused only on behaviour and on opinion polls. Psychoanalysis can be ignored because its findings can’t be measured, and it is in this context that to find a paper on anxiety cited in Nature Climate Change is so heartening. I will end on another optimistic note. In November 2012 the Energy Unit at University College London sponsored a lecture by Renee Lertzman on the importance of a psychoanalytic perspective on communicating about climate science.[xi] The audience of mainly climate scientists, human geographers and meteorologists nearly filled the 350 seater hall.   People are listening and open to what we have to say.

Sally Weintrobe is a Fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society and until recently Chair of its Scientific Committee.

Weintrobe, S. (2012) ed. Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspective”. London and New York: Routledge and the New Library of Psychoanalysis. paperback: ISBN 978-0-415-66762- ebook: ISBN 978-0-203-09440-2

(This paper appeared in The American Psychoanalyst Spring/Summer 2013, vol 47. in the section ‘The American Psychoanalyst and the Public Intellectual’ introduced by Michael Slevin and featuring pieces by Vamik Volkan, Sally Weintrobe and Eli Zaretsky.  As well as in print it appears on the website:  http://www.apsa.org)

[i] An example of this misconception can be found on BBC radio 4 interview about Engaging with Climate Change, starts 30.47 minutes into the programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nb0qy

[ii] An example of recent forging of alliances between different branches of psychology, psychoanalysis and social policy in relation to climate change: http://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/

[iii] Rapley, C. (2012) Climate science: Time to raft up. Nature Climate Change. 488, 583–585.

[iv] Weintrobe, S. (2012) The difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change in Engaging with Climate Change op. cit.

[v] Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Allen Lane

[vi] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/nov/30/climate-change-you-cant-ignore-it

[vii] Hoggett, P. (2012) Climate Change in a perverse culture in Engaging with Climate Change Engaging with Climate Change op. cit.

[viii] Long, S. (2008). The Perverse Organization and the Seven Deadly Sins. London:Karnac.

[ix] For a good analysis of denialism see Orestes, N., and Conway, M. (2010) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

[x] Jonathan Lear takes up this theme in: Truthfulness: The Fundamental Value of Psychoanalysis. American Psychoanalyst. 46, No.3.

[xi] For a fascinating blog about this lecture from the perspective of a UCL climate PhD student, see: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2012/12/04/the-myth-of-apathy-behaviour-change-from-the-inside-out/#.UNHM9OSiK7U.twitter