Monbiot, Clive James the sucker, and managing terror

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

George Monbiot does us all a huge service by underscoring the importance of beginning to understand and respond to the psychological impact of an awareness of climate change.

Old men, George Monbiot suggests in Clive James isn’t a sceptic, he’s a sucker – but this may be the reason (today’s Guardian), may be more aware of their mortality, and therefore more likely to deny the reality of climate change. If he’s right, this is perhaps a classic Freudian defence mechanism operating.

Old men, he also suggests may be more aware of their mortality, and may therefore consume more as a psychological defence (to re-assert their threatened identity). This suggestion draws on the results of research in Terror Management Theory, which throws up some fascinating experimental results. Here’s a trailer for a film about it:

At the end of his piece, George Monbiot asks the rhetorical question: If we are confronted with the dual challenge of awareness of climate change driving us into states of denial, and the problem of awareness of our mortality driving us to re-affirm our identities through consuming more, then what can we do?

Both these questions are of crucial importance. George is dead right that we need to begin to engage questions of this nature – and that is what identity campaigning is about. If we’re to meet the challenge of denial, it will surely be through applying an understanding of psychotherapy: drawing on the expertise of people like Rosemary Randell and Renee Lertzman.

And then there’s the question of how we address the problems created by an awareness of our mortality, which drives us to re-affirm our dominant worldviews (including by consuming more, in a consumerist society). Tim Kasser and I address this question in Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity.

It seems that there are at least two approaches to this second question.

One is to encourage deeper reflection on our mortality. There is evidence that the effect of terror management driving us to re-affirm our dominant world views (perhaps by buying that BMW in a midlife crisis) is reduced when people are provided with alternative means of coping with the fear of their death: in one study, just thinking about the possibility of an afterlife (see Meeting Environmental challenges, p.50).

The other, complementary approach is by engaging with the things that shape our dominant worldview (through identity campaigning) – such that when we re-affirm this, our corresponding behaviours are more socially and environmentally helpful.

Tom CromptonMonbiot, Clive James the sucker, and managing terror
  • Tom,

    Thank you for posting on this very important topic. The role of fear in climate action is vitally important. One of my earliest articles dealt with this very issue – Climate and the Psychology of Loss.

    In order to develop adequate responses to and (adaptive methods for dealing with) fear, it will help to understand how the activation of fear circuits in our brains modify subsequent cognitive processing. Fear responses lead to “fight or flight” behaviors where the world is seen in terms of black and white so that decisions can be made quickly… not a very good state of mind for introspection about nuanced options.

    Also, there are fascinating studies of mortality priming that either (a) leads to reflections about one’s own death or (b) leads to pro-social behavior when one is performing solitary tasks (as though they were being watched by a ghost).

    We’ll need to unpack the findings of these studies and look deeper. Fear responses are way too important to leave unscrutinized.