This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I spent Saturday morning at the Guild of Psychotherapists Annual Lecture by Mary-Jayne Rust entitled Climate on the Couch - unconscious processes in relation to our environmental crisis. I am convinced that environmentalists have much to learn from psychotherapists' understanding of our unconscious. After all, it was through manipulation of our unconscious that the marketing industry was able to contribute so effectively to our transition from a ‘needs-based’ culture to a ‘wants-based’ culture.

Mary-Jayne’s lecture raised the question of the transition from denial (of the reality and likely impact of climate change) to hopelessness (a conviction that nothing can be done). She ascribes many social problems – the prevalence of alcohol or drug abuse, or addictive consumption – to a suppression of our awareness of what we are doing to each other and the planet; and elaborates on this assertion by drawing on examples from her work as a practicing psychotherapist.

Her emphasis – and this echoes Joanna Macey – is on our need to accept our grief. Living with our grief, she suggests, means living sustainably in the now, because we want to, not because we see ourselves as heroes who will change the world. This extends some of what I have written here before. We will not achieve sustainability through moral exhortation; it can only be properly established through a new understanding of who we are in relationship to one another and the world – a new myth.

Love for our planet is one element of this; living with our grief about what we are doing to the planet is another. If a new myth is to be developed, part of this process will surely first be an understanding of the origins of our current myths; that the myth of our separation from other life has arisen for reasons of historical contingency, and can therefore be engaged. It is not a constitutive part of what it means to be human to feel this separation.

But this also raises an interesting set of practical questions about the role of fear, grief and despair in helping us to embrace a different myth – and the differences between these emotional responses. Leo Hickman wrote about the perceived dangers of ‘hyperbole’ in discussing climate change in last week’s Guardian:

“Earlier this year, Professor Mike Hulme, then director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned scientists and the media against the use of hyperbolic language when speaking about climate change scenarios. In particular, he warned against using the words "disaster", "apocalypse" and "catastrophe". His own research showed that such terms generated apathy among the intended audience. "Sod it," people would conclude, "we all might as well live for the now, then. What time does Top Gear start?”

Here’s what Mike Hulme wrote on the BBC website at the time:

“The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change... I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.”

 

Hyperbole may well not be an effective way of encouraging people to change their light-bulbs. But changing light-bulbs will not avert climate change. If we are to change our behaviour more radically – and create the pressure on our governments to enforce these behavioural changes through legislation – then this will be because we connect emotionally with what is happening. If emotive language is justified by the scale of the changes that the science is telling us we can foresee, then we should use it. Afterall, in the light of what peer-reviewed science is telling us, words like ‘disaster’ seem rather understated:

Consider this, taken from Hansen et al, in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (A): "Recent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the largest human-made climate forcing, but other trace constituents are also important. Only intense simultaneous efforts to slow CO2 emissions and reduce non CO2 forcings can keep climate within or near the range of the past million years."