Grief and Despair

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.”









Tom CromptonGrief and Despair


Join the conversation
  • Jim - November 21, 2007 reply

    I also wonder that the heavy emphasis on climate change by green groups, the government and the media detracts from the other powerful environmental messages associated with living sustainably. A sustaianble society will not only be low-carbon, but wholesome in so many other different ways- less use of natural resources, more biodiversity, less uneccassary development and loss of habitat, sustaianble fisheries, less use of landfill etc etc.

  • Graham Game - November 21, 2007 reply

    I was at Mary-Jane’s lecture too – ecotherapists like us have been pleading with environmentalists to listen to us for years, maybe, finally the penny is dropping?? The Independent said a couple of years back that our work was ‘A New Kind of Environmentalism’. It’s needed badly now.
    Graham Game.

  • admin - November 21, 2007 reply

    Thanks, Graham. I think it’s probably a bit premature to say ‘I told you so’, but I do sense a growing awareness that green consumption and the business case for sustainable development just isn’t going to get us to where we need to be… and that therefore we need a different narrative. As you see, I agree that ecotherapists have much to offer in the emergence of this.

  • Ciaran Mundy - November 22, 2007 reply

    The issue of leaping from denial to despair on global warming is frequently referred to by George Monbiot (see his regular Guardian column and book Heat: How to stop the plant burning 2006) and is something I suspect many of us recognise in ourselves, friends and colleagues, on a range of environmental issues. It is not surprising that this occurs given the scale of the issues compared to one’s perceived power in our individualistic consumer culture, where we are expected to exert influence largely through consumer ‘choice’- a trap that much of environmental messaging falls into.

    However, I question making a strong causal link from the suppression of emotions such as despair over environmental issues leading to all manner of anti-social, escapist behaviour, including the over use of drugs and rampant consumerism. It might fit a certain clinical psychological model, but that would infer that the more aware people are of these issues the more they would suffer the ill effects. In my own narrow experience this is far from the case. One can imagine why an individual suffering from drug or alcohol problems might post hoc rationalise this as a response to their own despair at the state of the external world, but this does not mean it is true. We all have the need to feel OK about ourselves, so always find good excuses after the fact.

    The ‘troubles’ of our modern society I would contend are more simple:

    1. Taking drugs/alcohol gives those who take it (i.e. most people) a great immediate sense of pleasure and in the case of drugs/alcohol is physiologically addictive. It occurs across all cultures, often as an important aspect of socialising and rights of passage despite the deleterious effects, and is even seen in other species as diverse as elephants and lemurs.

    2. In wealthy countries there is more spare time and money to be spent on these activities and so huge profits to be made by suppliers. Advertising and marketing grows up around the supply of these commodities and so we have a positive feed back. . . .

    I do agree however that as we live in a socio-political paradigm that has enshrined the primacy of capital above all else then other values are swept aside. So yes we need other myths. But are they new or as old as the hills?

    I am a confirmed atheist, but as any reader of Buddhism or Christianity will tell you, and I imagine the lessons are there in all the great religions, we must ‘bow’ to our despairs and accept grief as we accept joy and relinquish our attachments to the material world. In one way or another those of us outside the commercial world must embrace and promote this with more confidence and not be afraid to try and redress the balance.

    As a first step we need to accept that we are all driven similarly, to follow our positive emotional desires and avoid anxiety. Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain pulls together much of the last 100 years of our understanding of how viscerally we are driven and that on a very fundamental level we are wired to avoid any thoughts that make us anxious by rationalising them away, however this may contradict an external reality. So in delivering a “new myth”, one which recognises these factors, we must incorporate both anxiety as a direct response to the threat but backed up with a positive end point that is much more about an emotional connection than appealing to a rational self interest (i.e. we must not focus in our messaging on lots of little things we can do, like turning lights off to save money and the environment, this comes way down the line).

    So how does eco-therapy colour this for us? Can it help us discover the old myths in a modern context? Can it help us understand how the fundamental aspects of our biology and instinctive emotional selves are best evoked for a positive sustainable future outcome that still resonates with our current identity?

  • Graham Game - November 24, 2007 reply

    Ciaran – Interesting. As for Ecotherapy:

    So how does eco-therapy colour this for us? Can it help us discover the old myths in a modern context? Can it help us understand how the fundamental aspects of our biology and instinctive emotional selves are best evoked for a positive sustainable future outcome that still resonates with our current identity?

    The straight answer is yes to all of the above. Ecotherapy has now been proven to work successfully at connecting or reconnecting people with nature & strengthening the human / nature relationship. Many people (now) accept that this is vital in order to facilitate meaningful changes in attitudes & behaviours to tackle climate change. We know this works extremely effectively in induviduals & small groups, but how can this be rolled out to the masses?
    Graham Game.

  • Ciaran Mundy - November 26, 2007 reply

    Hi Graham, However effective eco-therapy might be, rolling out anything to the masses usually requires masses of investment of time and money.

    But are you aware of this ESRC and DEFRA initiative

    If environmental NGOs cannot bank roll a huge network of eco-therapy centres for educating the general public, and I doubt this is something government would easily find significant extra funding for, then what can be better achieved and by who?

    Is there something very different in the way NGOs understand their core values that is informed by eco-therapy and hence change the way they communicate internally and publicly?

  • Graham Game - November 26, 2007 reply

    Ciaran – thanks for the links, I’ll check them out.
    As for NGO’s funding/supporting Ecotherapy, this is an area of incredible frustration for me: I have worked for environmental NGO’s for more than 30 yrs, & have drawn a blank on this because they are just so blinkeded & inward-looknig – especially the big ones with the resources. The only exception is The Wilderness Foundation but it is early days for them.

    I’m certain that eventual funding will come from the health sector, so I’m working on that (slowly)

  • John Grant - April 2, 2008 reply

    One corner that I have been fighting with the sustainability communications thought police (warmn words et al) is the need for plurality and a full range of voices and approaches. Incidentally the fatalism is strongly linked with national cultures, the weary old world has about 5-7% who believe climate change can be solved, in China and India and Brazil the figures run nearer to 50% (according to HSBC climate confidence survey). I think a healthy dose of alarmism is all to the good, lest we forget that the danger is real. Also we need hope, solutions and initiatives to believe in. We need to be angry and militant in the political space, that things arent happening fast enough. We need to reconnect with love of nature in our personal lives as you argue. A sustainable society cant be an Orwellian – one where there is one right way of thinking and only one type of communication. Nor can we tell people what to think from any perspective, we can only share the tools and information that we are also using to think with. My own hope is in community movements (rather than addressing consumers address people in groups), empowered democracy, Transition Town type stuff but it’s not that it will be the only answer either :J

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *