Psychoanalysis, identity and climate change

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

Psychoanalysis has a complex view of the human psyche and its motivations. Its theories assume that we do not necessarily know ourselves well, that we hide our less worthy motives from ourselves, repress our unacceptable passions and that our sense of self may be contingent and fragile. How might such theories help us understand issues of identity in relation to climate change?

The sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the current period one of ‘late’ or ‘high’ modernity, a post-traditional order characterised psychologically by doubt and existential uncertainty. It is a period in which capitalism has become intensely consumer focused, its reach and systems have become truly global and aggressive marketing techniques – often making use of psychoanalytic insights to do with sexuality and desire – have become the norm. Objects of consumer desire are created and coded around identity markers: people ‘like you’ buy this or that. People ‘like you’ will be excluded or become social pariahs if you do not. Identity appears at this level to be a matter of individual choice, selected from a range of market-influenced options.

In this late modern period, psychoanalytic concerns have shifted from Freud’s preoccupations with the vicissitudes of instinctual life to a preoccupation with the self and questions of life-meaning and identity. The questions and issues that patients bring to the consulting room have changed. Although the same bedrock of depression and anxiety can be discerned, the troubles of late modernity are filtered through preoccupations with ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where is my life going?’ and doubt and dissatisfaction at what life offers.

Moral commentators might see such questions as indicative of decadence or self-indulgence. However psychoanalysis notes in them a fragility and vulnerability in the basic sense of self that has damaging consequences for the individual who suffers from it.

Such people need constant confirmation and affirmation from others, are subject to experiences of fragmentation and disintegration, and easily experience the crippling emotions of shame and self-consciousness when faced with even the mildest criticism from self or others. Their very existence can feel in doubt and this inner self-doubt is often mirrored by outer self-aggrandisement and omnipotence.

In the UK the work of Winnicott and in the US the work of Kohut have led the way in unscrambling the early, pre-oedipal origins of this vulnerability. It is well summarised in Phil Mollon’s aptly titled book ‘The fragile self: the structure of narcissistic disturbance’. While we see this fragile self writ large in the consulting room, we also see it writ small in day-to-day encounters and in the well-noted difficulties that individuals have in making the life-style changes that climate change requires of people in the developed nations. Where a vulnerable identity is supported by buying into the ‘right’ consumer options and life-style, change is hard.

Tim Jackson and other commentators have noted the complex relationship between material goods and a socially constructed sense of identity but I would like to suggest that psychoanalysis can offer help in how we try to effect the necessary social change.

If we understand the vulnerability and fragility of self that underlies the attachment to material goods then our approach to climate change shifts from a focus on engaging the public through convincing/persuading/messaging to a focus on supporting/listening/understanding.

Instead of looking for the ‘right’ way to communicate we should explore how to create social settings that both respect people’s fragile identities and establish and nurture alternative social norms. We can use both existing networks that offer alternative foci for people’s identity (for example faith groups, neighbourhood groups, cultural groups) and create new forms of support that take account of the fragile ‘I’, strengthen new social identities and break the relationship between consumer goods and a functioning sense of self.

In the ‘Carbon Conversations’ project, which I presented recently at the Manchester International Festival, we use small, facilitator-led groups, that focus on values, emotions, meaning and identity to explore how people can reduce carbon emissions.

When people have space to explore their personal relationship to a high-carbon, consumption-driven life-style and when their vulnerability around identity issues can be supported, they develop the confidence and the staying power to make significant life-style changes. Clearly good facilitation is key to such groups. Facilitators need good relational skills and sensitivity to unconscious group process combined with technical knowledge, in order to deliver these groups well. However, when these qualities are present the pay-offs for members of these groups are significant: a new-found capacity to make measurable reductions in carbon emissions and a lasting and genuine commitment to creating a different kind of society.

It is my hope that the next few years will see many more projects using insights from psychoanalysis and other therapeutic models to facilitate change in a broad range of social contexts.

Rosemary RandallPsychoanalysis, identity and climate change


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  • Renee Lertzman - July 16, 2009 reply

    Psychoanalytic thinking has a huge role to play in how we understand the complex situation we are in, and how we may get out it. I see it working alongside proactive and pragmatic work in a range of sectors, as demonstrated by Randall’s own Cambridge Carbon Footprint, where engineers have a place alongside psychologists in supporting communities to shift more carbon neutrally.

    People often assume psychoanalysis is all about esoteric theories, the couch and elitist cliques who think they really know what is the “truth” for everyone else. It may have its legacies but it also has decades of experience helping people become more conscious and work through resistances to change. There is a great opportunity for some real input here.

  • Jon Alexander - July 17, 2009 reply

    Am a big fan of this sort of thing. A friend of mine was the lead planner at the advertising agency who worked on DEFRA’s Act on CO2 campaign; apparently the key insight gained from a creative development research project on this subject was that the best way to motivate people to take action on climate change was the very action of attending a DEFRA focus group, rather than any of the advertising messages presented there… (which also would tend to suggest the quality of facilitation doesn’t always need to be as high as Rosemary’s!)
    I’ve heard about this conference at Eden in late September as well, should anyone want to attend. Joanna Macy, whose ‘Work That Reconnects’ is arguably the most important contribution to date in this arena, is among the key speakers:

  • Renee Lertzman - July 17, 2009 reply

    That’s a fantastic example of people shifting their practices following the participation in a focus group! It also shows us that when people elect to participate in research (interviews, focus groups etc) often there may be some unconscious wish on their part to get involved, and this is a ‘safe’ way to get started.

    I respect Joanna Macy’s work a lot but I don’t see it as psychoanalytic. Macy has evolved a practice of allowing people to process their often painful and difficult emotions and responses to ecological degradation, political injustices and so on, in a safe workshop space. She has openly addressed the fact that when we are blocked to our own emotional responses, we are blocked also in terms of the capacity to act and be constructive. It has overlays with a psychoanalytic approach, I think, however I feel the work in Carbon Conversations for example is quite different; the space for emotions etc is woven into the practice of community activism (at least this is my reading), not a focus or an explicit goal. The difference means a wide range of people who may be turned off by the idea of emoting with a group of strangers may be more open to just having a chat.

    I think it’s a really interesting discussion to consider these approaches and their points of contact.

  • Tom - July 21, 2009 reply

    I really struggle with the issue of how we work with both:

    (1) personal transformation which (as Graham Game argues in a comment elsewhere on this site) is a time consuming process when applied to any appreciable number of people, and;

    (2) an understanding of the way in which social context (determined in important part by policy governing our social institutions, marketing, and political debate) is crucially important in reinforcing shifts in identity that may arise as a result of personal transformation, and legitimising these. (If you need convincing that politicians recognise the effects of policy on values, have a look at this delicious quote from Thatcher.

    It seems that we need both. But there is something of a chicken and egg thing going on here. It’s difficult to see new visionary political (or business) leadership emerging to help shift the social context without more leaders being engaged in personal transformation processes. Equally, personal transformations can’t be sustained in a wider social context that fails to support and legitimise the insights that it may provide.

  • Renee Lertzman - July 21, 2009 reply

    It seems in a way you have answered your own query: we need to engage more leaders in processes of potential personal transformation. E.g. forums, experiences similar to Macy or Carbon Conversations or Transition Town’s “heart and soul” meetings. Research seems to support the power of groups for promoting and sustaining deep personal changes. (I am thinking of the famous “orange juice” study run by psychologist Kurt Lewin, which Rosemary alerted me to, where young mothers were more likely to change their practices of giving children orange juice following group discussions; Rosemary can say more about this than I can…) We certainly need to be providing a lot more opportunities for people in leadership to participate in experiences conductive to shifts in personal values and more inchoate shifts in perception (e.g. sense of connection with biotic life, and so on). I am reminded of Lighthawk, which takes leaders on helicopter trips over clear-cut land. I don’t know if they are still doing that, but I don’t think they followed up with practices to help sustain whatever shifts may have incurred. I think that’s key. What is most overlooked currently in discourses around environmental identities and value is an appreciate for the role and power of social interaction, and the use of groups.

  • Tod Sloan - July 22, 2009 reply

    This essay really gets at something we don’t hear about often: how the fragility and anxiety of postmodern selves is a deterrent to lifestyle transformation in the direction of sustainability. Usually, it gets talked about as an addiction to consumerism, which is half the story. But this points to why people are so prone to that form of addiction and what it is they really crave: meaningful connection with others.

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