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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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2 A depth psychological perspective

Humans’ apparent inability to act on what climate science has been saying for over fifty years suggests we cannot rely on rational thought processes while ignoring feelings. Depth psychology teaches us that when thoughts are too painful or frightening or immense to think about, we fail to process them. In Paul Hoggett’s introduction to Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster, he suggests we need to include the complexity and mystery of what it is to be human:

… the raw passions that often dominate our thoughts and behaviours; the internal conflicts and competing voices that characterize our internal lives and give colour to our different senses of self; the effect of powerful outside forces on the way in which we think and feel about ourselves.

Viewed from this perspective it is possible to see how attempts to defend ourselves against the feelings aroused by worsening climate change are mediated by deep-seated assumptions about ourselves and society. For example, a powerful sense of entitlement may help us to shrug off guilt and shame about our lifestyles, or a touching faith in progress can mitigate anxiety and induce complacency. Typically, we will feel torn between different impulses, to face and avoid reality, between guilt and cynicism, between what is convenient for us and what is necessary for the common good.

(Hoggett, 2019, p. 8)

How does that description tally with your own experience, of yourself and of those around you? Is it reassuring? Irritating? Perhaps confusing?

Hoggett goes on to mention some of the effects of these conflictual and uncomfortable feelings on how we respond to the threat of climate change:

Climate change and environmental destruction threatens us with powerful feelings – loss, guilt, anxiety, shame and despair – that are difficult to bear and mobilise defences such as denial and distortion which can undermine our capacity to get to grips with the issue. Climate Psychology seeks to understand how this plays out both in our individual lives and in society and culture.

(Hoggett, 2019, p. 8)

The psychological defences that are mobilised when faced with difficult truths (which you’ll learn more about in Week 3) can’t really be extricated from the feelings themselves. However, here, you can first find out more about the powerful feelings that we cannot afford to avoid.

Activity 2 Painful feelings about difficult truths

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Loss, guilt, anxiety, shame and despair. Do you recognise any or all of these five feelings from your own experience (they are quite likely to come as a bundle)? Would you like to add any more to the list? (Please do so. Clue: look for Figure 1 in Section 4 to find a different list.) What about sadness? Grief? Can you remember a situation when you felt a particular feeling, or a bundle of feelings? Write it down in a short paragraph.

If you can think of another occasion that triggered such feelings about climate and ecological destruction, write those down too. Climate Psychology explores these feelings further, based on the practical consideration that if humanity does not recognise them, how they are intertwined with our thoughts and how they influence our actions, we will be less able to get engaged in the climate and ecological crisis.

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