Is climate change making us all mad?

Bue Rübner Hansen
May 25 · 8 min read

Some reflections on the climate emergency and mental health.

It is pretty insane to knowlingly destroy one’s conditions of life. But it is a curious kind of systemic insanity, the aggregate effect of billions of people carrying on their everyday life making more or less rational economic decisions, like taking jobs in the most destructive and polluting industries. To work to survive and destroy the conditions of survival while doing this is, like I recently wrote, batshit crazy. Yet it is also completely rational. We all got to work, right?

How does this structural madness, and the very specific madness of the work many of us do, affect our mental health? How does it make us worry, fearful or anxious, how does it make us stubbornly defend what we do?

The endless pursuit of growth swallows up natural ecologies, geological strata, and the life time of workers. It spits out unimaginable amounts of commodities, greenhouse gasses, plastics, toxic liquids and soils. In this process, our social dependency on work is turned against our dependency on the biosphere. The stable and inhabitable world we thought we lived in crumbles, fabrics of meaning are torn, and untold comforts co-exist with apocalyptic imaginaries.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”, wrote Marx and Engels of capitalism already 150 years ago. In this process they saw the opportunity for a radical social transformation, for “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. But such reckoning does not happen automatically. People and institutions find ways to prop up faltering meanings, ways to reinvent traditions, or ways to embrace dizzying change.

Accelerationism and denialism

The dominant ways to stabilize meaning today are denialism and accelerationism. Denialism suggests that nothing has really changed, and that everything is fine, or as bad as it’s always been. Accelerationists embraces both knowledge of climate change and capitalism, suggesting that solutions are just around the corner, as long as companies are given the right incentives and freedoms. More than spontaneous responses to climate change, these have been developed over decades by governments and corporations to provide answers to the unavoidable questions climate change would raise. Already in the 1980s, oil giants like Exonn and Shell projected global temperature rises very close to those we are seeing today. In the decades since, they have spent billions of dollars on PR and lobbying efforts denying or downplaying climate change. During the 1980s and 1990s, some governments started subsidising renewable energy research and production, always with the suggestion that capitalist firms would soon enough come up with a techno-fix to solve the problem of global heating. With the Kyoto Protocol, attempts to commodify the right to pollute — carbon trading — were been tried and failed.

Denialism and accelerationism have profoundly shaped the ways we have avoided letting the structural madness of ever increasing CO2 levels get to us. In many ways, denialism and accelerationismhave simply continued the dominant narratives deviced to deal with the unsettling effects of capitalist development Marx and Engels described. Denialism is a variant of the reactionary attempts to restabilize meaning around ideas of essential nature. Denialist fend off madness by holding onto an idea of a rock-solid stability: God, Gender, Nature, the Nation, and so on. Accelerationism continues the old fetishization of technological progress, according to which the unfettered development of capitalist production would gradually satisfy all demands and resolve all social problems.

The two ideologies find different class bases. Denialism is more resonant among people who grew in ignorance of anthropogenic climate change (first projected by Svante Arrhenius in 1896), and so among older people and people with shorter educations. Accelerationism has its main audience in generations that grew up with knowledge of climate change, and with technical and managerial employees, like engineers and economists.

Accelerationism and denialism are so many ways to pretend things are or will be alright, that the nature of nature is on our side, or that the nature of technological progress is. They are ways to stay functional in and to an economy that is deeply dysfunctional, to stay sane in a world that is going insane. Strong and stable, it’s madness in the guise of sanity.

Neurotics, perverts and schizophrenics

As we are approaching climatic tipping points at breakneck speed, and extinction events are unfolding around us, the denialist idea that everything is fine and the accelerationist notions that the solution is just around the corner become harder and harder to maintain. In a situation of systemic madness, there is no way not to go a little mad. What matters is how. To understand the ways we may be going mad, we can find inspiration in psychoanalysis, and its notions of neurosis, perversion and schizophrenia.

Folks who try to live within normality, but has the sneaking suspicion that something is not quite right start to develop neurotic symptoms. We live with this tension, constantly trying to find reassurance, a feeling of normality, to repress the knowledge of how bad things are. We go on as normal, but we get surprisingly nervous when someone says “isn’t the weather unusually nice for this season?”

The people who go fully on board with denialism and accelerationism are perverse, in the way psychoanalysis uses that word. Perverts are spending suspicious amounts of energy “disproving” the reality of climate change, or fantasizing about the techno and policy fixes to come. They spend hours watching youtube videos debunking climate change, or reading tech magazine articles about massive sun says and carbon capture. The pervert is in a state of denial, either about the process this planet is in, or about the fact that imagined solutions are not yet real, might never be realized, or only so late that they’ve become insufficient.

Neurotics and perverts are going a little mad trying to avoid facing environmental chaos. Schizophrenics, in the psychoanalytical sense, are going mad from staring into the chaos. They’ve foreclosed any idea that things are alright or that the solution is imminent. Living on the edge of capitalist destruction, they comes close to re-encountering earth. As they see ecosystems and climates wither, they have no stable reference points to hold on to, yet they manage to relate to everything. This can be quite overwhelming and disorientating.

The radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari and his collaborator Gilles Deleuze suggested that globalizing capitalism would — like Marx and Engels had predicted — make schizophrenia a common condition. For this reason, they thought Freud’s attempts to help schizos become normal and functional neurotics was futile. At the same time Guattari saw, based on his experience in labour and social movements, that it is possible for misfits and rebels to create new relations and meanings — “assemblages” — out of the fragments.

Neurotic batshit workers

The notions of neurosis, perversion and schizophrenia can help us understand how different people are living the madness of endless accumulation and the chaos of environmental and climate breakdown psychologically. I am currently working on an expanded essay about batshit jobs, and with that in mind I spoke to two long-term environmental activists about the prospects of organizing with workers in jobs destroying environments and the planet.

One activist recounted how ordinary folks often seem a bit freak out by green activists. The other activist told me she’s sometimes managed to talk openly to colleagues about climate change, but as soon as someone speaks confidently about carbon storage, this person “sucks up all the space in the room”. If we presume most people have a neurotic relation to climate change, this is no surprise. We can see how neurotics would be freaked out by folks who’ve “gone green”, not because they dislike their subculture, as we may presume, but more profundly, because they challenge them to question everything they are holding on to. What characterizes neurotics is that they are affected by the ambient knowledge that something is profoundly. This causes the unease,but also makes them easily attracted to people who say everything is going to be alright. Such neurotic tension is characteristic not just among most workers, but also among their unions.

Often it’s presumed that it’s enough to dismiss denialism on scientific grounds, and question techno-solutions with rational arguments (they create complacency, require continued extravism, will likely happen too late, and some of them, especially geoengineering, come with new and poorly understood global risks). However, such arguments often fail to really move people. The problem is that the attraction to denialism and accelerationism is not about facts, but about feelings of psycho-social security. It helps us avoid the daunting personal and political consequences of accepting that disaster is very real indeed, and that we can’t rely on others to fix it for us. This security is never absolute. With every drought, every storm, every absence of a bird that used to sing, doubt creeps in, but facing it is difficult. To do so would, for most people, mean to abandon faith in the future and in authority as they know it. This is a disorientating and scary prospect, especially when it doesn’t come with new horizon of meaning and solidarity, a practice of composing fragments.

Mental health and climate emergency

The climate emergency will effect our mental heath, no matter what. The cases of people who enter into a state of profound suffering and lose their capacity to function will rise. In these cases, we will see symptoms of the pressures we are all on. In a tv interview from the late 1970s, Felix Guattari spoke of his patients at the La Borde clinic:

“You can see that among certain insane or heavy deliria that there are themes regarding socio-political issues: the Chinese, the Russians, rockets, all kinds of radiation… concentration camps, racism, that they matter in the delirium itself. This shows that a communication between all these themes exists and they relate to the most intimate things being lived in solitude, deliria and or in dead ends. So for me there is no singular and no collective unconscious. Thus there is no specialist for an individual unconsciousness, and then someone in charge of representing the collective problems. For me it is a similar kind of problem.”


The above is cut out from an extended version of the batshit work essay I am working on. Here I will talk about what it might mean to organize starting from the ways we are affected by the climate emergence, not just in terms of exstreme weather events and pollutants in our bodies, but in terms of intensifying mental health stresses. They essay will also speak of ways we might compose the fragments of the world collectively, starting from the everyday experience of being affected.

The first, shorter and punchier version the batshit work text is here: https://medium.com/@BueRubner/its-time-to-speak-about-batshit-jobs-d1aa9856d5ff
The longer version of the batshit text is here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/batshit-jobs-no-one-should-have-to-destroy-the-planet-to-make-a-living/

Bue Rübner Hansen

Written by

researcher, writer, editor writing about whatever extends democracy. mostly in #spain #denmark #uk & #europe but eager to provincialize them all