Photo by Joe Tree on Unsplash

The Climate Minds dialogues

BY JULIA MACINTOSH AND STEVE THORP

A few weeks ago, the fourth issue of Unpsychology magazine was published — a digital anthology of writing and art responding to the theme of Climate Minds. You can get a FREE copy of the magazine HERE. Steve and Julia, the editors of this issue, now want to continue the Climate Minds conversation in this publication, and you’ll find the invitation to submit to Unpsychology on Medium HERE. These dialogues are written by way of introduction to the series — and to track themes along the way. We hope you find them thought-provoking and feel inspired to join the conversation.

PART 1: A WEE TASTE OF SUMMER

Julia: Hello Steve

Two weeks ago I hosted a Climate Minds Conversation here in Edinburgh, via the Meetup platform. Contributor Elizabeth Cotton was in attendance, being in town for various reasons; in fact she had just arrived from the station. We sat with our readings and our three questions, catching up over cold drinks. The thing is though: no one showed up. Perhaps ill-scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, I had twigged too late that the event also fell on a Bank Holiday weekend. And what a weekend! Glorious blue skies and warm sunshine for three days on the trot, a real treat heralding sleeveless tops and flip flops and barbecue trays in the park. Climate Minds never had a chance. The cancellations tumbled in and RSVP’s evaporated in the bright light of day. Who on earth wants to consider the doom and gloom of climate change, on a beautiful Bank Holiday Sunday?

It was no surprise, and no problem either as Elizabeth and I quite happily finished our drinks and stepped out to join flip-flopped humanity, to likewise partake in Scotland’s wee taste of summer. But the non-starter of this Climate Minds Conversation did get me to thinking about how challenging it is to find the right time and place for a difficult conversation. Truth be told, there is no right time or place. How then do we begin?

Like any of life’s difficulties, climate change will not just go away if we ignore it. Its ominous tone may recede in the balmy sunshine of a summer afternoon, but it won’t go away. Sooner or later, the sunshine will disappear under cloud cover and the rain will come. And the flooding will return. The hurricanes will smash into our coasts in increasing numbers and with increasing severity. The droughts will parch land and dry up reservoirs, and large-scale forest fires will rage in spindle-dry territories. The permafrost will melt and the polar bears will swim, and swim, until they finally lose strength and go under.

How on earth, on this increasingly turbulent earth, do we begin to talk with one another about climate change, when the glorious sunshine-filled beauty of a Bank Holiday Sunday afternoon beckons?

Steve: Hi Julia,

I guess it would be good if we could have climate conversations at any time; and maybe sitting in familiar, ordinary places — rather than in earnest groups of converts and activists — might be a step forward!

So, one way of reframing the question might be to ask how we can bring our conversations about this most sticky and difficult of issues into our everyday lives (not just chilled-out early summer holiday weekends; that might be a bit much to hope for as the kids are slurping ice-creams!) and in our workplaces, communities, and families?

One thing that the Climate Minds issue of Unpsychology attempted to do was to bring together people who are working with both artistic and psychological themes in their everyday work and life. Some of these also happen to be activists in the ‘political’ sense of the word, but certainly not all. And some of the most poignant contributions are by writers who are struggling with it, visibly and vulnerably in their everyday lives, like Emma Palmer in her visceral piece in the magazine: ‘Faltering’:

“Here’s the thing — I can’t work this one out. There’s no working it out alone, it’s far more multi-faceted than that. And yet, and yet, I can march, I show up, I move around less, buy local, grow more and have the unthinkable conversations which make me unpopular. I hear it coming, the slow seeping voice of ‘never enough’. It’s never enough. It’s too late. It’s impossible. And yet, and yet, keep on.
I drink tea and write about Climate Change. My pen finds its way to despair swiftly this morning (blood, gore, the shriek of a lone crow. Tea, that’ll fix it. Maybe cake).”

I wonder whether one of the problems here is that most people want to belong in a social world where they can have familiar conversations, which, if not entirely comfortable, are at least predictable, and therefore psychologically ’safe’? And, like Emma, even if we ’show up’, we can’t know that anything we will do will make a ha’porth of difference to the state of things.

And yet, we are into an age in which the comfortable, predictable conversation is less and less available — even putting aside the climate crisis — unless we all go into a kind of holiday reverie and drink tea or eat ice cream in some park or other! Then, at least, we can convince ourselves that nothing can be going wrong if the sun is shining (particularly, I would imagine, in Edinburgh!).

Julia: Hi Steve

My thoughts this morning as I washed dishes led me to musing about the concepts of professional and amateur. In professional life there are standards upheld and a quite rigorous culture of conformity, while amateur life allows for a far greater flexibility and willingness to embrace experimentation and adaptation. I would also suggest that professional life exists to some extent to facilitate the comfortable and predictable: business as usual, literally.

I don’t want to put professional and amateur into opposition though — there is value in each approach. Having said that however, our culture tends to prioritise the professional over the amateur (think of the snide disdain embodied in the words ‘amateurish’ or ‘unprofessional.’ )

Is there scope here in which to reflect on our climate mind conversations? We tend to position climate change as a professional problem: the responsibility of governments and scientists and activist organisations. We expect it to be addressed through the usual channels, when it is our usual channels which created and continue to exacerbate the crisis. Climate change is the direct result of the industrial age, and to a certain extent so is the cult of the professional.

I think of an acquaintance we both met recently who described massive conferences held for climate change scientists, with twenty thousand delegates flying from all over the world to attend and to network with their international colleagues. He described it as a necessary evil for their profession — literally, a necessity to maintain a viable place within that professional community — but I can’t help but see it as utterly contradictory to the point of absurdity.

What if we were to move the study of climate change into the realm of the amateur? As you say, into the realm of the familiar, ordinary and everyday? Countless intellectual breakthroughs in history have occurred through the persistent curiosity and dedicated work of amateurs. And I believe that the deeply emotional work of a climate mind conversation — the intimate, pastoral, personal and reflective — this work that each person does when facing up to their discomfort, this matters just as much in the face of the crisis as any paper presented at a scientific mega-conference.

Steve: I like this idea, Julia, that the deep emotional work of the climate mind might be tackled with an amateur curiosity and following of trails of breadcrumbs. I often think that the people who are the best teachers are those who have been in the most vulnerable and despairing places — have allowed themselves to go there.

Most of us fend of the madness and grief inherent in our human existence (Irvin Yalom and others were telling us this existential truth years ago, well before the climate emergency emerged into our consciousness), and the professional world — whilst important in the systematic accumulation of human knowledge and practice — can sometimes mask the real chaos and pain that is out there (and inside us too).

My professional world of counselling and psychotherapy is riven through with these boundaries and protections, pseudo-medical jargon and clinical assumptions. And it is interesting that, aside from a few exceptions, the climate emergency and the ecological self is never put at the heart of our approach to sadness and madness. Instead, the professional approach is to make people ‘better’, with the assumption that there is something ‘wrong’ inside to be cured, rather than a looming storm outside that we can all see coming, and which we have to learn to face and deal with.

And just like a sunny day in the city in May, we can kid ourselves that all is well, but the reality is that there are going to be some wild and stormy times ahead. So maybe it might be time for the ‘professionals’ to step aside (or to set aside their professionalism for a time) and let the amateurs lead the conversation!

Join the Climate Minds conversation — contact us at submissions@unpsychology.org with your ideas for a contribution. All written and other forms welcome!