What we need right now? Climate minds.
In amongst the real news, fake news, ranting editorials, entitled opinions and endless trivia, two pieces recently caught my attention. The first was the sad news of the death of environmentalist Stephen Tindale, who took his own life at the age of 54. I didn’t know him, but I knew of his work in trying to navigate this most difficult of terrains, and he carried within himself the conflicts that many of us carry as we contemplate the seemingly intractable consequences of the climate crisis.
The second was a typically insightful piece by Will Falk, in which he writes:
“I am an environmental activist. I have depression. To be an activist with depression places me squarely in an irreconcilable dilemma: The destruction of the natural world creates stress which exacerbates depression. Cessation of the destruction of the natural world would alleviate the stress I feel and, therefore, alleviate the depression. However, acting to stop the destruction of the natural world exposes me to a great deal of stress which, again, exacerbates depression”.
Activism can be a great source of hope. When something is wrong in the world that can be put right — then activism can be a positive psychological force– it makes us feel good. We don’t do it for this reason, of course, but when a campaign is successful, or when the awareness of an issue is raised in the wider culture, we experience the sense of agency that is a complement to the righteous anger that got us active in the first place.
But what can we do when the problem cannot be fixed? When it is just too big? When we know that whatever we do, however loud we shout, nothing will reverse the shift? What if the problem just gets bigger and more intractable each day? What if the world, as we know it, is dying?
I don’t know the combination of factors that contributed to Stephen Tindale taking his own life, but Will Falk has documented a clear connection between his depression and the ecological trauma he witnesses in the world. I know something of this feeling — this despair. I have also worked with clients and talked with friends for whom emotional wellbeing is deeply entwined with the wounding of the earth, and the ‘everyday ecocide’ (as Bridget McKenzie calls it) that plays out in our lives.
So, it is not just activists — it is all of us. Those of us who want to make a difference — who keep on trying to change things — may have it in the forefront of our minds most of the time, but everyone now lives under the psychological shadow of ecocide and the climate emergency.
Of course, millions of people— the poorest amongst us — are already facing the sharp-end consequences of this crisis as their lands are parched and their weather becomes more chaotic and violent. And the Earth’s other non-human species face the biggest mass-extinction for millions of years.
Of those fortunate humans not directly and adversely affected in the here-and-now, some appear to cope by denying it, ignoring it entirely or opting for blue-sky optimism based on technology and the myth of endless human ingenuity.
Others, perhaps the majority of us, live with the future dread of this un-faced crisis, not knowing what to do, who to talk to or what to say. We are aware that it might be too late to turn things around — so what are we to do? The worst-case scenarios are truly awful — and even the best estimates of climate scientists predict a world that may be very different from the one we are used to.
And yet we still trundle down our motorways — millions of us each day — and take our flights around the world. Coal and oil are still extracted and we still consume vast amounts of factory-farmed meat. All this is fuelled and fed by vast industries that show no signs of transforming or dismantling themselves. Our concerns are those of a civilisation that still believes it has an unchanging future.
In short, we carry on living our lives as if nothing will change.
And meanwhile there are good people like Stephen Tindale who cannot face living in the world any more, and Will Falk who writes these words:
“My intuition is infected with a familiar dread. Looking around me, I am met only with trauma. So, I look to the future. I see sea levels rising, cities drowning, and refugees fleeing. I see oceans acidifying, coral reefs bleaching, and aquatic life collapsing. I see forests burning, species disappearing, and topsoil blowing away.”
“I don’t see a liveable future.” he adds…
When I first came across Will’s courageous writing he was reflecting on the future of his little baby nephew, and his words at that time brought to mind that of my two small granddaughters who — along with all other children growing up at the moment — will have to face am uncertain future we have created for them. I think that depression and despair are valid responses to these thoughts — but they also can elicit a determination — even at this late stage — to act as guardians for these children and stewards for the earth.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that this world we have degraded and exploited is not something that can be redesigned, recreated or discarded — it is a rich, interconnected, system of life and energy that sustains us, and all other lifeforms, in its evolutionary embrace. It is the Earth that has made us — and we are dependent on its chemistry, biochemistry and balance for our existence, survival and our physical and mental health.
Despair, then, is deeply ecological. Yet how many psychological professionals — therapists, psychiatrists, counsellors, coaches — make it our business to have conversations about this context for despair? And further, how many of us are prepared to acknowledge that it may not be possible — or even desirable — to remove the symptoms of this sickness?
What we do know, even with our blinkered psychological expertise, is that ‘stress’ and its biochemical effects in our body and mind, is the main accumulative trigger for mental health ‘problems’ like depression and anxiety. We cannot deny the reality of this pathology. As Will points out: “Ecopsychology shows that the elimination of stress is not possible in this ecological moment”.
We need more people with ‘climate minds’ —those who are willing to face up to the psychological implications of what is happening in this time of crisis and emergency, and who are able and willing to share the load and have conversations about what is happening, what is to come and what is needed.
Who will facilitate and lead these conversations? Who will support and talk with activists like Will Falk and Stephen Tindale and open up the possibility that despair can to be faced up to — and realistic, soulful hope can emerge? This, I would suggest, should be the therapeutic work for courageous, ecologically-minded counsellors, therapists, psychologists, soul-makers, coaches, group leaders, community leaders and other activists and practitioners: people who are prepared to lead and to embed themselves deeply in these most difficult of conversations.
It’s time for an ecological and psychological step-change; to help create climate minds for now and for the future.
Climate Minds is the theme for the next issue of Unpsychology Magazine to be published digitally in early 2018. This will be an anthology of writing and artwork that — it is hoped — will reach beyond the ‘climate activist’ community and support creative conversations about the climate emergency and the human and ecological crises that stem from it. If you’d like to submit to this fourth edition of Unpsychology Magazine, then you have until September 30th and you can download the Submissions Guidelines from www.unpsychology.org or click HERE. If you’re a Medium writer, you can also submit your work to this online Unpsychology platform , and join the Climate Minds conversation. Following the magazine’s publication, there will be a follow Climate Minds programme — looking at how to address the need for deep conversations about the Climate ands Ecological crises in communities, therapy rooms, schools, workplaces and beyond. If you’re interested in being involved in the development of this wider project, contact email@example.com.