The Forest Through the Trees: Latent Content in the Climate Change discussion

"Having been told that the world rested on a platform, which rested on the back of an elephant, which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, he asked… 'What did the turtle rest on?' Another turtle. 'And that turtle?' "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."

traditional wisdom via Clifford Geertz


The receptionist for the plumbers I hired was very sweet. She answered the phone in a cheery voice and seemed so concerned about each of my requests so I felt okay leaving her instructions about what needed to be finished on the job. Pouring concrete and fixing my fence. That was it. She reassured me that I’d be notified when to expect the workers but as hours turned to days and I hadn’t heard anything I got frustrated and called the emergency line. “Monday”, I was assured, and I hung up feeling slightly better. When Monday came and went I called and got the receptionist again and she reassured me that they would send a crew over that evening. Nobody came. What people say is not always the best gauge for where they really stand.

            I began to feel how I imagine my parents did when I told them repeatedly that I’d empty the dishwasher as a kid. Maybe, just maybe, if I said it convincingly enough that they would believe me and leave me alone just long enough to sneak off to bed without emptying the dishwasher.

            When it comes to climate change, assessing where we as individuals or WE as a broader culture are in relationship to the environment, it’s often more effective to look at how we live. Do you know anyone who talks about climate change from behind the wheel of a Prius, proudly toting their reusable bags? Maybe if we can just convince the world that we’re sustainable, we might also believe it. As a teenager, I think I did actually believe that I’d emptied the dishwasher a few times. I was that good...

            And so it goes for doing things that we don’t want to do. Who knows why the plumbers didn’t want to finish the job in my yard. I could write for days about why people don’t want to change behavior to counteract climate change but that is beyond the scope of this short post. I should note that there have been several enlightened papers and books written on psychoanalysis and climate change; what’s really happening in our relationships to the environment.

            When it comes to change, the proof is in the pudding. There are many, many people doing many wonderful and important things to combat climate change but when you look at the whole picture, it’s obvious we have a long way to go before we start patting ourselves on the back.

            Although I detest the term addict, I’ve worked with many clients who self-identify as such and I learned pretty quickly that the way to figure out how severely addicted they are is not by asking. When someone is ashamed of a behavior it is often more effective to observe how they act because they’re likely not to tell you the whole truth. "Are you drunk right now? I smell alcohol on your breath." "Of course not".

            This applies directly to our behavior in relation to the environment. If we want an accurate snapshot of where we are in relationship to the world we live in, we ought to look past our claims at the reality of our day to day lives. How many times did I drive to Boulder last month when I could’ve taken the bus or biked? I’m tempted to say “only a handful” but in actuality it was closer to two dozen. Does it make me a hypocrite that part of the reason I chose to live in Lafayette was the availability of public transportation, yet I continue to drive? No, it makes me conflicted and that makes me human.

            I spent the day listening to some very smart, very well-read academics talk about psychological to barriers to climate change at the 2014 New School Social Research Conference. They were all quite right. Every one of them. Change is difficult. People need immediate results. People are influenced by social factors. People distrust others and find it hard to commit to the communal good. Yes. It’s all true. But there was a glaring void in the panels today just as there is in the general conversation about climate change. Within this void is the shadowy and often indescribable content of the unconscious. If you take nothing else from Freud, allow this simple paraphrased statement to hold true: "We might not be aware of all the things that go on in our minds."

            In 1969, Harold Searles , a preeminent psychiatrist and researcher on schizophrenia wrote: "Human beings have complex relationships to the non-human environment that have great significance for human psychological life. We ignore the implications of the non-human environment at great peril to our psychological well-being."

            People tend to try to change in the world what they wish they could change in themselves and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get both. When it comes to changing human behavior in relationship to the environment, I suspect that it’s something many people are struggling with both internally and externally, especially people who have committed to working against climate change. However, the problem is not “out there” in the Koch Brothers, or in some ultra-conservative caucus. Even if “the problem” is exemplified in such extreme forms as the often forsaken Tea Party, it will remain there unsolved until we locate within ourselves. Despite receiving much criticism for this perspective while I was a student of Social Work, I believe that social activism can sometimes provide a refuge from confronting the reality of our internal experience. Injustice is always in something "out there", conveniently away from our tender hearts yet still strangely powerful. While I don't eschew forms of social engagement entirely, they are inexorably linked to our individual emotional lives and only one can I effectively work with in a therapeutic relationship.

            The problem is always “in-here". I destroy the environment. Something had to die tonight so I could eat dinner. And you know what? Last week I burned a full tank of gas just so I could spend some time in “nature” for the day.  I once slept in my car with the engine running because I was cold. I kill spiders in my office and I justify it that it's for my clients. These are just petty examples of my relational imperfection to the environment. If I’m really being honest, a great deal of my life is based on a level of disregard for the world around me. Again, I’m merely human.

            Just as we need to be honest with ourselves about our own contributions to climate change so too do we need to be easy with ourselves. Sustainable psychic change rarely comes from being hard on oneself. I for one, always grow more when I’m good to myself. We need to stare courageously at the part of ourselves that is the Koch Brothers (and while we’re at it, the plumbing company owes me an apology) and hold the tension of the worst and best in us.

             Any large-scale change in how human beings interact with the natural world needs, among many other things, a rich and cogent understanding of what we’re really dealing with. When it comes to the vastly complex workings of the human mind there has yet to be a more useful tool than the still-evolving psychoanalytic theory. It's come a long way since Freud and we ignore its contributions to the struggle with climate change at great peril.