My Approach to the Climate Emergency
Note: I wrote this piece for the the Climate Psychology Alliance North America website (https://climatepsychology.us/expressions).
I approach the climate emergency as an ecopsychologist, although I give the word ecopsychology a particular twist. For me, ecopsychology is about a radical ecological transformation of psychology that gives the world something new—something very unlike psychology as we have come to know it. As a radical exercise, ecopsychology suggests that our collective problems are of a more deeply rooted and interconnected nature than mainstream approaches—including those of psychology and the environmental movement—are able to recognize or admit (the word radical meaning “going to the roots”). From this perspective, the climate emergency—as well as the mass extinction emergency, the topsoil erosion emergency, the plastic insanity emergency, etc.—will not be resolved unless we take a “deeper” approach to our historical moment. Ecopsychology, as I see it, is a project to offer some of the necessary depth.
Just what this means more specifically is a little difficult to explain, given that this approach differs so much from our usual ways of doing things and crosses so many lines. One way to start seeing it, however, is to recognize how profoundly the modern world fractures reality into the three separate realms of Psyche, Nature, and Society. As a result of this fracturing, the reality of the Psyche is separated from both Nature and Society, giving us a very limited and distorted picture of the human mind. Indeed, the starting point for modern psychology is that of a hyper-individualized self, alienated from both human social relations and from relations with our earth home. No wonder there is an ecological crisis!
Note, as well, that the splitting of Nature from Psyche and Society results in a natural world seen as a purely mechanical, soulless realm that is somehow external to human society and to our psychological lives. This is a natural world we cannot love or relate to, a kind of impossible natural world we nonetheless take to be the case. This, in many ways, is what we mean by “the environment” when we think of it only as a distant support system for human life or talk about it only in terms of numbers (as in parts per million of CO2).
Note, finally, that when Society is imagined as a realm separate from Nature and Psyche this society will be ecologically and psychologically illiterate to a fatal degree (again, no surprise that our society is so eco-destructive). The conceptual division between Society and Nature sets up Nature as a devalued realm to be exploited, appropriated, and destroyed in the process of accumulating capital. This devaluing process is extended, furthermore, to a large number of oppressed human groups who have historically been categorized as Nature—Indigenous people, people of colour, women, working class people, etc.—and thus similarly violated.* Just listen to Donald Trump talking about migrants, or witness the murder of Indigenous activists.
The radical analysis I have sketched here leads to the conclusion that the climate emergency and all the rest of the ecological troubles currently in the news have a great deal to do with these historical divisions. We need to ask, then, how the divisions arose in the first place, and what now maintains them. My own answer is that these separations are inherent in the 500-year old modern capitalist system, which is maintained only through continual processes of disconnection and colonization. By this way of thinking, ecopsychology then becomes an anti-capitalist, decolonial project. As the Indigenous (Yellowknives Dene) scholar Glen Coulthard writes: “For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die.”
This kind of anti-capitalist, decolonial talk has in the past made both environmentalists and psychologists nervous. It is too “radical” and disruptive, too unsettling. As a psychotherapist, I understand the importance of making sure people do not become overly destabilized by the therapy process. Shock tactics and tearing down defences backfire. But I also understand the importance of supporting people in turning toward the truth and growing more alive and free from doing so. With eco-despair and eco-anxiety now reaching epidemic levels, moreover, and with Extinction Rebellion looking like a pretty reasonable movement to join, it may actually be the business-as-usual approaches to life that people will increasingly find unsettling, while the radical approaches become increasingly attractive.
I wish my radical analysis were not true. I did not come to it through any other motive than trying to make sense of the mess our world is in. The advantage of it, however, is that it gives ecopsychology a way to develop a politics specifically-tailored to this deeper viewpoint. If the disconnections between Psyche, Nature, and Society make our world shallow and violent then mending these divisions will deepen our world and build social bonds, including bonds with the more-than-human natural world. Indeed, it is through such social processes that we may build the emotional and spiritual holding environments necessary to tolerate and grow from a radical understanding of our predicament. By learning to question the colonial structures that make up our suffering world—legal, intellectual, technological, economic, and so—we gain the clarity needed to remake this world, including remaking Psychology into a form more adequate to this epochal moment in time. Crucially, this means reclaiming our deeper, soulful, earth-embracing selves, as well as reclaiming ourselves as political animals, which, as Aristotle noted, we are by nature.
* I am drawing strongly here on Jason Moore’s book Capitalism in the Web of Life.