Wrapped in Lew Papers: The psychology of climate psychologization – Part3

In the article ‘a climate of despair’ from the Syndey Morning Herald, we learn that climate depression (aka “ecoanxiety” or “doomer depression” or “apocalypse fatigue”) is apparently not uncommon, and on the rise. Psychologist Susie Burke is quoted in the article:
∙∙∙∙∙∙We can be very sure that many people in the field of climate change are distressed – highly distressed – and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing.
The article highlights the case of one sufferer, biologist and ecologist Nicole Thornton, who slid towards some kind of breakdown after the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. In her own words:
∙∙∙∙∙∙“Every time I talked about environmental issues, I would start crying, which I think is a really unusual response,” she says. “I’m a scientist, so I like to break things down – to drivers and causes – but I was confused. I had never heard of anyone who had something like this.”
Fortunately Thornton sought help and is much improved, now using her experience to help others.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Thornton, 41, is currently on a break – of sorts. She is part of a fellowship program with the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, with 49 other aspiring change agents. She is using her time in that program to create an online health and wellbeing hub, catered to cases like her own. “Peers have talked to me about burnout, anxiety, panic attacks, complete disengagement, and frustration leading to despair and, when you think about it, this stuff is always around you in the environmental field. It’s notorious. They get so involved, and they’re so passionate and they don’t take breaks.

The really interesting thing is that there appears to be an awful lot of folks needing help, and some of the symptoms discussed in the article are serious. Yet this is exactly what one would expect from a clash of reality with cultural bias. ‘Apocalypse fatigue’ is a highly appropriate term. The Consensus has massively oversold the certainty of apocalypse, leading to bewilderment and despair, and worse, within its ranks as they perceive the world is not reacting sufficiently. In the minds of these unfortunate folks, we are driving towards a brick wall at high speed, why wouldn’t they be stressed?!

There is not a whiff of skepticism in this Sydney Morning Herald article; all is pitched from a Consensus viewpoint regarding attitudes to climate change. For instance early this year, Burke presented on mental health and the environment at one of Al Gore’s Climate Reality shindigs. Yet despite they are trying to help, apparently no professionals have even started to question, at a fundamental level, why their ‘weary campaigners’ are falling over like ninepins. Instead, they seem to be concentrating on sticking plasters:
∙∙∙∙∙∙Burke has gone so far as to release “tip sheets” to help people face the reality of climate change without a sense of dread – a kind of step-by-step guide for managing feelings and changing behaviour.
She and her colleague, Dr Grant Blashki of the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, have even been called on by organisations that need help dealing with the overall melancholy affecting their troops.

Actually sticking plaster is probably a very kind description. Most of the webpage for the tip sheets is about changing behavior to be more eco-conformant, not in any way that might address one’s actual psychological problem. The sticking plaster sections recommend taking a break from news and TV, spending time with loved ones (well fine, but this is a ‘sugar meme’), being optimistic (good) and being well-informed (great… but An Inconvenient Truth is suggested). Hmmm… given a high court judge ruled regarding An Inconvenient Truth that nine key errors arose “in the context of alarmism and exaggeration”, and that the “apocalyptic vision” presented in the film was politically partisan and not an impartial scientific analysis, does anyone think this would be a good cure for one’s eco-anxiety or apocalypse fatigue? Even if there were zero errors in it, would yet another apocalyptic vision be a workable cure? The ‘change your behavior’ parts of the webpage (by far the majority) include many eco-friendly things one is advised to do, plus other behaviors such as ‘associate with like-minded people’ and ‘encourage others to change’. Depending on the eco-policies supported this may or may not be good for the planet (some eco-policies seem to be causing more distress and damage than good, for instance the bio-fuel debacle), but either way this isn’t going to actually address a sufferer’s core psychological problem. And any cult leader would recognize a basic formula beneath the gentle and erudite words here: perform the acts of faith, associate with the faithful, convert the unfaithful. Even if all this was provably and unquestionably ‘right’ regarding the bigger picture, such advice is all about helping the cause, not about helping the individual.

Other supposed healers such as psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, take the same ‘change your behavior’ approach in an attempt to cure ‘climate anxiety’ using discussion groups:
∙∙∙∙∙∙Through conversation, we have a lot of material which we use in the groups which show people where the emissions are and what the actions are that they can do to affect that. We talk about what the obstacles are, and what the process is of making those changes.
This is all much too reminiscent of telling shell-shocked troops to simply pull themselves together, believe in the next big push, and get back in the trenches to carry on fighting; recommendations given before shell-shock became a recognized medical condition. There appears to be a similar and sizeable gap in understanding here; a major inconsistency with how mental trauma would be analyzed and addressed in non-climate domains.

There are other inconsistencies revealed by the tip sheets. For instance, and I’m sure by now coming as no surprise to readers, skepticism is no longer indicative of a stable personality trait that will help individuals resist manipulation and misinformation and the CIE. It is no longer Lewandowsky’s ‘key to accuracy’ as perceived in non-climate domains. Within the climate domain it is perceived negatively:
∙∙∙∙∙∙The caution expressed by climate change sceptics could be a form of denial, where it involves minimising the weight of scientific evidence/consensus on the subject. Or it could indicate that they perceive the risks of change to be greater than the risks of not changing, for themselves or their interests.

Yet if skepticism is a fundamental behavior, it must work in the same manner for CAGW and for WMD and for all other topic domains (at least when observed as a significant net effect over many individuals), i.e. only one way or only the other! If this is not the case, then skepticism must be dependent upon other variables and thus is not a fundamental behavior after all; in which case it can neither be used to explain innate resistance to manipulation and the CIE, nor ‘denial’ in climate skeptics and others. My own feeling is that the evidence presented by Lewandowsky and associated authors per type 3C here, is right, hence the oft-expressed skepticism in the climate debate is a sign of valid suspicions.

There’s a couple of major contradictions lurking on this tip-sheet page too. Some common feelings and reactions to climate change threats are cited: ‘People may feel anxious, scared, sad, depressed, numb, helpless and hopeless, frustrated or angry’. Yet much of the Consensus messaging, for instance that of the ‘scared scientists’ above, appears exactly geared to make folks feel sad and scared and frustrated and angry, i.e. in an attempt to motivate them (though ‘helpless and hopeless’ may I guess be an unintended consequence). It would be much better to remove the sources of fear-based messaging rather than stick plaster on the wounds, yet are psychologists clamoring for this messaging to stop? I think not! Likewise some good advice is given: ‘It is also important that people don’t over-react and start behaving as though catastrophic change is imminent’. Yet this advice emotionally contradicts the common Consensus story given by presidents and prime ministers on downwards, which is based upon the misinformation of certainty of catastrophe and amounts to: ‘only X days to save the planet’. I think with UK prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009, X was 50; apparently we are too late already. So are psychologists clamoring for this oft-repeated scare-story to stop? I think not!

Next page for more…

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2 Responses to Wrapped in Lew Papers: The psychology of climate psychologization – Part3

  1. Michael 2 says:

    Brilliant. Everything I would say on the subject if I had your literary skill and passion for it.

    “Ironically those individuals with the greatest domain knowledge, yet who are steeped in the orthodox bias of an associated negative culture, will be the least protected.”

    I am reminded of the flexible sapling that can withstand high winds and storm versus the brittle old tree that is strong until it breaks.

    Keeping impossibly conflicting ideas in separate compartments (sometimes left brain / right brain since one is cognitive and the other emotive) is a thing probably impossible for a person to detect by himself, since each “side” is also observed through that side’s filters.

    My own father is an example; one moment scientific and arguing for evolution because he thinks I am opposed to it; his worldview requires that I oppose it. So when I argue that not only has evolution taken place but that it is continuing to take place through selective breeding, he suddenly argues that dolphins cannot be made more intelligent by US Navy breeding programs; they are always dolphins, they have always been dolphins — negating his earlier assertion regarding evolution. You see, that is his other worldview, a residue of his Lutheran religion.

    While he abandoned the outward trappings of religion, he cannot escape that his formative years were immersed in Lutheran culture and belief. He *is* Lutheran, it is the way he was made. This can lead to some confusion by people around him but he does not see it himself.

    Another aspect of your comment is brittleness. Occasionally these two worldviews CAN be brought together like matter and antimatter with some risk of annihilation — but it also releases energy that can dramatically accellerate a person’s maturation. In my own case I had grown up without any imposed religion and yet it is cultural, everywhere present, or at least it was during my formative years. So I believed in a young earth even without having gone to church once!

    One day when I was a teenager I hiked in the mountains and sat on a rock to rest. I noticed that it was composed almost entirely of long slender cone shells embedded in very hard black rock, highly resistant to chiseling (I tried to bring home a piece). At any rate, it was conspicuously older than 6,000 years old; it had been at the bottom of a sea but now was exposed by weathering and was at 7,000 feet elevation or so. In other words, really, really OLD.

    So I discarded that part of my belief system but not the rest of it. This is where many people have problems — just because one part of your belief system is wrong is not a reason to discard all of it.

    But many people, including my friends, tend to chain things together so if one part breaks it all does. This can be scary to observe. I had a roommate in the Navy, a born-again inerrantist Christian. That worldview depends on a single belief: Inerrancy. In the case of my roommate, he had one other absolute belief, that anyone of my religion was going to hell. So one day I said, “Jesus is come in the flesh”. That is all. It must be said exactly that way. To the inerrantist, only a man of God can say that; and yet, he was exactly as sure that I was an enemy to God.

    So I brought these worldviews into collision and I feared for his sanity. I regretted the stunt. Still, I met him a couple of years later and he was vastly more pleasant to be around. He still had his religion but now knew that it had some warts and he had to use his own intelligence to know what parts were the important parts — the two great commandments which boil down to just one — loving your neighbor.

  2. Michael 2 says:

    I may have quite a lot to say about memetics when I have more time and have read your writing on it. It may relate somewhat to Carl Jung’s “archetypes”, persons having an affinity for certain things or ideas without obvious explanation. An example is “dragon”, almost everyone on Earth knows what is a dragon, or at least has some conception (but rather variable), yet no such thing exists or ever existed in human memory.

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