Source: BBC Radio 4: Thinking Allowed
Date: 23/01/2013
Event: "Climate change - what lies beneath its widespread denial?"
Credit: BBC Radio 4, also Geoff Chambers for transcribing this.

  • Paul Hoggett: Professor of Social Policy, University of the West of England
  • Laurie Taylor: Sociologist and radio presenter
  • Sally Weintrobe: Psychoanalyst

[Dépêche Mode: "The landscape is changing, the landscape is crying, Thousands of acres of forest are dying..."]

Laurie Taylor: "The Landscape is Changing" by Dépêche Mode in - 1983. 1983 yes... a song which not only laments what is happening to our planet, but presciently it bemoans the lack of proper attention it receives. A couple more lines from that song: "Token gestures, some semblance of intelligence. Can we be blamed for the security of ignorance?" "The security of ignorance". As long as we can say we don’t know, why do we need to be concerned? A question close to the heart of a new book of essays published in association with London’s Institute of Psychoanalysis called Engaging with Climate Change

Now, psychoanalysis and climate change might seem like odd bedfellows, or dare I say it, couchfellows, but of course Freud was intensely interested in the manner in which individuals negotiated their relationship with social reality, the various psychological techniques with which they denied or transformed or rebelled against its impress.
And this is where climate change comes in, because, as the editor of this new book Sally Weintrobe argues in her introduction, it’s increasingly clear that understanding human responses to climate change is just as important, if not more important, than understanding climate change itself. 

The question is: why is knowledge of climate reality so resisted? Well, Sally Weintrobe, who's a fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London, now joins me in the studio, together with another contributor to the book, Paul Hoggett, who is professor of social policy at the University of the West of England. 

Sally, we're not in this particular discussion debating the science of climate change, we're taking as given the broad consensus among scientists that the earth which sustains us is undergoing changes in which we're all implicated, even if there's disagreement on the nature of these changes, but you'd want to say we can only understand people's lack of response to this news - I mean, if you go around and talk about how many people are concerned, all the opinion polls show I mean, it's extraordinary how very few people seem to be expressing concern - we can only understand that if we turn to unconscious factors. Explain that.

Sally Weintrobe: Well, the question's framed in a particular way. The question is, or the situation is put, that people are not concerned. You can take a very radically different approach to this and say, well, that might not be the case. People might be very concerned, they might be very anxious, and they might not be dealing with this very well. They might be finding ways to, you know, get rid of the too-muchness of all the things they're concerned about, and I got interested in wanting to bring these authors together - and it's an interdisciplinary book as well, because it’s not just one subject, all the human sciences need to get together on this to really see if we could engage about this in discussion and - and - and through a belief that psychoanalysis does have quite a lot to offer. Can I just quickly...?

Laurie Taylor: Please, yes.

Sally Weintrobe: You brought in - who was singing there?

Laurie Taylor: That was Dépêche Mode.

Sally Weintrobe: Dépêche Mode. You know, brought right into the picture "crying." "The landscape is crying". Actually, it's our grief, and one way we deflect that is to project it, so we create a little bit of distance, so we would say actually, it's too much to bear, and we need to go into how we protect ourselves when it gets too much.

Laurie Taylor: Because I suppose like in other areas, I mean psychoanalysis points out the ways in which we don't speak about certain things because of the anxiety of what would happen to us if we dared to speak about them would be so overwhelming that we'd have to repress them, keep them away from the surface.

Sally Weintrobe: That's right.

Laurie Taylor: And that is the analogy that you're using here, that if we allow ourselves to know the facts, it becomes so disturbing, creates so much anxiety...

Sally Weintrobe: Absolutely. And I think the message of the book really is that it doesn't do any good to just ignore this or brush it under the carpet, and er, because the more you do, the more it builds up, the anxiety, the guilt, the worry, and so on and so forth, and we need to engage with it. Psychoanalysis also brings the perspective that actually the truth is what helps you in the long run, that we have to help people to bear the truth.

Laurie Taylor: Let me turn to you then Paul, you're professor of social policy, and presumably, I mean, in that position, you would be very aware of the danger of over-psychologising issues, of suggesting that really, you know, climate change is all a question of what individuals think. So, but you are psychoanalyt... you're inclined to accept this psychoanalytic interpretation of people's denial.

Paul Hoggett: Yes I am. I'm also a psychotherapist, besides being a researcher in social policy, and I've always believed that the two things interact all the time. Culture and power on the one hand, and people's internal worlds, their feelings, their fantasies, their identities and so on on the other hand. You have to treat them both at the same time, otherwise you end up reducing everything either to people and their internal psychologies, or you reduce everything to social forces beyond our control.

Laurie Taylor: Because we do really want to, I mean, do want to insist that psycholanalysis is not simply about, as it were, people describing and talking about their private thoughts while they're lying back on a couch. It's also about how they fail to attend to the real world, their strategies for marking the world off or pushing it away from them at times.

Paul Hoggett: That's right, so the everyday ways in which in our individual lives, we may deny uncomfortable realities like ageing for example, and the imminence of our own mortality are also paralleled in the way in which, at a cultural level, whole social groups can deny imminent realities like the reality of climate change and increasing temperatures and global climate chaos.

Laurie Taylor: Now, I mean, people listening to this programme will immediately think: Well, psychoanalysis is concerned with the way in which certain sorts of childhood dramas are played out in later life. I mean, you would want to relate our relationship to nature, I believe, to earlier relationships.

Sally Weintrobe: Up to a point, up to a point. I think our relationship with Mother Earth is not just reducible to how we relate to our mothers, that mother, but it does actually help us to understand issues like dependency. We're very dependent, as children, on our mothers and on our parents, and we have great difficulty in allowing ourselves to know about our dependency on the Earth. In fact, we have these little mantras like "Save the Planet" as if the Earth is dependent on us. We reverse that relationship. You know, so I think there are parallels, but only up to a point.

Laurie Taylor: And the anxieties that you talked about, and the techniques that we're using to deal with these anxieties, and I mean, come under this sort of general heading of, I mean, types of denial, don’t they. Just explain what you mean by "types of denial".

Sally Weintrobe: Well, one of the things that's very useful I think that comes out of this interdisciplinary discussion, in the book is a synthesis of different forms of denial, and to be very quick about it, there’s "denial-ism", which is industry and politically driven, you know, it aims to sow doubt, there’s that kind of...

Laurie Taylor: Sorry, an industry that has a vested interest in...

Sally Weintrobe: ... that has a vested interest in sowing doubt so that, people you know, won't take it seriously. But then we go to two forms of denial which are really quite fundamental. One is negation. When you get denial, it's always that you’re always denying reality, it's always that you've seen reality somewhere and you're trying to keep it at bay. Negation is when you just say, "Well, it’s not true". And actually, negation, although it looks more severe, is a sign, a step on the way to accepting reality. It's the beginning of the grief process, you know - "No, my loved one hasn't died", and we understand that, and you know, then you struggle through. But the serious form of denial is disavowal, with climate change, and this is what we’re really stuck in at the moment. This is the diagnosis. It's where you turn a blind eye. You see it with one eye, and you minimise it, and this is really what Paul's paper is about, and just to add one point, I’d like to, and then I'll stop, I think Paul's paper really brings into focus that if we're going to look at denial, we don’t start with the individual, we actually start with the culture. We're in a culture of denial, and then of course we have individual feelings about that, so but that's where we start.

Laurie Taylor: Let me turn to you. Of course, these questions of various sorts of denial, I should just mention in this someone we mentioned on this programme a couple of weeks ago who’s sadly died, Stan Cohen, who contributes to this volume and whose book States of Denial was quite influential. Paul, would you like to pick up on that disavowal, what we mean by disavowal, or perhaps talk about, I mean, you talk about it as a perverse state of mind?

Paul Hoggett: Yeah. Well, it's a state of mind in which we might acknowledge the facts, but we acknowledge the facts in a way which no longer disturbs us, so it doesn't affect us emotionally, and therefore it doesn't actually drive us or motivate us..

Laurie Taylor: What would be an exact example of that, say?

Paul Hoggett: Well, a good example would be flying. I think a lot of us know that for every flight we take, for example, across the Atlantic, it's equivalent to about two tonnes of CO2 dumped in the atmosphere. And yet, in a way, and I'm as guilty about this as anybody else, somehow or other we, at the moment of thinking of flying, that fact, and the implications of that fact, in the way that would disturb us, are got rid of.

Laurie Taylor: Yes because we're all in a way, we’re all members of a community which is in fact as you say sort of engaged in these sort of ecological practices, and to expect us to rise up, I mean somebody said, I think it was Anna Karpf in a review talked about the sort of possibility of sort people who were involved in the Gay movement you know, being required to sort of almost be - sorry, she was arguing the other way round, she was arguing that really, it’s rather like expecting Evangelists to come up in behalf of the Gay movement in some ways. You know, here are people who at the same time are holding two contradictory ideas: "I'm spending all this money on travelling, but at the same time I want to save the planet." But I mean, I would have thought, but - sorry, I mean, you say that we're denying, but yet I turn on the television I seem to see constant programmes, nature programmes telling me about what's happening to the earth. There doesn't seem to be much evidence of denial or disavowal going on there.

Sally Weintrobe: People are increasingly aware of what's happening.They’re also increasingly aware of weird weather, you know, Hurricane Sandy and our own weather, and one of the things that's gone into in the book is that disavowal is turned to when there’s a bit too much reality just to block it off, and then you have to find ways of minimising it, you know, so that Obama will say at the moment, he’s just made an inaugural speech, and he’s taking climate change seriously, and what's in the papers is Beyoncé was "syncing" her... so that's the important thing, not what Obama was saying about climate change. That's the way they manage it in states of disavowal.

Laurie Taylor: And of course, you want to, we've got to stop there, but I mean, you want to say that there is a possibility to move beyond this, to do something. Very quickly?

Sally Weintrobe: Yes, I think the first thing we need to do is to understand it, and to allow ourselves to have feelings about this, one of which is depression, not overwhelmed, but just to take it seriously.

Laurie Taylor: Thank you very much Sally Weintrobe and Paul Hoggett.