Our Mad World: The Psychology of Climate Change

This is a slightly different post to the usual, you know, fossils and shit. It concerns the psychology behind climate change and mobilising towards a green future. Now this is by no means my area of expertise, but when I attended a talk recently by Oliver James at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, entitled “Our Mad World”, it really struck a chord with me. As a young research scientist, considering the psychology behind the science is really quite tangential to what I’ve been taught, and not something I’ve ever considered in detail. James gave a wonderful talk (without using PowerPoint, bonus!), and the way in which he spoke and delivered his message really resonated with the attendees.

James is a well-known psychologist and author, with several published books and many more on the way. He convenes with parliamentarians, and has a media status. The talk gave him the chance to interact on a more intimate level with the public (there were perhaps only 30-40 present), and perhaps be a little more open than usual. Although, judging from this snippet, I don’t think that’s something that usually bothers him.

Why do people find it difficult to listen to and take ‘green evidence’ to heart? This was the focus of James’ talk, integrated with governmental policy and procedure and how this has been and is currently failing society.

The current Government, like those for the last ~30 years have always had economic ‘growth’ at the top of their agenda. This is the driver for the current Tory austerity policy, with the glaringly obvious irony that we’re not growing, and with the current Eurozone crisis. The Japanese, apparently, have managed to successfully maintain a 0% growth policy and stable economy for some time now, which begs the question, why are we trying to grow?

This issue was raised in another recent discussion at Science Question Time (storified here), with the aspect of how can scientific research and innovation aid growth raised. James took a different perspective, asking whether we actually need growth, or just want it. Developing countries need to grow, but does the developed world? He made the quite radical prediction that in as soon as 5-10 years, 0% growth would be the new orthodoxy and that one of the main driving factors behind this would be several “giant fuck ups” with respect to climatic events.

The developing world is already beginning to feel the effects of a shifting climate: there are droughts and floods which will only get worse before they get better. James emphasised that this will require a “new world order” to be established, with “consumer junkies” from a “wasteful developed world” cleansing themselves (ourselves?) from the obsession of growth and consumerism. This isn’t the kind of thing I usually hear at Palaeontology conferences. James used the term “affluenza” to define this political economic state of “selfish capitalism” that the materialistic English-speaking world is entrained in, giving it the status of a virus.

This materialistic state is apparently the direct cause of why nearly 25% of people in the UK were suffering from a mental illness last year, whereas this statistic is halved for mainland Europe who are less materialistic. Not being a master of the psychological literature, I have not been able to track down specific citations for this, but it is discussed here in a short (and accessible) publication by James. The cause of this association is apparently down to the conflation of ‘wants’ with ‘needs’. James used the rather amusing analogy of Facebook, stating that it has devalued the meaning of the word ‘friend’, in that now we have more ‘friends’, but less ‘intimate friends’, ultimately “encouraging having over being”.

James was for the most part, emotionally restrained, but when it came to discussing the previous Labour Government, he called them “money-grubbing little shits” (can you see why I like him?), which is the main reason why many members of the Cabinet were in fact mentally depressed (such as David Blunkett and Alistair Campbell). One of the odd things about this circumstance is that using “The Selfish Gene” theory, by Richard Dawkins, these high-ranking officials actually think they deserve their position, which makes their mental state almost seem self-inflicted.

James was keen to emphasise how the current Government is crippling society, relative to both growth and climate change. He seemed bewildered by how they haven’t learned from the credit crunch or the overwhelming failure of Thatcherism to change their policy tactics, and instead were sinking the UK further into a recession and blinding society to the reality of climate change. But. But there is hope. James was optimistic that the current situation can in fact be moved away from fairly rapidly, with a total redistribution of wealth and work. This wouldn’t necessarily engender a sense of happiness within society (but that’s not what we were put on the planet for anyway, right?), but would instead provide a state of ’emotional health’, a much more realistic and sensible alternative. Already the signs of the shift from this ‘status quo’ are visible, with fractures being made visible through the credit crunch, and with the insight that the Leveson Inquiry is creating into the workings (or failings?) of the current Government.

Cameron’s doing his part – you can too!

James stated that this shift to a naturally healthy emotional environment would require the need to forget this apparently non-sensical drive for economic growth, and would mean that no longer do doctors need to pump mentally unwell people with various cocktails of drugs to make them ‘normal’ or ‘happy’. The implications are that we can create a healthy environment in which future generations can grow up, providing an emotionally healthy society (only a small proportion of mental status can be attributed to genetic variation from parents, so environment is likely the dominant control). James cited much evidence behind this, both literary and scientific, including the works of Tolstoy. The potential rate of change for this can be fast, when one considers the pace at which Thatcherism (“commercialisation and growth”) was established.

This set out rather bluntly the psychological reason why change is needed, and how it links in with climate change to quite a large degree. But there are issues. Not everyone ‘accepts’ climate change, and there are numerous mechanisms of denial. In my experience, this is usually attributed to people simply being in denial of, or not knowing the facts, framed in a ‘climate sceptic versus science’ manner. James provided a psychological perspective on the issues.

James cited three psychological categories when it comes to perceptions of climate change. At one end, are the climate sceptics. These are people who simply cannot tolerate the facts for one reason or another, and use denial as a fundamental response to, what is essentially, bad news. These are largely a minority, although there is probably a distinct geographical segregation. The majority of people are ‘maladapted’. This means that they acknowledge the issue and react up to a certain point. There are five sub-tactics in this category: blurring the facts, using diversionary tactics, playing the blame-shift game, indifference, and optimism; these acknowledge the issue, but ultimately do nothing in terms of resolving the issue. This is a category that most people, including myself, fall into. The other end of the spectrum is occupied by people who are ‘adapted coping’. This other minority accepts the facts and emotions, and fall either into a grief cycle (with the view that the planet is dying – 5 stages of grief anyone?), or commit themselves to problem solving, achieving an ‘enlightened state’ as their values change to conform to what is best for the planet.

In spite of all of this, James was optimistic. The credit crunch, onset of Thatcherism, and the Arab Spring demonstrate that radical power shifts can happen, and happen fast. James predicted that in the near future, oil would become a strong driving mechanism for these shifts, even going so far as to predict a worst-case scenario military regime in the UK as a result. However, the basic human instinct of co-operation is just as strong as the currently dominant ‘selfish gene’, which once activated would direct us towards creating a sustainable, healthy society, with capital wealth accumulation removed as the top priority. Steps along this path are already being taken (e.g., the Leveson Enquiry), with ‘sickness’ being publicly exposed within the hierarchy of power. This slow state of “evolution, not revolution” and the establishment of not just new leadership, but a new target scenario is what James believes will ultimately lead to a better regional and global society.

0 thoughts on “Our Mad World: The Psychology of Climate Change

  1. “This materialistic state is apparently the direct cause of why nearly 25% of people in the UK were suffering from a mental illness last year, whereas this statistic is halved for mainland Europe who are less materialistic. Not being a master of the psychological literature, I have not been able to track down specific citations for this, but it is discussed here in a short (and accessible) publication by James. The cause of this association is apparently down to the conflation of ‘wants’ with ‘needs’.”

    I asked him at the time — he said it was a WHO survey that came up with this statistic. (And described it as being quite a rigourous, well adjusted survey, and mentioned a paper which discusses the way mental health is spoken of in various languages, and presents that as another potential cause for the startling disparity.)

    Moreover, he was pointing out that it’s the all-pervasive nature of advertising in our time that leads to this conflation. Advertising is one of the biggest industries in our country, and in the anglosphere generally, which is in the business of selling us as consumers. It’s altering what we think we want or need: it’s all about trying to use all sorts of clever neurobiological methods of altering what we think. Which, er, has a lot of implications.

    The Public Interest Research Centre, with the WWF, released a very interesting report into this last year, Think Of Me As Evil. Highly worthwhile. George Monbiot, in his blog and Graudina column, describes advertising as a poison that our society is hooked on.

    The nature of advertising is something we should be aware of (and, for it to work, something advertisers want us not to think about), and something we, as a culture, should discuss more.

  2. Reblogged this on Not a PhD Thesis and commented:
    Regular readers will know that one of common themes and bugbears is how the Left and right resort to economic growth to justify austerity or anti austerity policies. Its good to know that psychologically I am in right track and things are getting better even if it doesn’t seem like it. As Hegel says, everything happens in time through a dialectic between resistance and change, Freudian life and death instincts.

  3. Thanks for following my blog, Jon. When reading the notification email, the title of this post literally jumped off the screen at me because (for the benefit of other readers at least), as the subject of my MA dissertation last year, I chose to research the subject of climate change scepticism in the UK.

    As it happens, I have recently posted 3 items on my blog summarising the introductory chapter of this; the third – and perhaps most relevant – of which is: http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/the-psychological-causes-of-denial/

    However, I would recommend that you look at the comments – especially those of Barry Woods (a supposed “sceptic”) who is open-minded enough to post links to documents he does not agree with (such as those over 10 years old that support my argument).

    By the way, I also think it is Clive Hamilton that invented the phrase “affluenza” (or at least he wrote a book about it).

    1. Cheers Martin – I’ll be sure to read them later when I’m not at work 🙂

      Actually, would you be able to send me a copy of your thesis please? It sounds like something I’d be interested in reading!

      1. No problem. Much of it is already on my blog (cunningly disguised as case studies of individual journalists or economists or organisations) but the original document includes a Supporting Evidence appendix that is as long as the main text… 🙂

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