Why the environmental movement failed (and how it might succeed): Ecopsychology as a piece in the puzzle.

I went to an interesting talk on Sunday evening by “Eco-psychologist” Sandra White. She was exploring denial in the context of responses (or lack thereof) to climate change.

What is denial and what triggers it? White characterized denial as a psychological defense mechanism against information we cannot cope with acknowledging – the way in which our subconscious protects us from facing the unfaceable. In the context of climate change “the unfaceable” might be the acknowledgement that our current collective behaviors are exterminating much of life on Earth and preventing the possibility of a decent existence for future generations. This conflicts with our cherished belief “I am a good person” and so the mechanism of denial kicks in – we deny the reality, or even the possibility, of dangerous climate change due to human actions.

This notion of “I am a good person” is worth exploring more explicitly. The current behaviors and aspirations our culture sanctifies and normalises as “good” (those same ones ruining everything for current and future generations…) are intimately bound up with our sense of individual identity. Success is equated with the acquisition of material possessions and various six-figure salaried careers, in the service of the very institutions ravaging nature and civil society. The surrender of possessions or the lowering of career aspirations can come with feelings of guilt, shame and failure stemming from loss of the identity that society constructs as the measure of “goodness”. White says she has experienced people in floods of tears over having to sell  their 4×4 – the loss of identity this represented to them was palpable.

This surrender of social status is irreconcilable for most of us – we want to be good, acceptable and socially useful individuals – and so the loss of identity is defended against through the mechanism of denial – we deny vehemently that any frightening metamorphosis, made in defiance of society’s current norms of personal values and measures of success, needs to be made. I sympathise of course – humans are social animals. It is not easy to be an individualist – Diogenes never did find his “honest man” and Thoreau put the number of them at “nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”

White claims that our subconscious may equate this fear of loss of identity with the fear of amputation of a limb, or even death. Of course if this is the case evolution has kitted our psyche out with powerful defenses against such perceived threats – climate change denial will not be a simple thing to overcome. This is where environmental activism and the “failure” of the environmental movement comes in. One reason, perhaps, why activists and scientists have been unsuccessful in persuading people of the reality of climate change (and are in fact losing ground in the U.S.A) is that they have taken into account only the physical reality of their data and not the psychological reality of their audiences. White said clearly in her talk that she regards both as equally important.

Why is psychological reality equally important? For many people the data, the facts per se, are not the issue. People don’t, for the most part, reject the possibility of anthropogenic climate change because they have dispassionately considered the data and remain unconvinced. Instead, their subconscious rejects it out of hand, because the implications are too frightening to acknowledge. Their conscious mind creates a rationalisation for this subconscious rejection. Maybe it is sunspot activity? Maybe this is a conspiracy to implement world government or increase taxes? Maybe climate scientists are falsifying data or sensationalising their claims to secure more research funding?

It doesn’t matter what the rationalisation is really – it is entirely incidental. Engaging with the rationisation directly is therefore often a waste of time – what is really going on “beneath the tip of the iceberg” is the subconscious mechanism of denial. A story is created. Its details don’t matter, just the intent behind them: to wave away the pesky scientists and their “facts” and re-legitimise the person’s current identity. Activists and scientists can scream data until they are blue in the face and they will never change the mind of somebody in denial – in fact they will only strengthen the denial mechanism, by upping the ante.

Apocalyptic imagery – only making denial worse?

White argued persuasively that as long as activists and scientists fail to acknowledge this psychological reality, they will continue to fail to convince their audiences of the reality of climate change and the need for decisive actions now.

White characterises the problem as:

People do not have sufficient psychological resources to face the scale of destructiveness via cultural norms with which they are identified.

The question that must be answered is then:

How do we create conditions at a community level that allow the unfaceable to be faced?

The necessary community response was characterised as agreement to engage in an act of collective sacrifice: the lowering of personal standards of material acquisition in the service of a higher goal – the preservation of planetary eco-systems and future human societies. For this sacrifice to be agreed to by communities, White argued that two conditions must be present:

1:-  There must be love of the Earth – people must agree that the above “higher goal” is justified.

2:- There must be unity -people must believe that the sacrifice will not be made in vain ( “why should we cut emissions when person/city/country X is not doing so” etc etc).

Unfortunately in today’s world there is both a lack of love for the Earth and a lack of unity. Living in our “techno-bubble” of urbanisation we are cut off from nature. Our appreciation of eco-systems for their own sake (and even our sense of how they sustain our own existence) atrophies. Living under conditions of  economic serfdom, the dominant institutions of our society turn us into individualistic “atoms of consumption” and pit us in economic competition against one another, obliterating the remaining vestiges of solidarity within our communities. This means that the conditions for sacrifice are not present within today’s global society. People expect the sacrifice to be in vain, so they are not prepared to make it. White summarises thus:

Because the conditions for sacrifice are not in place, denial becomes the necessary psychological response.

She concluded with the notion that it is important to acknowledge people’s denial of climate change as a valid psychological response. People are not being contrarian or stupid – they are just being people! Seek to understand and not condemn the behaviour of others – if you understand it, you can work from a place of compassion to change it. Let us get to work then! There is much to be done!


A Q&A session followed, which was itself an interesting window into “Ecopsychology”. There was the standard self-identifying of audience participants as either “pessimists” or “optimists” which always makes me think of the following from Donnie Darko:

“Just place an x on the life line in the appropriate place!”

One audience member dared to articulate the notion that strategies tried so far (ask corporations to play nicely, get governments to collaborate on limiting emissions) were doomed to failure. This was interpreted (somewhat unreasonably, I thought) as a suggestion that no strategy whatsoever was viable and hence we should become resigned to mutual annihilation. Other audience members reacted quite emotionally to this perceived attack upon their movement, accusing this person of having “given up”, period (what a person who has given up, period, is doing at a talk about Ecopsychology in the context of coping with climate change, is a question they might have asked themselves).

If the environmental movement wants to progress and learn from its past failures, it might seek to refrain from jumping on such notions (e.g. the suggestion “Maybe what you’ve been doing for decades isn’t working? Maybe you should change tack?”) from a very great height whenever they are expressed. Maintaining false hope in unworkable strategies, all to act out some charade of group solidarity (“say cheese for the camera!”) is not especially helpful. Despair can be acknowledged and worked through, not left to fester just under the surface of a movement’s cheery, “optimistic” exterior, waiting to explode the instant pressures begin to mount. So “Ecopsychology” was demonstrated by the audience to be just as vital a tool for those acknowledging the reality of climate change as for those not currently acknowledging it: the stages after “denial” are supposedly “anger” and “bargaining” – equally important to work through with compassion!

In the Q&A session White also described her individual psychology approach as “a piece in the puzzle” of how we ride out this century and put a stop to ecocide. There are of course factors other than individual psychology behind refusal to deal with climate change. In this blog I tend to focus on systemic, institutional factors: the troubling reality that we have created institutions that incentivise (moreover legally oblige) our “captains of industry” and “masters of the universe” to behave in ways that endanger the survival of our species and much of life on Earth.

Call this institutional reality if you like – I say it deserves an equal place with White’s physical and psychological realities. The most fruitful approach to climate change will then be to acknowledge the simultaneous reality of physical data, institutional incentives and individual psychology and to devise a strategy which respects and incorporates each to determine a trajectory of appropriate individual and collective action.


~ by freedomthistime on April 25, 2012.

6 Responses to “Why the environmental movement failed (and how it might succeed): Ecopsychology as a piece in the puzzle.”

  1. Great post, thanks. I guess what also doesn’t help is the fact that environmental activists, especially the ones organized in institutions and working on campaigns year after year, gradually learn to dismiss the viewpoints of climate change skeptics and develop an attitude of “us against them, the ignorant”. They grow bitter. Whatever our message is, with this kind of attitude it won’t reach anyone, but only contribute to the kind of denial you are discussing here. I have no solution, though, just a growing weariness of people in institutions (sorry to say).

  2. Yeah… I have no solution either. I don’t think this system will be “fixed”. It seems we’ve built a hugely complex civilisation none of us is really in control of. It has no concept of “enough”. It only understands “more”. By its nature it will be compelled to take more and more until it runs headfirst into a biophysical wall. Perhaps we have hit the wall already and just don’t know it yet?

    However, acknowledging the above is not “giving up”. Once more people see things starting to unravel they will want answers. Those of us that are a little bit “ahead of the curve” have the potential to do important work preparing the ground for them.

  3. Oops. Should have been: http://tiny.cc/notconsumer

  4. We have to concentrate our efforts on taking back the “education” of our children in nursery, primary and high schools and create a curriculum that from an early age instils a new psychological acceptance of environmental respect and creates a new value system based on family and community. Not one based on the fallacy of infinite economic growth and the novelty culture. We should even be considering less formal “education” and be ready to challenge the notion that putting our children to work (unpaid!) in schools all week on subject matters that seem to have become the righteous universally acceptable way to live. We might even consider starting a debate about population while we’re at it! Who controls the subject matter and decision making of the education system? Does anyone know? “Food, clothes and shelter. All the poor man askin’ for.”

    • I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at education, which is far from perfect, but… I’m not sure if this is the major source of these problems. I think a lot of people today are quite unhappy with established work norms.They know our way of life today is unsustainable and harmful. They want more free time for friends and family. They want a simpler and less stressful life. They want more ethical jobs that allow them to earn a living without ruining the future for their children. At least I hope so: I hope I’m not just projecting here…

      They want all that, but they can’t have it because the dominant institutions aren’t structured to allow for it. This is the “institutional reality” I was talking about at the end. I think we need a broad-based social movement able to challenge this “institutional reality” and envision alternatives to it. Perhaps this is a start? http://www.iopsociety.org/

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