Rita Teusch, PhD, Faculty Member of BPSI. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the Hann Sachs Library Newsletter, which can be read here.
Donna Orange, a psychoanalyst and assistant clinical professor (adjunct) at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy is an internationally recognized teacher of psychoanalysis and humanistic ethics and the author of more than 10 books on ethics, hermeneutics and psychoanalysis written over the past 35 years. Her books include Thinking for Clinicians (2010), The Suffering Stranger (2011), Nourishing the Inner Lives of Clinicians and Humanitarians (2016). Her most recent book: Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics (2017) tackles the important issue of climate change, or, rather, “the climate emergency” as Orange writes. Orange makes a strong argument that our culture at large and each of us personally need to become aware of the dangers, challenges, and ethical demands associated with the climate crisis. She emphasizes a need for “a radical ethics” (Levinas, see below), grounded in the “responsibility for the suffering other.” Orange states: “I believe that only a radical ethics of the fundamental worth of every human life will make the difference we need in the climate crisis.”(p. 120).
This relatively short book (147 pp.) provides us with an effective and illuminating discussion of the climate crisis and its resulting massive social injustice. It is very readable, balanced in tone and compelling in its message. Orange writes with warmth and compassion, sometimes with heartfelt passion, while informing us and addressing our deeply human tendency to avoid engaging with issues that are painful, frightening, overwhelming, and inconvenient. Emerging from climate unconsciousness requires each of us to allow ourselves to be touched by the immense human suffering that climate change is already causing, mostly, so far, in the southern hemisphere of our planet.
Orange suggests that psychoanalysts, who engage with human suffering on a daily basis in their offices, are now called upon to step out of the comfort of their offices and actively assume responsibilities, such as demanding change from governments, living more simply, flying less, and caring for the earth and its inhabitants everywhere.
The book is divided into four chapters: 1. Climate Injustice and Business as Usual: What is Wrong with this Picture? 2. Historical Unconsciousness and the Invisible Present: Settler Colonialism and Chattel Slavery. 3. Beyond Evasion: Psychoanalysis for the Climate Crisis. 4. Radical Ethics for our Climate Emergency. Two appendices are titled: 1. Thoughts after Paris: Climate Solidarity and The UN Declaration on Climate Justice, and 2. Online Resources.
In her introduction Orange states that we as psychoanalysts are uniquely positioned to serve as moral leaders in confronting the climate crisis, because “we have the intellectual and communal resources to take on this responsibility.” She suggests that we not only refocus our attention on the imminent threats to our own way of life, but also to the world’s most vulnerable people who are already suffering the dire consequences of climate change, i.e. economic emergencies and mass migration. We need to become aware of the forms of historical unconsciousness that keep us “insensitive to the suffering we are implicated in and which we are responsible for.” She urges us to “address the defenses that keep us avoidant, and name the forms of traumatic shock that keeps us too paralyzed to respond appropriately,” (p. xiii).
In Chapter 1, Orange outlines the scientific consensus on anthropogenic (human caused) global warming and its already devastating consequences in the southern hemisphere as outlined in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) such as severe heat waves, precipitous decline in the growth of crops due to prolonged droughts, floods and pest invasions, 40% of animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. The science is clear on the even greater dangers confronting us if we fail to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the next few years: sea levels will rise by more than 32 feet by the end of the century, which will put two thirds of our largest cities and large stretches of countries worldwide under water (Indonesia recently announced that it will move its Capital to the island of Borneo, because Jakarta is sinking more than 6 inches per year; 40% of the megalopolis is under sea level). At present, carbon emissions are still rising because the 196 member countries, which had pledged to significantly curb carbon emissions in the Paris agreement, have fallen short of their pledges. Orange cites many advocates who are on the forefront of combating the climate crisis, or who have worked to bring this issue into public awareness, including Bill McKibben (2010, 2014, 350.org), Vandana Shiva (2008), Naomi Klein (2014), Pope Francis’ (2015) Encyclical on climate change and inequality, Henry Shue (2014) and Mary Robinson (2008).
Orange puts global warming in a broader historical and philosophical context, discussing that we in the West have inherited an outsized share of responsibility for climate change. The emergence of scientific rationalism and political individualism in 17th and 18th century Europe paved the way for the climate crisis with claims of a radical split between mind and nature, an emphasis on efficiency, technology, statistics, egoism, and divorcing reason from emotion and sensibility to the human and earthly environment. From the Industrial Revolution in the 1850’s until the present, the US is responsible for 29% of global warming, Europe for 26%, China for 8% and India for 2% (Gardiner, 2011, p. 305).
Orange reminds us that we need not be aware of a trauma for it to have a traumatizing effect. She suggests that we are all in the grip of climate trauma, because our future will be different in ways we have not foreseen and in ways that no one could possibly want. For many there will be no future, for others there will be terrible suffering, the consequence of the developed world’s mindless self-absorption. Trauma has an immobilizing effect, prevents us from reacting with appropriate panic to our current situation, and causes a narcissistic injury to our sense of self and entitlement. Trauma destroys our normal sense of time, creates feelings of disorientation, and impairs our ability to feel what is happening to us and around us, because it causes splitting, compartmentalizing, and double-mindedness, which leads to a loss of solidarity and an inability to face our own responsibility. We feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, which is so systemic and intractable in the face of gigantic economic interests that control national and state politics.
Orange urges us to acknowledge the fact that the climate crisis affects us humans unequally. We in the West still live mostly comfortably, (though the US and Europe have, since the book was published, experienced devastating heat waves, floods and wildfires). However, an increasingly large majority across the world is hungry and destitute. Orange argues that we in the West need to make a commitment to work for “climate justice”, which is an increasingly broad and significant movement, because, she states that “climate injustice is racism.” “We need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million needed for a livable planet, and do this in a way that not only does not further harm the world’s most vulnerable people, but also restores some measure of basic dignity to their lives,”(p. 22).
Orange ends Chapter 1 by outlining that we as psychoanalysts recognize that trauma can be overcome when it is acknowledged and witnessed, traumatic losses are mourned and a new integration can take place. Often the most painful part in overcoming a trauma is working through the shame the person has contributed to their own destruction. Orange suggests that this process of acknowledgment and mourning applies to the climate emergency, with one addition: She calls for repentance of our wrongdoing to others so that we can develop a more humble spirit.
In Chapter 2, Historical Unconsciousness and the Invisible Present, Orange describes that we in the US have largely remained Unconscious about the US history of settler colonialism and ignorant and mute about our crimes of chattel slavery and racial domination and destruction. She draws on Winnicott, Kohut, and Loewald to argue for an expansion of our capacities for empathy, concern and responsibility for the other. To find a path to climate justice, Orange maintains that we need to see and feel these injustices in a concrete way, because “keeping our indigenous people invisible and our people of color abject has short-circuited our capacity to mourn these original crimes and prevents us from developing an ethic of responsibility and concern. To do this, we need to get to know their vast cultural and spiritual contributions. With regard to the current crisis at our southern border, Orange states: “ Building fences along our borders to keep refugees out so that we can continue to live in comfort means pretending that we have nothing to do with their misery. It means forgetting, in personal and collective Unconsciousness that our government massively supported the violent dictatorships, whose successors these refugees are fleeing from.”
Chapter 3 is titled Beyond Evasion: Psychoanalysis for the climate crisis. Orange begins the chapter pointing out that psychoanalysis holds a deplorable record in the face of moral emergencies. She cites in particular the collaboration of German psychoanalysts with the Nazi regime and, more recently, the silence of organized psychoanalysis in the face of the US resort to torture in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. One of the few books on climate change by psychoanalysts so far: 1. a book by the British psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe (2012) Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives, a collection of papers by scientists and psychoanalysts reminding us of our inherent human destructiveness, capacity for splitting, and denial. Joseph Dodd’s book (2011) Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos uses complexity theory and NeoKleinian psychoanalysis to warn us of attacks on linking, which allows us to keep climate change only semi-conscious, unlinked to any usable sense of responsibility, non-integrated. Harold Searles (1972) already wrote about what he saw as our Unconsciousness of what he called “our environmental crisis”. Orange recommends to us Judith Anderson’s website for the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) as a way for clinicians to keep up on the latest science and to make contacts with concerned others.
Orange argues that psychoanalysis as a profession, and psychoanalysts as individuals, need to make three significant changes to embrace the ethical turn in the face of the climate crisis:
- From double-mindedness to single-mindedness. Orange maintains that many of us live in two realities at once, i.e. we know that the climate crisis is rapidly becoming dire, but, due to its enormity, are left feeling paralyzed. Orange sees the reasons for our dissociative evasion of the magnitude of the climate crisis in our fears of vulnerability, and shame and fear of our responsibility. She asks us to understand in a deep way that a single-minded focus on the climate emergency is essentially a struggle for social justice. All struggles for social justice are connected, she says, and these struggles can take varied forms of engagement. The only relevant question is: Where can I make a difference right now.
- From narcissistic-me-first entitlement to communitarian values. Orange suggests that this shift entails a deep conversion for much of first-world society, which, Orange, concedes, is considered by many Utopian. She nevertheless sees it as essential for our common future survival. She provides a philosophical and psychoanalytic discussion of egoism (close to psychoanalytic narcissism), and discusses shame and envy as motivating our compulsive and conspicuous consumption.
- Orange’s third point of change: A shift from elitism to solidarity. Our community of psychoanalysts, she advocates, should be joined into a Psychoanalytic Consortium, within which the historical groups could maintain their own sub-groups and communications. She suggests that we open our training institutes to those who cannot afford the cost of analytic training. She suggests that each analyst personally make a contribution and a change toward more communitarian values. This could take the form of becoming involved with the community, providing financial support for those in need, using public transport and living more simply. On an organizational level, we should make better use of Internet communication, work toward reducing the number of our national meetings and hold them in places that do not price out those who cannot afford the traditionally high costs. We may want to encourage more local meetings of various sub-groups of analysts so that participants do not have to fly.
Chapter four is titled “Radical Ethics for our Climate Emergency”. In this chapter Orange wrestles with the question of what kind of ethics we need to truly engage with the climate crisis. In accessible language she reviews three major philosophical schools of ethics (duty ethics, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics) and discusses their relevance for the climate crisis.
Kant‘s deontological (duty) ethics with its categorical imperative, roughly stated: – I cannot expect of others what I do not require of myself, and: all human beings must be treated as ends in themselves, never as means only- has significantly contributed to the sensibilities encoded in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt after WWII. Kant has inspired important modern philosophers such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Kant’s ethics offers much to climate justice thinkers, prohibiting the use of the earth in ways that radically profits some people (Europeans and North Americans) at the expense of others. However, Kant has been criticized that “the enlightened cosmopolitans” who would manage everything justly belonged undoubtedly, in his view, to the light-skinned people.
Utilitarian ethics (Bentham) is an ethics of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, which Orange thinks has value, however, there is a risk that utilitarian ethics ignores unconscious privilege and may overweight some goods at the expense of those voices that tend to be unheard. Orange advocates for an ethics that sees each human being, as well as “our common home” as precious and irreplaceable.
Virtue ethics is indebted to Aristotle (what characterizes a good human being?). While virtue ethics has lots to offer and may guide us in ruling out hubristic solutions like bio-engineering that would shield the Global North from carbon damage, and require us to moderate our desires for more of everything when others lack the means of subsistence, virtue ethics is founded on the presumption of freedom, Orange writes, “it arose in a slave-holding society”- and therefore needs dialogue to see its own situated presumptions.
Newer philosophical models discussed by Orange include (deep ecology (Macy and Johnstone, 2012), which claim that all species have equal worth (not prioritizing humans), Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics as a dialogical phenomenology, and Asian philosophies (ahimsa and non-possessiveness Schumacher, 1973).
The main focus of chapter four is Orange’s discussion of the “Radical Ethics” put forth by Emmanuel Levinas’ (1906- 1995), cursorily summarized here. Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew, a philosopher and teacher of Talmud. He survived five years in a Nazi labor camp, many in his family were murdered in Lithuania, and he never forgot that French nuns hid his wife and daughter while he was imprisoned. Levinas states that the ethical relation is not between equals, but it is radically asymmetrical, i.e., from “inside that relation, as it takes place, the Other places an obligation on me that makes you more than me, more than my equal” (Critchley, 2002, p. 14.) This Radical Ethics states that we have an irrecusable responsibility to the vulnerable and suffering other that does not go away just because it is less visible to us. Judith Butler (2004), elaborating on Levinas, writes: “The other’s precarious life, questions me, accuses me, persecutes me” (p. 109). In this ethics subjectivity is transformed because only in the suffering of the other, and in my response, do I come into being. Orange concedes that Levinas’ ethics can sound extreme, requiring dispossession, substitution, unconditional hospitality, politically perhaps requiring open borders. His ethics has been criticized for being anthropocentric (Gottlieb, 2014; Smith, 2013), however, Orange believes Levinas teaches us an ethics of care over an ethic of abstract distributive justice. She cites Simmons (2012) who writes that we are living in an era of meta-ethical emergency (p. 229) because we are facing the looming destruction of a livable world. Orange asks: “How, privileged as we are, do we come to see and feel ethically, to respond with welcome to the misery of the other”, (p. 123). She argues with Butler (2004) that exposure to the other’s suffering may be essential, – i.e., the graphic images from the misery we were creating in Vietnam ended the Vietnam War. After his return from Auschwitz, Primo Levi (1988) described a kind of shame for others’ crimes, a shame, he felt “that we, the species of man, are capable of constructing an infinite enormity of pain” (p. 85-86). Orange suggests that we must try to find the kind of shame Levi describes in the face of others’ suffering.
Orange offers a number of concluding thoughts: “Radical ethics means that we cannot go on as we did yesterday, self-satisfied that we are doing our best, or shifting our personal responsibility onto “the system” (Edelglass, 2012). “The terrified faces of the destitute refugees, of those whose homes are being turned into desert or going beneath the sea, threatened by violence, forbid me to sleep comfortably and command me to respond. Every day I must allow them to persecute me, to pull me out of my comfortable life, to make me non-indifferent. For each of us, response will take its own form, depending on how and where we see the useless suffering and hear the cries, and on what our own health allows,” (p. 129). Orange suggests we look to the wisdom accumulated by those who have overturned apartheid, organized the civil rights movement, as well as to our partners in the indigenous communities so affected by climate devastation, to find our way.
I found this book deeply moving and helpfully disturbing. It made me ponder how I can and need to engage with the climate emergency and its ethical demand. I noticed that the websites of our various professional organizations (social work, psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis) do not reference the climate emergency. The American Psychological Association had a task force in 2009: “Psychology and Global Climate Change – Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges”, which included policy recommendations to guide climate action for individual psychologists and organizations (full report is available at climatepsychology.us). There is now also the Climate Psychiatry Alliance with the mission “to enable and embolden the American Psychiatric Association to continue to lead the psychiatric profession in acknowledging, researching, educating and taking decisive action on the various climate related challenges to mental health that exist in the US and globally.”
With regard to BPSI’s engagement with this urgent issue: in 2018, BPSI analyst Janet English and advanced candidate Cris Ratiner co-taught an Explorations in Mind course Mourning in America: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Climate Change. Also, Jack Foehl, in the BPSI Bulletin (Spring/Summer 2019) wrote an article “Psychoanalysis, Climate Justice, and Nature – Three Improbable Activists” (see p. 14-17). These are important steps, yet we still have a long way to go to wake up from climate unconsciousness. I highly recommend Orange’s book to every psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. The hope is that more and more of us become able to hear its urgent message and feel emboldened to take action, in whichever form we feel able to. The Climate Psychiatry Alliance states: It is our professional duty to speak up! We shall not remain silent when the disavowal of reality is leading civilization towards an inexorable existential crisis. Their recommendations: join with colleagues to influence our professional organizations (or to discuss feelings of overwhelm, denial and helplessness), educate ourselves about how climate change affects public and individual health, write OP-ed letters and letters to the Editor in local/national newspapers, write blogs for professional newsletters, testify at public hearings on health and mental health impacts, participate in lobbying efforts that reduce carbon emissions and promote climate justice.
Rita Teusch, PhD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst and faculty member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She is a part-time Lecturer in Psychiatry (Psychology) at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Health Alliance, and provides supervision to psychology interns and postdoctoral fellows at Cambridge Hospital. Dr. Teusch has a private practice in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA
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