Janet English, PhD, is a BPSI Psychoanalyst Member. Her below remarks originally appeared as the introduction to the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.

We decided Mother Earth was weeping. Weeping for herself. What other explanation could there be for the reliably monotonous weekly downpour, uncannily synchronized with our Tuesday evening class this past fall on global warming? “Mourning in America: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Climate Change” was a course offered in BPSI’s “Explorations in Mind” series. Conceived and taught by Cris Ratiner, PhD, and myself, the course grew out of our increasing conviction that the work of mourning, so central to psychoanalysis, needs to go global.

Every class needs a catchy title to incite interest. “Mourning in America,” a nod to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan “It’s Morning in America,” locates what I believe is the central dilemma humanity faces: Collectively, we must do the hard work of mourning the damage we have inflicted on our earth and attain what Melanie Klein so aptly named “the depressive position” before it’s too late to restore our environmental surround. We need to recognize that our greed and insatiable hunger to exploit and consume the earth’s resources have done significant damage to the planet. Reparation and repair need to occur. We need to achieve a sense of guilt over our destructiveness. Our inability to mourn has left us paralyzed in a state of global melancholia, rendering us incapable of successfully mourning the loss of our environmental security. The global mobilization of paranoid-schizoid defenses, such as projection, denial, and splitting to fend off profound annihilation anxiety (and this time real annihilation, not the psychic annihilation of the consulting room) are sorry and unsustainable strategies for dealing with the mess we have made of our home.

Our class was a lively and robust mix of familiar BPSI members and newcomers. Some wanted to find a like-minded group with whom they could learn, others were looking to arm themselves with knowledge to pass on to children and grandchildren. Two young participants shared a curiosity about both psychoanalytic theory and social activism. We all came out of fear and dread.

The course tackled climate change from multiple angles, all based on the assumption that, as Harold Searles so presciently noted in 1972: “ Man is hampered in his meeting of this environmental crisis by a severe and pervasive apathy which is based largely on feelings and attitudes of which he is unconscious” (p. 361). Whether or not we will succeed in arresting environmental collapse rests much more on psychological factors than on scientific facts. The reality is that the lack of effective climate response is not due to a deficiency of facts or technology or policy solutions. We have the scientific knowledge to begin to reverse global warming. What we don’t have are the psychic resources. Our present day “apathy” about global warming is, as Renee Lertzman outlines in her book Environmental Melancholia (2015), not merely a lack of interest, a lack of action, it is the presence of something: a psychic pressure to not know, not act, to not respond. Apathy has meaning. When we see it clinically, we understand apathy as a communication about an internal dilemma. Apathy, denial, and resistance are all solutions to an untenable, complex, and painful internal situation.

Climate change is one of the most polarizing issues of our day. The temptation to collapse the world into combatting social and political enemies is seductive. Political party affiliation has been shown to be the strongest correlate for individual beliefs about climate change. The partisan divide about climate change is ground zero in the culture wars. Battle lines are drawn. Cris and I did not want our class to devolve into weekly “us versus them” sessions whereby “we” (the highly educated, enlightened, open minded, sane, rational, informed) smugly devalue “deniers” as ignorant, indoctrinated, selfish pawns of the right-winged incendiary media. We recognized the temporary satisfactions of living in a narcissistic schizoid world of outrage and superiority in which “the other” (Fox News) is not accorded equal validity. Our goal for the class was to create a model for thinking constructively and creatively about tackling the challenge of climate change, both within ourselves and in the wider community. To do this we (tried) to adopt and maintain a psychoanalytic attitude of curiosity about man’s maladaptive response to our shared global threat. We tried to think about climate change denial and splitting responses in the same way we think about symptoms and defenses psychoanalytically with our patients. We don’t lecture, bully, or argue our patients out of their blind spots. We don’t moralize or berate them in the hopes of changing their minds about deeply held belief systems. Why are we doing that to those who disagree with us about the fate of the earth?

We learned a lot about marketing climate change. Global warming is a tough sell. Sermonizing, bullying, and moralizing tactics do not seem to be altering public opinions, either in public arenas or the small spaces of our consulting rooms. What is successful is a strategy that aligns messages about cleaning up the planet with what people care about: their children, their grandchildren, and their paychecks. A demoralizing finding from communications science is that politically right leaning populations do not respond positively to images of suffering people on the other side of the world. Nor do they respond to images of starving polar bears, or other animals in danger. Documentaries focusing on dried up crop fields, shrinking glaciers and, yes, starving polar bears are seen by the right as evidence that we tree huggers are nothing but a bunch of immature, whiny, emotional, panicky leftists, demanding that they “give up” their God given right to their “way of life.” My guess is that the anxiety and guilt generated by those images initiates a need to locate weakness and dread externally, hence the derision heaped on those of us who feel and own such feelings.

Our class spent a fair amount of time discussing what it means to “believe” in global warming. A belief is a mental state. But is it a cognitive state? Does a belief have to be true? Does a belief have to be justified? What about opinions? Beliefs, opinions, and facts all have different standards of provability. Or at least they used to. In this “post-truth” era, what does knowledge consist of? How do we make a claim of truth and fact? More often than not, we chase “facts” that conform to our beliefs, not the other way around. How has it come to be that political opinion is mistaken for truth? Epistemological issues regarding how people arrive at what they “know” about global warming is a slippery topic. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously stated, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” A charming idea, perhaps once true, but not so anymore.

So we met, as Mother Earth shed her tears. A like-minded group. Intelligent and afraid. Old and young. We worked hard to remain curious, to preserve empathy, to understand self-sabotaging stances as desperate measures for desperate times.  And we, ourselves, fought against our own apathy, helplessness, and dread. We came away with a powerful and universal truth, one easily forgotten as we live our disconnected lives: Coming together in recognition is the engine of progress. It is a psychoanalytic truth, brought to bear on a global scale, one small group at a time.

Janet English, PhD, is a BPSI Psychoanalyst Member. She has a private practice in Boston, Massachusetts.

Janet English can be contacted by email here.


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