Thoughtful Response on Climate Change from Mary-Jayne Rust


Very thoughtful reply – to which I shall also reply shortly – on climate change from the Grande Dame (sorry M-J – you’re not Grande at all, but very influential…) of Climate Change psychology, Mary-Jayne Rust.

(Picture here is this time of the most gorgeous hoarfrosted spider’s web seen this month in the Cotswolds.)

“I really enjoyed reading your piece. Here’s my rather long response! I think what you are pointing to is very important; it’s no good skirting around the facts that we must face. It’s what used to happen with terminal diagnoses – many of the older generation would rather not know the bad news. (My father still agrees with this).

Families, as well as doctors, would shield the patient from the grim facts. To some extent, this is quite a good metaphor for what we are seeing now – the fear of revealing the shocking facts in case the person, ie the collective, go into terminal decline/depression/chaos/ and are unable to function. “We must keep them optimistic at all costs, focussed on a positive future, and that means hiding the real scenario”.

However, diagnosis, prognosis, and then claims of certainty about the future are three very different things. I would agree with you wholeheartedly: that our diagnosis is very serious indeed – we are hanging by a thread; prognosis bad too – that if we continue with business as usual, we are very likely to be toast; and that when the time comes when death is certain, that one must surrender, otherwise a very extraordinary opportunity may be missed.

But where we disagree is that our future is certain and that we are at the stage of needing the hospice, that we must surrender to extinction, and prepare as best we can.

I don’t think we have reached certainty yet. The scientific facts are an essential part of the picture but they are just that – PART of the picture. While science may predict the death of an individual, and this may be correct some of the time, there are times when individuals miraculously recover.

Science is not all-knowing, it’s not omnipotent, it cannot explain everything that happens. For a system so vast and complex, we cannot possibly see the entire picture. I also think we do not know for sure precisely what stage we are at. Also, the scientists freely admit they cannot predict how this complex system will respond, especially once homo sapiens REALLY gets into gear and starts using our genius to think outside the box….and I do think this is just beginning to happen. It might be too late already, but I don’t agree we have certainty on that. Even Jim Hansen thinks there may be some leeway.

Back to where we agree: absolutely I think the seriousness of the situation needs communicating, for that shock of realisation of where we are engages us in a process. Hopefully we wake up bigtime and go on a journey. But the danger is that the shock pushes some people further into denial – either ‘fuck it, let’s just party’ or ‘we’re doomed I can’t think it’s all so depressing, apathy reigns’.

I think that the direction people might take in response to the shock depends to some extent on the skill of the communicator, and there are complex issues around where we locate hope, I think. (I don’t rely on the certainty of us getting through this. My hope lies in the possibility that we can engage with whatever is facing us now. It’s my experience that when we do that in a profound way, then extraordinary things happen).

I am feeling more optimistic than I was. Since 1992 most of the activists that I have been friends with have said privately that there is little chance, if any, that we will pull through – that it would take a miracle. Over the past few years I have begun to wonder what might happen when the human genius really turns its attention to our situation. This is only just beginning to happen.

I think that there may be things right outside the box of our thinking that may emerge. Not that I think we are omnipotent. I still hold as a possibility that we will become extinct. But I also hold the possibility that we may pull through, in the final second.

Staying in this not-knowing place is the hardest of all. Being overly optimistic is not helpful at all. But neither is being definitely pessimistic. And curiously, just as in our individual process, it is necessary to go through a (sometimes very long) phase of mourning and darkness, including great pessimism when all appears to be lost, before the new can emerge. I think we are in this liminal and very unknown dark place.

To create certainty at this point re-creates the defined box that we are caught in. Surrendering to the unknown allows the box to open and for limitless mind to pop out.”

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Is it too late on Climate Change? Thoughts for a New Year

It’s a beautiful world… Trees, left, in Northumberland. But it’s a world we must not take for granted.

German friends of mine, now in their early 60s, wrote in their Christmas letter of asking some older fellow countrymen what it was like in the late 1930s when everyone knew disaster was looming.

“We just got on with our daily lives, and somehow hoped it wouldn’t happen. It was all we could do.”

How familiar. Annie Lennox was interesting on Jules Holland’s Hootenanny New Year programme on BBC 2. “We’re all heading for catastrophe,” she said, and had to make a joke of it. Duhhh, she added. No one else on the programme picked it up. 

Rather as with a piece I wrote a year ago for therapy today, the monthly journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Editor Sarah Browne made it the cover article, but although I know that many read it, there’s been no exchange of letters, no follow-up. It’s all just too hot. 

There’s a curious lack of connectedness in how politicians, media, ordinary people are approaching climate change. As indeed the financial meltdown. It’s as if all the survival and sustainability issues now coming up to bite us are discreet, and separate, rather than being part of one whole, coherent narrative. Of which climate change and the threat of cataclysm for our species is just the biggest and most directly joined to everything else.

From the therapist’s perspective, it’s like working with a client who wants only to deal with the symptoms – anger with the boss, for example, hyperactive children, stress in a relationship – rather than seeing issues in the context of their root causes.

That is of course how people, on the whole, function individually. So it’s perhaps no surprise thatit’s the way mankind in its entirety continues to function.

Perhaps in 2009, people will start to talk in new ways, and begin to join the dots. The Earth will propel them in that direction, in the light for example of new research from Jim Hansen of NASA highlighting 350 parts per million (ppm) as the limit of CO2 concentrations which the Earth’s systems can cope with in the longer term while maintaining a climate that works for humans. That’s way below the assumed safe levels that governments have been working with, and we’re already at around 375.

The science is beginning to scream at us, and although there are many who caution against using the language of apocalypse, for fear of disempowering ordinary folk, in my view there’s no point in pretending that things aren’t extremely bad, and much worse than most people realise. Even if there is, possibly, hope that things might be turned around in time.

Indeed, every indicator of climate change, especially polar ice melt, is changing even faster than the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC. Which was predicting up to 6.5 degrees of warming, in worst-case, by the end of THIS century. And that’s scientists speaking at their lowest common denominator.

And people still don’t want to know, even those in the Green movement. My wife Sue was on retreat over Christmas, brought this up, and was in effect shouted down. “It doesn’t help” said one of fellow retreatants, incensed and very angry. He denied it, but Sue and I call that denial.

In psychology, this Head-in-the-Sand position is known as Cognitive Dissonance. Clients may know that something is killing them – addictions, or anorexia or whatever. But they can’t make the connection that would change their actual behaviour.

The Economist was interesting just before Christmas. If a meteorite was heading for the earth, and guaranteed to destroy civilisation, would the world’s governments work together to head off that threat, as a matter of extreme urgency? Of course they would. In which case, wondered the writer, if the science is true, which even the Economist now acknowledges it is, why can’t they do the same on climate change?

The coming months are critically important in this discussion, with the world’s governments preparing to meet in Copenhagen from November to work up, possibly, a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol. 

That was already fatally flawed, even without George Bush keeping the US out of it. But the process is politically the only show in town, and it might help concentrate minds.

Media punditry over the holiday period does not incline me towards optimism, predicting continued inability to reach agreement. And if people thought the economic meltdown was an opportunity for new thinking, the evidence so far is very disappointing.

Just some New Year thoughts.