Working with therapists on facing the worst

Bringing climate change into awareness: presenting the issues

Climate Change Attitudes Questionnaire
Climate Change Attitudes Questionnaire

Tree Staunton, Stroud-based body psychotherapist, and I have been exploring ways of facilitating honest and uncomfortable discussion among fellow psychotherapists about the reality of climate change and what this will mean for us as a species.

As you may have read elsewhere on my site, I have personally reached the conclusion, on the basis of very clear science and very clear psychology, that this 21st century will very probably (as in, almost certainly) see the end of our present human civilisation, and the death of most of the planet’s human (and tragically also non-human) inhabitants.

So, how do we address this  as therapists? The following article was written by Tree for publication in the autumn edition of Transformations, the quarterly journal of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility.

We would like to share our thoughts and learning about presenting the issue of climate change  to groups of people. This is very much a work in progress. Mark presented a workshop at the Psychotherapy and Politics Conference in Glasgow in May; Mark and Tree offered an evening to a network of therapists and counsellors in Gloucestershire,in October, and Mark recently offered a workshop to the therapists at the Cotswold Counselling Service.

We would describe this as a global learning curve – Mark commented that a collective learning was taking place. Just as he and the most recent group were able to break new ground, so we can assume that  other groups in other parts of the world, at the same moment in time, are also finding new ways to approach the task, to bring new ways of thinking and being with the issues that face us.

In each of the presentations, Mark’s  Climate Change Attitudes Questionnaire was used to open up discussion of feelings and attitudes. With our joint presentation we wrote in the blurb ‘We promise an uncomfortable and thought-provoking evening with very few answers but a lot of extremely important questions.’ Numbers were not great in either of the last two and the general feedback from organizers seems to be that people do not want to come and to face such difficult truths.

We are discovering that things CAN be faced and progress can be made if we provide the proper containment and holding structures. The evening jointly run provided some issues to process between us, as Mark was distracted and left early, and I was left feeling that the ‘holding’ was not adequate.

One participant fed back afterwards: “I was left feeling desperately uncomfortable (you could say you achieved your objective!) and stirred up by the very effective presentation and discussion about the reality of climate change. What was missing for me,….was discussion about how we as therapists can work with this, both in the therapy room and beyond it”

When we processed this together,we could understand Mark’s ‘flight’ from the evening in a wider sense as acting out the wish we all have to runaway from the consequences of our collective actions.

What Mark subsequently managed to achieve was a structure which allowed survival of the discomfort so that people could come through to a place of action.

Using models of understanding rupture and repair, we need to call upon all of our therapeutic wisdom to hold ourselves and others through the flight from despair and  into acceptance.

Here is the format Mark arrived at in his last presentation.

After the questionnaire and discussion of the scoring and what this brings up in the group, the science is presented. Mark’s working model arises out of Lovelock’s view that we are heading for an unavoidable catastrophic end to our present civilization.

Climate change is the overriding factor in this – global heating not just warming – but other factors are critical too, such as the loss of over 50% of our animal and plant species, acidification of the oceans, and the breakdown of our web of life.

What Mark struck on in the last workshop was a way of staying with the ‘heavy leaden feeling’ that ensues after the presentation of facts, and to enter an experiential exercise to confront us with ‘what now?’

The powerful metaphor of the Titanic has been around for Mark during all the recent discussions – as he says on his blog “I find myself (forgive the cliche) thinking Titanic. Yes, it might just yet be possible to avoid hitting the iceberg and saving all the ship’s/planet’s passengers. But a far greater likelihood is that we will indeed be holed by the climate/sustainability iceberg, and that, as with the Titanic, only a minority of those on board will survive.’

But for small groups of people to be able to bear to sit with the reality of this image and to come through with their priorities and solutions is another step in consciousness.

Mark noted in his latest workshop that when he confronted them to ‘Think Titanic’, the mood of the meeting changed as people became empowered to consider realistically and practically how they would act.

Suddenly they could move from “I’ll just go to the bar and drown my sorrows” to realising for example “I’m not really concerned about my own individual survival, but about the survival of consciousness, the preservation of values….” This lead to discussion for example of how to build and prepare ‘lifeboats’ and who and what should be in them.

Plunging ourselves into the – admittedly well-worn – Titanic scenario experientially leads us into the territory that is currently  missing in public discourse, between trying to stop the catastrophe and sinking into despair at the thought that it’s inevitable.

Being with ‘It’s going to happen – what shall we do?’ brings a new perspective that is only possible if we can confront and bear the reality that the politicians, the media, captains of industry – representing of course our shared consciousness – are unable to face.

Therapists are in a unique position in this regard – or at least potentially – as many of us have confronted our fantasies of omnipotence, and faced our despair, and developed practices and resources to sustain ourselves within an acceptance of ‘what is’. Our work in this field is developing and expanding at a necessary pace, and we welcome any reports from your own explorations.

Further information about how awareness of climate change fits with our wider and deeper relationship with the natural world can also be found at

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