Psychologist embarks on 500-mile cycle to COP26

Clinical and Community Psychologist Dr Carl Harris set off from London on the Ride the Change on Sunday – a 475-mile bike ride to reach Glasgow for the start of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. Ella Rhodes spoke to Dr Harris, also Chair of the British Psychological Society's Community Psychology Section, ahead of his journey.

Why did you want to take part in the bike ride, is it the first time you’ve done anything like this? 

I ran for the BPS President role earlier on in the year and, perhaps naively, I thought that my first act would be to get on my bike and ride from London to Glasgow in advance of COP26. I didn't win the election but then after a little while I thought I could still do the route.

It was prompted by a sense of wanting to take some sort of responsibility, or to make a demonstration. This is so important and I wanted to do my bit to draw psychologists’ attention to it at this crucial time. When you take part in something like the BPS Presidential election, it makes you feel much more visible. Nobody would have heard of me before, but when you do something like that you kind of think ‘perhaps I do have something that I should stand up for’ so that's what I did.

The only time I've done anything like this ride was when I was in my 20s, so that’s about 30 years ago and it was a holiday and wasn’t as far! Since I signed up to the ride I've been doing 20-mile bike rides two or three times a week.

I'm doing it with a group called Ride the Change – I originally spoke to Tony Wainwright, Chair of the BPS Steering Group on the Climate and Environmental Emergency, and Annie Mitchell, DCP South West and Psychologists for Social Change South West, about the idea and they agreed I should do it. ­­­­Then Tony found the group who were doing the same ride at the same time so I've joined them, so I'm not going to be doing it on my own. Around 60 people are riding the full route with other people joining for a day or two here and there.

One of the things that made me want to join that group was because I thought there was so much I needed to learn about climate change, and the people on that ride are all interested in climate change – that's why they're doing it. They’re from all different backgrounds, there’s activists and all sorts of organisations involved – so I feel like it is going to be a physical but also an intellectual and learning journey. I think it will probably be emotional as well, because every time I come into contact with information about climate change that highlights just how complex, urgent, and critical it is, it makes me feel a range of emotions – sometimes a bit despairing and sometimes galvanised into action, especially when I’m with other people.

Are Extinction Rebellion Psychologists part of your involvement with the ride?

Both Tony Wainwright and Annie Mitchell are members of Extinction Rebellion Psychologists. Climate change is making people look at the boundaries that they set between different parts of their experience as human beings. Extinction Rebellion Psychologists generally do events that are quite thought provoking. Some psychologists who are members of the group have been arrested

Recently the psychologist Greg Dring went through a whole tribunal process with the Health and Care Professions Council [due to their involvement in an Extinction Rebellion protest] and one of the people who testified in support of them was the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of Clinical Psychologists, Professor Mike Wang. The psychologist was vindicated and what that flagged for a lot of people was that our organisations are having to think about where they position themselves and that we, as individual practitioners benefit from their support. Some organisations say that protesting about climate change is actually an essential part of their professional role, they would say that it is something you should do. I'm not anticipating getting arrested because I’m just riding my bike up the road! But this ride is going to be a kind of space that organisations can express themselves into.

So, in terms of expressing into this space, I am going to do a bit of ‘craftivism’. I’m taking a fishing rod with me, and I’ve got some bunting and I’m going to be sewing the initials of the different organisations that I'm associated with as a psychologist into the bunting. By the time I get to Glasgow I'll have this array of flags – it’ll have the BPS on it, it'll have Extinction Rebellion Psychologists, the Climate Psychology Alliance and Psychologists for Social Change, just to demonstrate that with something like climate change, we need to be thinking really carefully about our roles but, ultimately, we need to be coming together. Organisations like the BPS need to be making a really clear and proactive stand on climate change.

You mentioned that climate change is forcing people to look at the boundaries they set between different parts of their experience as human beings – I know some people feel completely hopeless in the face of climate change – do you feel psychology has a role in addressing that?

If you want to get a view of the range of positions that psychologists take on climate change it’s very interesting. If you go to the Climate Psychology Alliance discussion list you’ll find people in some cases highlighting the need for action, some people saying we need to accept the fate we have created. There are people saying that what is happening is the result of our actions and there is very little we can actually do now – and that’s not an easy thing to hear.

Where do you sit on that continuum would you say?

I thought that climate change was going to affect us all in about 50 years’ time. I’m a community psychologist and I’m interested in collective action and the bike ride is a good example of that. But also I thought I should find out more about the environment because community psychology is also about how we’re affected by our environment. I went to a meeting of the Climate Psychology Alliance in 2019 and the first presentation was from a guy called Jem Bendell saying that he was in the camp of ‘there’s very little we can do now, we just have to accept it’s coming and do what we can to adapt’ and that it’s going to be pretty catastrophic. His perspective was that in the Northern Hemisphere we live in a wheat-based economy and that within the next 10 years it's very likely that there will be a climate-based crisis around our food source. I found myself sitting in a room full of people who were nodding along and I was thinking, ‘oh my god is this for real?’ At that point in time I was feeling very despondent and that we just needed to try to mitigate the impact.

But I do feel like giving up isn’t an option. If you talk to young people about some of their experiences, there’s people who say they aren’t going to have kids because they’re just too worried about the future for them, and that’s just not fair, we need to try and do something about it.

I hear that, while you’re on your bike ride, you have plans to release some video interviews you’ve done?

Yes, along with Sally Zlotowitz I co-chaired the Community Action and Resilience workstream of the BPS Covid-19 Coordinating Group and one of our colleagues Maria Fernandes-Jesus at York St John University co-edited a special issue of Community Psychology in Global Perspective. There are a number of people who contributed to that who are all community psychologists engaged in work with groups of people who are affected by climate change. They all agreed to be interviewed, they come from around the world, which helps with taking a more global perspective.

So far I’ve interviewed Carlie Trott from the University of Cincinnati and two South African psychologists – Brendan Barnes and Daniella Rafaely (both University of Johannesburg). The idea is to help people look at how community psychology can be useful in this area and thinking about how psychology can play a role. Those interviews will be published on YouTube and there will be a link to them on both my Ride the Change website and the Extinction Rebellion Psychologists website. I couldn’t do this without the support of Extinction Rebellion Psychologists – they’re dealing with the website and some will be in London and Glasgow for the leaving and arriving ceremonies.

I’m also going to be carrying with me a petition that’s been drawn up by psychologists and psychotherapists in the UK, Germany and around the world which calls for climate action, so that will be handed over to me at the start of the ride and handed back in Glasgow.

Instead of asking for sponsorship all the cyclists have been asking for people to make climate pledges for a couple of months – like cycling rather than driving or eating less meat which has been organised by the Ride the Change. I would be really grateful if people would follow the links and make pledges, it’s a great way of getting engaged. Once we have done that, my next concern is about how we turn those individual actions into collective action, and how we put pressure on world leaders to actually respond. External pressure is really important – the demonstration that people are interested in this and that they care – I think that’s the biggest and most important part of the ride from my point of view.

- Find much more on climate change in our archive.

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