The limits of our actions

Rose Kent writes.

Maya Gimalova and Martin Milton’s letter ‘Taking action on climate change and environmental degradation’ (July issue), exhorting psychologists to become more active in combatting climate change, raises many issues. The majority of these issues have been far more exhaustively explored, even just in the pages of The Psychologist over the last few years, than the authors imply.

However, a crucial concern, I believe, is how the current tide of thinking (particularly amongst educationally-privileged groups) so often leads to conflictual, defensive and irrational conversations based on the fantasy that ‘if I just do my bit, we can reverse this awful catastrophe – you must also’. Many psychologists will recognise this type of statement as an understandable defensive response to uncertainty and a sense of existential panic. Surely the time has come to draw attention to, appropriately challenge and avoid perpetuating this type of thinking?

For example, social psychologists are familiar with the well-researched gap between expressed social attitudes and real-life behaviour. (This is increasingly relevant when we see reports that a brief heatwave in London significantly altered popular beliefs about the relative ‘importance’ of the threat of climate change). It is uncomfortable but necessary to recognise that there will not be sufficient numbers of people changing their behaviour to reverse current trends in energy consumption, however much concern is expressed in public attitude surveys.

Political statements declaring a ‘climate emergency’ should be scrutinised to see if this corresponds to any effective policy changes, rather than being clutched at as an indicator of national hope. An understanding of ethnocentricity should remind us that just because ‘people we know’ are giving up air travel or behaving as ‘ethical consumers’, this is not a reliable indicator of universal trends. Research into the psychology of behaviour change shows how complex it is to facilitate a shift in an individual’s habits, and how behaviour change in large populations is subject to a huge raft of variables, many linked to understanding economics, political influence and leadership trends. Radical thinkers relating this to environmental policy and human behaviour are outspoken in their criticisms of current approaches - see for instance letters from John Raven and Mallory Wober (November 2018 issue).

At a small group and one-to-one level, counsellors, therapists and those who study the psychology of interpersonal behaviour know that challenging someone’s beliefs and behaviours, or exhorting them to change, frequently elicits guilt, denial, defensiveness and other counter-productive responses. Many of these points were raised by Cameron Brick and Sander van der Linden in ‘Yawning at the Apocalypse’ (September 2018 issue).

Individuals’ expressed beliefs and emotions around the themes ‘what, if anything, can be done?’ and ‘we’re all doomed’ will vary considerably according to many  background variables. This makes it even more challenging for psychologists to keep a cool head in trying to make a helpful contribution. Privileged, northern European and North American psychologists (like myself) can find that a mixture of guilt, anger and futility leads to apparently contradictory public statements and actions.

Comparing personal carbon footprint sizes or discussing reducing waste in organisations may enable people to feel less isolated and helpless, but is not going to make any significant contribution to the positive global change that we long for. Psychology is a scientific discipline. We cannot be in denial about climate change, but equally we cannot be in denial about the limits of our personal agency, however painful. Perhaps we all need to work harder at helping ourselves and one another face up to the multiple and complex psychological ramifications – at cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels – of our current global predicament and spend less time on magical thinking.

Rose Kent
Counselling Psychologist

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