Monthly Archives: October 2013

Terror, Hatred, Despair, and Hope Must Co-Exist: Reflections on a Discussion with Believers in Near Term Human Extinction

Something remarkable happened a few days ago in the Facebook Group “Global Warming Fact of the Day,” (GWFoTD) something that I think there is much to learn from, especially regarding the emotional and psychological elements of climate change.

Summary of events

What happened is this: the group — which has over 2,500 members, many of them scientists, activists, and others deeply engaged in climate change — had a long, heated series of conversations and arguments which resulted in approximately 10 members being removed from the group (as well as several leaving on their own), and the group becoming “Private,” meaning only members could access and comment on conversations.

The topic of contention was “Near Term Human Extinction,” (NTHE) the idea espoused most publicly by Guy McPherson, that climate change tipping points have already been reached and that there is nothing that humanity can do to stop the climate from changing so drastically that humanity will be extinct within decades.  For many who subscribe to NTHE, including McPherson himself, this belief about the future is paired with the political belief, most popularly advocated by Derrick Jensen, that human civilization is inherently “omnicidal” and must be dismantled.

(Correction! This article was initially published including the following sentence: McPherson believes that if we dismantled civilization, humanity might have a chance of survival, and that other plant and animal species would have a much greater chance of survival. This was my error. McPherson does not think that anything, including dismantling civilization, can possibly save humanity, and nearly all other life on earth from, from extinction. My apologies to McPherson for misrepresenting his views.)

I can’t speak precisely to how the debate started, because when I joined GWF on Sunday, it was already underway. Guy McPherson, himself, was participating. I gather that while this topic is not new to GWF, in the few days preceding, there had been a significant increase of NTHE proponents arguing that “mainstream” climate hawks are in denial about the scope of the problem. The conversation was already hot, and dominating the group’s attention; there was significant rancor. The moderators of the group, who are usually fairly removed, allowing the group to run relatively independently, were constantly monitoring it— asking people to be respectful, to back up their assertions with facts, and to generally trying to wrangle the unruly scene.

When I joined, I was unaware of this context. I was excited that Guy McPherson himself was participating, and rather impulsively entered the debate. I posted this article, which argues that “climate cynicism,” the attitude that humanity is “fucked” and there is nothing we can do, is morally unacceptable. Since we can’t know the future, we have a moral and strategic obligation to dedicate ourselves to creating a social and political movement that fights climate change.  I was shocked when over the course of two days, 520 people made comments on this thread. The conversation can be seen here, but I believe joining the group is necessary in order to view. (It’s a very interesting group J)

 

The conversation was a flurry of activity. People made psychological, moral, and political points, but mainly the argument was about who had the right data, the right projection. Who should we trust to be accurate: the IPCC? Guy McPherson? Government funded science? Scientific consensus? On the surface, the conversation focused on the intellectual: what should we think? Virtually omitted was a discussion of emotions and subjective experience.  How these ideas and propositions make us feel.

A focus on rational thought, at the expense of giving attention to feelings, the unconscious, and subjective experience, is endemic to the climate hawk community. Climate change was brought into awareness through science, and science still offers highly relevant information about the trajectory of climate change. But climate change is not a “scientific” issue, but rather a crisis with social, political, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. It must be examined from all angles. Further, as a psychologist, I know what a formative impact emotional and unconscious processes have on people. Humans operate at multiple levels simultaneously (emotional, intellectual, physical), , and all levels impact each other. When people deny the impact of their emotions on their reasoning, they reach worse conclusions then when they acknowledge, understand, and talk about the emotions involved.

Looking Beneath the Surface: A Psychological Analysis of the Conflict

In this discussion, I will focus on examining the psychological processes that occurred within the climate hawks. I have addressed the psychology of the NTHEers in my article, “The Moral Imperative of Hope and the Wasteland of Climate Cynicism,” which stirred some of this debate. In short:  I argue that this is a defensive process, that the cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect himself from further disappointment. I make the comparison to those who are cynical about love, saying things like, “Women? Who needs them!” People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (i.e. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain. This explains why cynics, such as the NTHEers, proclaim doom so loudly; the hope of others is a threat to their defense of rejecting all hope. This defense, then, is threatened by the hope of others. NTHEers often seem driven to spread their feelings of helplessness and despair and to attack the hopefulness of others,  a drive that, unsurprisingly, can make the NTHEers an obstructive group.

But what of the climate hawks? How can we understand their reaction to the NTHEers? My favorite psychoanalytic writer, Nancy McWilliams, sometimes applies her brilliance to politics. In “Paranoia and Political Leadership” she describes the psychological defense of projection. Projection happens when someone attributes upsetting and unaccepted parts of their self onto someone or something external. For example, a woman might become intensely worried about her husband’s fidelity because she herself was feeling the urge to stray.  Rather than acknowledge the feeling, she disowns it and ascribes it to him. Projection can happen in an ongoing way, too. A family may regard one of its children as “the good one” and one as “the naughty one.” Onto the “good” child is projected the parent’s aspirations and goals, onto the “naughty” child is projected the parent’s aggressive drives, and their shame about feeling “bad” themselves. Both children are unlucky in this scenario, because neither are seen as whole individuals, who have a shifting, wide variety of qualities and experiences.

McWilliams writes that:

At a cultural level, group identity may evolve by a comparable process of contrasting one’s reference group to devalued others on whom disowned qualities are projected: the stoic Spartans versus the self-indulgent Athenians, the pious Christians versus the lascivious pagans, the civilized world versus the savages, the selfless communists versus the greedy capitalists….Freud’s observations about the “narcissism of minor differences” apply here: what seems most threatening to one’s sense of group identity are close neighbors with marked similarity to one’s own group: it is from them that we work hardest to differentiate ourselves.

 

Through projective processes, a group disowns parts of itself and its own experience and attributes them to others.  I believe this process was occurring during the recent conflict. The NTHEers began to represent terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and hatred of humanity and human civilization. The climate hawks (to varying degrees) disowned and projected their own feelings of terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and misanthropy onto the NTHEers. It is no surprise, then, that the NTHEers were soon eliminated from the group entirely.

This type of projective process has two dangers:

1) That it will inspire conflict among between, and the group who receives the projections will likely feel mistreated (the NTHEers, in this case, many of whom did feel unfairly treated during and after the discussion).

2) Worse, by projecting and thus assigning terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and hatred of humanity to an external source, the NTHEers allows the climate hawks to reject and deny these feelings in themselves and in the group.  The climate hawks are pushed to defining themselves against that which the NTHEers represent: to have boundless hope; to be fearless; and to be unambiguously positive about humanity.

Psychologists take as a premise that humans are incredibly complex and conflicted. Another premise is that massive stressors (such as climate change) cause us to utilize psychological defenses, which is why so much of the population is in denial. We should not be surprised (or feel embarrassed or pathologized) when we notice ourselves engaging in defenses.  It should be taken as a given that every human who understands the threat of climate change will experience, to varying degree and with varying degrees of consciousness: apocalyptic terror, helpless despair, hatred towards humanity for bringing on this catastrophe, as well as hope for the possibility of redeeming change. These emotions are reasonable and expectable reactions to the state of the climate.

As a psychologist, I am used to scrutinizing and exploring my inner life. And I can say that I personally experience all of the painful emotions that the NTHEers have come to represent.  I am intimately familiar with the terror of climate change and the prospect of civilizational collapse; climate change is the stuff of nightmares. It also frequently makes me feel hopeless and helpless, although this has decreased significantly since I became active in developing social movement strategies. Still, a feeling of helpless despair has not gone away entirely. I worry that humanity will not create the massive social movement necessary to lower emissions drastically, and I also worry that even if a Human Climate Movement does arise and succeed in fundamentally changing the national mood, climate change will be too advanced to stop. I feel hatred toward humanity, and human civilization, as well. I feel it acutely when I see drivers in New York City idling their cars. I feel so enraged at these people who wantonly emit carbon because they want to keep the radio. At times like this I think, “If we are this selfish and ignorant, maybe we deserve what we have in store.”

I also feel hope. When I write, when I read about social movements of the past, when I see people waking up to the threat of climate change, when I meet allies from all walks of life waking up from denial to fight climate change — I feel hope that humanity may prevail.

These emotions can be painful, confusing and overwhelming, but the most productive, psychologically mature response is to accept these feelings, learn from them, and to turn them into action.  Hope, hatred, terror, despair, and hope must co-exist in all of us. Personally, terror of climate-induced civilizational collapse is the most motivating factor in my life. If I disowned it and projected it onto NTHEers, assuring myself that I did not share such nutty fears, I would be depriving myself of my genuine experience, and that motivating fire. If I pretended that I never hated civilization and humanity, then I would never be able to examine and evaluate this feeling, and consider what about humanity is destructive and what is redemptive. If we take ownership of our wide-ranging, conflicting feelings, rather than denying or displacing them, we are best equipped to think and act.

Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

I tell patients frequently that “There is a crucial difference between thoughts, feelings, and action. In thoughts and feelings, all is permitted. There is no such thing as a thought-crime. Actions, however, matter a great deal and must be weighed carefully.”

I have thus far described why I have no problem with the thoughts and feelings of the NTHEers, and why rejecting their thoughts and feelings is a mistake. They look at scientific evidence and draw a terrible conclusion. The certainty with which they proclaim their beliefs causes me to view them as significantly emotionally-motivated. However, the conclusion I draw from examining scientific evidence is not too drastically different: climate change is a catastrophic problem.  They experience and inspire feelings of helplessness and misanthropy; that’s fine, too. If we climate hawks are honest with ourselves, we can identify those same thoughts and feelings in ourselves.

My problem with NTHEers is squarely with their actions. NTHEers feel that extinction is irreversible, so there is no point in trying to reduce emissions. They can be vocal advocates, attacking those who seek to create change, arguing that it is futile. This cynicism was the attitude that I criticized in the article I posted originally,

I believe that inaction, and especially advocating inaction, is morally unacceptable. We must do everything that we can to create a social movement that instigates a massive social and political response to climate change. NTHE claims that the destruction of humanity is so certain that resistance is futile.  That the problem is so severe (and, in some versions of the argument, that human civilization is so toxic) that we should not fight for humanity. I strongly disagree. To the last, I will fight for my human brothers and sisters, and will ask them to fight for me. If you are not in favor of saving as many humans as possible from the ravages of climate change, then you are not my ally. I will not hate you; I will even fight for you! But our aims are fundamentally opposed.

Conclusion

In closing, I will offer a practical suggestion for the Facebook group “Global Warming Fact of the Day” and other climate change groups and organizations struggling with despair, hope, and the quandary of NTHE.

Currently, it seems that the moderators are arguing that NTHE is scientifically faulty, and thus should not be countenanced. This is a complicated argument that runs into concerns of censorship, and might make members feel that their terror and misanthropic feelings are unwelcome and must be disowned.  Instead, how about redefining the mission of the group as information sharing and networking with the goal of protecting civilization from the ravages of climate change? By defining the group around its goal—its action—it can be possible to welcome into the discussion a wide range of thoughts and feelings. Further, such a blatantly political stance may encourage more discussion of social movement tactics, and encourage members to be more engaged in activism. Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced—hawks and NTHEers can agree on that. Let our self-definition come from an obsessive focus on finding and implementing solutions, rather than from scientific precision or superiority.  My hope is that when we create a massive social movement, the NTHEers will find our hope contagious, and stand with us, after all.

 

 

Best Metaphors for the Climate Crisis

Therapists, especially of the psychoanalytic persuasion, love using metaphors in therapy. Metaphors are vivid, creative interpretations of reality that communicate on multiple levels. Like dreams, metaphors integrate rational thought with fantasy, imagery and emotion; they are simultaneously rational and irrational. Therapists use metaphors to explain psychological concepts, like, “You can’t go over, under, or around grief, the only way out of grief is through it.” We also help patient’s elaborate metaphors for their struggles or their own lives. Patients may say, “I’m a wolf in a trap,” “I feel like the bases are always loaded,” evocatively conveying their internal state.

Unfortunately, climate writing, including scientific reports and news stories often avoid metaphors, in an effort to preserve scientific objectivity and rationality. However, this also robs the report of their emotional power and communicative potential. Speaking metaphorically, I could say that scientific discussions of climate change are often dry, while metaphoric communication can be lush.  Plus, fascinating recent research shows how metaphor is also central to scientific thought.

I would like to collect the  best, most evocative writing on the climate crisis, and how society is responding to it. These will surely contain metaphors! Collecting rich, powerful writing on climate can serve as a reference for writers and people looking to enhance their ability to conceptualize and communicate about the climate crisis. And, it will be enjoyable 🙂

Here are four of my favorites. I think they all illustrate elements of the crisis beautifully and powerfully.  Please send in more!

Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content—eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

–-Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt

 

The currents of change are so powerful that some have long since taken their oars out of the water, having decided that it is better to surrender, enjoy the ride, and hope for the best—even as those currents sweep us along faster and faster toward the rapids ahead that are roaring so deafeningly we can hardly hear ourselves. “Rapids?” they shout above the din. “What rapids? Don’t be ridiculous; there are no rapids. Everything is fine!” There is anger in the shouting, and some who are intimidated by the anger learn never to mention the topic that triggers it. They are browbeaten into keeping the peace by avoiding any mention of the forbidden subject.

— Al Gore, Six Drivers of the Future

 

We’ve foreclosed lots of options; as the founder of the Club of Rome put it, “The future is no longer what it was thought to be, or what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunities more effectively.” But we’re not entirely out of possibilities. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.

— Bill McKibben, Eaarth

 

After a long period of frenetic growth, we’re suddenly older. Old, even. And old people worry less about getting more; they care more about hanging on to what they have, or losing it as slowly as possible. That’s why old people are supposed to keep their money in bonds, not stocks. Growth doesn’t matter. Security and stability count more than dynamism.

–Bill McKibben, Eaarth

 

 

 

Physical vs. Psychological Growth: The Teenage Dilemma!

It has been interesting to read political and environmental critiques of economic growth, coming from a psychology background. Gus Speth, for example, devotes a good portion of “Bridge at the End of the World” to arguing against the doctrine of infinite economic growth.

Environmentalists and progressives decry the evil of economic growth, often calling it a “cancer.” This attitude towards growth was very striking to me because in psychology, growth is great! It is no exaggeration to say that growth is the primary goal of therapy.

Of course, it’s a different kind of growth—when psychologists speak of growth, we mean emotional growth: the expansion or enhancement of capacities such as self-reflection, affect tolerance, empathy and agency. To have better, richer relationships; to be more realistic about oneself and ones circumstances; to not be burdened by guilt, anger, depression or narcissism.  Therapy helps patients build their “emotional muscles,” and grow as people. This is why some people stay in therapy for many years; not necessarily because they are terribly troubled, but is often out of a dedication to growth: the continued desire to get healthier, stronger and more self-aware.

So we have two very different types of growth. Economic growth is a type of physical, literal growth. When the economy grows, we extract more resources, process them, consume them, and dispose of them. Emotional growth happens internally.

What is the relationship between these two types of growth? Between physical growth and psychological growth? Does economic growth encourage or discourage emotional growth among nations and the individuals that comprise them?

To consider this question from an experiential, psychological viewpoint, we can examine the human life cycle. There are two periods of rapid physical growth for humans: infancy and puberty. In both of these periods, the project of growth virtually consumes the organism. In their first year, infants normally sleep 14-20 hours a day! When they are not sleeping, often, they are eating. Babies are quite focused on their physical growth-project.

And what of puberty? What does the process of changing, growing bodies do to teenagers? It consumes them. Obsesses them. Adolescents orient their whole lives around their bodies and the bodies of others. They adorn, display, and reveal their bodies; they evaluate their own and each others’ bodies, carefully and mercilessly, measuring, ranking and critiquing; they pierce and tattoo their bodies; they test their bodies limits through extreme sports, fist fights or risky behavior; they mutilate their bodies in myriad ways, such as cutting, huffing, and eating disorders. They talk endlessly about body parts and body functions. I haven’t even gotten to sex, yet! Needless to say, teenagers also spend countless hours, masturbating, watching pornography, sexting, having sexual fantasies, having or seeking sex, gossiping about who had sex with who and wondering which of their peers are gay.

 

Teenagers are obsessed with bodies. But its not their fault! Their bodies are going through rapid changes, which is confusing and destabilizing.  Teenagers often appear awkward or strange; they are the novice captains of large ships! Teenagers devote a huge amount of effort to getting a grip, a sense of mastery for their new bodies.

And how about teenagers’ emotional growth? Its….. limited. During times of rapid physical growth, the organism devotes huge amounts of mental and physical energy to reacting, adapting, understanding and coping with that growth.  Young adults, once their bodies have reached settled into a more homeostatic state, can start to tackle questions like, “Who am I?” “What do I want from life and how should I go about getting it? Or even, “How can I do good in the world, improving the lives of people I care about?” Adults’ bodies change, of course, and the changes occupy some of our attention. But the relative stability of our bodies allows us to shift our focus to develop mental and emotional capacities.

So does physical growth trade-off for emotional growth in the economy in a similar way? Indeed it does; our spurring the economy towards constant growth affects us on every level of society—causing  group and individual preoccupations; like teenagers, mooning over their bodies, American adults obsess to no end about money. Russel Collins (2000) points out “the pursuit of economic growth became the defining feature of U.S. public policy in the half-century after the end of World War II. Commentators in the 1950S coined the term `growthmanship’ to describe the seemingly single-minded pursuit of exuberant economic growth that was then appearing to dominate the political agenda and the public dialogue throughout the Western industrialized world, nowhere more dramatically than in that bastion of materialistic excess, the United States.” Individually, we devote a huge portion of our lives to earning money, often more than we devote to our families, to our communities, to our education, or to causes we believe in. We compete with our friends and neighbors based on who earns more. We read in the media about high fashion, luxury cars, and multi-million dollar real estate.

All the time, attention, and investment we spend on the spurring growth and adapting to its changes and effects takes time, attention, and investment that we are NOT spent on making our society better. It is not spent on education, on reflection, discussion and collaboration, on improving our governments and schools, on pursuing scientific and scholarly research, on building meaningful relationships with others, or on community projects. Annie Leonard, author of “The Story of Stuff” articulates the same concept in this 9-minute video: The Story of Solutions in which she argues that our economy’s goal is “more” and we need to change it to “better.”

Our obsession with economic growth is harming our country’s emotional maturity, keeping us emotionally adolescent! Ask yourself: Do most Americans spend more energy on growing financially, or on growing personally? Do our elected leaders act like mature adults, or do they act like babies and teenagers, trying to cope with a rapid physical expansion?

The most common metaphor environmental and political writers use for growth is a “cancer.” This metaphor clearly fits; unconstrained growth that can have devastating consequences. I think the metaphor of adolescence is more illuminating, however. We can all remember adolescence: how insecure, confused, and body-obsessed we were. As adults, we can appreciate the gift of relative physical stability; that things stay the basically the same in our bodies from day to day, allowing us to develop other, more internal, parts of ourselves. When you are a teenager, you cannot imagine what it is like to be an adult; it is impossible to comprehend what it feels like to be more mature and less body obsessed. Likely, something similar is true of economic growth. If we brought our economy to a steady-state, we would have more energy to developing our civil society, our institutions, our communities, our discourse, and our governance.

Highlighting the inverse connection between economic and emotional growth is not intended to excuse us from pursuing dedicated efforts to grow emotionally, even as our economy continues to expand. Though it happens more slowly, emotional growth is possible during periods physical growth. Though teens aren’t generally considered bastions of stability, insight, empathy and wisdom, they do move forward. A national-level example: Germany, matured greatly as a country in the decades after WWII, even as their economy grew quickly. To their credit, Germans were able to mourn their huge losses of 2 world wars, and to (to some degree) face the evil of what their nation had done. (The United States and the Marshall plan also deserve credit for helping Germans to feel safe and secure enough to grow emotionally).   Germany demonstrated their maturity through their leadership the EU, especially in sustainability: Germany has become Europe’s leader in greening their economy.

We must dedicate ourselves to growing emotionally, even though we live in a growth-obsessed world. Challenges and loss can be precursors of emotional growth for individuals and groups—they can encourage reflection, reevaluation, and empathy and push people and groups to higher levels of functioning.  Climate change poses the worst threat humanity has ever faced and is already creating widespread disruptions. We must attempt to channel the pain and stresses that arise from climate change into wise action rather than regression and panic. We must push ourselves to new levels insight, empathy, dedication, and maturity. Only by utilizing mature emotional and intellectual capacities will we have a fighting chance of building a social movement that faces the horrifying truth of climate change, giving us a fighting chance of solving the climate crisis. The time for adolescence is over, we cannot afford immaturity any longer, it’s time to grow up.

State of the Blog: Pacing Myself & Exciting Projects

As some may have noticed, my rate of posting on the Climate Psychologist has slowed to some degree, and I plan to maintain it at this slower rate, posting 1-2 pieces a week. This is emphatically not because my commitment to this blog, or to the cause of fighting climate change, has flagged.  On the contrary, a slower rate of posting will allow me to pace myself while working on expanding the blog, making connections in the environmental and activist community, and developing articles and other content that require in-depth research. More specifically, here is what I am working on:

Blog Growth. Expanding The Climate Psychologist to more readers, especially those deeply concerned about climate change, engaged in environmental activism, and in the media, is my #1 goal, at the moment. There are lots of activities happening on this front:

  • I am making connections with various environmentalists and publications. (This occurs partially through readers e-mailing me tips for people I should get in touch with, so thank you for that!)
  • I have been bringing some readers on board to work with me on the project of growing the blog, helping me to publish and publicize my work around the internet, and expanding readership. This is extremely exciting, as it will allow me to use more of my time for research and writing and less e-mailing out pitches and so on! Thanks to all volunteers, and special thanks to Victoria, for taking on the (daunting) role of publicist!
  • I have been working with some outside media, which will hopefully cover The Climate Psychologist. (I don’t like to get too specific, because in my short experience with blogging, I have found that the best attitude is to pursue opportunities as they come up, but to avoid getting emotionally invested in them before they actually happen!)
  • I am in the process of setting up a professional Facebook Page for myself as “Margaret Klein: Climate Psychologist” or something along those lines. I think this will be an important platform from which to grow.
  • If you have more ideas for how I can grow The Climate Psychologist, please let me know! Also, if you want to get involved in these efforts, please contact me J!

Content Development. I am excited about the projects I am working on!

  • I am in the research and development stages of an article on “What do social movements owe their members.” In it, I will argue that social movements must offer their members the chance to utilize their talents and individuality to further the movement; that members must have the opportunity to grow as individuals; to elevate themselves in some way (such as honor, love, community involvement, etc.) This article will include the critique of the idea of “leaderlessness: that I elaborated on, to some degree here. This piece will be a companion piece to my article “Fighting Climate Change is Different from Fighting for Civil Rights,” and will expand the critique that, environmental groups are re-using tactics from the Civil Rights movement, while failing to understand how those tactics had a vastly different psychological meaning in a different context.  My hope is to offer a comprehensive psychological critique of the current state of climate activism, mainly embodied by 350. This critique will be offered in the spirit of collaboration and a shared mission.
  • I am in the process of developing what will hopefully be a series of clinical-type interviews with climate leaders, thinkers, and activists. In these interviews, I would ask about the origins of the subject’s environmental awareness, their feelings about the climate crisis and their work, and generally explore the emotional element of what is so frequently discussed as a “scientific” issue. This project faces some hurdles, as my hope would be to conduct these interviews in person, and ideally have a skilled videographer tape them. (If you have video taking or editing skills, and are interested in getting involved please contact me!)
  • I finished reading Speth’s “Bridge at the End of the World” and will be posting some thoughts on that book this week. I will particularly focus on the psychological dimensions of economic growth, corporations, and the idea of “transforming consciousness” and how therapists tackle these issues. Please feel free to join the conversation!

This is all very exciting, so please bear with me for the reduced posting. I look forward very much to the time (in less than a year!) When I earn my PhD and am able to focus, full-time, on fighting climate change!

 

 

Divestment: A Small Part of Harvard’s Failure to Lead on Climate Change

Last week, President Drew Faust announced that Harvard would not be divesting the endowment from fossil fuel investments. While this is a disappointment, it is a small one compared to Harvard’s broader failure to sound the alarm on climate crisis, and to take an active leadership role in the social movement that must fight back against the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. I agree with Dr. Faust that there are “more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities,” other than divestment that Harvard can contribute to fighting of climate change. Harvard is, after all, an academic institution; Harvard can contribute more to fighting climate change in knowledge, scholarship, and commitment than it could possibly contribute economically. But I firmly disagree with Faust’s implication that Harvard has met, or even come close to meeting, this obligation.

The last time human stability and civilization was imperiled, Harvard reacted with courage and fortitude. Before the Pearl Harbor attacks on 12/7/1941, the national mood was strongly isolationist; Americans were in denial about the magnitude of the Axis threat. They knew that war would involve much sacrifice; so they told themselves that the Axis powers weren’t “that bad” and that it was a foreign war that didn’t concern them. In May 1940, President Harvard President James Bryant Conant delivered a national radio broadcast urging the United States to prepare for war through rearmament and aiding our Allies. This speech earned him harsh criticism from isolationists. That same year, a group of faculty launched the “American Defense-Harvard Group,” advocating US support for the Allies. Harvard scientists shifted their projects to focus on militarily relevant work: radio technology, explosives, and military medicine. This was Harvard at its best, fully utilizing its institutional capacity in the face of a grave threat. The Harvard faculty and administration knew the magnitude of the Nazi and Axis threat, and they stood firmly for that truth in the face of widespread ignorance and denial.

Once war was declared, Harvard transformed itself almost entirely into a war-college, training officers, developing relevant technology, and dedicating itself to victory. Harvard made huge shifts to best facilitate the war effort for example adding a third semester, conducting massive amounts of war research mainly in the sciences, but also through the business school. In 1944, only 19 people graduated from Harvard’s “regular” (ie non military) course offerings.

Once again, civilization faces a great threat, and once again the national mood stands against an effective, appropriate response. We are in collective denial; not able to fully grasp the magnitude not immense of the threat, or the magnitude of the necessary response. Our politicians are hopelessly, laughably gridlocked and our media shamefully minimizes climate change, reporting it as an “environmental problem for our grandchildren” and not an immediate global crisis that threatens all of humanity and is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives through ever-increasing droughts, floods, failed agricultural yields, superstorms, wildfires and vector borne disease.

Once again, humanity is at a crossroads- facing a fearsome enemy but mired in denial about the scope of the threat. This is no ordinary time.

To actually fulfill it’s responsibility to society in this planetary crisis, Harvard must make fighting climate change central to the institutional mission. Harvard showed courage in the face of the Axis threat. Where has it gone? We used to fight for the truth when society was mired in denial and ignorance. But now Harvard has become part of the Lie, pretending that the our climate is not collapsing, that the status quo can continue, with token changes (for example, hiring a new “vice president for sustainable investing”).

President Faust, how about following President Conant’s example and give a televised speech, as a private citizen about the imminent threat of climate change and the need for a massive US and global response? Or faculty, how about forming a “Human Climate Defense- Harvard Group.” Harvard scientists are already working on projects relevant to fighting climate change, and these excellent projects should be expanded and increased. But Harvard should also engage the rest of the faculty as well in studying and contributing to the scholarly project of fighting climate change. Climate change is a human problem, not a “science” problem; it will affect all of us, and all of us have a responsibility to fight against its threat. Historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and theologians have important information they can contribute to the question of how humanity should mobilize to fight climate change. The humanities can help us narrate the struggle, and put it in the context of the art and stories of past human struggles.

Harvard’s responsibility in this time of peril is much, much greater than divestment.  Harvard must speak the terrifying truth of climate change and mobilize in its name. This is Harvard’s moral obligation as arguably the most respected university in the world—one that claims to value truth above all. The cold, hard Veritas is that climate change poses an imminent threat to human civilization, posing a greater threat than the axis powers ever did.

Come on, Harvard. Enough foot-dragging and responsibility shirking. Gather up your courage; its time to lead.

First Strategy Proposal: Ezra on Movement Organization

I’m very excited to share with everyone the first open-sourced strategy proposal I received for the Human Climate Movement. It is submitted by Ezra (last name: Mystery-man. 🙂 This is a  “partial” proposal; meaning it is an addition to my proposal of “Person-to-person, pledge based approach” which I describe here. Ezra’s proposal addresses an element of the Human Climate Movement that I had not addressed: how the organization itself will be structured; how leadership and power will be divided. Ezra is a freelance journalist who is writing a book on Occupy in the US, Spain, and Greece. In his time with Occupy, he gave a lot of thought to movement organization and dynamics.

My proposal, basically, argues that Civil Rights Movement style tactics, such as protests and civil disobedience are not appropriate for fighting denial, and building a Human Climate Movement. I say that to do this, we must focus on containing anxiety. My proposal says that the basic organizing tactic of the human climate movement should be members working within their networks and amongst their friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances to spread the Human Climate Pledge, which commit citizens to the knowledge that climate change is imminent threat to civilization, that it must be a top political priority, and that we must instigate a World War II style efforts to fight it. The pledge commits the signatory to only donate money or time to politicians who have also signed the Pledge, and in an election in which only one candidate has signed, to vote for that candidate.  The pledge can only be given by an existing member, in person, but is recoded on the Human Climate Movement App. When someone signs, they gain access to the Human Climate Movement smart phone App that, among other functions, tracks how many people you have given the Pledge to, and how many they have given the Pledge to.

I included the HCM App as a tool of communication and empowerment; that HCM central could use it as a platform to communicate with members, and so that members could see their impact grow exponentially, as their numbers grew. Ezra utilizes the App, and the amount of pledges given, in a different, exciting way. But I will let him speak for himself. Here is the proposal he submitted:

The great asset of the Occupy movement was its democratic character, which allowed it to spread across the country with magnificent speed. The great weakness of Occupy was the lack of accountability within the Occupy encampments and organizations. Since no one was officially in charge and decisions were accomplished through consensus, anyone, however involved they were, could stall and obstruct the process of political action.

 If we are to spread the human climate pledge virally, it will take organization and resources. In my opinion, this organization and its use of resources must be democratically controlled by its members. This will help attract exponentially more pledges. If people know they have a say in the movement’s direction, they are more likely to join. At the same time, each member’s voting power on certain matters should be directly linked to their recruitment record, which ideally would be verified through an electronic database.

I propose a system of pledge credits, which could help distribute power within the movement in a way that ideally would spur the movement’s rapid growth.

Here are a few ideas about how a pledge credit system could work:

I propose that you should receive one pledge credit for signing the pledge yourself. You should receive one pledge credit if you convince someone to sign the pledge and you should receive half a pledge credit for your pledge’s pledge. This way, it is in our interest not only to sign up pledges, but to have our pledges sign up more pledges.

I propose that political figures should be weighed differently. You should receive 5 pledge credits for signing up a town councilor, 10 for a state senator, 250 for a congressman or governor, 500 for a senator, and 1,000 for the President of the United States. These numbers are arbitrary, and could be modified.

Let’s say the movement is collectively voting on a major financial decision: Should we give $1,000,000 to Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has waffled on the pledge but may win the election, or to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who has signed the pledge but has no chance of winning?

I have accrued 200 pledge credits. The people voting on this decision — anyone who has signed the pledge and decides to participate in the vote — including myself, collectively have 4,000 pledge credits. Therefore, I constitute a 5 percent voting bloc. In the end, 53 percent vote for Stein. Majority wins, and the money goes to Stein.

I propose that this shareholder voting system should only apply to major financial decisions at the national level. There should be other mechanisms of democratic accountability that would aim to wisely distribute power within the organization.

I propose that if you reach a certain level of credits, say 200, you become a member of the organization’s board of directors. This number could be modified on a sliding scale upward year by year, depending on the growth of the movement. Board members would determine personnel matters within the organization and other key logistical decisions, which would be clearly enunciated in a charter. Ideally, board members would seek to make decisions by consensus. If consensus fails, the board should move to a majority-wins, one person, one vote model.

I propose that charismatic movement figures — media spokespersons and political candidates — should be elected or endorsed by a popular referendum submitted to every individual who has signed the pledge. Anyone who has signed the pledge gets one vote, regardless of how many others they have signed on. These charismatic figures should be appealing to the broader movement, not just the dedicated activists who have signed on hundreds of pledges or are on the board. The charismatic figures and the organizational personnel are not necessarily the same people.

I propose that leadership figures — movement staff, spokesperson, candidates — could be impeached by a stringent and robust popular referendum. In order to impeach, over 75 percent of those who have signed the pledge would need to participate in the referendum. Of those 75 percent, at least 2/3 would need to vote in favor of impeachment. Votes would be weighed on a one vote, one person basis — not by pledge credits.

A few questions come to mind. How do we prevent fraud? How do we verify that these people have actually signed on? Should we require that each individual that signs the pledge post their pledge commitment on their websites, social media pages, or the sign-off of their email messages?

How would we organize such a complicated voting system? I imagine we would need highly complex software. I am sure such software is available, however.

Should there be a charge to sign up? A suggested monthly donation? What are the pros and cons of this strategy?

 

There are several things to like about this proposal. First it provides a modified democratic structure for the Human Climate Movement in which activism is rewarded with a stake in decision-making. Second, I agree with Ezra that this type of structure would be very encouraging of the people to join and be active within the movements. Third (and crucially), I greatly appreciate the spirit in which Ezra offered this proposal. He is sharing an idea, based on an area of his expertise and experience, but he is not territorial or defensive about his idea. He realizes that his idea has unanswered questions and needs further refinement; he wants others to discuss and improve on this idea. I think it is a great example of the utility of open-sourcing strategy discussions! (It also makes me realize that maybe I have set the bar too high with my requirements of scholarly citations; Ezra draws primarily from his own experience and imagination, rather than from scholarship, and I think it’s a great contribution, so maybe I should loosen up and encourage less-developed proposals too, knowing that all proposals will continue to develop and grow through open-sourcing.)

So, in the spirit of collaborative open-sourcing, I offer these critique/ comments to Ezra’s proposal:

1)    I think there should be a way of the gaining “points” other than exclusively getting pledge signatories. Otherwise I worry that devoted, introverted members would feel that they were at a disadvantage. There could be a volunteer our conversion such as five hours spend volunteering in some way other than recruiting pledges equals one point. There could also potentially be a donation conversion. Something like donating 1% of your income to the Human Climate Movement earns 10 points. This creates a progressive valuation of financial donations. It is true that tracking/recording number of pledges given is easier than tracking number of hours worked or percentage of income. Those pose more formidable fraud obstacles.

2)    I think that maybe when someone signs a pledge, they should be able to designate more than 1 member who caused them to sign. Though I feel strongly that the pledge should be taken in person, I know that the Internet is a frequent forum for political/ persuasive discourse. So if a friend had began talking with you about the Human Climate Pledge over Facebook, or you had been reading about it on a blog ;), and that is what drove you to seek out an in-person HCP member to give you the pledge, you could credit the online-convincer with ½ a point and the in-person pledge-giver with ½ a point. (Maybe we could break the ‘points’ into finer distinctions, utilizing 1/3 credits or ¼ credits, but I don’t know… perhaps that is too complicated)

3)    I wonder if there should be several levels within the HCM, obtained at (for example): 10 points, 50 points, 100 points, 200, and 500 points, and at each level comes with an increasing level of privilege and power. For example, maybe at  10 points you are included in local leadership meetings, at 50 points you are invited to join local coordination and leadership efforts. At 100 points, you are invited to listen into board conversations, at 200 points you become a voting member of the board, and at 500 points you get to work together to set the board-meeting agenda. I think that having a gradating structure can be motivating and satisfying for people to work hard and ascend.

4)    Crucially, we need an organizational structure that favors qualities that we want in leaders. I think this one does. People who gain power in the organization will have earned it through dedication, hard work, and communicating effectively with people. These seem like important qualities to have in leaders. But is it possible that I’m missing something? Is it possible that this structure would allow for a faction of some kind to gain too much power? Could this structure be undermined by corporate interests some how? Or, as Ezra worries, fraud?

What do you think, readers? Is this organizational structure the right way forward? Do you see areas where it (or any other part of the plan) can be improved? Are you as excited as I am about this? Many thanks to Ezra for the proposal. May it be the first of many open-sourced contributions to Human Climate Movement Strategy!

Think Before You Act(ivism)

An important goal of many therapies is for the patient to develop the capacity to reflect before acting. This may sound easy, but when people are overwhelmed by emotional distress, to act is a natural response. The key, then, is to make emotional distress less overwhelming. Psychologists talk about “Affect Tolerance” which means the ability to tolerate powerful, often painful feelings. If a patient doesn’t have good affect tolerance, they will do things like quit their job because they become angry at their boss, book a vacation because they are sad, or have sex with a stranger because they are lonely. These actions don’t even feel like choices, the person is driven to dispel their painful feeling. In therapy, we work towards separating out the feelings from action. Sometimes, it’s the right thing to do to quit ones’ job, book a vacation, or have sex with someone new, but its always better to think the decision through, first.  There must be a moratorium period for reflection and consideration that goes between the emotion and the action. Often, if one stops, thinks, discusses with others, the action becomes unnecessary, or a different action arises as a better solution.

The importance of delayed action, commonly called “delayed gratification” was captured in the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. It was a simple experiment: give a child a marshmallow, and tell them that you must leave the room. If they wait to eat it until you come back, they can have 2 marshmallows. Then, measure how long the children can bear the pain of waiting. Can they wait? Or must they act now? The results are striking. The length of time a child can wait for gratification is correlated to a wide variety of future outcomes more than a decade later: SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and body mass index, to name a few.  (Here is a cute video of children taking this test, struggling not to eat the marshmallows)

Simply put the ability delay action is critical for humans. Without it, we are slaves to our emotions; totally at their whim. The ability to stop, reflect, and take considered action gives us a huge degree of power and control over our destiny.

So how does all this relate to activism and the Human Climate Movement? Quite a bit, I would say.

The reality of climate change is horrifying. When people intellectually and emotionally accept Climate Truth, a formidable psychological achievement on its own, they become acutely emotionally distressed. How could they not? We are careening towards civilizational collapse! So, often, they feel impelled to do something NOW. A protest! A boycott! Something! The question of what to do, how to do it, who to do it with, and so forth—questions of strategy and planning, become secondary to the emotional need to act.

The preference of activists for acting over thinking and reflecting is, of course, enshrined in the name. Activists are  do-ers. They are  do-gooders, and they deserve our gratitude for their efforts. But sometimes a focus on action can come at the expense of thoughtfulness.

In this acute species-wide, planet-wide crisis, we need more than action. We need to think this through. We need to stop and reflect.  The question is: what do we do now? How can we act to optimize humanity’s chances of survival? How do we build a social movement that fundamentally changes the national and international mood and incites drastic, coordinated action? What is the best strategy?

These are the most important question in the world.  We must treat them with the respect, and the patience that they deserve. We have to talk about movement strategy. What are the best plans and how can we combine them and improve them?

This is not a conversation that should occur behind closed doors. It should happen publicly, openly. We must open source Human Climate Movement strategy. I have offered a comprehensive plan for a social movement that is based on psychological, cultural, and historical analysis. It is a “person-to-person, pledge based” approach that utilizes a “Human Climate Pledge App” for smartphones. You can read more about it here.

Though I believe that my proposal offers an important analysis, and the strategy I propose is innovative and has real potential for efficacy, I am not egotistical enough to believe that it should be the last word in Human Climate Movement organizing. Quite the opposite. My hope is that for other scholars, social scientists, activists, and climate writers will improve upon it, refine it, or offer their own strategy proposals, which can be further refined and combined with each other.

This open-source, collaborative conversation is already starting to happen. People are starting to contribute ideas, which I am going to begin publishing very soon. But the conversation needs to grow exponentially. We need to hear from historians, artists, activists, economists, and climate writers. We need to hear from the great minds of our time, and those who have devoted their lives to study or activism. To emerge with the best plan possible we will need to integrate many perspectives.

This is our task at the moment. Not fighting climate change, but deciding how to fight climate change. Call it… thinktivism.

Some will say, “The situation is too dire! We must act now, we don’t have time for a discussion.”

 I would remind them of the saying, “Take your time. Especially when you are in a hurry.” When we rush, we are error prone and often counterproductive. Impulsive activism has no chance of saving civilization from the ravages of climate change.

So here is what to do when you feel the terror of climate change in your gut, when you are seized by despair at what humanity is facing, and you feel impelled to act: try thinktivism! Join the discussion or advocate for the discussion.  Embark on a course of study. Read about the history and theory of social movements, about psychology or religion or politics or anthropology or some other field or and utilize that information for creating and critiquing strategy proposals. Or help promote the conversation. For example, college students can advocate that their institution make saving civilization from climate change its top priority and demand that professors and departments submit proposals for the Human Climate Movement open-sourced strategy discussion. Non-students can promote the conversation in other forums.

Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. We must act to stop it. But first, we must decide how. First, we must think, together.  I hope you join me.