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.
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.