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Sea levels will continue to rise, Homes will be flooded. Weather will be more extreme with droughts, floods and hurricanes.  There will be shortages of food and widespread famine. There will be epidemics of disease, mass migration, civil unrest, war. People will suffer a loss of livelihood and liberty. There will be a complete breakdown of civilisation. Predictions of the effects of climate change are apocalyptic.  It seems that ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but is calamity that imminent or are our media outlets too short of money and too high on catastrophe and ‘fake news’.     

It does not seem to me so long ago that our then prime minister, The Right Honorable Mr Harold MacMillan, The Westminster Walrus, told us that we had never had it so good.  He was right.  The sixties were a time of optimism and freedom when everything seemed possible and few were aware of a warming planet.  Public optimism has been going downhill ever since.   

50 years on, we may have not quite have reached the point when governments must step in with radical solutions, but we have perhaps reached a critical stage of awareness.  If patterns of extreme weather continue and begin to impact on our way of life, we will all be spending more of our income on essentials like housing and food and less on holidays and entertainment. Cheap flights will disappear.  We may have to give up our car and get a bike.  Many of our individual freedoms will be curtailed or become very expensive. Our diet will become less diverse as imported food will cost more.  The attempts we may all have to make to avert or mitigate the most catastrophic losses, will threaten our aspiration, culture and identity and involve the loss of our accustomed lifestyle.

Nevertheless, many will respond to such doom-laden predictions with indifference, apathy or cynicism.  Increased awareness of climate change has not yet translated into appropriate concern and action.  How can we think about it without either going into denial or sinking into depression and inertia?  At a recent meeting of The Sheffield Psychoanalytical Journal Club, my friend and fellow therapist Stephanie Howlett presented for discussion a paper on ‘Loss and Climate Change’ by psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall, director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint. 

Climate change is like getting old or facing a terminal illness; it’s a loss that is bound to happen. Life, of course, is a terminal illness, but we only become aware of that when we approach the end and can experience the symptoms of decline.  So we might gain some insight into how to cope with climate change by thinking about how elderly people cope with their impending demise.  But climate change is not just something that’s facing the elderly, it is something that affects the young as well.  And the elderly among us may never experience the changes that will affect our children or grandchildren; the major effects of climate change on food supply and population dynamics may not occur for another 20 years.  So is the fear of climate change something that affects the young more because they will experience the worst effects or does it predominantly affect the old because they are already aware of the end of their own lives?  Young people often regard themselves as immortal; death only happens to their grandparents.    

So how are people dealing with the reality of climate change?   Some, like Donald Trump, deny it is happening.  They regard it as fake news, exaggerated by a sensationalist media, but isn’t that itself an assault on truth?  More acknowledge the reality of climate change, but disavow its seriousness. Disavowal means you don’t have to face the anxiety; it is happening elsewhere.  The present continues to feel safe but fear is split off and projected into the future; on the one hand,  false comfort; on the other, nightmare.  If we can manage to stop catastrophising the future and wrapping the present in cotton wool, we may diminish both extremes and make loss manageable for our children and grandchildren.  

Others may accept the reality of climate change, but blame others; the Americans or the Chinese or those with expensive cars and life styles, all the while maintaining their own way of life. It’s the same with Brexit: the government are hopeless and the EU vindictive.  Ministers downplay the seriousness of the situation and affect an attitude of control; they have to, otherwise they would never be re-elected.  In psychoanalytical terms, both are examples of collective splitting and projection.

Even if we full acknowledge climate change, we all have to find our own way of dealing with that reality if we are to avoid sinking into hopelessness and depression.  Some may adopt a manic defence.  ‘I’m alright Jack: I can have a good life in New Zealand or Scandinavia. I am not going to let it affect me’. Or ‘ok I know it’s going to happen, but I will make the most of the time left to me’.  The broadcaster, Clive James, has been dying for years but in the meantime has managed to write some of his best poetry.  In The Story of San Michele, the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe observed that during the devastating cholera epidemic in Naples, people took to making love, often with complete strangers – on park benches, in fountains, anywhere – as if in a frantic bid to find life in the midst of death. 

Although we may wish to accept what is happening and engage with it in a positive sense, most of us will probably protect ourselves by banishing it from our minds and not thinking about it until something forces us to. Death is going to happen but not yet.  Continual fretting about the impending loss can only lead to depression and inertia – the less you can do, the more loss you suffer. But when loss remains unspoken, then change and adjustment cannot follow.  A better understanding of the nature of the loss might allow it to be brought back into public discourse and for people to feel a sense of agency.  God-fearing members of religious communities may regard death a necessary sacrifice to assure everlasting life in Paradise.  Our current secular society does not have such comforting delusions.  

But is climate change something we can engage with?  Or is it, like a terminal illness, an overwhelming inevitability.  Engagement means facing up to our own destructiveness.  Mother Earth is both our breast and our toilet and we are destroying both by compromising food supply and polluting the planet.  Can we ever assuage our personal sense of guilt by getting a bike, not going on long haul flights and installing solar panels?  Maybe not, but by engaging, it may feel good to be part of a solution, however futile.

Loss, even anticipated loss, involves a gradual withdrawal of energy from the loved object. Grief is a process of adjustment and acceptance, always in progress, two steps forward, one step back, never complete.  When a loved one dies, life can never be the same again, but meaning can be restored and it may even become possible to flourish.  With climate change, it’s our world that must end. How can we ever get our minds around that?  Denial and disavowal may be part of an ongoing process that may allow that painful reality to be assimilated. Many of us may accept the idea of climate change intellectually but moving from there to the reality of a lived emotional experience and acceptance of its irreversibility may not be possible. 

Perhaps we should all join the Green Party and campaign for radical solutions?  Collective action can make people feel so much better when they are in the jaws of calamity. Sharing the enormity of the problem might paradoxically garner enough  support to make life tolerable if not enjoyable. During the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill did not attempt to hide the stark reality of Britain’s situation and was able to appeal to a spirit of resilience in the British people.  Hope, however futile, can always stave off feelings of despair and the ensuing inertia.  But does the same communal sense of purpose still exist in our current narcissistic society, where every man and every woman are for themselves and posting it all on Facebook. It is likely that most will only engage when endgame is upon them, but that will only be to turn to religion. 

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