John Thorne: Psychology, Creative Practice and Climate Change

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

This blog comes to you from John Thorne. John is Sustainability Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art. Here he opens up issues which frame Saturday’s Climate Psychology Association Scotland 1st Annual Conference: From the personal to the social: Climate psychology and the sense of responsibility. Booking here.

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We live in a time of great anxiety due to Climate Change, but our response is muted. Only a psychological approach can help us accept our possible futures and to take action, only creative practice can show us how.

“Mother and Child” by Frank Bruce https://www.facebook.com/FrankBruceSculptureTrail/

A few years ago an eminent group of psychoanalysts and psychologists realised that many more people were presenting to them with clear signs of Climate Change related anxiety. The group formed the Climate Psychology Alliance to highlight the psychological issues being faced by individuals within society, and sought to involve other professional disciplines. The CPA aims to use psychology to help people understand their emotions regarding climate change, how to respond to them better, and to form a basis for action to mitigate Climate Change.

The psychological effects on individuals within society (the “psycho-social” effect) caused by Climate Change go deep into our ancient, instinctive selves, but is a distant issue that doesn’t yet impact on our daily lives. Our instinctive reactions, built on 50,000 years of cave-person development doesn’t deal with distant threats well: we are programmed to notice and run away quickly from charging elephants, but are ill-equipped to react to a herd of elephants many miles away. Or to put it into a modern context, we react fast to issues around family, work and hobbies, or a flood on our doorstep, a burglar in our house, a punch to the nose, but slowly if at all to a creeping, existential threat to the climate.

The threat to humanity is existential. We face a societal collapse through changes to our climate. Our reaction to this psychological threat is a psychological process where we disbelieve, hide, transfer that feeling of threat, grab at possible tech fixes, are angry and confused, blame others, avoid responsibility, and respond by losing ourselves in the easy hedonism and busyness of our modern capitalist society.

If we allow ourselves to feel at all, we feel guilty; for every thing we buy, for every action we make. We know it has an environmental cost, but in a complex society there is no escape: the most organic carrot is wrapped in unseen fossil fuel plastic for delivery, delivered on a diesel truck, seeded and harvested by a diesel tractor whose tyres are made of fossil fuel plastic which all directly links to this existential threat….the links go on and on and it is overwhelming, which causes us to deny that it is happening now, happening to us.

The types of denial range from negation that it is happening at all, to disavowal, the dangerous state in which we know but deny at the same time, sometimes defined as “turning a blind eye”.

Denial is powerful. We can ignore 1,138 deaths in one clothing factoryand still shop where the cheap clothes are sold; we buy DVD players whose makers have gone blind making them, wear gold and silver mined in slave-conditions, and use mobile phones containing minerals from conflict ridden areas whose miners don’t get paid a fraction of their real value to us. We are all guilty just by being, breathing, taking the car to Tescos, eating, travelling, taking a holiday or heating our homes.

This isn’t just present guilt, but it is the sins of our fathers too. We live in a society that has developed as a patriarchy, aided and abetted by a male-led series of religions that puts our soul and distinct categories of humans above everything and everyone else. This is useful. Once we devalue something or someone we can subjugate them to our use, and use and dispose of them at will. There is a reason we have words such as “savage” in our lexicon, why animals have no rights, and why we feel entitled to take what we need, including the contents of the sea, and fossil fuels that should remain locked forever in the Earth.
In the past 20 years we’ve lost 75% of all insects. In 40 years we have lost 40% of all global wildlife. In 50 years I have been alive our proliferation has added 4.1 billion extra people. We lose 13% of Arctic ice a decade, and parts of the Arctic are over 20°c warmer this year than usual. We are already psychologically in mourning for our future loss.

The planet is dying, and fast. Current projections by the IPCC do not include feedback loops which will accelerate change. We know Climate Change is happening, but are underestimating both the catastrophic extremes that are imminent, and the speed at which permanent damage will be done.

Feeling anxious? Feeling helplessly guilty yet? We’re stuck in a capitalist system from which there is seemingly no escape. But it’s been no accident or natural progression to this state of greed. It is not naturally evolved, it is designed, and actively and consciously managed to keep us consuming. Some of our best creative people work where the money is – marketing this impossible, threatening nightmare.

We’re told to “save the planet” to minimise our impact, a term that generalises the threat when the real losers here are humanity. We talk of save the rhino, save the whale, but the psychological elephant in the room is the loss of us, ourselves.

We are told that the choice is ours: we have the power to change the World by recycling, we are told to “do our bit”. Such minimised responses to existential threat are damaging. Recycling is largely useless, it confirms our entitlement to keep consuming, creates another industry to profit from, externalises the ownership and cost of packaging to the consumer and then the council who collects it at society’s cost. It does not slow consumption and stops people taking further action.

If we are to face up to our existential threat we have to realise that we are all guilty. You are guilty. I am guilty. Not just the ruling elite presently grabbing all the money they can, but the consuming middle classes protecting what they can hold on to. All of us live in a modern society that is developed, funded, shaped and supported by exploitative consumerism. We all live on the backs of others, unseen, un-thought and unreported.

Today’s response to the psychological threat of climate change is to not discuss it, or lose ourselves in the hedonism of online life. The considered, thinking response is hampered by years of specialising silos within the artistic and scientific discipline: it is perhaps 200 years since the last of the great polymaths died: artistic and scientific disciplines are no longer shared by individuals, and the disciplines themselves do not interact. History does not talk to psychologists, environmentalists not to businesspeople, artists not to engineers.

The scientific explanation of what is happening is often impenetrable. We need a translator, a group of people who can emotionally connect us to these complex global changes and challenges. We need the creative.

The Creative Response

If we’re all guilty, then how to change the system? The fact that we are in a system is one hope, for systems can be changed. We must focus not on consumer-led demand responses, but on systematic change to supply. Not on plastic free supermarket aisles by 2042 and electric cars by 2050, but by fundamental re-examination of how we got here, our historical debt, our current impacts and painting possible futures.

There is hope in change and humankind’s ability to adapt. If we’re to free ourselves from a fossil fuel resource economy then everything made of oil must be redesigned – thousands of things and millions of jobs transitioned or created, and society and the role of work transformed. Disruptive and innovative change is possible, but relies on a psychological approach to trigger that change.

This psychological response can be proportional: we are each one in 7.6 billionth of the problem, but those who can should do more. We must make the best use of whatever our professional or personal power is; we don’t all have to be raving tree-huggers, though I do recommend it for psychological relief. Take action where you are, or where you can position yourself to be to have maximum impact.

We should examine our feelings: Climate Change is not an environmental issue; it is an emotional, social and cultural one and overwhelmingly a psychological one. Creative practice has a powerful role to play. It has the ability to link us emotionally to visions, issues and action, not raising our anxiety levels but lowering them to useful levels, allowing us to take action. It can reconnect us to ourselves, to each other and to nature.
What we don’t connect with we don’t value: consider refugee deaths in the Med, or drying-up lakes in Africa, we have never met or seen such people or things, so have no connection and no value to their loss. The greater the numbers of people killed, or the amount of water lost, the less we can allow ourselves to care, or risk psychological damage. Creative work that connects us to the death of a refugee mother, the fisherman who is losing his livelihood, or the suffering of the animal without water, can cause us to connect, care and take action.

Creative images can shock us, from balls of carbon around skyscrapersto turtles mixed up with plastic fishing net, from the picture of the last rhino to apocalyptic films. The benefits of such images are arguable, and cause raised anxiety and negative reactions. Don’t we know all this already? We’re just not connected to it in any usefully psychological way.

David Attenborough’s programmes, much loved by millions, are a double-edged sword: we are asked to value our natural environment, but are given a vision of the Earth as full of animals and diversity, perhaps as we remember as children, when in fact we have lost so much. We subconsciously know this, and part of us mourns for a past without hope for a future.

These are powerful feelings that shape who we are and what we feel able to do. Creative practice, carefully shaped, is able to balance information and make connection with our levels of anxiety: if we’re too upfront about the issues nothing gets attempted.

The correct use of language is vital. We should talk about the existential threat to things we love and connect to – which aren’t polar bears and white tigers, or artic ice flows, or Lake Chad, but ourselves and our children. Only a creative and psychological approach can quickly connect us emotionally to issues and provide possibilities to change the system. Knowing we are in a designed system can lower levels of anxiety to useful levels, that the system can be changed for the better.

Humans respond to stories, and art & design can tell a positive future story, good enough to drown out the siren calls of consumerism, hedonism and comfort (for some) of our current global system. We need to talk, paint, sculpt, build and design to tell the story of a clean energy economy which works for all, one with naturally fertile soil and clean air, a World where people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or colour are equally valued, where flora and fauna are seen as part of a planetary system not as mere common commodities. A place that recognises that to save our children we must save the planetary system.

This creative vision isn’t something less, it is something more. It is not a cost but a benefit for all. We need to inspire environmentalists, many of whom are worn down from the destruction of the Earth’s systems and see little benefit in trying to change or to save our culture. We seek a new model of development, and creative people need to show us this possible future.

We might be the first society on Earth to successfully transit from one harmful system to another more caring one. History tells us that such transformations are rare if they have ever truly happened before. But does the complexity and knowledge of our society make us able to buck the trend and change before we collapse?

Art can open our eyes to the realisation that we might end, and that we might not see our children grow up. Imagining Modern Fossils we might leave behind for future archaeologists to dig up helps highlight our present follies. There is a role for extinction art, making us aware of what we have lost so we can better protect what we have left and encourage the reinstatement of habitat.

Humans have a natural desire to leave a mark, to have made a difference, to give our lives purpose, and creative practice can record and celebrate the good that is happening across the planet.

Much as our modern society has manufactured consent to our consumption-rich society, so too can we use creative psychological approaches to re-establish connections within ourselves, to each other and to nature. There is a positive story to be told of a new society. This society will have to be innovative and disruptive in its system design, allowing people, even corporations, to transit to new ways of thinking, and for current systems of production to transit to new methods of supply. The creative arts can help explain where we are, what we can each do, and how to get there.

Whatever your profession or practice you can further explore these themes with the Climate Psychology Alliance. The Scottish branch has a conference in Glasgow on Saturday 21 April at the Glasgow School of Art.


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