“I’m an activist first and a therapist second”, I heard myself saying to Sally with surprising clarity and quite a charge. We had been discussing how to structure a short “self-sustainability” session for staff in a government environmental department as part of “mental health month”. The theme I had proposed for this session was: How do we take care of ourselves as we face the global challenge of climate change? Sally was suggesting that perhaps beginning with workplace issues and then broadening the discussion to more global issues would be wise? Some of them might not even have thought about climate change?
I found myself reacting quite strongly to this suggestion. I had spent most of my career teaching and supporting people, with body-oriented and arts-based approaches, to take care of themselves in difficult life and work situations; but now the spectre of climate change and its implications for life on earth loomed large for me, overshadowing other self-care issues. “If they haven’t yet thought about climate change, maybe it’s about time they did!” I blurted.
Reflecting on these statements of mine later, I am reminded of Jungian psychotherapist James Hillman’s work, with which I resonate. For Hillman, modern psychotherapy needs to be situated in a larger context, the context of our currently dysfunctional relationship with the ecological world. In the 90’s I had enjoyed the conversational book he and Ventura had written, We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy - and the world’s getting worse, which explored the idea of the therapy room as a place to support people’s expression of their discomfort with the status quo and the arising impulses toward social change activism - “awakening civil courage” - rather than pathologizing and ameliorating these as unhealed personal past trauma.
I’ve never been able to stomach the idea of being paid to do corporate “personal growth/team building” sessions whose purpose is to make workers more efficient and happy while their corporations are busy adding to the global capitalist growth enterprise that is rapidly extracting, exploiting and decimating the planet. So I guess that’s what I meant by being an activist first, therapist second.
My urgency voice is stroppily saying: At this late stage of my working life, I don’t want to “pussy-foot” around putting people’s comfortableness before the life-death challenge of climate change. It’s clear to me that socially sanctioned climate change ignorance/denial is not bliss, but a ticket to oblivion for human civilization as we know it and most of our fellow species.
However, then I am faced with the “yes, but…” that George Marshall has so eloquently described in his book Don’t even thing about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. I realise that Sally was right in being cautious, not only for considering client wellbeing, but even in terms of supporting mobilization: confronting people with the facts has been tried by scientists and activists for many years, and instead of mobilization it has resulted in a backlash response. Clive Hamilton refers to as “sinister” the recent labelling of non-violent and legal activists, by Australian Senator Brandis and others in our climate-recalcitrant government, as “eco-terrorists”, “sociopaths”, “climate catastrophists” and “bullies” who practice “vigilante litigation / lawfare” in order to prevent new massive coal mine developments or coal-seam-gas expansion. Hamilton says these words reveal a deep loathing for environmentalists. Such a loathing presumably springs from the defence of a world-view, and a beloved business-as-usual scenario that is now on increasingly shaky ground.
So how do I honour my feeling of urgency without alienating those who might not yet have dared to come face to face with climate change? How do I find a middle ground: facilitating a movement forward toward engaged citizenship rather than either fostering “comfortable numbness” or feeding a reactionary loathing for “greenies”?
Does one answer lie in sharing stories? When I think about the most memorable aspects of recent talks I’ve attended by inspiring social change agents, what stays with me are their stories. Christopher Wright, co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: processes of creative self-destruction, has collected and analyzed many climate change narratives from corporate environmentalists; at a recent Living in the Anthropocene meetup in Sydney, he described how his own “climate aha” epiphany actually came after meeting an Al Gore Climate Reality presenter. Scott Ludlam, WA Greens Senator took what he described as “a risk” at a Festival of Democracy session to tell us a personal story: his mind-expanding experience when he, as a young white city-raised environmentalist, was first exposed to the indigenous perspective on uranium mining on their country. At the same session, Julian Assange spoke to us, via Skype from his prolonged confinement, with some humour about how he draws some optimism from the bungling incompetency of the bureaucratic surveillance machine.
The questions so often asked during Q&A sessions after such presentations are: How did you first become involved…? and How do you keep going in the face of…? We want to know the human story behind the scientific facts and the moral imperative.
Because it is the human stories that contain the seeds of empathy, resonance, that can awaken in us, and make it safe to feel, the enormity of this challenge – because others have trodden that path and survived. Thus perhaps it is by sharing our own climate change stories that we can find that delicate middle way toward a movement that can transition us into a liveable world…