Interview with Dr Renee Lertzman on #climate, environmental melancholia and activism

Renee Lertzman, author of the book Environmental Melancholia, has kindly agreed to an interview with CEM (and here’s something Erin Biba (@ErinBiba) wrote, including an interview with Dr Lertzman about the pandemics of coronavirus and racism,and how to cope).

1. Who are you (where were you born, raised, what did you study, where?)
I was born and raised in Northern California, in a semi-rural community just south of San Francisco. I studied at University of California Santa Cruz for a few years, where I forged my path connecting psychology, trauma, psychoanalysis and environmental and climate issues. I went on to study at Sonoma State University in an interdisciplinary program, and completed a MA in communication studies at University of North Carolina, and a PhD at Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences.
2. When and how did you first learn about the existence of climate change/global warming?
This happened for me when I was 18 and in my first year at university. I had enrolled in an introduction to environmental studies course, whilst preparing for my major in psychology. This sent my world into a spin, where I struggled to understand why the traumatic content of climate change/environmental degradation wasn’t being addressed in my psychology classes, and vice versa.
3. When and how did you first start to study it, and how has your work on that evolved over time? What work of yours are you most proud of? Are there any papers/books that you think should have got more attention?
From those early days in university, I stayed engaged concurrently in environmental studies and psychology courses. I never saw these as separate domains. I studied more broadly the field of environmental thought: social sciences, philosophy, literature, business, sciences, and policy. I was steadfastly interdisciplinary in my quest to uncover the underlying psychological dimensions of climate change and ecological threats. My undergraduate thesis in 1993 was called Ecological Trauma. I linked the work of post-structural theorists (deconstructionists), with psychoanalytic thinkers, and environmental and climate issues. I claimed that environmental and climate knowledge is a form of “trauma” and needs to be treated as such. This was decades before this terminology would be as accepted as it is today: when I presented papers on these topics, I was often met mostly with silence, with a few people very keen and encouraging. Those people are what kept me going on this path.
I went on to train at UNC with the environmental communications scholar J. Robert Cox,  looking at the psychological dimensions of environmental media, through exploring the way an organism, Pfiesteria, a dinoflagellate linked with industrial hog farms in North Carolina (CAFOs), was made into a “monster.” I realized that the confrontation with our own human complicity in the abject horrors of climate and ecological crisis was immensely complicated, and how easy it is for humans to deny, evade and disavow the true roots of our conditions, even when it destroys our own world and what we love. While at UNC I worked closely with the anthropologist Dorothy Holland, environmental scientist Douglas Crawford-Brown, and geographer Ken Hillis.
Following my studies at UNC in the late 1990s, I returned briefly to the San Francisco Bay Area and joined a “green” start-up dot com, that launched with 10 million dollars and was a very heady time. After that ‘dot com’ bubble burst, I made my way to New York to start a PhD programme in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). It was while I was in New York that I came into contact with a professor based at Cardiff University who invited me to serve as her research associate for a project about future orientation. Once I arrived in the UK, I then discovered the rich, vibrant field of psychosocial studies and research, and I realized what I had been seeking all those years existed in this highly unique and profound community of clinicians, psychoanalysts and social scientists. People such as Paul Hoggett, Wendy Hollway, Valerie Walkerdine, Rosemary Randall, and many others became vital mentors and inspirations for me.
My PhD research was funded by a foundation in the US, based in the Midwest, so my focus was on the Great Lakes region. I applied my training in psychosocial research methods to investigate “apathy” in relation to environmental and climate crisis, focusing on in-depth interviews in a region impacted by industrialization. I realized I was on to something in 2008 when I landed on the phrase “the myth of apathy,” and promptly placed a piece in the Ecologist with this title. This article then garnered the attention of environmentalists and climate colleagues around the world, and led to many fruitful relationships and speaking opportunities. I clearly struck a chord and the message resonated.
This research and theory then became the focus of my book, Environmental Melancholia, published by Routledge in 2015.
I am very proud of this work, as I believe it sets out precisely why we need to revise our assumptions when it comes to people’s engagement, or lack of engagement, with climate crisis and environmental threats. I argue, based on the many hours spent listening and talking with numerous people, that people care very deeply about what is happening. However there is a perception that it’s “too far gone” and there is a profound sense of loss and mourning. I call this “environmental melancholia” because it’s not being named or talked about, which is precisely what leads people to withdraw and direct their emotional energies elsewhere. The more we can name and talk about the nature of loss and change, whether it’s the seasons, biodiversity, who we were in earlier times, we can free up these vital energies and access our real care for ourselves, each other and the world.
I do feel that the book could have gotten more attention, however, given it was published at such a high cover price (something I was not fully tracking at the time), it was prohibitive for many to buy. I am okay with this, however, as I have moved on and am working on a newer book for a broader audience.
4. In the field of (socio-)psychological responses to climate change, besides yourself, who should activists be reading?
There are many important and vital voices emerging on this scene right now, notably many women. I recommend activists should tracking the work of Caroline Hickman, Rosemary Randall, Leslie Davenport, Lise Van Sustren, Britt Wray, Sally Weintrobe, Paul Hoggett, and numerous others. Activists should be forging alliances and partnerships with trained psychologists who also bring a sophisticated understanding of climate and environmental crises, people who have spent considerable time engaging with these very unique threats. I also think activists need to pay attention to the research coming out of neurosciences, interpersonal neurobiology, and trauma work. I believe we all need to be humble right now, acknowledge our own limits to what we may know, and be open to being guided and informed and challenged.
5. If you had the undivided attention of “the climate activist community” for a few minutes, what would you say?  About psychology, about campaigning strategy?

In what follows, I draw heavily on my TED talk, which you can see here.  These are profoundly complicated and difficult issues to contend with. We simply must recognize that climate change is itself traumatic and traumatizing for most people engaging with it. This is easy to forget if you see the urgency and are filled with rage, frustration, anger, sadness and grief for the lack of human action. These are natural feelings to have, but they will undermine our efforts, unless we can find ways to engage and communicate with people from a place of both honesty and compassion. It’s like my friend and colleague Paul Hoggett says, we need to both be ’tough’ on ourselves and each other, and also to have compassion. Without the compassion, we lack the ability to truly be open to facing what is hard and scary and threatening, and we struggle to have empathy with others. I believe in my bones that compassion and empathy are the most important ingredients to a viable, long-term climate strategy. Because when we are triggered, we are in resistance. And the best way to navigate resistance is by creating relational homes for our messy and complicated feelings, so we can more quickly move into action and planning that is grounded, rooted and sustainable.

6. Anything else you’d like to say?
There is lot more to say but that’s it for now!

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