We at Climate Emergency Manchester think emotions matter. We are in the middle of a series of blog posts where core group members give their take on fear, hope, joy and hate, (love is on its way, but it may tear us apart). Our Student Guide to the Climate Crisis opens not with Svante Arrhenius and polar bears, but rather climate grief and how to cope with it. Part of this awareness is to do with how emotions can be, for social movement organisations, a great servant but a truly terrible master. If your activism relies on adrenaline, testosterone and collective effervescence, chances are your group will go up like a rocket and then come tumbling down like a stick, with few survivors of the wreckage, and a lot of collateral damage.
And this awareness comes, in part, from engaging with the fantastic work of Ro Randall, a psychotherapist who has kindly done interviews with Manchester Climate Monthly in 2013 and 2020, wrote a fantastic climate activism novel called Transgression (reviewed here), and does brilliant this-is-how-you-do-an-online-meeting webinars. Last year she produced a series of short videos about climate change and how psychoanalysis can shed light on our responses. They cover topics such as disavowal (knowing but refusing to know), coping with climate anxiety/grief, loss and grief, supporting others, hope and despair and climate journeys.
Below are answers to questions we posed to her about her work and the videos.. We will follow this up with more detailed questions on the videos themselves.
a) A little bit about yourself – education, how you ended up as a psychoanalyst
I trained as a psychotherapist in my thirties, having previously done a counselling and groupwork training. I’ve always been interested in the applications of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic understandings to social and political issues. The past is always with us, both personally and politically, and if we don’t understand it properly then we’re doomed to repeat it, messing up our dreams and hopes with the detritus of past hurts and offences.
b) Could you describe your early work on the psychodynamics of community group meetings
I spent a lot of my twenties in various socialist, feminist and environmental groups and I was struck by how very deeply felt and personal our passions were. Intellect, reason and argument mattered but what drove us was passion. The phrase of the time was that ‘the personal is political’ and though this was the beginning of understanding the deep interconnectedness of diverse concerns it was no protection against the way that groups can sometimes become gripped by irrational, destructive and crazy behaviour. The cartoon book I helped create at that time uses psychoanalytic theory to describe and explain some of the phenomena which I was myself swept up in – cultures of bravado, belief in charismatic leaders, scapegoating and ostracising of those deemed out of line. I wanted to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis – which at that time would sometimes explain away political enthusiasm as infantile – and political movements which denied the importance of personal experience, locating everything in class struggle or the cause and ignoring the personal costs of involvement.
c) When and how did you first become aware of/concerned about climate change, and relatedly, could you describe some of the work you did (e.g. about ‘climate journeys’)?
Concern with the environment dates back to my twenties when I first began to understand the connections between the economic & political system and the destruction of so much in the natural world that I loved. I first became concerned about climate change in the 1980s but it wasn’t till 2004 that I became actively involved in trying to do something about it and wrote a paper with a psychological explanation of the processes of denial and disavowal that characterise so many people’s ways of coping with it. Shortly after that I set up a community group in Cambridge where I live where I tried to use my therapeutic experience to find new ways of communicating with people which would take account of people’s understandable fear and defensiveness about the issue. We pioneered some participative group meetings, work with minority communities, individual interviews and conversations and psychologically based groups aimed at carbon reduction. Some of that work survives in the Carbon Conversations project which is still used, both here in the UK and overseas. More recently I’ve been involved with the Climate Psychology Alliance, which I was a founder member of, trying to develop a more widespread understanding of the complex ways people respond to the climate emergency. I’m also part of a group of therapists in Cambridge who before covid were active in supporting activists and helping people develop better psychological skills in their interactions with others. The ‘climate journeys’ work is based on a piece of research I did a few years ago with Paul Hoggett from the University of the West of England where we interviewed scientists and activists about the experience of being up close to climate change. We were interested in the psychological toll taken by being constantly in contact with a traumatic and frightening reality.
d) Could you explain a bit about the impetus/rationale/production process for making the six videos – what was the writing process, the filming process, what do you hope people can take away? what ‘gap’ in the enormous volume of information about climate change are you hoping you can help to fill?
My natural inclination has always been to hold conversations with people and failing that to write about stuff – to try to make difficult ideas accessible through plain words and story telling – but there’s a limit to the number of conversations I can have personally, and I’m a slow writer and I find myself in a fast-moving world where more and more people get their information and connectedness with others through social media. So the videos are an attempt to speak succinctly about some of the issues that come up repeatedly in the workshops I run and in the conversations I’ve had in the last couple of years. I wrote notes for them but I’m actually speaking fairly ad lib. I was hugely helped by my son Alex who filmed and directed the videos, offering me lots of good advice about how to be in front of the camera and being hugely patient when I fluffed a bit or got tired.
I’d like people to take away the idea of how important it is to have conversations and really listen to other people – to be curious, to respect difference, to empathise with experiences which are different from your own. I hope they might encourage people who are struggling or feeling alone to see that many of their difficult and overwhelming feelings are shared by others, to find hope that the intense pain of some of the feelings will pass, and to reach out to others and find solidarity, comfort and a path to action..