Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology
Talking to a brick wall…?
I don’t know about you, but I continue to see more evidence of the acceptance of climate change. I still see too much denial and often feel like banging my head against a brick wall. Particularly around the issues around the human “right” to dominate nature, which we can’t change – but if we do, it can’t be anytime soon because it’s too difficult to manage.
I don’t know about you, but I am really fed up with raising issues and offering ideas/actions for a way forward and hearing the reply “, but the problem with that is….” batting off meaningful discussion as to how we implement solutions or start the work of addressing what needs to be addressed, and proactive voices are silenced.
Then there are family members. You may have a sibling who sometimes enjoys pushing your buttons. Mine told me once he was glad of climate change as it meant he would get more time to sunbathe and refused to make any changes at all (… deep breaths.. I must not slap my brother… I must not slap my brother… ). That was until he had a single conversation with his best mate, who convinced him, and he saw the light. Infuriating for me, but he needed the message to come from someone other than his sister before he would listen.
Some people feel challenged and defensive simply when discussing what is happening in general as they perceive you are pointing out a deficiency in them personally. In these situations, at times, I have spoken to the same person months later, and their position has shifted because they have taken on the messages about climate change, drip by drip, from different sources until there were enough drips to be significant for them.
These drips are creating waves that are getting more powerful even though you might not experience them daily. Look at the changes in attitude made over the last two years. I try to remind myself that the ocean is made up of many water droplets when faced with yet another brick wall.
I continue to express my fears and exasperation, and still, many refuse to see the truth about climate change, stubbornly clinging to warped versions of their own making. Experts warn that social disruption on a massive scale will be experienced due to the consequences of not dealing with climate change. This prospect is frightening, so it’s ignored in the hope that if nothing changes, then life remains as it is (fingers crossed). When issues are faced, society will be forced to deal with feelings of being uncomfortable with how we have treated nature and what has to change. Individuals through to Politicians will feel deeply challenged by this process.
An organisation set on dealing with this is The Climate Psychology Alliance ( CPA ) which aims to facilitate helping others face difficult truths about the ecological crisis. Confronting the problems enables us “to understand the unconscious processes and emotions which control our thoughts, beliefs and behaviour and manifest in mutually reinforcing systems of defence in society.”
When protecting ourselves from difficulties, it is normal to employ unconscious defence mechanisms to help us cope with events until we are ready/ strong enough to do so, but this can be detrimental. Avoiding unpleasant feelings is only a short-term solution as the problem is bubbling away underneath the surface. The Ecological crisis is getting harder and harder to ignore.
There will always be differences of opinion and conflicting views. Defence mechanisms are completely different and are where people tell themselves something to justify continuing an unhealthy behaviour or to avoid an unpleasant issue.
Denial comes in many forms. It can be used with another defence mechanism called rationalisation, which is used to explain an undesirable behaviour with facts made up of a person’s choosing, which helps them feel more comfortable with the choices they have made – even though, on some level, they know it’s not right.
I once had a conversation with a Countryside Protection Officer who argued that climate change would not affect our county because she reasoned that 80% of our county was rural and alarming facts about nature’s decline were exaggerated.
I pointed out that the rural element of the county was made up of overused soil and farmland used intensively with chemical pesticides routinely used damaging masses of nature. Ancient woodland, wildflower meadows, hedgerows, and millions of insects/ birds/animals’ habitats have been destroyed to make way to grow our food, with very little room left for wildlife. Which is when she got upset. Perhaps embarrassed at the thought of losing her status of “expert” in the face of the facts and figures I presented. Maybe she had implemented rationalising, which worked for her when she wasn’t being challenged. In her view, a little bit of recycling and some rewilding here and there was all that was needed. We had only built on 20% of the land, so there was nothing to worry about.
The benefits of this kind of strategy and refusal to change a perspective mean we remain in our happy place and comfortable.
Deniers talk about genuine realities of hardships caused by proposed changes to our way of life, such as widespread change cannot be possible as people would lose their jobs, not be able to heat homes or buy what they need. But to do nothing or change a little is still avoiding or denying the scale of the issue, which is not a good enough excuse anymore. Without a magical or technological solution, the headache of having to confront climate change will not go away.
You may have had arguments thrown at you that you are naive, idealistic or full of wishful thinking (all defence mechanisms) when arguing the need to change our ways and restore balance and biodiversity for all that live on the planet. The natural world is not a paradise. It can be idyllic, mixed with cycles of death, destruction, life, scarcity, richness and immense beauty. These accusations are invalid and are yet another form of denial designed to build up walls of resistance.
A more positive and helpful defence mechanism is sublimation (I like this one). This is where people use a strategy to re-direct their strong feelings towards an appropriate and safe activity, like exercise or taking positive action against climate change.
The CPA has just published an excellent article by a Russian Psychologist partly about climate change ( a Russian psychologist’s reflection ) but also about how normal Russian people are perceived and the difficulties they face because of assumptions made about them. She comments that if you banish a bully, isolate or shame them, they are unlikely to think about their actions and become apologetic and kind. They’re more likely to become angrier and less receptive to others’ points of view.
And that’s an excellent point. The approach we take could be helping build these walls or preventing them from coming down. Getting angry, shaming, shouting about incompetence, or embarrassing people may alienate them further. So how do we remove these walls?
Calling out failures is necessary, but different approaches are needed. There is no easy answer or fix (tell us something we already know…). The CPA suggests we become more aware of the presence of repressed feelings, which may attempt to prevent psychological distress, that we accept the tragedy of the species already lost to mass extinction and address that, and be there to support people when they are ready to face the challenges.
This is not a piece about doing nothing and not challenging unhelpful and inappropriate points of view. It’s about taking more time and space to think about what is driving people to resist necessary change and work from there- the walls could be built for reasons other than what we assume. How you approach or deal with a wall is potentially the key to the walls coming down.
But also consider that some people are so entrenched in their worldview that you are unlikely to be able to change them, so why waste your valuable time and energy. Look out for yourself when you feel exhausted, and your head is bruised from banging against a brick wall.
The world’s future is not all on your shoulders, even though it might sometimes feel that way. Sometimes you have to walk away from the wall. Or even better – walk around it. And go where you need to go leaving it behind until it is ready to come down.