Environmental Harm: A Narrative of Addiction

by Laura Chevrot, Assistant Editor

Inspired by Dr Steffi Bednarek’s talk entitled ‘Re-ensouling the Collective Culture’, delivered at the TED Countdown event organised by TEDxWarwick and GLOBUS.

What do alcohol addiction and climate change have in common? 

A question that sounds like a modern-day version of Lewis Carrol’s ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’; an absurd, unanswerable, riddle – and no one quite knows where it comes from. Or rather, climate psychologist Dr Steffi Bednarek does.

Addressing global socio-environmental issues which transcend borders and disciplines requires drawing from a diverse pool of knowledge and methods. So what is climate psychology, and how can it equip us with the ideas and tools needed to design a sustainable society?  

A quick overview of climate psychology

Climate psychology, according to the Climate Psychology Alliance, is based on five principles. It involves acknowledging that environmental change is human-induced and that it is grounded in cultural norms of privilege. It recognises the importance of intersectionality and the notion that those who contribute the least to climate change are the most affected, both physically and psychologically. Climate psychology also addresses feelings of shame related to the fact we are betraying our own home and planet. It aims to reconcile hope and despair to encourage action, offer support, and build a future based on feelings, creativity, and humane action. To this end,  climate psychology is concerned with responding to climate anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a ‘fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis’.

A theory of compartmentalisation

Climate change is caused by, and affects, people.  No matter how many times we reach this conclusion, many of us fail to make the connection between underlying human implications in climate change and the potential offered by psychology in offering explanations and solutions to the climate crisis. As mentioned by Steffi Bednarek in her talk, we continue to discuss the climate crisis as if we were entirely rational creatures, which we are not.  Our irrational, emotional, unconscious selves are forced to think, discuss and strategise in a way which represses aspects of our human creativity and individuality. Climate psychology aims to bring out the human in us when considering the climate crisis.

One key example of this is the psychological theory of compartmentalisation, which can be used to explain why we discuss climate change through an artificially rational and logical lens. Compartmentalisation is defined by the APA as a ‘defence mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments’. So, what does this mean?

Let me share one example. About a week ago, I watched a fascinating documentary produced by Ryuji Chua, one of the speakers at our TEDxWarwick and GLOBUS countdown conference. The ‘take home’ message of the video was the following: fish are conscious, they are intelligent, and they feel pain. And yet, fish are the least protected species under national and international regulation, and they are by far the species counting the highest number of individuals killed by humans. So, I watched this video, and naturally at the end of it, I was convinced that I would never eat fish again. Fast forward to a few days later, and I was in my kitchen with my housemate making sushi.

Why? Compartmentalisation allowed me to place my rational, thinking brain and the values I believe in aside when it came to satisfying my desire for sushi. It allowed me to separate my logical self and my emotional self and act out of interest when it suits. This is the same compartmentalisation that Steffi Bednarek talks about when she talks of businessmen who care about their children yet go to work and make decisions which rob their children of a sound future.  This compartmentalisation allows us to survive in situations that are morally devastating, and which we couldn’t bear to deal with on a daily basis. As summarised by Steffi Bednarek, ‘we can’t feel all of the uncomfortable consequences of participating in this culture during our day, so we shut down’.

Solving the riddle

Let’s go back to the metaphor that I highlighted at the start of this article.

Many of us are aware that alcohol addiction is a much wider and more complex issue than the excess of alcohol in someone’s bloodstream. Users, Steffi Bednarek argues, often engage in substance abuse, which provides them with short term pleasure, in an attempt to drown out something unbearable. Often, the addictive substance progressively destroys the very things and relationships making life valuable to their users, and the premise of life itself. Similarly, climate change is a much wider and more complex issue than the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere. We find ourselves unable to bear the intense suffering brought by our actions through the medium of environmental change. Consequently, we allow ourselves to engage in self-destructive behaviours which bring us short-term relief: taking the plane, consuming fast fashion, or, in my case, eating sushi.

The importance of interdisciplinarity

Drawing on social sciences, Steffi Bednarek further explains compartmentalisation as a mechanism created and perpetuated by culture. From a young age, we divided our life into several spheres that we keep separate from each other. From the rooms in a house, which each serve a separate purpose and foster different social interactions, to the subjects we study at school, where the knowledge we have just acquired from one teacher is left behind as we move on to the next class.

Compartmentalisation is just one example of how an issue can be highlighted and treated through interdisciplinary thinking.  The work of climate psychologists is proof that if we consider climate change holistically and through an interdisciplinary lens, we open ourselves to new possibilities for dealing with socio-environmental concerns.

Going forwards

What Steffi Bednarek envisions for the future of psychology is a shift from focusing solely on individual support to contributing to wider change in our cultural patterns. One of these wider changes involves inspiring a new generation of leaders who consider the psychological effects of trauma and their consequences when dealing with socio-environmental issues. People whose ambition it is to create a more humane environment in which we are encouraged to feel the pain and suffering that we have created and make amends. A global addiction recovery program to heal from our self-destructive behaviours of environmental wreckage. One that allows us to repent and move forwards.

Header image by Vinicius “amnx” Amano, via Unsplash

Listen to Laura discuss the topic further on our podcast episode “Are we addicted to environmental harms?”

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