Psychology,Psychoanalysis and the Environment

The IARPP environmental and psychology seminar continues into its second week. The panelists have been asked the following questions in five subject area.

Human Geography:

1)Are there unique psychological states of mind that correspond to different geographic localities?

2)What happens to the mind when the environmental localities begin to transform due to environmental corruption, climate change?

Cultural History:

The environment, nature, country, city, urban, wilderness are all terms that have had different psychological meanings in different places and in different historical periods. In what way is an understanding of these shifts and progressions relevant to an understanding of today’s current environmental problems?

Field Data:

Reports and observations of psychological reactions, responses and changes that are taking place in response to ongoing climate change issues or environmental disasters in parts of the world with which you are familiar.


1) As the world becomes more technological and human life is conceived as increasingly independent from their ecosystems how has that changed personhood?

2) How does this vary between cultures/ecosystems?

Defenses and Excesses:

1) Why are people participating in the destruction of the ecosystems they need in order to survive?

2) Why aren’t they more activated by climate change?

3) What are the psychological obstacles to change?

4) How are those psychological defenses embedded in economic and socio-political systems?

Sample responses after the jump.

There are a wide range of topics being addressed and the discussions are very comprehensive.  This is a sampling of the responses to date.

Human Geography

Glenn Albrecht suggested that as the world moves toward globalization and a shared political and economic blueprint heterogeneity is replaced with homogeneity both geographically and psychically, “monocultures of the mind.” One threat to the system and everything collapses.  He said, “So what happens when healthy, diverse and resilient places get corrupted by pollution or imposed negative change? They all, be they heads, hearts or ecosystems begin to suffer and become distressed. Ecosystem distress has its correlates in mental distress. “

Field Data

Susan Bodnar presented field data based on interviews with urban New Yorkers. There is an urban angst especially on the part of young adults. They aren’t sure there will be a future, fear that they may be witnessing the end of life. People who aren’t exposed to an interactive relationship to nature lose the ability to act on its behalf.

Rosemary Randall has been working in the field attempting to help people adopt more sustainable behaviors. See her here and read about the Cambridge Carbon Footprint In her interviews people seem to be blaming others, not wanting to deal with their own participation in global warming. The people interviewed in her project “report difficult family conversations as climate change gets pulled into existing family conflicts, historic sibling rivalries and intergenerational rifts. The immediate layer of response often seems to be the defensive guilty reaction to an accusation: ‘It wasn’t me, it was him, Miss’ but beneath that of course one suspects the uncomfortable realisation that harm has been done is gnawing at the heart.”

One clinician in Mexico reported that many families experience distress in reposes to high levels of pollution. People are exhibiting depressive symptoms and anxiety about a degraded environment.

Renee Lertzman discussed her research with people living in an industrial, degraded area  “and attempted to be mindful of the history of this locale, including the histories of immigration and the cultural contexts, which could help me make sense of certain themes that inform how people have responded to chronic ecological degradation (such as, ‘You just get on with it, there is nothing I can do’) which reflects a particular mode of being rooted in the survivalist, immigrant settler experience.” Lertzman also cites American sociologist Kari Norgaard’s work in Norway. Norgarrd interviews people in a village about climate change and finds that in fact, despite the high levels of literacy and awareness, there remains a deep vacillation and disavowal concerning the magnitude of the issues.

Paul Hoggett said there needs to be a classificatory system for organizing the different types of psychological responses people have to climate change. Such a system could include depression, dissociation, denial, etc.

Cultural History

Adrienne Harris raised the issue of how the meaning of language changes over time and how concepts like wilderness and nature have evolved. Also political systems become embedded through the organization of the unconscious both in its socially constructed aspects and as the mental container of what is uncategorized and wild or free. This is relevant to understanding how environmental degradation is socialized.

A participant asked do men and women sit differently with the degradation of the environment?

Susan Bodnar has identified a possible pattern between the rise in global warming and the appearance or increase of certain psychiatric diagnoses like ADD, autism, depression, and borderline personality disorder.  Do these symptom profile reflect the stress of a changed relationship to the environment?

Bob Hinshelwood raises the role of the unconscious and considers whether or not there are manic reactions to environmental degradation. He asks: “Do people, being destructive, have an unconscious excitement as one of the responses to the destruction of the species and the planet?  And that is delightfully enjoyed in the blame, outrage, and ghastliness of climate change?”


Sebastiano Santostefano: dialectical interactions take place between a person’s inner self and human and nonhuman environments, beginning during the first years of life, that construct embodied meanings which influence how environments are experienced and engaged throughout life, and how a person’s self and environments become one.

David Slattery: People have strong relationships to non-human entities, like the earth and nature.

Defenses and Excesses:

From Nick Totton: “We’re just operating like any other species. Any species will multiply until prevented by other aspects of its ecosystem (‘limits to growth’) – e.g. predators, or running out of food or other survival necessities. We have no significant predators; so we carry on expanding until the ecosystem falls apart and stops us. It’s not nice, but it’s natural. The extraordinary thing would be if we did something else; which would involve internalising ecological constraints.
People are deeply affected by climate change and environmental destruction and it emerges in despair nihilism and self destructive behavior, See Mary-Jayne Rust.”
The issue here is Overwhelm “for large numbers of people it is not climate change itself which appears as a threat, but news of climate change, which threatens to break into their fragile bubble of emotional survival. They respond to this news as mammals respond to threat to survival: with the well-known triad of fight/flight/freeze. In particular, many people freeze: they use the response reserved for desperate situations where we are completely helpless, and our best option is to turn off, go into trance and hope to be overlooked . . . .
Until people are willing and able to tolerate the feelings which environmental information sets off in them – feelings like fear, grief, rage, despair – it will be very difficult for them to absorb that information, and therefore to act on it. So how can we help them (and ourselves) to come out of overwhelm? The first thing to do when faced with overwhelm in a therapeutic situation is to point out to the person that this is what is going on: ‘It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?’ ‘It’s hard for you to take things in just now’. Just on its own, this helps people find some solid ground. Then we need to establish a sense of safety in which they can access their embodied emotions.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Psychology,Psychoanalysis and the Environment”

  1. Psychology and Environment: Summary « Ordinary Earth ™ Says:

    […] Ordinary Earth ™ Personal, familial and organizational change through the sustainable practice of psychology, ethics, and politics « Psychology,Psychoanalysis and the Environment […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s