Will climate collapse do our heads in?

A homeostasis has long existed between climate regularities (temperature variations, the seasons) and irregular events (droughts, storms, etc.) where the latter, broadly speaking, have occurred at an acceptable frequency and intensity. Along with many other life-forms, humans have naturalised this consistency as a stable frame of reference. The received pattern is now de-regulating. Nature, it seems, is no longer ‘normal’.

Current events speak vociferously to this change. One third of Pakistan’s arable land is underwater. Last year, for the first time, wildfires gutted lands above the Arctic Circle. Right now, drought is afflicting much of the United States, Europe and Africa. Temperatures have exceeded historical maximums in, well, heaps of places. Even big cities are not inviolate: insurance companies are doing the sums on the impact a hurricane will have if it strikes New York in the coming decades.

And what do you know? You know that ‘unprecedented’ has become the go-to word pollies and media figures use to assign outlier status to these phenomena. Phooey. Only a spin doctor or a wilful denier could keep a straight face and say these are one-in-a-century events. If you are not already convinced, many suspect a climate breakdown is just getting started.

This is a deeply troubling idea. Understanding that climate breakdown is, or might be, real impels a spectre. More than a bitter pill, knowing that climate collapse is real lodges an ornery hairball in the throat. This hostile invader begets primal regressions: the gag reflex; impotent thrashing; the universal terror of suffocation. This dark presence glowers even if, so far, one has not been directly impacted, or is in a position to appreciate that one’s affluence will likely mitigate the nastiest effects of climate collapse.

However ghastly this reality may be, there is an unstable relationship between a situation and the content of one’s awareness. Subjectivity always has options. In defiance of the facts, one possibility is to become numbly delusional. It is well established that the conscious edge of the psyche can contort itself into a witless and hostile denialism. Tremendous energy can be projected into the pretence that there is nothing awry—that I am, as the world is, doing just fine. Yes, my breathing may be a bit laboured. For sure, there is some stress. I am aware of a certain tightness and I will admit to some pressure, to some discomfort. These petty irritations noted, I can assure you I am fine. I am in the process of moving on. There is nothing to see.

Such suppression requires monumental effort, given that intuitively, if not intellectually, everybody knows what is happening. Consciousness is a wondrous chameleon—a pony that can be trained to do dislocating, seemingly gravity-defying tricks. However impressive, though, these bends and flips, twists and somersaults, come at a price. Ever met a happy denier, a bounteous nay-sayer? Those who oppose climate science always appear to be seething.

What is counter-articulate can only be expressed through gritted teeth. It takes dedicated effort, it involves intense strain, to frustrate registering the angst one is choking on. Like an unnamable itch bothers, like an unrequited love hollows, disharmony breeds dissatisfaction and, down the track, hostility.

Alarm and grief, the necessary concomitants of an awareness of climate breakdown, can be disavowed; what is emotionally aversive can be placed in an apparently perennial abeyance. Denialism to one side, the deregulation of the material conditions within which life on earth has prospered—including, but not restricted to, human life—is not an abstract concern. It follows that, as climate breakdown accelerates and as the scale and timelessness of this disruption takes hold, this will influence the content and tone of interiority, even if one is not directly impacted.

Narrowly put, how will climate collapse affect mental health? Before a tentative start can begin on this tremendously complex question, it is necessary to get to grips with how the subject ‘mental health’ is currently positioned. Aimed at the educated class, the daily Life page in the Nine newspapers presents a handy data point for how this subject is being constructed and disseminated.

Accompanying a no-fuss recipe, the Life page presents a roster of themes. This roster comprises personal appearance (‘A triple treat for great skin’, 21.3.22), fashion (‘Thread of meaning in royal blue’, 22.3.22), employment (‘Crack that awkward interview’, 23.03.22) and wellbeing. Under this wellbeing banner, a recent piece—‘Finding help for mental health’ (24.03.22)—set out a four-step program: ‘Talk to a GP’; ‘Mental health plan’; ‘Find a psychologist’; and ‘At-home therapy.’ Formulaic advice was presented under each of these sub-headings.

This form of attention is a tell. On the one hand, the content of the piece speaks to, and reinforces the logic of, individualisation: Hey, the experts tell me I should prioritise my mental health. Times are volatile. The advice is: self-care is where it is at.

For many this message is a godsend; a normative prescription has been delivered which, if heeded, has the effect of simplifying conscious experience. Context and conflicting demands, all manner of complications, peel away. Calls to be ethical and other-oriented recede. I must look after my feelings, my needs, my hurts, first. This instruction recalls ChristopherHitchens’s critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivist ethics: ‘I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement … that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough’.

On a second front, the Nine newspaper account coercively trivialises what ought to be an infallibly ambiguous subject. Understandings of mental health have, at least, an historico-cultural dimension, if they are not entirely context-dependent, whereas the above treatment renders mental health a thing—a commodity that can be purchased from an inventory of products. Like the need to dress well, have a fine complexion and present with gleaming teeth, it follows that it is the consumer’s responsibility to choose to have positive mental health. Not feeling optimistic, not looking forward? That is no way to be. There is a brand of products out there that is fit for purpose. You should choose to be well. Of course, this line of thought does not originate in your or my lonely brain. A cultural-ideological program and a set of commercial interests propagate the mindset that you can have everything you want, including feeling positive, as long as you recite the right slogans, align with the best brands and purchase the recommended products.

All this would remain only mildly alarming if we were not facing climate collapse. Why? Climate collapse puts the above consideration of ‘mental health’ into stark relief: in that context, it will be a thumping challenge to keep one’s psychic bearings more or less steady. Rather than a regulation issue, a discrete problem that can be resolved with an easy purchase, not having your head done in by witnessing and/or being directly assaulted by a de-regulating environment will be a whopper of a task.

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Many people who live with serious mental illness experience intense psycho-social difficulties as they also continue to be stigmatised and under-served. The complex needs of this group acknowledged, the larger, highly privatised segment of the mental health industry processes its consumers by pathologising the ups and downs of inner life. Trauma, anxiety, depression, and the assigning of these notations in concert with fashionable selections from the longer diagnostic almanac such as Attention Deficit Disorder, give succour to the recipients of these labels—Hey, it is not your fault! You have X. In addition, those so processed also learn to give life’s internal troubles the status ‘unacceptable outlier.’ In term of what philosopher Ian Hacking theorises as ‘people-making’, the mass acceptance of this practice has upended received registers of concern and interpretation. Expressing a particular cultural logic—individualisation’s accelerating program—this re-categorisation valorises self-care as an ascendant ideal. In this action, what was once understood as lacking moral fibre and practical stoicism, and as indicator of unworthy self-preoccupation, has become normalised. Guided by experts, the I-me-my-mine has been legitimised as one’s core concern. Sadly, this shrunken perspective does not set us up well to deal with the psychic consequences of climate collapse.

The breakdown of the climate will produce a febrile emotional milieu. Fear and blame, grief and helplessness, among a larger set of intense feelings, will wash over and within us. This troubling brew will be amplified if the technology—the know-how—of the industry charged with the responsibility of shepherding and deciphering interiority miscarries its purpose by overheating the expectations and appetites of its customers: that is, if the business continues to patholgise everyday experience it will, in the context of climate collapse, make things worse. Analogously put, if the I-me-my-mine is reinforced, if a narrow self-care imperative is propagated, this will generate a pyrocumulonimbus cloud—a mega-nasty dynamo that will spark the lightning and gale-force winds that will ignite, and further spread, psychic heat.

John Wiseman (2021) makes the essential point that there are many ways to nurture and support the group ‘in the long emergency’. I would argue that even if the mental health industry reverted to a conservative reliance on the traditional categories of disorder, this would not nurture and support the group. Yes, you or I might experience grief, depression, anxiety or even psychosis in the long emergency. This does not mean it will be helpful to reductively interpret these phenomena using narrow diagnostic entities. To do this can be likened to prescribing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and/or anti-depressant medication, with a side of mindfulness, to ‘cure’ First Nations People of the impact of colonisation and dispossession. It is farming the wrong acres to sow a crop of diagnostic seeds in a field that has had its soil structure and bacterial infrastructure washed away. A violated psyche needs holistic appreciation, not presumptive colonisation by the imposition of an almanac of iatrogenic abstractions.

Rather than trivialising mental health as the presence of ‘positivity’ or recycling traditional diagnostic notations what we need are bespoke understandings—formulations that do not pathologise, militarise or disavow inner life. In a context where parents can no longer believe their children can have a better life than they have had, where adult children and—at least intuitively—pre-adult children know that they face a darkening future, what is required are forms of understanding that speak to this reality.

The difficulty is not small. Never has such a catastrophe been faced previously. At particular historical moments participants have definitely experienced profound loss and terror. For example, in commenting on the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, Max Horkheimer wrote: ‘Only one thing is certain … only the gloomiest predictions have any plausibility’. Patricians and scholars witnessing the fall of Rome, or dynastical collapses in Imperial China, would also have been confronted by a telling gloom. In our case, it is worse. We have no recourse to a belief in circular time, or one that a new, superior empire will eventually rise.

A non-anthropogenic attitude contends that it is entirely natural, even healthy, to experience anguish in a context where one is a witness to the sickening of a wondrous biosphere. This distemper is all the more likely given one’s kind has been a vector for, and must continue to live with, the results of this poisoning. What forms of thought might speak to this situation?

Glen Albrecht and his colleagues have suggested that ‘solastalgia’ might be a useful construct that can articulate, rather than de-naturalise, the psychic consequences of living with climate breakdown. This team reports that there nothing abnormal about a generalised loss of wellbeing which follows an awareness that one’s place has been fatally degraded. If your lake has been killed by lead, if your people inhabit Tuvalu or another about-to-be-inundated island, there are profound psychic consequences that it is procrustean to interpret using a disease conception that individualises rather than contextualises.

Given the reality of climate breakdown, in terms of the psyche, what is the best that can be hoped for? However speculative, if we are able to achieve a deep form of recognition—an acceptance of climate collapse that is able to contain, and to meaningfully process, a tumult of primary emotions: grief, horror, anger, despair, terror—a complex precondition might be realised. Inasmuch as this occurs, a further possibility then presents: to come to terms with, rather than act out, the disaster that is climate collapse. That is, if private and public disturbance is to be minimised, personal and collective rituals need to directly address loss and articulate gratitude as well as contrition. It is only in this scenario that it is possible to envisage forms of rational public and private thought that lead to planned, civilly minded action. However quixotic, it is difficult to envisage a tenable form of mental health in any other context.*

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* Several ideas in this article are further elaborated in M. Furlong, ‘Looking for Eros in the Long Hard Rain of Climate Collapse’, in Paolo Azzone (ed.), The Wounds of Our Mother Psychoanalysis: New Models for a Psychoanalysis in Crisis, in press.

Experiencing the Floods: Counting the Costs, Preparing for a Hostile Climate

Hilary Bambrick, Jun 2022

We must get better at communicating risk so that communities have the best chance to prepare for the coming onslaughts—to make good decisions and take the best actions they can, whether in fires or floods, heatwaves or severe storms.

About the author

Mark Furlong

Mark Furlong is an independent scholar, and thinker-in-residence at the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University: .

More articles by Mark Furlong

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