Renee Lertzman on Environmental Melancholia: facing the unbearable.

How do live with the knowledge of global climate change? On November 6th, during the InScience Festival in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, the American psychologist Renee Lertzman gave a presentation on how to cope with ‘climate depression’. Climate depression refers to the feelings of anxiety which people experience in dealing with wicked issues such as climate change.Lertzman lives in San Francisco, California and studied Psychology and Environmental studies. She is specialized in psychodynamics and the psycho-analysis and interested in affects and emotions. Her topic is Climate Psychology, a research field which is emerging rapidly. The key question she addressed in her presentation was: How do we live with the knowledge of global climate change? How does this knowledge influence who I am and who we are?

environmental-melancholiaIn her recent book ‘Environmental Melancholia; psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement‘ (2015), she questions the assumption that people experience feelings of apathy towards climate change. Apathy appears as in-action on the outer surface. To manage complexity, we try to protect ourselves. However, when interviewing people, she heard about people’s ‘sense of loss’ instead of anxiety. The quality of the loss people expressed was not straightforward, bur more a yearning for pre-industrial times for example. Lertzman explores how Psychology can help us to navigate this terrain?

There are different types of Psychology, focusing on:

  1. Behaviour (levers, drivers, motivators). This is about nudging, creating defaults. Key question is: How do we get to do a certain point?
  2. Framing: this is about messaging, values, beliefs. Key-question is here: how do we frame the message?
  3. Systems: this refers to challenges, innovation, resilience. How do we design a better world/solution?
  4. Emotions: experience, conversation, participation: how are we emotionally engaged? Lertzman argues that emotions are the least understood in Psychology.

Emotions with regard to climate change result in affects such as: despair, shame, guilt, conflict, powerlessness. The issue of climate change is abstract, systemic, complex, too far away (we distance ourselves in time and space). However, she argues that humans have imagination and can imagine new systems. We are not cognitively impaired: it is the emotional dimension which makes it difficult to deal with this topic.

People have all sorts of defence mechanisms to cope with emotions on climate change. For example, if a mind thinks of new information and in that moment experiences anxiety, fear, anger or shame that new information may not be effectively integrated (Alcorn, 2002). If confronted with new information that doesn’t fit with our model, our mind relies on defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate anything to preserve the status quo (Rakmachandran, 1990). We have conflicting desires and experience ambivalence. This causes flight responses and is termed as double binding. When we experience this we go into denial or disavowal or rationalize the situation. People have strategies to cope with anxiety, which can be explained via social defence theory. However, the positive aspect is, that this puts the emphasis on our agency.

Lertzman’s key message is that we have to acknowledge emotions such as Anxiety, Ambivalence and Aspiration. You can not address the potential Aspiration of people directly by telling them how to deal with climate change, nor convince people by acting merely as a cheerleader via campaigns. First you have to listen to what people say and be sensitive to what they feel by reading between the lines and also by hearing what they don’t say.

Lertzman uses motivational interviews as a technique to influence people’s mind-sets on climate change. When people feel heard in their emotions – their anxiety and their ambivalence – they tend to agree more with a plea to take action themselves. This has been tested by measuring till what extent two groups of people – soft sceptics and hard sceptics – agreed with a presentation on climate change. More the 80% of both groups agreed when the speaker acknowledged their emotions and how climate change affects their lives.

Renee Lertzman’s work thus offers useful insights in how to address the gap between motivation and behaviour in sustainability issues. See also her website: