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The Illusion of Independence – Understanding climate change

Opinions are divided on the subject of climate change. As the journalist N. Rich showed in his small volume “Loosing the Earth”, we have known about the devastating consequences of global warming since the 1980s. And since the summer of 2019 at the latest, the topic has also received a great deal of attention in the media – but the political and economic actions remain, to say the least, rather mild. As the number of empirical evidence rises, the number of those who completely deny the existence of climate change is even increasing. 1How is this possible?

The issue of climate change can only be understood if the psychological dimension of this debate is also understood. All the contradictions cannot be resolved with facts alone. The debates on climate change are highly emotional, and even people who don’t deny climatic changes sometimes experience a nagging feeling of resistance, which highly emotional and therefore hysterical debates sometimes leave behind.

A human environmental neurosis

We are existentially dependent on the earth and its health. This is not an exaggerated environmental romanticism, but a fact. We need a healthy biosphere, healthy food, a balanced O2/Co2 ratio and stable poles. And we know about the danger that threatens our climate, from the oceans that are littered, from melting poles and from countries where climatic conditions make life almost impossible. If we think further ahead, we know that the current wars over resources will not be the last, and that we expect this perspective from our children and grandchildren: The prospect of living in an uncertain world. We adopt low-threshold climate packages, continue to debate about speed limits on highways and exploit the earth’s natural resources as if we had a second one. To describe such a contradiction as neurotic, as the term environmental neurosis does, almost seems a trivialization, given the psychological effort we make every day to keep these two realities inwardly separate.

Strong feelings in the climate debate

The answer to all these contradictions can only be understood if we venture a little deeper into this complexity of the human psyche. In our world, feelings are usually located in intimate, personal relationships. In business and politics they play, if at all, only very selectively a role. Anyone who has followed the reactions to Greta Thurnberg’s highly emotional speech at the UN Climate Change Summit in April 2019 will see one thing above all: the content of the speech seems to have less effect than its emotionality, and it was this emotionality that triggered equally strong responses. Greta encountered idealisation, devaluation and even open hatred in real life and in the media. Greta Thurnberg dared to feel the extent of the climate catastrophe and openly showed her emotions. The dominant question in the media was whether emotionality is appropriate in such a debate and if so, how much. But the question is much more exciting in view of the facts: how do WE actually manage to feel so little inside?

The feeling of freedom is a mango in winter

There is no guarantee that there will be no global warming above 3%. We don’t know what the future holds. To approach such a truth inwardly would mean exposing oneself to feelings of helplessness and fear. It is not often that we are so existentially confronted with questions of dependence and ultimately mortality. It takes a certain form of mental power to expose ourselves to this and, connected with it, to question our way of thinking and living.

For it becomes clear that we have to change and give up habits, politically, economically and personally. And we suspect that the coffee to go in the stainless steel cup will not be enough. But at this point, completely different fears are awakened: Who are we if we do not define ourselves by what we own and have achieved? Freedom, self-determination and personal growth seem existential to us, we feel panic and anger when we feel limited or controlled by others. We want to decide for ourselves, no matter what it takes. So we experience feelings of freedom and value when we drive at 180 km/h on the highway or when we shop for things we might not have needed.

That is the conflict. It is less about the question of whether or not there is climate change. It’s about which fears are stronger: the loss of security or the loss of freedom and self-determination. Existential fears meet narcissistic fears. So far this is probably nothing new to most people. The fact that right-wing conservative or liberal parties place values such as freedom and self-determination before values such as commitment and social justice is just as little news as the fact that this position is often accompanied by a climate sceptic attitude.

Narcissistic fears, such as the fear of losing personal freedom, self-image or social status, have a strong influence on our mental organisation and even on our perception of reality. In our western, capitalistically shaped world order, we usually feel our self-determination not IN the relationship to others but just outside of them and thus also contrary to them. Freedom means for us to move outside of a relationship that is experienced as providing but also restricting. But what happens to our empathy in this case and how does the relationship to the other (and therefore also our relationship to nature) then lose its emotional meaning?

Escape routes from dependence

I have to give some background information to describe such a relationship to reality and thus also to other people or to the earth. First, perhaps an example from the genesis of such a relationship. Imagine a child is still small. When it is frightened, when it is afraid, then it cannot yet really sort out its experiences. Emotions seem to flood the child in all their intensity. Only with the help of a loving caregiver the child learns to distinguish, understands and calms down its feelings. Today, as an adult, you can do this for yourself. You have learned to perceive yourself and to regulate yourself. Some can do this more and some less, it depends on our early experiences and we all have internalized the people and the experience of our childhood. We calm ourselves down as we were calmed down in our childhood; in a very intuitive and unconscious way. But if our experiences at a young age were little reflected, we were even rejected or we were “used” for the narcissistic needs of our parents, then as adults we also experience needy moments and dependencies as weakness or insult. Then it feels shameful to be needy. We then protect ourselves and pull ourselves out of the vulnerability of an intimate relationship and cut off our longing for the other person, and sometimes all others, both inwardly and outwardly. This is a process of denial (of the emotional significance of the other) but also of splitting off feelings. Finally, one experiences oneself as unassailable and powerful in one’s independence. A feeling of omnipotence sets in, not needing anyone is a triumph over previous feelings of being offended and vulnerability. We all have this option within us to pull ourselves out of vulnerabilities. Everyone who has ever bemoaned a lost love for a long time knows the moment to refer back to himself, to make a cut. To decide that it has to be about him-/herself again. Desire, psychoanalysts would say, is pulled away from the other. In this moment a new freedom seems to emerge: I am free from neediness, from insecurity and fear. In order to feel completely independent, and also to avoid the diffuse, excruciating feelings of guilt that such a cutting off of empathy implies, such an inner cut must be radical. It must be a kind of division. In the case of a lost love, such a coping strategy usually makes sense, to realign oneself again. It gets difficult when the option of cutting oneself off from needs and withdrawing from dependencies becomes a permanent personality structure or even an overall social strategy.

To be blind in one eye

Just as it has ensured the emotional survival of the child to cut itself off from its longing for protective parents, we seem to be dealing with the threat of climate change. We are cutting ourselves off from our emotional experience and our responsibility. In order to maintain such a separation from reality, we must become selective in our perception. We build it around the division: Denial, half-truths and rationalizations accompany this process. We twist truths and we don’t think scenarios through when they touch “dangerous territory”. We push facts aside and unpleasant things are only fleetingly registered. The stronger the pressure of the penetrating moments of reality, the stronger our defence becomes, the less networked and mechanical we think and the more we avoid moments of emotionality. Seen in this light, the increase in numbers of climate deniers can be explained by the rising number of empirical evidence. Because the stronger the experience of threat, the more radical the denial must be. We will become increasingly manic in our efforts to avoid the experience of fear. The climate changes that are becoming more acute, the growing gap between rich and poor and global wars over resources are becoming apparent in us.

A glance at the charged debates on climate and refugees illustrates the consequences of such a division very clearly. Anyone who thinks things through to the end understands that it was our handling of resources that was largely responsible for climate change and the exploitation of poorer regions of the world. However, the emotional reactions that are appropriate for this, such as regret or guilt, are not borne by us. At this point being an abuser ourselves seems unbearable and so the psyche organizes a narcissistic or, as the psychoanalyst Delaram Habibi-Kohlen calls it, “perverse space”2 in which we are free of pain and guilt. We no longer realize and feel the threat that lies in the worsening climate catastrophe or the fact that the earth is increasingly less habitable. Our desires and needs no longer revolve around others, but around ourselves, our freedom and our self-determination. We project the diffusely experienced threat onto others: e.g. the fugitives who come to us. Such a projected threat seems to be easier to deal with internally than the extent of our own destructiveness and disconnectedness. This way we slip out of ambivalence into a state of apparent inner order: good and evil are again divided. We don’t have to bear the fact that we can feel empathic AND be perpetrators – in every moment we let pass.

Radicalization or rather moral arrogance?

The escalation of our situation is also reflected in our search for relief from feelings of guilt and responsibility. The desire for an authoritarian leader is an excellent way of doing this. Studies3 show that 40% of Germans can imagine living in an authoritarian government again. Psychodynamically, this can be understood as a kind of readiness for authority. Such a desire for authority is usually an expression of the fact that the personal, coping capacity is no longer sufficient. Our psyche normally has a quite well developed moral authority. We can also call it internalized values. However, when feelings of fear and guilt become unbearable, it is possible to give up this instance. We look for idealized leaders who will free us from the tension of our unpleasant affects and inner conflicts. Such a process relieves our conscience, others take responsibility for us. The principle is old, in the current time of increasing populism it is an expression of our psychological inability to face reality. So it is no wonder that the percentage of climate deniers increases the more prone to authority a party is.

It is difficult not to moralise at this point, but those who do so have directly found a new way out of the inner tension. Moral arrogance likes to hide in left-wing liberal attitudes. Democratically, empathically and ecologically sustainable we do everything “right”. Such a way of defending against aggressive but also libidinous parts of the self is widespread. It may no longer be up to date, but Andre Green4 has written a wonderful article on the subject under the heading of “moral narcissism”, basically a psychoanalytical perspective on the populistically charged concept of the “do-gooder”. It is possible to build up a form of defence with organic certification and vegan nutrition, through intellectualisation or even hyperemotionalisation. It is not easy to remain keen in perception at this point. But when attitudes become rigid and lust and aggression begin to feel dangerous, then it could be that biological consumption serves more one’s own narcissistic enhancement and the stabilization of a dominant culture than what it is actually about.

But what is the solution? Self-torture and depressive persistence in feelings of guilt is certainly not it. Shrugging off phenomena of environmental destruction or remaining in denial is certainly not the solution too, nor is hysterical acting out of unconscious fears. An emotional over-dramatization certainly does not serve anybody and only awakens reactance phenomena.

The Underlying Understanding

If we want to face the reality that climate change means and remain capable of action, it will be important to understand the psychological dimension of this reality and not to act. In our dealings with nature that nourishes us, one thing above all becomes clear: the highly ambivalent love-hate relationship we have within us, to the one we feel dependent on, and our feeling of being entitled to the immediate fulfilment of our needs. We have grown up this way, materially secured, in the credo of infinite growth and all-encompassing possibilities. Our parents, children of war and post-war bravely held on to the idea of all-encompassing possibilities for their children and grandchildren. They held on to the tragic hope that even more growth and more prosperity would be enough to be happy. We grew up in the belief that material prosperity transported happiness and that advances in medicine, technology and digitalisation would be enough to overcome the problems that lay ahead.

However, it was rarely talked about, especially in western Germany, that the belief in growth was more a kind of background music, an all-dominant attempt to leave the past behind. But many of us, today 30 to 50 years old, grew up with a diffuse uneasiness. We knew something was missing. We sensed and sense a loss, something unstable and disoriented. The radical changes brought by digitalisation have certainly intensified this, but our unease was there before. We rarely got a hold of it, but in a certain way we experienced ourselves as disconnected, as speechless with our parents and as unstable within ourselves. The material indulgence made it impossible for us to talk about the anger of our emotional uneasiness, to deal with conflicts and to integrate feelings of hate and pain. It also contributed to the fact that we have little developed the concept of boundaries and can barely tolerate feelings. However, if such feelings cannot be endured, expressed and integrated, then feelings of guilt develop and no nurturing relationships are possible under feelings of guilt. Our attachments remain ambivalent and our love is mixed with our efforts to control our aggressive or greedy impulses.

Those who have once pulled themselves out of relationships and lived at the expense of others know the consequences of diffuse feelings of guilt and shame. In the West, we find the arrogance and sense of guilt of an older sibling, who tortures and ignores the newborn at one moment, then kissing it in arrogant mildness in the presence of the parents. We oscillate between competing territorial claims and development aid projects, between environmental exploitation and rigid ecological and nutritional rules. We are not prepared to give up our own privileges. Whoever takes a closer look at such contradictions begins to get a sense of the division and disconnectedness of our inner world. It seems to be a kind of love-hate relationship that allies us with the world around us.

The latent longing for connectedness

It is this kind of bond that we have with nature today and with it goes a still unquenched longing for care and real connection. In the 21st century networking is one of the primary factors in the development of cultural, social and technical possibilities. At the same time, we are experiencing increasing individualisation, a strong emphasis on autonomy and the desire for freedom, and an increasing fragility of our relationships. The way we network is constantly changing. We network digitally and globally, and we enter into relationships not only with partners and friends but also with our mobile phones or with fictional characters from series. Skype, voicemail, Instagram and series shape our sense of belonging in a very different way. Feeling alone seems almost impossible, yet as a latent feeling it is omnipresent. It is this latent longing for belonging and connectedness what brings millions of us to the streets in climate demonstrations for a better climate. But connectedness can and must mean even more than demonstrating together. It means a new inner attitude in which we visualize breaks in our perception and bring together separate realities. We need the courage to tolerate ambivalences and ambiguities within ourselves, to listen to others and not to avoid images of the enemy or hand over responsibility to authorities. From this attitude, action becomes a matter of course – and this is urgently needed, because otherwise it will be hot here with us.

1  Karin Edvardsson Björnberg u. a.: Climate and environmental science denial: A review of the scientific literature published in 1990–2015. In: Journal of Cleaner Production. Band 167, 2017, S. 229–241, hier: S. 235, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.08.066.

2 Delaram Habibi-Kohlen, Nach mir die Sintflut – von den Konflikten mit dem Klimawandel
3 Studie der Uni Leipzig, Artikel aus der ZEIT, 7.11.18

4 Green, André, Der moralische Narzißmus, Psyche, Mai 1998, 52. Jahrgang, Heft 5, pp 415-449