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Climate change, environmental collapse and radical psychology

At a time of cultural devastation, the reality that a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways. Jonathon Lear ‘Radical Hope’

How to bear living with the sixth great extinction in the history of our planet and know we are responsible? We live in challenging times – normal service will not be resumed despite our knowing disavowal of the crisis.

How different cultures perceive this crisis is key to their willingness to take responsibility for their part in creating it. The much-vaunted image of the planet from space may be exacerbating the sense of how small our planet is and hence the scarcity of resource that used to seem so plentiful. There have been several explorations of culture’s inability to change in the face of extinction including that of Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Albert Camus’s and Mary Shelley’s stories of the plague. Camus and Shelley both use the metaphor of the plague as a social pestilence in which we are all complicit that involves sentimental melancholia for an idealised past, an inability to face into the challenges of the new reality and an anxious regression to sanctioning violence.

To face into this crisis, we need to resource cultural narratives with stories of radical change. Jonathan Lear describes the real story of how the Crow nation adapted to a new way of life after their traditional way of life had collapsed. Plenty Coups, the Crow chief, persuaded his people to relinquish the old values and traditions as a means to imagining a new future. Lear refers to this as ‘radical hope’. Like the Crow, we live in an age of deep and profound angst that the world itself, as we know it, is vulnerable and could break down. Now is the time for us to find imaginative tools with which to navigate this psychological and cultural crisis.

The potential of a collective shift seems stultified and blocked by the biggest psychological symptom on our planet - the denial of climate change. The Earth systems and the cultural systems are in a parallel process of rupture. We seem distracted, if not dissociated by our many escapist entertainments that help maintain a sense of ‘normality’ despite the increasing collective symptoms of anxiety, addiction and suicide. Examples of our cultural malaise include:

My focus in the services offered here are not on individual maladies but rather on the urgent need to develop a collective perspective on the cultural wounds and complexes, which are likely to leave our children inheriting an endangered and impoverished world. The culture crisis will force a species wide challenge to imaginatively adapt to a very different world. I am exploring cultural interventions – creating spaces where the distress and grief can be named along with the ritual actions of remorse and the potential to re-imagine old stories and co-create new ways of healing and transformation.

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