Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree

by | Mar 6, 2009

This weekend, the University of the West of England’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies is holding a conference on ‘The Psychological and Political Challenge of Facing Climate Change’. According to conference organiser Professor Paul Hoggett:

“We will examine [climate change] denial from a variety of different perspectives…

Except he doesn’t actually mean ‘different perspectives’:

…as the product of addiction to consumption, as the outcome of diffusion of responsibility and the idea that someone else will sort it out and as the consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency, irresponsibility.”

Brendan O’Neill beat us to it:

…It will be a gathering of those from the top of society – ‘psychotherapists, social researchers, climate change activists, eco-psychologists’ – who will analyse those at the bottom of society, as if we were so many flitting, irrational amoeba under an eco-microscope. The organisers say the conference will explore how ‘denial’ is a product of both ‘addiction and consumption’ and is the ‘consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency and irresponsibility’. It is a testament to the dumbed-down, debate-phobic nature of the modern academy that a conference is being held not to explore ideas – to interrogate, analyse and fight over them – but to tag them as perverse.

We don’t have much to add, other than recommending that you take a moment to browse the conference programme and the outline of the afternoon’s Themed Groups session to get the full flavour of the event. (Links to Word files at the bottom of this page.) Here’s a taster:

It’s one thing – though a very important one – to understand environmental issues intellectually; quite another thing to feel them in our flesh and blood.  According to ecopsychologists, our alienation from flesh and blood experience plays a key role in our numb acceptance of planetary degradation and destruction. This workshop will use simple experiential exercises to help you connect more deeply with your own embodiment, and hence with the beauty and fragility of the other-than-human world.

It sounds like a great day’s entertainment if anyone fancies popping along. And all for only 50 quid.

We’ve alluded to Clockwork Orange (Clockwork Green?) when talking about psychologists’ attempts to get a piece of the climate change action. O’Neill goes with Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Psychologising dissent, and refusing to recognise, much less engage with, the substance of people’s disagreements – their political objections, their rational criticisms, their desire to do things differently – is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, outspoken critics of the ruling party were frequently tagged as mentally disordered and faced, as one Soviet dissident described it, ‘political exile to mental institutions’ (11). There they would be treated with narcotics, tranquillisers and even electric shock therapy. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure our hero Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged!’ he tells him. Today the word ‘Orwellian’ is massively overused, to describe everything from fingerprint library cards to supermarket loyalty cards, but treating your dissenters as deranged? That really is Orwellian, and we should declare permanent war against it.

There are two sides to every debate, of course, so we’ll give the last word to O’Brien the torturer Dr Steven Moffic:

[youtube VcWn3b3h3sQ]


  1. Luke Warmer

    The denier label is used as a proxy for idiot because the smear is that we deny facts not interpretations of the facts.

    As you say, what these sociologist activists e.g. orsekes and these psycho-activists miss out is the fact that the denier’s hypothesis might actually be right. If they wanted to be scientific that should surely be a kind of null hypothesis for even from their own IPPC gospel there could be a 10% chance that we’re right.

    It reminds me of the old joke:

    My son thinks he’s a chicken

    Have you taken him to a psychiatrist?

    No, we need the eggs

  2. geoff chambers

    Your clip of Doctor Moffic, Professor of psychiatry, explaining what he wants to do to me when he catches me, has quite ruined my day.

  3. Stefano

    Their idea is kinda sorta almost right: take time away from the office and the TV, go to a yoga class, learn to breath, feel into your own body, listen to its rhythms, go out into the woods, do a walking meditation, focus your attention on the feeling of grass between your toes.

    It is also what yoga/therapists/new agers have been saying and doing for 50 years. I know because I also do this stuff. It is healthy.

    A problem though is when people take this stuff and turn it into an answer to everything. Climate crisis? Walk rather than drive. Pollution? Learn to meditate. Water shortage? Get therapy. Peak oil? Do yoga. Nuclear proliferation? Learn to feel compassion in your heart.

    What they miss (and I used to miss just the same) has been specifically criticised by Ken Wilber (he also practices Zen, Yoga, therapy, and dozens of other growth related techniques), and Wilber has written a few books on the subject. A few years reading that critique finally snapped me out of it.

    So here is one point of the problem: whilst things like meditation and yoga are very healthy for putting you into a more feeling connected and natural state, that state is just a state of mind. It is like being drunk is just a state of mind. You drink and you enter a more sociable and lively state of mind. But as soon as the alcohol wears off, you are back to your normal self, the way you are most of the time. Drinking did not raise your IQ, it did not make you a brilliant musician, and it did not make your muscles bigger. All those things require training, they are all things you only acquire gradually by changing the structure of your mind and muscles. They are what developmental psychologists call a STAGE. And likewise, meditation can put you into a very refined state of mind, but the stage that your cognitive and moral abilities are at, those are largely left unchanged. Meditating doesn’t improve your ability to think. And that’s a pretty key point.

    So for a number of environmentalists who really feel connected to the environment, that’s great, that’s a great state to be in. You can practice yoga and be in that state. But their mental stage, their cognition, their ability to reason, to think, is NOT enhanced by that state. So it is quite likely that we can see environmentalists who in their heart of hearts feel for nature, but when they think about how to handle the problem they come back with rather silly ideas about killing business and industry. Or they feel for animals suffering and so they decide to commit arson risking the lives of people in buildings.

    The problem is that respect is that the environment and society and the economy are phenomenally complex systems. To think about a complex system requires a highly developed cognition, and a lot of hard work. You don’t get that by meditating or doing therapy. The notion that you just have to feel in your heart that you want to do the right thing, and you will start channelling “natural wisdom”, is flawed. And we see it daily in the way environmentalists try to go about solving the problems. Let’s solve the problem by turning off coal stations. Yeah… so nobody can see problems with that idea?? Let’s solve the problem by stopping people flying. Yes… because it is again a simple thing you just turn off… like they try to do in those centralised economies where they think it all works better if you can just control everything and put it in its proper place.

    They just cognitively don’t get complex systems. They spend all this time learning to feel, and the rest of us are left wondering when they’ll start learning to think.

  4. Robert Wood

    Alienation from flesh and blood experience plays a key role in greenies’ numb acceptance of enviromentalism.

  5. Lee Jones

    Moffitt scares me. Don’t treat your patients and help them get better – scare them and give them anxiety attacks. The guy should be struck off.

  6. Editors

    Far from getting him struck off, Moffic’s ideas seem to be serving him rather well. He’s just been appointed to a think tank, funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, to “explore and publish a white paper on the psychological aspects of climate change“.

    Apparently, “Dr. Moffic was invited to join because he was the first to start writing on the psychiatric aspects of global warming and because of his role as the psychiatrist representative from the Health and Environment Committee of the Physicians For [Ahem] Social Responsibility.”

  7. Alex Cull

    “Instead of using psychiatric insight and techniques to reduce excessive anxiety, shame and guilt, for global warming these emotions will need to be increased in the unconcerned. This kind of help runs counter to our usual goal of not making people feel worse. But remember that at times we indeed try to make our patients more anxious or guilty when we want them to be more compliant.”

    If these words were spoken by a sinister Mengele-like psychiatrist in some novel, they’d sound a little ridiculous. I mean, really no-one would ever come out and say something obviously as evil as this in real life, would they? “… when we want them to be more compliant” Mwahhaha… Yeah, right.

    Only… WTF. This is no work of fiction. This is real.

  8. gus steen

    Moffic’s wrong anyway. Every time I hear about global warming I feel *terrible*, but I still think it’s bollocks.

  9. Stevo

    Just who is it that’s supposed to be nuts here?

    Someone who used to work in a mental hospital once told me that the patients generally appeared more normal than the doctors. What I had thought a joke appears to have some seed of truth to it.

    What are we to make of this?
    “Social Dreaming is a way of working with dreams in a collective setting, developed by Gordon Lawrence and others since the 1980s. The Social Dreaming Matrix is a space where we share our dreams. The focus is on the dream not the dreamer. All are invited to free associate to any of the dreams offered in the matrix, the matrix will then be followed by a space to reflect, enabling us to identify emerging themes and relate them to the theme of the conference.”

    Errr… right.

    For some reason, I have horrible mental images of a teenager’s slumber party conducted by boiled radical feminists.

    Then we have this:
    “Constellations, with the help of a trained facilitator, are a potent way of harnessing the individual and collaborative skills that are latent within a group and can lead to surprising experiences of development and healing. Environmental Constellations draw upon both the Systemic Constellation work of Bert Hellinger and Albrecht Mahr, and on eco-psychology.”

    What the hell are ‘Constellations’?

    “Originally a Reichian body therapist, my approach has become broad based and open to the spontaneous and unexpected. I have an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies, and have also worked with Process Oriented Psychology and trained as a craniosacral therapist.”

    A what?
    What does any of this mean? Is this some sort of phrenologist, or what?

    But all these pales into insignificance compared to this one.
    “We are clearly in need of ‘a new plot to live by’ [Hillman]. But what kind of plot, and who designs and runs it, and on whose behalf? It is all too easy to imagine a future in which mind-numbing, Orwellian Eco ‘Newspeak’ about carbon footprints, carbon audits [1000 carbos = one tonne of carbon dioxide] is regularly churned out by PC, Eco thought police, as a substitute for thinking, with joined-up sound bytes designed to send us into a cosy collective sleep, or persuading us to wear anorexic, eco hair-shirts as a sign of authentic, card-carrying party membership. All this underpinned by the vague notion that somehow science or a symbolic parent figure will come to our rescue and solve the problem for us!”

    Is this satire/sarcasm from some poor sane soul trapped among them, or is this their actual plan?!

    It is surely a very detailed and elaborate fantasy to construct for the sake of a hypothetical discussion point.

    I am in no doubt. The real psychology faculty have been killed and eaten by their patients, who are now posing as professors and researchers. Why has nobody noticed?

    I find it hard to imagine that anyone could possibly take these people seriously. I am not at all sure that we should be taking them seriously. But what if somebody else does…?

    When I think of the years I spent at university learning maths and physics, about the works of Newton and Einstein and Dirac, hoping one day to be good enough to work as an academic, and now to think there are people in British universities being paid for spouting this sort of mumbo jumbo… well, it makes my blood boil.

    We ought to be glad they’re on the other side. Just think what our reputation would be if they were AGW sceptics!

  10. Robert Wood

    We, being rationalists and people who do not want the world descend to poverty and violence, must stand firm against this political movement called ENVIRO-MENTALISM.

    It is nothing more than an excuse for tyranny. The tyrany may be inn the name of “saving the planet” but that is just a lie.

    Yes, I am using this posting opportunity as a call to arms. We (all rational humans) must resist the eco-irrationalisms, which is based upon an aesthetic, rather than realistic, view of liefe.

    Ironically, this aesthetic view has only become possible due to the success of the suburban economy, mostly in Toronto and other big cities … where people have become detached from , but romantically attached to, nature

  11. Alex Cull

    Following on from what Stefano has said, I agree that there are plenty of things that new-agers do that are worthwhile. I’ve practised yoga too, and meditation, also I enjoy being near trees, wilderness areas, the ocean, etc. However, aside from Stefano’s point that these practices do not generally help you to think (although aren’t there some studies showing that meditation does help to improve cognitive skills?) I see at least one big problem with the drop out/tune in/save the planet mindset:

    Basically there’s the (irresistible?) tendency for them to think as follows: I like doing this. This is good for me. I’m sure it would be good for you too. And for her and him and all of those people as well. In fact everybody should be doing this. In fact, by not doing this, people are just harming themselves and everyone else (the planet.) They should be made to do this.

    You often find this, e.g. from one of the rather excitable Johann Hari’s articles last year: “It is not enough for you to change your bulbs. Everyone has to change their bulbs. It is not enough for you to eat less meat. Everyone has to eat less meat. It is not enough for you to fly less. Everyone has to fly less…” etc., etc.

    I also see this in phrases like “our alienation from flesh and blood experience”. Now unless there someone reading this comment who is a disembodied brain in a jar somewhere, I’m pretty much assuming that we’re all living human beings and that “flesh and blood experience” is what we’re stuck with. To be alienated from it, we’d have to be comatose or dead, so that phrase doesn’t make much sense. What makes more sense is that they’re saying some kinds of experience are superior to others, e.g. the experience of sitting under a tree and meditating is better than the experience of sitting in a McDonalds, wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries.

    If they just stopped there, that would be fine. Some people enjoy sitting under trees meditating, some like eating cheeseburgers. (Myself, I sometimes try to sit and meditate, and also occasionally have something similar to the cheeseburger experience.) But the problem is, they don’t stop there. To misquote Hari: “It is not enough for you to meditate under a tree. Everyone has to meditate under a tree. It is not enough for you to renounce cheeseburgers. Everyone has to renounce cheeseburgers.” What was a lifestyle choice becomes, as Robert Wood just said, “an excuse for tyranny.” There are people who have reached a stage where they become interested in such things as yoga, meditation, or indeed the “other-than-human world” (although lumping these things together might not be very helpful, I think). Some people will never ever be interested in these things, and the thought of making them take an interest, for the sake of the “planet”, is laughable and wrong.

    Beneath all the psychobabble and the talk of “helping”, it really is all about power, the power to validate one’s own righteous stance in the world by imposing it upon all those others, who contradict it just by living the way they (we!) do (eating meat, driving cars, flying in planes, not believing in global warming.) Hence the threat of coercive psychiatric techniques to force us all into line, turn the bad deniers into good compliers.

    There’s a lot more I wanted to say but it’s a sunny Sunday morning here in London and I’m off to Tesco.

  12. Kev of Oz

    The irony of all this is that if anyone tried to stop this conference – the uni admin, the government – there would be an immediate rent-a-crowd protest probably hurling the default epithet ‘fascist’ at the authorities, as is always flung at perceived oppression these days.

    While these same academics, writers and opinion leaders quite seriously ponder the notion that opposing political views are an expression of mental disorder or, in other social behaviour that they deem unacceptable – the result of uncontrollable, primeval neurology.

    Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, results in various suggestions that democracy is incompatible with environmental sustainability. Such suggestions are in print as serious discussion.

    Meaning, at best, the dissenters have to be dis-enfranchised and, at worst – well the whole history of the 20th century is replete with examples of what happens when people you don’t agree with are de-humanised and disposed of.

    It seems like that coincident with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, something pushed up the shutters of historical memory in the heads of an awful lot of people who would love to uncork the genie of authoritarianism, in a good cause of course, but who have the education to know better !

  13. Jack Hughes

    Pyschobabble becomes eco-babble.


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