Psycho-Activists' Lack-of-Substance Abuse

by | Apr 19, 2009

Last month, we mentioned a conference at the University of the West of England, which set out to diagnose the debilitating condition suffered by those who fail to subscribe to the environmental orthodoxy.

We suggested that it’s a sure sign that environmentalism’s political arguments are failing when its adherents resort to the pathologisation of dissenters. Climate psycho-activist George Marshall had followed up his opening address to the conference with a Guardian piece explaining that ‘the greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information’.

What he meant by ‘we’ was ‘them’. But that’s the trouble with psychology: we all have one. If scepticism can be reduced to a psycho-pathological phenomenon, then so too can willingness to toe the line of green orthodoxy. Things get even more difficult for Marshall because, given that the majority of the world’s population would count as sceptics (and Marshall’s despair over the results of various opinion polls would suggest that he’d agree with this), it seems rather odd to be writing off such views as an aberration.

We suggested that his analysis could be thrown right back at him just by reversing the meaning of each of his arguments. The same goes for a similar analysis from green campaigning philosopher James Garvey, which we missed at the time. Garvey drew on Mayer Hillman’s ten excuses for inaction on climate change:

1. I don’t believe in climate change.
2. Technology will be able to halt climate change.
3. Others are to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those calling for action.
5. It’s not my problem.
6. There’s nothing I can do about it.
7. How I run my life is my business.
8. There are more important problems to tackle.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. We are already making real progress on climate change.

Once again, with just a modicum of tweaking, these can be transformed into ten excuses to do ‘something’ on climate change:

1. I believe in climate change.
2. Technology won’t be able to halt climate change.
3. I am to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those criticising action for its own sake.
5. This is personal.
6. There’s something I can do to make myself feel better about it.
7. How I run my life is everyone’s business, and theirs mine.
8. I haven’t got anything better to do.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. Climate change is worse than previously thought.

Meanwhile, Marshall continues to clutch at the straws offered by eco-psychology. He has recently posted his Guardian piece on his blog with a postscript in which he lists some of the responses made to the original ‘which are mostly text book examples of the various denial strategies we know only too well’. It’s all he can do; he has nowhere else to go. No point countering with political arguments. Because the outcome of Marshall’s argument is that politics itself is reducible to the sum of the expression of our psychological idiosyncrasies. It’s the only way to resolve the conflict between his statements that A) psychology is the biggest determinant of one’s willingness to act on climate change, and B) ‘political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change’:

Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”

If ‘denialism’ is a pathology, so too is Republicanism. And who argues with madmen? Handy.

Last year, Ben wrote a review of Garvey’s book The Ethics of Climate Change. Since then, Garvey’s argument hasn’t got any more sophisticated, nor even more philosophical.

A more philosophical question might be ‘what are the ethics of treating people with different views as though they had a psychological disorder?’ But indeed, the tendency to psychologise political difference rather than face awkward philosophical and political questions is symptomatic of what we have described as the orthodox-interested category of players in the climate change debate. If it is possible to characterise climate change ‘denial’ with a list of symptoms, then it is legitimate to do the same with their counterparts, as above.

Garvey, like many climate change activists, hides his ethics (or equally possibly, his lack of them) behind scientific authority. But he escapes being head-shrinked into a category by claiming that ‘the science’ justifies his outlook – even though, as he admits, he doesn’t actually understand the science. Knowledge of the material world that informs his ethical perspective comes to him from authority – science academies, the IPCC. Garvey might wish to consult a number of philosophers who point out that experience is prior to science. Science’s aim is to build an objective picture of the world. But it is not executed by objective beings. Nor is it viewed by objective beings.

Hillman’s ten arguments give us a view of what a ‘sceptic’ might say, each implying that the individual hasn’t been sufficiently exposed to the official scientific truth. But as our own ten points demonstrate, it is easy to form an equally ill-informed perspective the other way. Garvey, like Hillman takes what he understands to be an objective, scientific fact – climate change is dangerous and is happening – and runs with it. Where does it take him?

It takes him, Hillman, and Marshall to a view of other people. The prospect of catastrophe allows Garvey to reinvent a system of ethics to explain how people ought to behave. It allows Hillman to speculate on the nature of other people’s ignorance. It allows Marshall to peer inside the heads of his political opposition. It allows the creation of a form of politics which sees people as little more than a collection of animal drives and instincts – objects, which they have studied, that need to be managed lest they unleash thermageddon.

This is what people object to. It is not an objection that appears on Hilman’s list. He obviously hasn’t reflected very deeply on what an objection to his own view might be. Naturally, this is because he denies that there can be an objection. Science says so. Let us correct him. Garvey’s, Hillman’s and Marshall’s arguments are not formed from objectivity. They are formed at a time in which men such as these struggle to find any way of elevating themselves. They have very little to offer the world in terms of ideas about how to make it a better place. So they instead tell us that it is much much worse place than we can possibly contemplate, and worsening. It is only from their privileged standpoint that the danger can be seen. These three men demonstrate their inability to communicate with the public. Their shrill voices represent an increasingly desperate attempt to shout instructions across the distance between them and the rest of the world.

People can see that this is what environmental politics, ethics and psychology are about. That is because they have a subjective position on the world; they are not mere collections of animal drives. And as subjective beings, it is easy to imagine things from a different perspective. It is easy to sense, if not recognise, that what lies behind environmental catastrophism is a desire to control. Once the subjective position of eco-zealots is understood, it is easy to see that there is not only a way of explaining their alarmism, but also a substantial disparity between what emerges from the ‘objective’ scientific process and the bleak environmental orthodoxy they produce.


  1. SJones

    Tweaking is fun. I took the liberty and here is the same list but also well tweaked:

    1.Climate change is an observable phenomenum. `Belief´ is not required.
    2.Technology is important, particularly new technology.
    3. We are responsible, in the sense that we understand the consequences of our actions, and hold ourselves accountable.
    4.Ad hominem attacks are futile exercises. Examine the science and judge that instead.
    5.Something that concerns us all.
    6.Recognise and affirm our humanity, our creativity and our ability to make a difference for the betterment of this world and all that´s in it.
    7.Understand that what we do impacts everyone else in large and small ways.
    8.Ensure that everything we do has validity. Actions based on hubris are trivial, without worth and ultimately meaningless.
    9.Act intelligently, thoughtfully, and conscientiously. Be aware and take care.
    10.Get up in the early morning and watch the sun rise. Feel the wind on your skin and smell the green of the earth after rain. Watch a baby sleeping and children running and playing in a field full of wildflowers. Hear the birds singing and the old folk laughing. Look up into the night sky at the shining universe and experience awe and wonder at where we are, all of us together on this small blue planet.

  2. geoff chambers

    Your criticism of Marshall’s ad hominem pop psychology is spot on, as usual, and you’re absolutely right to point out how any attribution of psychological motives like that proposed by Garvey, can be simply thrown back in the face of the accuser. (“the problem with your argument is that you’re bonkers” – “So are you”).
    And your comment that the trouble with psychology is that we all have one recalls the observation of an American friend (who works in motivational research) that opinions are like assholes… Nevertheless, I continue to believe that psychology (and opinions) are important in the analysis of political phenomena, and that Global Warming Alarmism is essentially a socio-psychological phenomenon, rendered important by the fact that it is currently filling the vacuum of modern political discourse.
    The psychological motivations of Members of the Royal Society, or of Plane Stupid, or of environmental journalists or lead writers on the IPCC, are probably complex, and different in each case. And they cannot be used in any argument about the politics of climate change, but only in the meta-argument about how we got to where we are, and how we get out of here. It’s illegitimate to argue that your opponents are wrong because they’re In Denial, or because they’re anxiety-prone anal obsessives (I was censored on CiF for taking that line). However, it’s perfectly legitimate to analyse a political movement in terms of sociological or psychological motives.
    In the postscript to Marshall’s blog to which you link, he criticises us denialists, picking out two quotes from comments I made to his Guardian article. I’ve just replied to his criticisms, and my comment is awaiting moderation. I made a lot of comments on that article, some of them rather stupid, in retrospect. However, I continue to believe that bearding Alarmism in its den on Guardian Environment (even stupidly) is more useful than exchanging aimabilities here among friends. I note that Climate Resistance has sometimes commented on Guardian Environment (as has Alex Cull). What do you-all think, on the tactical question?

  3. Editors

    Geoff – ‘that Global Warming Alarmism is essentially a socio-psychological phenomenon’.

    We have disagreed about the role of psychology in the debate in the past. But we occasionally discuss things such as George Monbiot’s existential angst. Perhaps there is a difference between pathologising, and discussing mental states. Having said that, our posts here attempt to make the point that the political is chiefly prior to the psychological, rather than emerges from it. So we can understand environmentalism as more a kind of reaction to today’s nihilistic political world than a cause of it. We think it’s a muddy area. Please feel free to share your thoughts here.

    It will be a long time before George Marshall grows the balls necessary to publish the comments on his blog that criticise him. Like much of the movement, he’s neither interested nor capable of dialogue with ‘deniers’. Perhaps there is a psychology to it. Maybe he’s just deeply arrogant and doesn’t feel the need to account for the view he wants to impose on the world. Rather like a religious zealot.

    The CiF site is perhaps more rewarding, when it’s not swamped. Your comments there are always good value. But it’s a very disposable form of discussion, and, other than gleaning some insight into what might be influencing the arguments made by alarmists, it’s hard to see if any discussions there change any minds, or how productive arguments can extend their influence beyond the immediate discussion. On the other hand, is a blog any less disposable? For the moment, a discussion is all we intend to have, it would be nice to think it was possible to influence the debate outside the blogosphere. One step at a time, perhaps.

  4. Alex Cull

    I’ve commented a few times on CiF but have found it very distracting, as I then find myself going back again and again during the day to find out if anyone has responded and then spend more time formulating responses to their responses, and so forth, and it tends to set the tone for everything else that happens during the day, making it difficult to think about anything else. For my sanity, what I’ll probably do, going forward, is appear briefly, make a throwaway comment (like a banana flung by a passing orang-utan – Geoff, I think that excellent metaphor was from you!) and depart rapidly, seldom to return… :o)

    There are forums that are more sedate and less like a pub brawl than CiF but which also probably attract quite a few mainstream readers and feature a bit of moderated but lively debate. The BBC have some interesting ones, in fact – Richard Black’s Earth Watch blog, Susan Watts’s Newsnight science blog (check out the “Restoring science to its rightful place” thread!) and the Green Room. Being the BBC, the articles and blog items there will be mostly pro-AGW; however, the comments are another matter entirely.

    Re the Green Room, Maurizio (Omniclimate) has just made a good observation here:

    About the psycho-activists, I think that on one level, their lack of self-knowledge reflects the same kind of “doesn’t apply to me” mentality that we see in jet-setting activists, royals and celebs when they tell the rest of us to cut back on our vile carbon-emitting activities. On another level, and where psychologists are concerned, I think it demonstrates an interesting blind-spot effect that may be prevalent in that field, where there is a well-known “shadow side” to helping (e.g., therapists falling victim to “counter-transference”, counsellors drawn to having inappropriate relations with clients, psychologists projecting their own unmet needs onto their subjects, etc.) IMO this is one of the dangers associated with pathologising others, the mote in the other person’s eye effectively concealing (and reinforcing) the beam in one’s own.

    Editors, I think that “one step at a time” is just about right. Rome wasn’t built (or demolished) in a day.

  5. geoff chambers

    to editors
    Thanks for your prompt and interesting comments on my comment.
    Then you say: “It will be a long time before George Marshall grows the balls necessary to publish the comments on his blog that criticise him.”
    How ad hominem can you get while claiming to be above mere psychology?
    You were right of course. After several days’ reflection, my polite comment on Marshall’s blog, citing your article, was censored.
    I note that you don’t reply to my point about strategy. I may be a conservative rightwing tool of Bigoil, but I still ascribe to the Leninist credo that the important question is: What is to be done? I’ve been commenting on Guardian Environment articles for the past few weeks, and the number of approving comments has varied from zero to seventy-plus. Which means that there are people out there ready to listen (sometimes) to reasoned sceptical arguments. I accept that the war will not be won on Guardian Environment alone, but would like to know where you stand on engaging with the enemy.
    I do agree that the political is prior to the psychological, in the sense that politics is where citizens of a free society can debate, without name-calling. (Name-calling is for in the pub, after the debate. Here on C-R we’re in the pub, no?). Psychology to me is about knowing the enemy, not winning the debate – which comes after.


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