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How to Deal with Feeling Overwhelmed By Bad Climate Change News

We spoke to a psychoanalyst about how not to get swallowed by dread or give up hope completely.

by Joe Sandler Clarke
04 April 2019, 11:26am

Collage: Marta Parszeniew

The news is bad. That will be true no matter what day you're reading this.

The headlines read as if they’ve been ripped from the set of a dystopian horror film and shoved online. Manically scrawled on the wall of an abandoned hospital one minute, sitting at the top the Guardian’s environment section the next.

“Insects have ‘no place to hide’ from climate change”,“The collapse of civilisation is on the horizon”, “We’re doomed”: this language has become normalised as our climate has changed. The end can often appear extremely fucking nigh.

Last week it was revealed that the largest energy producers in China have asked the government to green-light as many as 500 new coal power plants. If that plan goes ahead, it will effectively destroy efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees.

For someone who writes about climate change and obsesses over the news, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

"That’s inevitable," says the psychoanalyst and climate writer Sally Weintrobe when I meet her for a cup of tea at her home in north London. "Feeling overwhelmed gives the problem the respect it deserves, in a way."

The important thing, according to Weintrobe, is what we do with that feeling. Do we retreat into the comfort of friends and family? Do we decide we don’t care and spend the rest of our lives ticking items off a bucket list? Climate change is a global crisis with global consequences. Solving it will require a tremendous effort. Can we be bothered?

"I don’t think we should be scared of feeling overwhelmed, and I don’t think we should be scared about compartmentalising either," says Weintrobe. "That’s part of looking after yourself. That’s what I call 'heart management'. The work is to find out when are we cutting off because of our hearts, and when are we cutting off because we just don’t want to know about it, or so we can fly to Australia, or something."

Weintrobe has shifted her career in recent years to try to understand how a psychoanalytic approach can further our understanding of the climate crisis and our collective response to it. She’s interested in how our own anxieties and sense of unease can worm their way into our society, eventually shaping our political climate.

"This issue is tough on our feelings, and it's harder because we don’t get much support," she says.

Weintrobe has written that the legacy of the failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 was a collective realisation that our "leaders are not looking after us… we are not cared for at the very level of our survival".

For anyone in the UK, after a week that's seen MPs fail again and again to come to any decision on Brexit, imperilling the British economy and the supply of key medical equipment as a result, the sense that our leaders don’t care about us is palpable.

The fact that companies and politicians routinely lie and obfuscate on climate is also anxious-making, and can leave us feeling uncared for. This column has talked a lot about BP and other oil majors' ability to play both sides on climate, talking up renewable energy investments while undoing important environmental protections.

All of this doublethink is maddening. We’re being lied to all the time by some of the most powerful people and organisations on the planet about a crisis that threatens us all. No wonder we feel worried. No wonder the world looks like such a mess. But what can we do? We could become vegan, but how would that affect the decisions of the Chinese government? Is there any point in doing anything? Where’s my bucket list?

"To think about climate change in a way that is effective, we need to be able to feel about it as well," argues Weintrobe. "It’s very hard if we don’t want to disassociate from our feelings."

Meeting the challenge of our changing climate, then, is rather like meeting the challenge of the other impossible situations life throws at us: the death of a close friend, the end of a relationship, political upheaval. To be reassured by the knowledge that something can be done. That people have been in terrible situations before and come through them.

In 1939, the German writer Bertolt Brecht wrote the poem "A Bad Time for Poetry", as much a rebuke of Hitler – who he dismissed as "the housepainter" – as a celebration of life and the human spirit.

Inside me contend
Enthusiasm at the blossoming apple tree
And horror at the housepainter’s speeches.
But only the latter
Drives me to write.

The challenge is to take the world as it is and live in it. To really live. To take all that is going on at this time and try to improve things. To get angry at the people causing this mess and work to do something about it.

Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed .

@JSandlerClarke