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‘Focus on your breath’: Psychologists group prepares public on how to read UN climate report: ‘IPCC report is the bearer of alarming news for all on Earth…If we are not feeling some level of fear & grief, we are in denial’

The Strange Thoughts of Catastropharians

By Tony Thomas

I was about to plough through the global politicians’ summary of the IPCC’s sixth report,[1] but then I saw the Australian psychologists’ guidelines for reading it safely.

How you read the IPCC report or climate media reports bears thinking about. It is important to be kind to yourself, and to be in as calm and grounded a state as one can be. Ideally do this with a trusted companion or a group of colleagues. Choose the time of day to read and a pleasant setting, perhaps first walking or meditating in a natural setting. It can be helpful to read slowly, noting your feelings, taking pauses to focus on your breath and checking in with yourself and with others. Try not to take in more than you can digest, and take time out for refreshments.

Their alert includes a twilight pic of a maiden on the end of a jetty, considering a dip pending the planet’s fiery demise. The Melbourne-founded group called Psychology for a Safe Climate provides the warning. I laid the IPCC aside and tucked up in bed with psychotherapist member Dr Sally Gillespie’s Western Sydney University  Ph.D. thesis “Mapping Myths, Dreams and Conversations in the Era of Global Warming”.[2]

I found another group spokesperson is Melbourne psychiatrist Charles Le Feuvre, who has written:

In Australia there continues to be Government denial. Our leaders could be seen psychiatrically as deluded and a danger to others and if so certifiable. At worst they can be seen as guilty of crimes against humanity and nature-homicide and ecocide — and indeed in the future they may be found to be … What is the nature of Scott Morrison’s denial?

Le Feuvre, who sees the unfortunate Greta Thunberg as “an incredible role model” and “highly rational”, had his climate motives reinforced by the Wye River (Vic)  bushfires: “Our house was completely destroyed apart from a statue of Venus.”

Here’s Sally’s dream on Page 1 of her thesis, a dream that turned her into a climate activist:

It’s the end of the world through climate change. Whole continents are sinking beneath the sea as water levels rise. Millions of people are attempting to cling to the shore, and to their lives, fruitlessly. At one stage I swing in the air clinging to a rope as land masses shift around beneath me. At another stage I cling to the shore line and a poodle swims up into my arms. I steal biscuits for us, and someone says about the poodle “He’s a salesman”.

I know billions must die and only tens of thousands will remain… It’s horrifying. Any possibility of distancing myself from climate change reports collapses through this night vision which awakens such intense feelings of vulnerability, for myself and all others on Earth.

She doesn’t say whether the poodle is a Royal Standard, Standard, Moyen, Toy, Miniature or Tea-Cup, but it’s definitely not a goldendoodle, Labradoodle or Pekapoos.  Whichever the peckish paddling poodle might be, I share Dr Sally’s intense identification with all other poodles and peoples on Earth.

The dream crashed through my justifications and denials, insisting that I live fully in the knowledge of the seriousness of climate change” she writes. “I closed my psychotherapy practice of twenty five years to focus on research into psychological responses to climate change and its reports … I start to calm down.

In another dream, Dr Sally is assigned to critique a Doris Lessing novel about climate change. She gets low marks from “a young woman, a smart cultural theorist” who provides comments written on ravioli.

The tantalising image of the ‘ravioli marks’ stayed with me, strangely apt in its sensual interplay of inner and outer, forms and fillings, offering richly-embodied sustenance and meaning.(p39).

She writes that climate denials are not directly comparable to Nazism. Thanks for that, Sally. But she does “observe some mutual resonances in our responses to them”. But Sally has her own “dictatorial fantasies”, writing

When my self-righteousness flares, dictatorial fantasies appeal, eager to impose my version of right thinking and behaviour in an attempt to bolster ego, constrain anxiety and control ‘the other’… I feel all this in my body as a dullness and heaviness–and a thud in my guts, something like uterine cramps with a bit of nausea. It’s hot, I sweat–hot flushes and global warming combined …

 When a hot flush creeps up on me as I read yet another report on melting ice caps, I feel overwhelmed by its slow burn along with my anxiety about living in a hotter world, and the powerlessness of my responses to stop either.[3]

To Sally, we denialists are desperately cowering from “unbearable anxiety or loss”, rather than laughing at doom-criers’ 50 years of failed predictions.

She created a seven-member group of mainly excitable women, some 50-plus, to share their own climate-apocalypse dreams –  “fellow crew members sailing a vessel of inquiry.” It’s thrilling to discover what makes climate  feminists tick. By their second meeting they’re fantasising about  surviving “systemic collapse.” They suspect their present core values might alter. For example, “stories of cannibalism are shared”. (p106).

Dr Sally: I wonder what those stories are serving for us at the moment, in teasing us into these questions. Not only the literal question: would I eat someone else or not? [but] what’s the value of human life and culture and society?

If you’re on the plump side and walking up Alexandra Parade, Fitzroy, cross the median strip if Sally’s team’s is coming. You just never know!

She writes in her journal:

This morning I find I have left the iron on for days, while I have been sick–I am horrified and guilty–it’s the emissions that I feel so bad about–more than fear of burning the house down or an expensive electricity bill. This cannot be undone. How to compensate? How to be more responsible, conscious? I decide to put the iron away. I hardly ever use it anyway–a relic from when ironing was a part of daily life, no longer necessary or important. (p139).

But Sally nonetheless does some planet-unfriendly flying:

I tell our group that “I have to confess” that I will be travelling to conferences overseas in a few months. (p144).

Some members contemplated their early demise via what we might deem “Darwin’s Law”.

Veronica leads the way by disclosing that she and her husband have decided they will be ‘suicide people’ in the event of a breakdown of civilisation. (p108).

Veronica recounts her involvement in the assisted suicide of a friend with multiple sclerosis years ago. She says:

because I’ve done that and… I have a spiritual belief in the eternality of the soul… that gives me comfort. So having gone all the way out there to the shit, and said “OK, I’ve got a plan”, it helps me… because however it goes I am going to be OK. And I don’t plan for it, I don’t have any suicide pills… it’s not at all crystallised or real… other than that I have a sense of trust with my husband that we would not be violent.

I can imagine Veronica’s next visit to the pharmacy.

Mary X, BPharm (Hons)Here’s the Ventolin for your inhaler and ointment for your bunionectomy. The allergy-free suicide pills are not yet on the approved list so we’ll be charging you $37.80. Take two before meals and be sure to finish the whole packet.”

Sally’s group melts down over planet-friendly disposal of dead AA batteries. This angst is ‘battery incapacitation’ – no pun intended — and introduces into the ladies’ dreams.

Veronica: I have [dead batteries] hidden in one of my kitchen drawers. One day they will take over my kitchen and I’ll be like ‘Shit! I’ve got to do something!’(p167).

Sara: I am not going to spend hours upon hours thinking about where I should put the batteries. I want things to be easy for me … if I can find an ecological solution to something, fine–but if I can’t, then I have to accept I have to put it into the rubbish bin … because it does my mind in thinking about it.

Lisa announces that she has just had a dream about this very problem:

I didn’t know where to do it. I was surrounded by people. I surreptitiously just did it in a deckchair [laughter]. And it’s about shit. It’s exactly what we are talking about …  And I’ve had this dream before … I just couldn’t bring myself to tell [it]. It’s so strong, I couldn’t possibly forget it, and I have to say it now because it’s so appropriate…

Sara immediately feels the connection between this dream and her feelings about dumping her batteries, prompting Lisa to speak about the lack of functioning toilets in her dream, further adding:

I just had to do it … everybody was just going on with their lives … I was just intensely embarrassed and uncomfortable and not knowing what to do … not knowing how to dispose of it without doing something gross … The dream was very visceral animal kind of thing. So when I woke up … my first thought was like I was out of control, and then I thought the way I’m living, we’re all living, is out of control. [Pause] It’s a mess.”

If Sara invites you to lunch, be careful where you sit.

Sally pauses from running her group to dropping in on her local council’s environment meetings.[4] Describing her team as “seven brave souls”, she thinks their “breadth of expertise and interests was a major strength in this research”.

Speaking personally, I found Veronica the most spectacular member, in a car-crash sort of way. She watched the dopey documentary Gasland on television one night and sobbed “huge wailing tears–my parents live right near where fracking is going on, they’re having earthquakes for the first time in recorded history.” (p119).

She and her husband fled to Australia from “their very grief filled time” in the US, “in the hugest bastion of denial”. If she didn’t believe in the eternal soul, “I would be one angry bitch.” (p77).

Rather than coveting Zoloft like some of her peers, she says

climate information [makes] me want to go and crawl in a hole with a bottle of vodka–and a big ice bucket… Our awareness and perception of climate change is already taking a toll on our collective mental health…

Sally writes that Veronica

broke into tears on her way to our meeting when she walked past a cat, explaining “I want a cat, but I don’t want a cat. And that’s climate change in terms of species preservation… I mean the tentacles of this issue are every freaking where!”

Amazingly, Veronica confesses that she used to be a beer lobbyist – “a whore for the beer institute” spinning to play down the risks  of foetal alcohol syndrome. (p186).

SARA: But why did you do it?
VERONICA: Because I had a husband to support.

Sara challenges Veronica about her friends’ CO2 seriousness.

SARA: Do they use shampoo?

VERONICA: Actually she uses shavings of a special kind of glycerine soap bar that … you put in a pump jar with water and it emulsifies.
SARA: Wow! I’ve gone through this whole process of trying to find shampoo and conditioner that is gentle to the environment but all that happens to me is that I get rashes so I’ve gone back to the chemical ones … It was really funny because I thought, “Here I am, doing the right thing”.

LINDA: And you ended up with pustules! (p147).

Here’s pen portraits of Sally’s brave souls, starting with Sara, who is upset by natural disasters, including the big Japanese tsunami.

Her eyes fill with tears as she speaks: I’m on this journey. But there is a part of me that just thinks, “Oh my God, Sara!… you are middle-aged and you’ve lost the plot!”(p58).

Linda is an anxiety-riddled community artist making TV-news friendly puppets for climate demos.  Her limited troupe of kids are no comfort.

They’re living their lives is that there is no tomorrow. They’ve kind of given up … that breaks my heart …  just fills me full of huge sorrow and fury and impotence.

Linda in turn recruited Lisa, “a fellow artist who makes animations in collaboration with climate change scientists.” At Lisa’s home, Sally admires installations of fish tanks with Perspex messaging, and engraved soft-drink bottles “amongst the long grass in her front yard”. The bottles

have thermometers sticking out of their tops like straws – a provocative juxtaposition which links climate change with consumerism, endangered species and rising temperatures… We start our conversation on a chair and sofa, but Lisa is soon on the floor, and I follow, shedding shoes and formalities.(p63).

Lisa is no lightweight: she gained her doctorate in animation about subjective responses to [non-existent] crises in the Antarctic.

Lisa is a dancer who marries her artist’s love of the movement of line with the physical expression of the body. Her great interest lies in the use of gestures and lines to facilitate dialogues between different ways of knowing. Her own ongoing research practice defies easy categorisation.

I’d have to agree with that, but let us return to what Lisa tells Sally

When I first started … someone asked me how I felt about the Antarctic environment … I remember feeling this incredible knot in my gut and my arms flailing, and going “I just don’t know –it’s just all over the place”, whereas I don’t feel that now… I still don’t understand climate change, but it’s sitting easily now.

Sally leaves Lisa’s grass-overgrown territory

buzzing with thoughts and responses to our discussion. Out of the corner of my eye I spy yet another installation just behind the front fence; a fish tank with a plastic shrimp in it and a sign that says “Fishy Leaks.” I burst out laughing. Lisa’s stimulating and quirky perspectives add to the resilience of our group in the discussions ahead.”

Zoe, a community policy-maker, is “heartbroken” over drowning Pacific Islands. Actually, the data from 221 Pacific and Indian Ocean islands show that they’re stable or growing.[5] Like myself, Zoe gets “fire in the belly” from dreams about Nicole Kidman, but with a different slant[6] (p66):

Nicole Kidman [is] sitting at a laptop computer by the edge of a billabong which is filling with rubbishy “consumer goods, and cars, and all of the stuff that is made from petrol.” [Not much stuff is made from petrol but let’s not quibble].

Zoe does not seem to be a Tony Abbott fan:

There’s a tone of voice that he uses that absolutely triggers something in me… like a snake wanting to strike, it’s an instinctive reaction. (p236)

Member Simon (30) got disillusioned on a Climate Camp march against a coal-fired power plant,

The march was right through a small town where most of the people worked at this plant, and so it was very confrontational to them … I just wasn’t sure that was the most productive thing to be doing, to be upsetting people that much.(p70)

Surprisingly, Simon is impressed by climate-sceptics’ science, including links to hundreds of peer-reviewed sceptic papers. He found sceptic science embarrassingly credible, confessing:

 Oh OK maybe some of the things that sceptics are saying aren’t completely, completely crazy.

I like Simon!

The other male, Sam, works in the energy sector, I assume in an environmental capacity.  His friends talk on camping trips about how humans are pests, just “a virus with shoes” which Gaia is keen to get rid of. (p74).  As the meetings progressed, Sally says the group’s

fears and our dreams became less apocalyptic … Hysteria markedly lowered as our discussions became more able to observe and reflect upon paradoxes and contradictions. (p136)

How I love such happy endings!

Tony Thomas’s just-published “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from author at [email protected] or publisher Connor Court.

[1] Politicians from the UN’s 190-odd countries vet the climate scientists’ draft summary and have final say on its contents.

[2] Psychologists for a Safe Climate lists Sally on its Program Development Working Group.

[3] Actually the Antarctic hasn’t warmed for 70 years and its sea ice is increasing. The Arctic has been gaining ice for a decade.

[4] A discussion there was about changing the name “Climate Change Taskforce”. “People click off when they hear climate change,” the councillor says and Sally agrees.(p54).

[5] From just last month: New Study: 62 km² (+6%) Net Expansion In 100s Of Pacific-Indian Ocean Island Shorelines From 2000-2017

[6] Don’t tell my wife.