What Role Does Social Science Play in Addressing the Climate Crisis? Facing Loss and Imagining a Different Future
By Matthew Adams, author of Ecological Crisis, Sustainability and the Psychosocial Subject
The prospect of climate change for many is terrifying. Even climate scientists at the forefront of attempts to tackle it agree, as reflected in the letters they wrote for an online project, like this one:
Sometimes I have this dream.
I’m going for a hike and discover a remote farm house on fire.
Children are calling for help from the upper windows. So I call the fire brigade. But they don’t come, because some mad person keeps telling them that it is a false alarm.
The situation is getting more and more desperate, but I can’t convince the firemen to get going.
I cannot wake up from this nightmare.
Waking up from the nightmare starts with recognising that this is no false alarm, it is an emergency. To understand how we do this and where we go from there, the contribution of the social sciences is crucial. As a social psychologist interested in the intersection of identity, social life and climate communication, I think the problem is not so much that we think the alarm bells we hear ringing are false, we are just adept at screening out the noise and carrying on regardless. Well, not quite without regard. We know this is a crisis, but we then find ways of not knowing, and even of not knowing we are actively not knowing.
Like many others, I have found the concept of defence mechanisms helpful for explaining this process, as originally conceptualised by Freud, and subsequently developed by countless psychoanalytic theorists and therapists (Adams, 2014). The term refers to the numerous ways we find to defend ourselves psychologically against unpalatable truths – aspects of reality that challenge hard-won and deep-seated images of who we are, how others see us and our place in relation to the world. Many of these mechanisms have entered our everyday language - like denial, repression and suppression. The climate crisis is an external threat on an enormous scale, especially to those of us living in and benefitting from ‘advanced’ consumer societies. Why us in particular? Because we are heavily invested in those societies psychologically and socially. The sheer convenience and ubiquity of goods, services and entertainment - or at least their visibility if out of reach - means many of us rarely stop to think of it as temporary, whilst being deeply, intimately embedded in it psychically, socially, culturally.
So far, for us not yet positioned to be noticeably experiencing the end of the world, the climate crisis in this context encourages a cascade of defence mechanisms individually and collectively that have now been documented extensively – from out and out denial to more subtle forms of deflection and distraction (Dickinson, 2009; Hoggett, 2019). As an object, the climate emergency is like a giant lumbering beast, hovering on the horizon, shouting out in a language at first incoherent. We can see it if we strain our eyes, or through binoculars, but we can also convince ourselves it is not moving towards us, might turn away before it gets here, or the government will save us from it. But of course, really, we can hear what it is bellowing. It shouts a promise not just to extinguish species, heat the climate, wreak flood and drought, but to pull on the threads of our very existence until it unravels: to take away an ever growing list of props that together crowd the stage of our existence - cars, meat, clothes, phones, holidays abroad, stoves, tumble dryers, video streaming and so on.
No wonder we hold our hands to our ears. This is not to say we’re fundamentally selfish. On one level, the message is getting through – we increasingly attempt to modify our behaviour more or less in line with persistent public scandals and pronouncements – plastic bags, bottled water, eating meat; though some are more resistant – flying, driving, fashion. Social science perspectives, such as socio-technical transition analysis and social practice theory, can inform us why some behaviours might change, even inform policy makers how a wider array of elements – materials and infrastructure, cultural meanings, learnt competencies – combine to make practices like driving, flying or eating meat more or less likely (Geels et al. 2016; Sahakian and Wilhite, 2014).
There is significant potential here to develop a more joined up understanding of more or less sustainable actions. But even the most ambitious individual policies and behaviour change campaigns are not going to keep the beast at bay. As an approach, it just does not scale up to meet the crisis head on - the backdrop on which these changes are projected remains largely unchallenged. In fact, tweaks to everyday behaviour arguably function more like a defence mechanism; ways in which we convince ourselves, governments and corporations convince us and themselves, that we are doing something meaningful, rather than having to face, really face, the existential crisis at the heart of the climate crisis – how do we go on, if not like this?
Both psychology and the broader social sciences can be more ambitious. They can help us give name to and articulate the difficult personal and social emotions that come with this acknowledgement – like grief, guilt, shame, fear and anger (e.g. Caillaud et al. 2016; Norgaard, 2010). If we can do more of this publicly, supportively, a shared quest for truth and reconciliation to cut through the socially organised silence, it is less likely that defence mechanisms will take precedent. Arguably this is already happening in the emergence of indigenous activism, the youth climate strikes, and Extinction Rebellion. Beyond this, whilst it is important to emphasise what needs to be done, we also need to take time to think together. As a culture, we have become trapped in ‘parallel narratives’ that offer either an apocalyptic anti-future or a technologically engineered happily-ever-after (Randall, 2009). In fact it often feels like we have stopped looking ahead at all really, caught between the end of the world we don’t want to think about and holding onto an endless present we know isn’t perfect but don’t want to give up - what I’ve referred to as a form of narrative foreclosure (Adams, 2016). Here again, social science methodologies can help us get better at developing our social imagination and provide some of the places and spaces in which to do so, especially through participatory and narrative approaches (e.g. Hendersson and Wamsler, 2016; Paprocki, 2019; Potter, 2019).
The climate movement cannot only be built on telling people, telling ourselves, what we have done wrong, what we must give up. We must find ways and means of being more open about what we’re going to struggle without – like the apparently off-hand comment from environmental philosopher Tim Morton in his excellent radio series The End of the World Has Already Happened, in a car on his way somewhere, where he plaintively cries ‘god I’m going to miss the internal combustion engine’. Talking honestly about what we might have to give up is a basis for considering what matters to us, how we might recover from loss, but also, what we value. Imagining the future in these modes is in effect a gentler way of sidling up to our fears; one that can bypass or neutralise those defence mechanisms. I’m not being wholly naïve here – there are powerful coalitions steadfast in their desire to keep things pretty much as there are for as long as possible – and the rest of us often find ourselves in alliance with them, through established habits of thinking and acting. This is where theories and methods across psychology and the social sciences can provide really good tools to think with, to open up and share our imaginative capacities and develop new narratives, especially when in interdisciplinary mode – open to dialogue with the humanities, arts, and the natural sciences (e.g. Taylor, 2017).
In my own most recent research for example, I have investigated the psychological and social consequences and opportunities offered by a concept from earth science, ‘the Anthropocene’, which describes the recent period of large-scale human impact on the planet (Adams, 2020). I have argued that this new geological epoch perhaps offers a framework for developing our imagination, whilst recognising that we, as a species, are not outside of the biosphere and in control of it, but part of it. Frameworks such as this might build on the potential of the social sciences to address systemic issues, and of psychology or psychotherapy to offer methods to counter the existential threat of climate change. Only in combination, hand-in-hand with the upsurge in activist energy happening globally, especially youth, indigenous and justice movements, can they provide the basis for strategies to enable us to envision a more hopeful future.
Matthew Adams is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton, UK. He has published widely on issues of self and identity in the context of modern society. His recent research uses critical psychology and social science to make sense of the ways we respond to climate change and the wider ecological crisis.
Adams, M. (2020) Anthropocene psychology: Being human in a more-than-human world. London: Routledge.
Adams, M. (2016) Ecological crisis, sustainability & the psychosocial subject: Beyond behaviour change. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
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Dickinson, J. L. (2009). The people paradox: Self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and human response to climate change. Ecology and society, 14(1). https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art34/
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Potter, E. (2019). Contesting imaginaries in the Australian city: urban planning, public storytelling and the implications for climate change. Urban studies, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098018821304
Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: The cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology, 1(3), 118-129. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2009.0034
Sahakian, M., & Wilhite, H. (2014). Making practice theory practicable: Towards more sustainable forms of consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 14(1), 25-44. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540513505607
Taylor, A. (2017). Beyond stewardship: Common world pedagogies for the Anthropocene. Environmental Education Research, 23(10), 1448-1461. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2017.1325452