The Other Side of Collapse: Climate Change, Grief Work and Imagination

What does climate change have to do with grief work? And why are play, humour and creative imagination such important psychological tools at this time? In Friday’s Blog post, ahead of the Tavistock’s Ecology, Psychoanalysis and Global Warming conference, Paul Hoggett explained why therapists have a vital role in confronting climate change. Following a deep and exciting weekend of discussions, Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance Chris Robertson now looks to the other side of environmental collapse.

The Other Side of Collapse: Climate Change, Grief Work and Imagination



We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on our planet, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. The date when humans have used up more resources from nature than the planet can renew in the entire year (Earth Overshoot Day) falls ever earlier each year (‪August 1‬ in 2018).‬‬ Normal service will not be resumed. With the exception of most indigenous communities, we have extracted ourselves from a self-regulating ecosphere and behave as a plague species. This is the plague of which Camus speaks – a pestilence of paranoia, hatred, denigration, despair and scapegoating. As he says, ‘everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no-one in this world, no-one, is immune’.‬‬‬‬‬‬

We sense that attending to this collapse risks disrupting everything. The real terror of the social and cultural collapse of our civilisation brings with it anxiety that is very hard to bear, hence the denial around climate change. While defences such as denial and disavowal seem to keep anxiety at bay, they play a huge part in our cultural inertia, for instance, a faith in progress mitigates anxiety while inducing complacency.

As a culture obsessed with safety and escapism, are we able to wake out of our domesticated stupor?

Jonathon Lear, in his seminal work Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006), points out that a blind spot of cultures is to conceive of their own destruction. He drew on the situation in late 19th century North America that faced Crow chief, Plenty Coups, to imagine the kinds of resources and ethical values that would be needed for the Crow to adapt to a new way of life after their traditional way of life had collapsed.

Climate Psychology is a new way of understanding our collective paralysis in the face of worsening climate change. One focus of Climate Psychology has been a hospice approach that attends to the anguish and grief of what is being lost in this sixth great extinction. Facing into this loss without adequate support can lead to depression, despair and suicide. Creating a safe-enough space for difficult but generative conversations, in which difficult feelings can be heard and validated, is a therapeutic task. Failure to adequately grieve leads to resentment and self-harm, whereas working through the loss supports us to remake our future. Although Kubler-Ross is frequently used as a guide to stages of the grieving process, it is worth exploring William Worden’s typology of the tasks of mourning. Ro Randall provides an excellent summary in relation to climate change here.

A necessary complement to this harrowing work is to become a midwife of imagination. This is not an escapist hope but a freeing of ourselves from a malignant normality to face a feral challenge that fires up the imagination. Climate change is not just about ‘solving a problem’ but creating a new world. David Fleming, in Surviving the Future (2016), describes our culture’s ‘climacteric’ descent that leaves nothing in our lives unchanged. We cannot now avoid it. But it can be recognised as our species’ toughest, but greatest, opportunity... “We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.”

What is on the other side of collapse?

The juxtaposition of the tragedy of loss together with a radical hope offers potential transformation. Rather like in midlife, when the ego takes its immanent demise literally and fears extinction, we need to de-literalise our fantasies of collapse. This is not a matter of escapist hope or positive thinking but of freeing ourselves from the tame domestication of our thinking. Play, humour and creative imagination are potent tools for finding the seeds dormant under the snow, or even concrete.

Author Bio

Chris Robertson has been a psychotherapist and trainer since 1978. He studied humanistic group work in the early 1970s and then child psychotherapy, psychosynthesis and family therapy. He was the co-creator of the workshop Borderlands and the Wisdom of Uncertainty, which in 1989 became the subject of a BBC documentary. 

He co-founded ReVision, an integrative psychotherapy training with soulful perspective in 1988 from which he is now retired. Since 2018 he is chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance. He is currently involved in taking psychotherapeutic practice out of the consulting room. Further details at www.culture-crisis.net

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