This is the foreword to “The Responsibility of Communicating Difficult Truths About Climate Influenced Societal Disruption and Collapse: An Introduction to Psychological Research” which provides a synthesis of some relevant peer-reviewed literature within the field of psychology. An audio of this foreword is available.
Professor Jem Bendell, University of Cumbria, UK.
Your anxiety or even emotional distress about the situation with the climate is normal, sane, healthy and even righteous. Those difficult emotions you have been feeling may also be a painful gateway to a different expression of who you are, depending on how we support each other in that process of change.
People who do not share your anxiety or distress, despite being exposed to the information on the situation, might be experiencing something psychopathological. Their avoidance of normal yet difficult emotions might be an instance of something termed ‘experiential avoidance’ in psychology and which is correlated with mental health problems, such as depression, panic attacks and aggression (Chawla and Ostafin, 2007). They may tell you to be more positive, or stop upsetting other people. They may begin to see you as the problem, rather than our predicament as the problem. They may tell you that you are being manipulated by bad people, so that you can blame them for your difficult feelings and shift that energy. Some of those people may even claim psychological expertise. However, those opinions can be difficult for you to accept, as you want to stay present to reality, take responsibility for your emotions, and communicate without fear of judgement.
Because you care about people and do not want to hurt people unnecessarily, you have probably wondered how best to communicate both your analysis and your emotions about that. If so, then you are in the same situation as many thousands of scholars, educators and activists engaged in climate issues who have been wondering how best to look after our own emotional wellbeing while responsibly engaging other people on the evolving situation and our perceptions of that. Over 500 of us, from 30 different countries, signed a public Scholars Warning letter calling for more sober public engagement with the potential for societal disruption and collapse due to the direct and indirect impacts of climate and environmental change (www.scholarswarning.net). The letter notes that there are many perspectives on the concept and nature of societal collapses, past, present and future. In my work I have defined it as an uneven ending of normal life, meaning the normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. The term collapse implies that there is an ending, and then something new, rather than a breakdown and possible repair back to normal. The reasons why hundreds of scholars are calling for more attention to societal collapse include, are not limited to, the following seven reasons.
- First, honesty. Being true with each other is an important reason for people to discuss their anticipation of collapse. Related to that is enabling more honesty in society, through the expression of what people are privately believing or considering. Research shows that not only climate anxiety is widespread but also the anticipation of collapse in our lifetimes has exploded in recent years (Cassely and Fourquet, 2020).
- Second, mutual self-help. To help ourselves and each other cope better with this outlook, including our emotional wellbeing in the short and longer-term as we live into a destabilising future. Dialogue and community are an essential first step for that.
- Third, blame reduction. To reduce the potential psychopathological behaviours arising from emotional suppression of this topic, which have been identified as delusion, depression and aggression by researchers of ‘experiential avoidance’, as described earlier. These behaviours can arise from attachment to narratives of self and society, known as ‘worldview defense’ in the ‘terror management’ literature, due to a lack of other ways of being able to respond to feelings of confusion and vulnerability, which are associated with death aversion (Wolfe and Tubi 2019). However, the way people respond to increased awareness of their mortality is not set. For instance, there is evidence that reflection on death can lead to greater environmental commitment in the form of philanthropy (Fa and Kugihara, 2020). By discussing collapse, there can be an opportunity to transmute awareness of mortality and vulnerability into prosocial ways of thinking and acting. Deliberate processes for death reflection are well known in both spiritual traditions and philosophy, while also resulting in therapeutic benefits and pro-social implications in contemporary contexts (Arena, 2020). Inviting emotional expression and non-judgemental exploration of our situation is already proving helpful for reducing the likelihood of people responding in anti-social ways as they anticipate mortality (Carr and Bendell, 2020).
- Fourth, self-transformation. For people who are ready for it, to support each other in processes of deep reflection, positive disintegration of old stories of self, and thus emergence of new ways of being (Laycraf 2020).This can happen as we explore what really matters to us once our old stories of self, necessity and respectability are loosened by the realisation of the destructiveness and impermanence of mainstream societies. Some people are not ready for that, or they have already reached a place of self-construal where they do not prioritise this reflection anymore.
- Fifth, cause identification. This reason builds upon all of the previous ones, as the work on those then allows a deeper exploration of why modern humans created this predicament. This includes looking at the ways that various forms of othering enable oppression and exploitation within and between countries (Carr and Bendell, 2020). That is more than an intellectual exercise, because it informs a sixth and seventh reason.
- Sixth, path finding. This reason is to explore what to do next and why, at all scales from local to global, including how to not make matters worse, how to slow or soften societal disruptions and collapse, how to ensure that the most marginalised communities are not affected first and worst, as well as how to create more possibilities for the future (if that is what we believe is possible). That then brings our attention to how some parts of society are already responding away from the limelight, such as the world’s militaries, authoritarian elites and hedge funds, as they prepare for disruption and collapse in ways that civil society may rightly object to (Bendell, 2020).
- Seventh, solidarity actions. Running in parallel to these reasons, a seventh reason to talk about collapse is to become better able to discuss effective responses to the societal disruptions and breakdowns that are occurring now and to participate in significant solidarity efforts. These include humanitarian action, alongside work on social and trade justice, reparations and reconciliation.
The question of whether we should discuss collapse is therefore more than a pure question of psychology, but insights from psychology could help us to learn how and when to discuss it and with whom. Some of the 500+ signatories to the Scholars Warning are psychologists, but most like me, are not. To help us better understand how to engage on this matter in future, we commissioned a review of relevant psychological research, to support current and future signatory scientists and scholars. The result is this paper, as our small contribution to the growing field of work on climate anxiety and climate communications. In this literature review, the psychological research that is relevant to some of the concerns raised about the psychological implications of anticipating collapse is summarised and discussed. Rather than review the sub-field of psychology on climate change, or on environmental action, the review looks across all areas of psychology to find insights on the anticipation of disruption, decline, disaster and collapse. Therefore, I believe it points towards a step change, or focus-shift, for the way people are talking about climate psychology. It offers a psychological research dimension to the new fields of ‘collapsology’ (Servigne and Stephens, 2020) and ‘deep adaptation’ (Bendell, 2018). The aim is to provide information to help scholars, campaigners and politicians learn more about how better to communicate on this matter.
Perhaps the centrality of behavioural psychology in previous work on climate psychology has limited our understanding of our current predicament. The main focus has been on the individual as a consumer, and what makes them choose pro-environmental behaviours, rather than what radicalises them as citizens contributing to societal and political change, at whatever level (Adams, 2021). In the introduction to the literature review, psychologist Jasmine Kieft discusses a few examples of where behavioural psychology has been publishing claims about negative implications of either anticipating or talking about disruption and collapse that are neither theoretically grounded nor empirically supported. Such studies may suit the dominant narrative of optimism, reform and progress within its sister discipline of behavioural economics. In addition, the ideology of psychology researchers may have led to biased and limiting interpretations of the role of narratives of hope and agency in supporting action and avoiding mental health difficulties. For instance, hope and agency are typically understood to mean stories of reform and betterment of current socio-economic systems, within a paradigm of material progress (as an example see Marlon et al, 2019). That ideological limitation means that some psychologists have not even considered how hope, whether a wish, expectation, intention, or deeper faith, could be expressed while also anticipating societal disruption and collapse within one’s lifetime. To do that requires the courage to allow oneself to feel very difficult emotions and the dissolution of some existing stories of self and society (Bendell, 2019).
Since I communicated my own anticipation of societal collapse in a Deep Adaptation paper (Bendell, 2018), and it has been downloaded over a million times, I have witnessed a wide range of responses to this topic. Sometimes scholars backtrack in public on things they have said in private. This may be for a mix of reasons, including the conservative culture of scientists, alongside not wanting to upset people or become the target of criticism (Hoggett and Randall, 2018). That is understandable, as many people experience difficult emotions when first hearing of how bad our climate situation has become. Some scientists have recently begun arguing that to suggest we will see massive disruption or even collapse in our lifetimes is demotivating and psychologically damaging (Mann, 2021). Some people who listen to such an argument might hear it as ‘common sense’. However, on closer inspection, this view does not hold up so well. It is a matter of public record that the Deep Adaptation paper radicalised many people to then change their lives and join a new kind of climate activism, involving non-violent civil disobedience (Humphrys, 2019; Financial Times, 2019). It is an open question whether such activism will have an effect on systems and, ultimately, either emissions cuts, drawdown or adaptation. However, it shows that the claim that apathy is the main response can be easily questioned. Further research will be necessary to determine the wider impact on apathy and agency. There is very little research on the wider forms of pro-social action that arise from people anticipating societal collapse. In one survey of members of the Deep Adaptation Forum, almost half of respondents said they considered themselves to be taking leadership in new ways as a result of their new anticipation of collapse. Their range of actions included work on practical and emotional resilience within their communities and professions (Bendell and Cave, 2020).
One of the labels used to malign the scholars who speak out about the likelihood of societal collapse is that they are ‘doomers’. If ‘doomism’ is to believe in a negative view of the future, despite the evidence, then it is doomist to believe that people will only respond to a recognition of our climate calamity and forthcoming disruption with apathy, confusion, depression, selfishness, xenophobia or bigotry. Such a view ignores evidence from the new kind of climate activism that has arisen since 2018, where the motivation includes doing what is right because people have a heightened sense of their own mortality and that of the people they love (Extinction Rebellion, 2019). It also ignores evidence of people engaged in the Deep Adaptation Forum.
I have not met many people who accept information about the possible, likely, inevitable or unfolding collapse of society and then respond with pure apathy. Rather, the fatalistic people I meet tend to be people who do not actually feel the threat to their own wellbeing or that of the people they love. I look forward to seeing some more research on this topic. However, if researchers bring assumptions that people will only act when they think they will achieve solutions to environmental problems, and ask biased questions as a result, they will miss the more fundamental existential and spiritual motivations that may be key to contemporary environmentalism.
It could be that these negative views on how people react to anticipating collapse are based on assumptions about human nature being selfish or requiring promises of material or status gain to be motivated toward pro-social action. It is important to note that the view that human nature is basically selfish, which derives from the field of economics, has started to influence societal discussions of wellbeing. They also bring with them utilitarian and modernist assumptions of what constitutes the good society. Consequently, the field of wellbeing economics incorrectly assumes that the lesser a population experiences any negative emotions the better it is, rather than its capability for equanimity (for instance, see Piekałkiewicz, 2017).
There may be a particular problem with the climate anxiety of senior leaders and media commentators that scholars could help with. Research on leadership has found that typical psychological traits that lead people to seek positions of power or influence relate to insecure identity structures (Harms, et al 2011). That means they may be more likely to suppress painful emotions associated with an awareness of vulnerability. The climate predicament presents both material risk and psychological risk, as the predicament undermines the legitimacy of societal structures that have provided the means of buttressing insecure identities. Therefore, senior leaders and media commentators may be more susceptible to ‘experiential avoidance’, and the psychopathologies that result. That would be a problem at a time when we would benefit from more kind, wise and creative leadership. Therefore, there may be use in targeted engagements with senior leaders on their climate anxiety.
One challenge for senior leaders is that the discourse in our society tells us that to lead one needs to use stories of hope. Even in the psychology literature, there is widespread confusion about what ‘hope’ means. It can mean a wish, expectation, intention or deeper faith (Bendell, 2019). As mentioned earlier, some researchers assume hope on climate involves a belief in material progress and human control. Yet hope can be about people responding positively to difficulty, disruption and death. As ‘Experiential Avoidance’ of emotional pain is found to be psychopathological, when hope is narrowly conceived, an emphasis on finding cause for hope could be an effort to swiftly exit difficult emotions, and prove to be unhelpful. Therefore, we need to be careful in our discussion and use of hope, and be alert to whether any ‘experiential avoidance’ or ‘worldview defense’ in ourselves as researchers is influencing our analysis of this matter. One avenue for hope that is not avoidant, could be the deeper faith that the goodness of humanity is planted deeper than any surface level conflicts, and will help us to express solidarity and reduce suffering, come what may.
This literature review is only a beginning. It does not explore all areas of inquiry that could inform a better understanding of responses to anticipating disruption and collapse. Might we learn from people with degenerative disease and those who love them? Or from studies on ageing, or on being childless as adults? Might we learn from studies of people who have been through traumatic situations due to famine, conflict or violence? There is much to learn about emotional resilience and even emotional thriving in situations that are neither stable, safe, nor improving materially.
Neither does the literature review explore the range of means that we can develop and employ for helping ourselves and each other with our climate anxiety, or to become radically present to the predicament as it unfolds both locally and globally. In my own life, I have benefited greatly from discovering a number of means of support for my emotional health. For instance, participating in a regular men’s group, using processes from the Mankind Project, have been useful for my ability to process difficult emotions without blaming others. Mindfulness, and the particular approach of Vipassana, or insight meditation, has also been useful. In addition, the practice of open-hearted dialogue that we call ‘Deep Relating’ has been useful to me. It involves people interacting where our emotional curiosity, acceptance, honesty and expression is combined with ‘owning’ our emotions (avoiding blame when experiencing an emotional charge or trigger), so that there can be newfound connection and trust with another on difficult topics (Carr and Bendell, 2020). It is also helpful in becoming more aware of how our own insecurities and hurts lead to us projecting negative intentions onto others, so we might lessen our judgements. It also means we can lessen our negative reactions to people when they negatively project onto us. That has been invaluable to me as I became the object of multiple projections as people process their own thoughts and emotions about the climate tragedy. The Senior Facilitator of the Deep Adaptation Forum, Katie Carr, describes some of their work in the following way:
“[When people first begin to anticipate disruption and collapse they can] feel overwhelming panic, powerlessness, fear, sometimes depression and anxiety. Having a sense of community, belonging, a space of unconditional positive regard in one’s life, where it feels ‘safe enough’ to share freely and openly about emotions that can feel unbearable when they’re only existing inside us, is pretty much the most powerful source of healing that humans can provide for each other. It’s our magic power. Being held and heard, non-judgmentally, is what can allow those overwhelming feelings to rise and fall, to be processed in the moment, and not stored in the body as future trauma.”
I recommend the Deep Adaptation Forum as a way of finding resources, people and a community to offer that kind of support. There is also a database of practitioners who offer support: http://guidance.deepadaptation.info
By focusing on the academic research in psychology in this paper, our intention is not to suggest that this is where the ultimate truth on the human psyche is to be found, or that the best ideas on community engagement for enabling loving kindness will come from such research. There are limitations from the paradigm of mainstream psychological research for how we learn about our predicament. These limitations are due to the individualist and Western bias of much research in this discipline (Adams, 2021). That means the socially constructed notions of normality, safety, comfort, and choice, which rely on and maintain oppression of others, are not often questioned in the research. For instance, this literature review provides examples of where an uncritical questioning of societal norms has allowed theoretically and empirically weak arguments to be published and then influence subsequent condemnations of discussing collapse. Therefore, this literature review is offered as merely one contribution to a field of discussion and experimentation, which can also draw on and be informed by ancient spiritual traditions and other forms of knowing.
Which returns us to the thankfully unavoidable matter of the nature of human existence, which lies in the background of any discussion of societal collapse. Some of the difficulty people have with engaging in the possibility of societal disruption and collapse is because most cultures today are death avoidant, particularly Western Euro-centric ones (Solomon, et al 2017). By that, I mean that we ignore death, rather than recognising it as a constant ongoing complement to life, where one requires the other. Such death avoidance is heightened by anxieties about death, which in turn are heightened by an absence of either an understanding or experience of ourselves as being one with a greater life force (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987). With that greater sense of separation as an individual mortal being, we can become more attached to our culture’s stories of safety, worth and legacy. That means we can hold on to those stories more tightly when sensing greater vulnerability and become more critical about anyone challenging those stories (Solomon, et al 2017). Yet, if detached from either an understanding or experience of our oneness with all life, we are less connected to sources for vitality, creativity and courage, just at a time when the turbulence invites us to be radically present to what is occurring (Abhayananda, 2002).
This literature review does not give evidence that the general public will or will not, on average, react positively and compassionately to a growing sense of vulnerability. Rather, the extent to which more of us respond in curious, kind, and compassionate ways is up to each of us. So yes, it is time for more of us to discuss collapse, but when and how is something to keep learning about. I concur with psychologist and Scholars Warning signatory Dr Susanne Moser (2020), who concludes that we must move beyond the not-too-late versus too-late dichotomy and now engage in “the political, policy, and practical work, as well as the deeper, underlying socio‐cultural and psychological work, that the paradoxical tension between endings and possibilities demands.”
The climate tragedy is the most difficult situation we have had to face, so we will need to keep experimenting, and forgiving each other for mistakes of understanding and communication. That is a challenge in itself, as a mixture of personal anxieties and political tactics will increasingly pollute our dialogue with invitations to moral outrage and condemnation, rather than maintaining a sober focus on what might build towards the peaceful revolutionary change that our situation now requires.
I hope you find the literature review an interesting opening up of this agenda for your future work. One means of engaging further is to join the Holistic Approaches discussion group on the Deep Adaptation Forum, or the Climate Psychology Alliance in the UK. I have also opened the comments function below.
Abhayananda, S. (2002). The History of Mysticism: The Unchanging Testament. London: Watkins Publishing.
Adams, M. (2021) Critical psychologies and climate change, Current Opinion in Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.01.007
Arena, A.F.A (2020) Authenticity and the Non-Defensive, Growth-Oriented Processing of Death Awareness, PhD Thesis, School of Psychology, University of Sydney https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/23403/Arena_AFA_thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Bendell, J. (2018) Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy. Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Papers Volume 2. University of Cumbria, Ambleside, UK. http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/4166/
Bendell, J. (2019) Hope in a time of climate chaos. In: UKCP Conference 2019, 19th October 2019, London. (Unpublished) http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/5463/
Bendell, J. (2020) If guys with guns are talking about collapse, why can’t we? JemBendell.com Blog, Posted on November 11, 2020
Bendell, J. and D. Cave (2020) Does anticipating societal collapse motivate pro-social behaviours? Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS). Blog posted Monday, 8 June 2020.
Carr, K. and J. Bendell (2020) Facilitation for Deep Adaptation: enabling loving conversations about our predicament. Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Paper 6. http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/5792/
Cassely, J-L. and Fourquet, J. (2020). La France: Patrie de la collapsologie?. [online] Fondation Jean Jaures & IFOP. Available at: https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/la-france-patrie-de-la-collapsologie .
Chawla, C. and B. Ostafin (2007) Experiential Avoidance as a Functional Dimensional Approach to Psychopathology: An Empirical Review, Journal of Clinical Pyschology, Vol. 63(9), 871–890
Fa, H. and N. Kugihara (2020) Does Concern About Death Help To Increase Donations For Environmental Charities? Examining The Impact Of Mortality Salience On Pro-Environmental Behaviors In East Asia, The International Journal of Organizational Innovation, Volume 13 Number 2, October 2020
Financial Times (2019) “Extinction Rebellion: inside the new climate resistance” 11 April https://www.ft.com/content/9bcb1bf8-5b20-11e9-9dde-7aedca0a081a / Extinction Rebellion (2019) This Is Not A Drill, Penguin, UK.
Harms, P. D., Spain, S. M., Hannah, S. T. (2011). Leader development and the dark side of personality. Leadership Quarterly, 22, 495-509.
Hoggett, P. and R. Randall (2018)Engaging with Climate Change: Comparing the Cultures of Science and Activism, Environmental Values, Volume 27, Number 3, June 2018, pp. 223-243(21)
Humphrys, J. (2019) Extinction Rebellion: Noble and Necessary or a Pointless Nuisance? YouGov, April 17, 2019
Laycraf, K.C. (2020) The Theory of Positive Disintegration as Future-Oriented, Annals of Cognitive Science, Vol 4, Issue 1, Pages 118-126
Mann, M. (2021) The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, Public Affairs Books.
Marlon, J. R., et al (2019) How Hope and Doubt Affect Climate Change Mobilization, Frontiers in Communication, Vol 4.
Moser, S. M. (2020) The work after “It’s too late” (to prevent dangerous climate change), WIRE Climate Change, Volume 11, Issue 1, January/February 2020
Piekałkiewicz, M., 2017. Why do economists study happiness? The Economics and Labour Relations Review, 28: 361-
Servigne, P. and R. Stephens (2020) Another End of the World is Possible, Polity Books, UK.
Solomon, S. et al. (2017) Clash Of Civilizations? Terror Management Theory And The Role Of The Ontological Representations Of Death In Contemporary Global Crisis, Source: Tpm: Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology In Applied Psychology . Sep2017, Vol. 24 Issue 3, P379-398.
Thich Nhat Hanh. (1987). Interbeing. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press
Wolfe, E and A. Tubi (2019) Terror Management Theory and mortality awareness: A missing link in climate response studies? Wire Climate Change, Volume 10, Issue2, March/April 2019