Response to APA Climate Report

Paradigm as Usual:
Response to the American Psychological Association 2009 Report on Psychology and Global Climate Change

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Like an antisocial uncle coming late to a funeral but still hoping to shine by taking charge of it, the American Psychological Association has finally issued a report on the psychology of climate change, breaking a near-total silence of decades during which activists, conservationists, and other change-makers risked and labored to awaken public consciousness of the growing peril. As a long-standing critic of the therapeutic reduction of ecological concerns to relational conflicts, I was eager to see what the new report had to say.

The report certainly takes these concerns seriously; in fact it contains a well-documented research section on the immense and accelerating impact of climate change on human psychology. We simply cannot go on thinking about human health as somehow separate from the planet’s.

However, the APA’s report was most remarkable for what it omitted. Page 50: “Psychology can help understand what drives population growth and consumption and clarify the links from population and consumption to climate change while attending to global and regional inequities.” Yet not a word on either the growing corporatist control of food and water or the role played by psychology in driving consumption. This omission is odd considering that psychologists invented the most powerful mass suggestion techniques now used in advertising. Freud’s own nephew bragged about persuading American women to smoke. The subtle appeals to buy tobacco or SUVs or plastic bottles of water all derive from decades of industry-funded research conducted by psychologists.

Nevertheless, “Psychology can help clarify mechanisms by which population and affluence influence climate change by providing a behavioral analysis of different types of consumption behaviors that people choose to engage in and the reasons why people select particular behaviors” (p. 56). Nothing about the immense influence of these choices by mass suggestion, industrially driven socialization, deceptive marketing, or the billions spent annually on turning citizens into consumers. It’s like offering an analysis of how many drivers “choose” to roll up their windows without mentioning the nearby factory belching smoke out into the roadway.

In a similar vein, page 140 states that, “While much national policy is focused on the behaviors of large organizations such as power and manufacturing companies, individuals and households are a major source of environmental damage, and account for nearly 40% of direct energy consumption in the United States through activities in homes and nonbusiness travel…and an additional share indirectly through their purchases of non-energy goods and services that take energy to produce and distribute”–ignoring the fact that “large organizations” own these sources of energy and transportation and seldom offer ecologically friendly alternatives. One might as well argue that citizens and not governments cause wars because we pay federal taxes.

The surreality thickens in the report’s emphasis of global warming perceptions. “People do not directly experience climate change,” page 27 assures us. “They experience representations of climate change that are presented to them via various media and educational sources and personal interactions and, influenced by such presentations, they may interpret certain events they do experience, such as hurricanes or wildfires, as manifestations of climate change.” One might never guess this was written as inhabited islands sink, Arctic villages melt, Eskimo hunters are deprived of vanishing polar game, and the term “environmental refugee” enters the lexicon of disaster news.

Part of the report focused on why some sectors of the public resist learning environmentally friendly behaviors. Reasons for this range from denial of the climate crisis to its lack of immediate impact. No analysis was conducted, however, on why aboriginal people like various Native American tribes seem to have no trouble imagining the impact of waste and reckless use on seven generations of descendents.

The leading obstacle to pro-environment behavior? Habit. The reader looks in vain for an analysis of corporate sociopathy, political passivity, ecocidal hatred of nature, or conservative demonization of environmentalists. We aren’t living sustainably, it would seem, simply because we aren’t used to it.

How do we get used to it? By setting “small, achievable, and specific goals” (p. 119), a strategy of non-confrontation that both Systems Theory and the history of environmentalism suggest is worthless. (Complex systems go on doing business as usual until they are either redesigned or are destroyed by their own entropic self-contradictions.) According to page 67, “…research has shown positive associations between engaging in some environmentally responsible behaviors and various measures of environmental consciousness… However, researchers have not always differentiated among types of environmentally responsible behaviors.” The shallow triviality of such analyses is exceeded only by their lack of self-reflection, as when a company commissions a task force to find out why there are so many task forces.

A key recommendation of the report shouldn’t surprise us: the use of marketing techniques to encourage ecologically sound behaviors coupled with eco-friendly consumption. (Smoking cessation receives a mention here without any hint of irony.) Evidently we can shop our way out of the climate crisis rather than changing our attitude toward consumption itself, a key mechanism of the dire trouble we are now in. “Market penetration” is a term used on page 137 with reference to redesigning products and buildings. “Psychological research can refine market research categories by investigating which of these differences matter most for changing which behaviors and how social, economic, and technological contexts affect behavior” (p. 140).

Other solutions include financial incentives for buying green (regardless of a recent study suggesting that 98% of “green” products sold in the U.S. are greenwashed), ad campaigns “targeted” at specific populations, role modeling, and more informative energy meter displays. Increasing “place attachment” could help, but not, it would seem, a true psychology of homecoming, of how to live with ourselves and each other without chronic alienation from the natural world.

Page 156 contains a particularly revealing suggestion: “Psychologists can provide empirically supported models of behaviors that drive climate change and help design effective and culturally relevant behavior change programs.” Change is to come from the top down, brandished by experts, rather than organically grown from the ground up.

At this point we really ought to be asking whether a soulless mechanical paradigm, touted as helpful in transforming how we relate to the environment, is instead a symptom and expression of the crisis we all face. What characterizes the most heinous crimes of modernity, from crashing ecosystems to acts of warfare and genocide, is the cold detachment of viewing everything as machinery, living systems as parts, and reality as reducible to quantification. This detachment allows psychologists to spellbind populations with mass advertising and political rhetoric, design instrument panels and bombsights for military organizations, furnish oppressive employers with privacy-invading psychological tests, craft torture regimens for shadowy agents of “state security.”

As a second-generation ecopsychologist I cannot understand how we can hope to relate differently to the Earth that births and supports us until we learn to stop objectifying it. And we cannot stop objectifying it until we understand how caught we are in the Big Machine paradigm through which we distance ourselves from everything, ourselves included. Attitude adjustments, new shopping habits, and techno-fixes will not halt the ecological crises of our time any more than increasing the frequency of vacations and “quality time” will make a violent marriage peaceful.

What’s required of us now is a change of paradigms from Big Machine to Deep Web: a new collective story of the systemic, organic, and networked nature of the participatory reality we can never stand back from, not even when benumbed by the seductive fantasy of objectivity. Such a shift can open a door to the deep transformation of consciousness that only a truly planetary psychology can speak of, a deep, heartful, embodied psychology of how to feel truly at home on this troubled yet still-lovely world.