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Verslag “How to Cope with Climate Change”

InScience Big Ideas: psychologist Renee Lertzman – Environmental Melancholia
Zondag 6 november 2016 | 19.30 - 21.00 uur | LUX, Mariënburg 38-39, Nijmegen

Psychologist Renee Lertzman gave the fourth Big Ideas lecture at InScience. Her presentation was called ‘Facing the Unbearable: Coping with Climate Depression’ and from the onset she clarified that her hope was for the audience to come out of the lecture with a different feeling than depression about climate change.

Apathy about climate change

Renee Lertzman has a background in social psychology and environmental studies. Both in and outside of academia the focus has been on how people deal with climate change, especially on the concept of apathy in climate change issues. According to Lertzman, the common view that people are apathic is simply not true. It is merely an outer shell to deal with the problem, an expression of how we as humans protect ourselves. It is, in short, a coping mechanism. In the interviews she conducted for Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement, she found that instead of anxiety, people experienced a sense of loss: loss of a time when climate change was not yet such a problem, sometimes even a feeling of having lost the time before the industrial revolution.

Psychology of emotions and experiences

The focus has been to much on analyses of behaviour, of systems and framing and to little on the emotional side of the issue. When we want to know about engagament we need to focus on emotions and experiences as well. Lertzman found that many people shared emotions regarding climate change that were difficult to deal with, such as despair, shame, guilt, conflict and powerlessness. The dominant view is that these experiences arise because climate change is too abstract. It is said to be too far away and too systemic for the limited human mind to deal with. Lertzman disagrees. She argues that it's not that we can't get our heads around the problem, it's just that it's too difficult to deal with on an emotional and experiential level.

The need to deal with the three A's

Humans are currently in a unique moment in time, says Lertzman, where we are aware of what is happening to the planet and to our climate, but are simultaneously part of a system that contributes to this problem. Basically, we are in a double bind, a situation where we experience two conflicting desires or demands. Lertzman claims that there are three key things people experience when thinking of or dealing with climate change, which she calls the three A's. Firstl: one experiences anxiety. Secondis ambivalence, which arises because of the double bind. Thirdl: people experience aspiration. Aspiration is what most organisations and individuals, who wish to inspire change, focus on. Nevertheless, according to Lertzman we first need to recognize and deal with the anxiety and the ambivalence before we can move on to the aspiration. We need to connect and engage with people in order to provide them with a space for reflection, and we can only do so by recognizing all experiences.

The importance of art

Renee Lertzman used art to accompany her presentation. It was this use of art that philosopher René ten Bos asked Renee Lertzman to expand upon. Lertzman explained that art can fill the gap between emotion and reason and guide us to how we can move beyond the rational side of the debate. Instead of focusing solely on the facts and figures, it can help us to deal with the issue of climate change emotionally, not only by showing the gravity of the situation, but also by bonding with our emotional side. And as such, it can let us feel that our emotions have been recognized, creating that space for reflection and engagement.

Through this reflection and engagement, Lertzman hopes to have found one of the ways in which we humans can deal with the issue of climate change in a positive way, in a way that makes us feel influential. In short, a way that makes us recognize our agency and helps us to overcome climate depression.

Report by Sanne Groothuis