Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Ahead of her Countdown Talk ‘Re-ensouling the Collective Culture’, we spoke to Steffi Bednarek about climate anxiety, as well as the role of leadership and media in the climate crisis.
Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Steffi’s views are still fully represented.
In your talk, you speak about the role of compartmentalisation and how it creates complicity towards the climate crisis. How do you think we can combat this phenomenon?
Compartmentalisation is an ‘as if’ response that allows us to engage with climate change on a rational basis whilst splitting off our emotional response, our discomfort and our shame. And what we don’t feel is unlikely to lead to any fundamental change in behaviour. I think it’s really important not to understand compartmentalisation on an individual basis. Even though we all participate in it, and everyone would be able to recognise aspects where we compartmentalise, I would like to zone out a bit and see it as a cultural issue. In my talk I speak about the fact that compartmentalisation is a necessary survival mechanism in a culture of uncare, or a culture which causes moral injury. We can’t feel all of the uncomfortable consequences of participating in this culture during our day, so we shut down. I believe that we are also socialised into compartmentalisation. Already when a baby is born, we spend an enormous amount of effort to decorate rooms that separate the newborn from human contact and relationship to be in these very beautifully decorated but very separate nurseries. Schools socialise kids to learn how to sit still on a beautiful day and quietly raise their hand, waiting for permission to speak. We learn to divide life into little 45 minute sections that can be taught in separate and compartmentalised subjects. Everywhere we look, we can see compartmentalisation; it’s become a part of Western culture. I don’t want to say we have to get completely rid of that, but we have to become aware of where this compartmentalisation is dangerous and dysfunctional. The first step is to bring awareness to it, to really start to see it, because once we look we see it everywhere. We can only change our participation in it if we become aware of the extent of it and how we numb, suppress and anaesthetise our moral outrage. Also, when you asked the question you used the word “combat”, in the sense of “how can we combat this”. This is of course quite an evocative term. I would say the opposite - I think we need a softening. We need our humanity. If we treat ourselves like a machine or war analogies, we have already lost our humanity. So we need our feelings, our intuition, our dreams, and our curiosity to connect things up again. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist talks about the fact that our brain is divided, and we have become very reliant on the left hemisphere - on rationality - since the industrial revolution. So that means that we have to bring the attributes of the right hemisphere back into the mainstream. The right hemisphere is able to see the bigger picture and to connect rationality with a systemic and integrated understanding of the world.
How do you think the climate crisis is impacting mental health?
There are different aspects. We see a lot more distress in the general population. There was a survey last year by YouGov and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and 55% of the UK population reported that climate change had a negative effect on their mental health. A couple of months ago, the largest study on climate change and young people was published. 10,000 young people in 10 different countries were interviewed, and the result was that 75% of young people have reported that climate change affects the way they see their future (Time). We see more anxiety across all levels of the global population, but particularly in young people.
Then the question is, what do we do with that? Where’s the support? There is an absence of structures that support people with this kind of anxiety. And climate anxiety is very different from other kinds of mental health issues. It’s a reasonable response, it makes sense to feel that anxiety, so we don’t want to eradicate it or diminish it. We just want to make it bearable. In the absence of that, people don’t know what to do apart from to numb it, and that’s the compartmentalisation that I talked about.
But the other effect that we can see more, is actually a positive one where people who felt like they didn’t have a voice suddenly start to speak up and find the little openings where they can take action. People often feel like they don’t matter, but more and more people empower themselves and find their voice, especially people who’ve often been pushed to the margins.
10,000 young people in 10 different countries were interviewed, and the result was that 75% of young people have reported that climate change really affects the way they see their future
What do you think is the most important role of psychotherapists and climate psychologists in the fight against climate change?
I think that’s manifold. We support individuals to contain all of these conflicting emotions safely, but climate psychologists also work on the larger culture. That is something very new for my profession. I think there is a huge risk of a global mental health crisis. We mostly talk about climate change in terms of facts and figures and the risk is that all the irrational parts come out in volatile, uncontrolled ways. The more we focus just on the rational, the more we can see in pockets of society that the rational just doesn’t get a grip anymore. We see that with conspiracy theories during COVID for instance. That kind of volatility needs to be contained. That’s part of what psychotherapists have been trained to do, but as a profession we are still very focused on individuals, and I think the challenge to my profession is to enlarge the frame and to work with larger groups of people and the culture.
Another role is to work with leaders. We need completely different qualities in leaders – something that I call mature or psychologically ripened leadership, which includes knowledge regarding how people respond to trauma. I also work with companies and ESG divisions who are responsible for sustainable development. There is a lot of tension between the economic values that we have subscribed to, and the set of ESG values. This is another area where compartmentalisation needs to be addressed. Risk factors for companies are not just extreme weather events but also the human factor. In ten/twenty/thirty years, the staff may not find meaning anymore in their existing jobs anymore. When we’re scared for our family, we may not want to turn up to our job and we may not care about profit margins or business continuity anymore.
We mostly talk about climate change in terms of facts and figures and the risk is that all the irrational parts come out in volatile, uncontrolled ways.
What role do you think the media plays in our collective understanding of and our ability to fight climate change?
I hold quite a lot of frustration with the media because they didn’t pick climate change up for a long time. There was this strange practice where the media felt the need to put a so called balanced view out, giving a voice to climate change deniers. Even though 98% of the science agreed that climate change was real, the media gave a lot of space to the 2% that didn’t believe it was, which gave a completely skewed picture. Now that climate change is discussed in an actually more balanced way, it’s often in terms of really shocking news and in terms of facts and figures only. There’s also very selective reporting. For example with Extinction Rebellion, whether you agree with their actions or not, many of their actions are only reported if they disrupted in a negative way, rather than addressing more generally what they actually stand for.
One more point. When we look at the recent wildfires in California for instance, we only report the impacts extreme weather events have on humans and on property. The impact fires or other events have on animals, ecosystems and other than human life is completely unreported. The media socialises us into a a purely anthropocentric point of view. Despite climate change, we’re still not really interested in our effect on nature.
You’ve mentioned facts and figures a few times now, in that news media should impact the viewers rather than simply provide numbers. How do you recommend that the media do this?
I think the media play a massive role in the socialisation into compartmentalisation. A lot of what is presented to us is absolutely meaningless, which in itself causes moral injury. We’re presented and told what to care about and be interested in. A great deal of psychological knowledge actually goes into that. The fact that Facebook is so incredibly addictive is psychologically thought out. Completely meaningless shows work with motivational theories so that we want to stay through the adverts and spend another hour of our lives looking at this. That’s all part of a great numbing, taking the attention off what actually really matters.
There are also methods that help us to digest horrific facts and figures in a different way. One method is called "Global Social Witnessing", where in a group of people, you take the data, and you process it in terms of what that data really means. It’s a facilitated way of digesting horrendous things that you hear in the news and relating it in terms of our humanity, with empathy. We need much more of that on a bigger scale.
In reference to addiction, you note that forcing someone to overcome the issue is difficult unless they are willing to overturn their lifestyle. You say that something similar is required to fight climate change. Do you think this is possible for the majority of people?
I don’t know whether it’s possible, but I know that it’s necessary. If we don’t start putting that message out now, people will be completely overwhelmed when it comes to it. For example the sheer amount of refugees that are going to want to enter Europe and the UK. What is the moral cost of seeing that people are dying, whilst we close our borders to have another decade of life and luxury? There are going to be a lot more moral dilemmas.
We still buy into the idea that if we only have enough solar power everything will be fine. I don’t hear very often that we fundamentally have to change. Fundamental change is upon us whether we want it or not and people will need to be psychologically prepared to cope with this if we don’t want to risk a social collapse into irrational and volatile, reactive behaviour on an unprecedented scale.
Transcribed and edited by Abhi Desai.
The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Steffi Bednarek — not Abhi Desai, nor TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the interview, or opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.