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Permission to Care: From Anxiety to Action on Climate Change

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to participate in discussions about climate change threats and environmental issues with people across private, public, governmental, and research sectors. Whether at an island retreat in Puget Sound, a corporate conference at a resort or in the halls of our esteemed universities, the same questions get asked: How can we get people to care more? How do we motivate people? What’s it going to take?

What if these are the wrong questions to be asking?

Let’s consider this question by first reconsidering the context.

Environmental issues can generate huge anxieties that make them hard for many people to contemplate. Climate change in particular taps into all sorts of cognitive dissonances and feelings of guilt, leaving many people feeling overwhelmed about their role in the problem and solution. This anxiety is often managed through an array of brilliant (usually unconscious) strategies, often both privately and socially, that help us avoid pain, discomfort and conflicts.

Assuming we can agree on these things, the questions we should be asking are: How can our well-established insights into loss and cognitive dissonance guide new approaches to reaching people? How can our understanding of the way anxiety impacts our psyche and conduct inform the way we engage, message and campaign for a more sustainable future?

Psychology and sustainability may seem like strange bedfellows but more than 100 years of psychoanalytic research reveals a lot about how people use unconscious processes to manage anxiety. If I am feeling rather down about the prognosis of our planet, I like to ask myself: “What would a good therapist do?” Does a therapist berate the patient for being scared, reticent or a bit stuck? Does a therapist offer cash incentives for changing behaviors? (I hope not.) One of the first things a (good) therapist does is create what’s called a sense of safety and containment. They can do this by acknowledging their patient’s conflict, suffering and struggle, by helping the patient feel “seen”. Then – and only then – do they form an alliance with the patient to work together in a collaborative, participatory way towards change.

How this translates into engaging people more widely and creatively can be surprising. For starters, acknowledging that people use unconscious strategies for managing anxiety changes the ways we consider (and research) how people think and feel about our world. Analysis needs to go beneath the surface to explore where people feel stuck in conflict and anxious. Second, a psychoanalytic paradigm asks not whether people care or not but focuses onwhere care may exist but may not have permission to be expressed.

This approach can infuse our engagement work, whether in research or strategy, with a mood of curiosity as opposed to frustration and irritation at how wasteful, greedy and short-sighted societies can be. And this mood of curiosity and inquiry can lead us into some unexpected behavior change strategies – particularly through conversation.

The power of conversation may be the most profound insight we can gain from those on the frontlines of the therapeutic professions. Conversation changes people. As Rosemary Randall’s development of Carbon Conversations demonstrates, it’s very simple – if we want people to change, we have to listen to them. Humans are designed to learn, be changed and process information in the act of conversing. In this context, engagement can move beyond the creation of “Green Teams” and champions, into a far more dynamic evolution that creates contexts for creative participation. This means letting go of some control and being open to seeing what emerges when we invite people to contribute (a concept usefully offered by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) and exercise their agency.

What all of this amounts to is a radical reframe, a shift from a focus on motivating, persuading, cajoling and gamifying to inviting, enabling, facilitating and supporting. This is about giving people permission to care. As deeply social beings, we need some permission, we need to feel safe. Now, more than any other time, we need to start practicing a new form of engagement that presumes there is more care than can be contained – it just needs some help being channeled.

This article originally appeared on Climate Access.

Image Credit: Mark Stevens via Flickr

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