Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Adaptation Delayism - preventing urgently needed dialogue and initiative

This is an excerpt from a new article in a peer-reviewed psychological studies journal that is published by a professional organization of psychotherapists. The excerpt provides critical analysis of some of the most widely cited criticisms of so-called 'doomism' that have been made by research groups led by non-specialists in psychology. 

Psychotherapists and psychologists have a useful role to play in helping scholars explore how their inner worlds are affecting their contributions to the fields of climate research and policy. It should be uncontroversial to state that emotions play a key role in the shaping of scientific study, from the development of questions, means of analysis, discovering insights, and deciding what to communicate and how (Thagard, 2002). However, the idea that researchers are like machines, or aspire to be, is still widely promoted. Such a claim to objectivity is problematic for many reasons, with one reason being that it means institutions of scholarship do not help their professionals develop greater self-awareness so that greater wisdom might emerge. Without attention to how our inner worlds shape our research, analysis, and communication choices, patterns of experiential avoidance in the emotionally distressing field of climate scholarship might be distorting the quality of academic activities. Rather than allow difficult emotions of fear, sadness, shame and anger, instead the suppression of them may mean that they unconsciously drive the academic process in some scholars. That could lead to them projecting their inner worlds onto others, as well as projecting blame onto them. The existence of people who are openly sharing their views on worst case scenarios and their painful emotions about that could be regarded, consciously or (most likely) not, by some observers as threatening their own coping mechanisms as persons either experientially avoidant or at risk of depression.

Most academic research papers on climate issues claim objectivity and suggest an absence of emotional drivers for their work. That is even the case for most papers in the social sciences. A close look at one paper will reveal how this approach could be enabling experientially avoidance amongst researchers, and unhelpful aggression towards people in society being described by such research. I choose the paper “Discourses of Climate Delay” (Lamb et al, 2020) as it was widely promoted amongst both scholars and commentators and is cited as a key text for claiming there is something called “doomism” which is described as bad. It reported that “we derive our initial list of discourses from an expert elicitation of the study co-authors”, which is a complicated way of saying the co-authors created their categories of discourse by conversations amongst themselves rather than analysing texts using any methods of discourse analysis. There is no evidence in this paper of any knowledge of discourse analysis methods, let alone critical discourse analysis, which would be appropriate for an attempt to explain influence of discourses on power i.e. policy agendas and decisions (Gee and Handford, 2013; Bendell et al, 2017). From a theoretical basis of using the term ‘discourse’ simply as a way of talking, rather than a huge field of sociological theory and research, and an empirical basis of discussing together what they want to criticise, this is what the authors wrote about what they describe as “doomism”:

"Doomism further argues that any actions we take are too little, too late. Catastrophic climate change is already locked-in: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it” (New Yorker opinion article). Such statements evoke fear and can result in a paralysing state of shock and resignation (Hulme, 2019). This discourse implies that mitigation is futile and suggests that the only possible response is adaptation – or in religious versions, by trusting our fate to “God’s hands”. As with many other discourses of delay, the surrender category does not favour the difficult work of building climate engagement and deliberating over effective solutions. (p.4-5)"

The only data they use to highlight “doomism” is one article in the New Yorker. They only reference one academic study for the claim of a “paralysing” effect (Hulme, 2019), which was not from psychology or psychotherapy, thereby ignoring a whole discipline. That academic study revealed no references in it to any of the fields that guide the analysis of discourse e.g. cognitive linguistics, narratology, discourse analysis, or critical discourse analysis. The problem with this atheoretical approach to discourse on climate is that they might inadvertently block a deeper consideration of the topics addressed. A short analysis of their statements about “doomism” in the diagram that is contained in the paper reveals the ideological assumptions that produce their claims and limit imagination.

The paper states that “doomism” implies: “Any mitigation actions we take are too little, too late.” (p.2) They offer no clarification on what it is too late for. Many climate activists today, such as those in XR and Deep Adaptation, claim that it is too late for industrial consumer society, too late for reformism, too late for incremental change, and too late for imagining that people will escape further and massive loss and damage in the near future. Some people are also arguing it is too late for the ideology that underpinned the destruction and has failed to inform significant change (Bendell and Carr, 2021). Just because it is too late for certain objectives does not mean it is too late for seeking to do anything. To not look closely at this issue might suggest an unwillingness to imagine anything beyond modernity and the progress of technological consumer society.

The paper next states that “doomism” implies: “Catastrophic climate change is already locked in.” (p.2) That is a widespread view amongst many scientists and it is already happening for many people other than the authors of this paper. The paper then states that “doomism” implies: “We should adapt, or accept our fate in the hands of God or nature.” (p.2)  Here they imply that adaptation is inactive, and against seeking emissions reductions and drawdown, despite the evidence that people are working on this whole agenda. Accepting one’s fate is assumed to be demotivating by these authors, despite there being a lot of research and current data to show the opposite – that a realisation of mortality and a relinquishment of certainty of impact or outcome can inspire courage and boldness.

By vilifying people who are seeking to integrate worst-case scenarios of climate change into their outlook and decisions, some scholars and commentators risk distracting society from a deeper focus on adaptation. That could constitute a form of ‘Adaptation Delayism’ that leaves the field of collapse risk, readiness and response to agencies and elites beyond the view, or potential influence, of an engaged civil society. To help address this problem, psychologists and psychotherapists could engage with scholars who are making such mistakes in their assumptions about human psychology, so that delays in engagement with adaptation are not further encouraged. 

The references for this section are found in the full article, by Professor Jem Bendell, which is available for free download and as an audio recording. It has been discussed in articles by leading figures in Extinction Rebellion (Skeena Rathor and Andrew Medhurst).

Full reference:

Bendell, J. (2021). Psychological insights on discussing societal disruption and collapse., Ata: Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand, 25 (1), 45–63.

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