Environmental anxiety: moving from ‘flight’ to ‘fight

I find the casual ways in which we come to know about serious environmental threats to be very surreal. For example, you are flipping through the newspaper or watching the evening news, and then confronted with the stop-dead-in-your-tracks, bone-chilling kind of ecological travesties taking place around our planet today. I’m talking about those stories: declining honey bees, melting glaciers, plastics in the sea, or the rate of coal plants being built in China each second. But how many of us actually do stop dead in our tracks? Have we become numb? And if so, how can we become more awake and engaged to what is happening?

These questions are the holy grails in environmental communications. If we can only reach people, motivate, inspire, move people in some way, we can see results. Action. We strategize, plot and plan for the most creative, innovative, inviting campaign, and then sit back and wait. But what if the core issue is more about how humans respond to anxiety? That is, that environmental problems – at their most fundamental – conjure up anxieties that in fact, we are done for, and nothing can really be done about it.

To help me understand more, I turn to Freud. Why, you may ask, when we have innovations in cognitive behaviour, attitudinal and valuation studies? We know more about the human brain now than ever before. I turn to psychoanalytic work because as psychologists we owe a huge debt to Freud, (we seem to forget his groundbreaking work on the unconscious), and frankly because I have found few others who speak as eloquently, and sensitively about what humans do when faced with anxiety or anxiety-provoking news.

So how can Freud help us understand pervasive problems in environmental behaviour, action and communications? Mainly by understanding how we employ all sorts of strategies, mostly unconscious – also known as defenses – to manage our anxieties. These can lead to behaviour which seems either wilfully ignorant or neurotically in denial. In one passage, Freud discusses what he calls a ‘defense hysteria’. This takes place where there is an occurrence of incompatibility in our mental life – that is to say, when we are faced with an experience, an idea or a feeling ‘which aroused such a distressing affect that the subject decided to forget about it because he had no confidence in his power to resolve the contradiction between that incompatible idea and his ego’. This is also referred to as ‘intentional forgetting’. Does this sound familiar?

Now let’s go back to turning the pages of the newspaper and seeing a headline we’d rather pretend was a lie, a myth or even a story. Consider how frustrated we feel when the ‘public’ seems to not respond accordingly to the serious decline in biodiversity, and increases in plastics, carbon and all sorts of nasty things we wish would go away. Is it any wonder we are more often talking to ourselves?

We have a ways to go yet before we can fully appreciate the impact environmental issues have on our mental and emotional health, unconscious or otherwise. It behooves those working in communication arts to perhaps take a look at what psychoanalysts have to say about the nature of anxiety; we may find a whole new approach to getting our messages across that may inspire fight, rather than flight.

To read more from Renee Lertzman visit http://www.reneelertzman.org/blog

Posted by Renee Lertzman

One Response to Environmental anxiety: moving from ‘flight’ to ‘fight

  1. Pingback: psychoanalysis: a new pragmatic?

Leave a Reply