Awake! A Psychology of Climate Change

Charletta Erb is working towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at Healthy Relationships California and the Community Counseling & Education Center in Santa Barbara. She has a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Family Institute of Northwestern University. She likes wearing red shoes. For a good time, Charletta plays fiddle and weeds gardens.
Charletta Erb is working towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at Healthy Relationships California and the Community Counseling & Education Center in Santa Barbara. She has a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Family Institute of Northwestern University. She likes wearing red shoes. For a good time, Charletta plays fiddle and weeds gardens.

In anticipation of the All You Need is Love conference, hosted by the Women in Leadership Project, we share this piece. Charletta Erb, will be presenting a workshop on this topic at the conference, which begins tomorrow with 190 participants.  

By Charletta Erb

In 2004, I packed up and left to work at the London Mennonite Centre. Typical British coffee and tea breaks were a much welcomed routine for pacing my work, recharging energy, and connecting with the office staff.

Daily, at 10am and 4pm, centre staff gathered for lively discussion of current events often with The Guardian open on the table. I was amazed at the vivid contrast in UK media coverage of the environment and climate change in comparison with the States.

When I returned home in 2006, media in the States was beginning to catch up. I was struck by cover stories with polar bears on melting glaciers, and the Statue of Liberty disappearing under rising sea levels. There were now greenwashed advertisements in magazines and on television. Even fuel companies were framing their product in green, because it was now cool to be green.

Denial of climate change was losing credibility. The avoidance was still there, but a shift in awareness had begun.

I’d like to offer some insights from psychology and neurobiology for understanding how people change their minds and actions in response to issues such as climate change… and a call for the Church to step up in the process.

Stages of Grief

In my own journey facing fears of crises that I will see in my lifetime, I’ve found it helpful to apply the Kübler-Ross model of the grief process, with five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I see the grief process at work as we wake up to the suffering earth. I see people going to different extremes, in response.

At one extreme is denial as avoidance, for instance, in media coverage of climate change. A second extreme is acceptance with a quick fix response, another form of avoidance with the appearance of awareness. We say, “If we just change our light bulbs, we’ve done our part.”

Of course, there’s also plenty of anger stage responses to spur action on climate change in politics. Bargaining is explicit inside the political world exchanging favors or surrendering on one battle to win another.

But it is rare to find settings that tolerate sadness for long. In the urge to get from fear to some semblance of relief, I believe the most neglected phase is depression.

Face it, depression is hard as heck. It sucks us into inactivity. So it seems like a stage we’d best ignore. So we tell each other, “We’ll have an evolution of consciousness,” or, “Technology and innovation will open the way.”

If you’ve seen the dramatic loss of glaciers, or the power of corporate lobbies and subsidies for fossil fuel extraction, you might wonder with me if we can be so hopeful.

Don’t try this alone

Not to be forever a downer, but can we acknowledge grief in church communities without glossing over it? The church has an important role to play in recovering traditions of lament in worship, bringing everything to God, not just the joyful parts of us. Empathetic grief carries the burden together rather than isolating us.

Of all places, the Church should be awake to compassion for suffering, when we recognize the impact of climate change experienced by those with the least mobility. Grief calls for nurture, a holding space to move through it and let it do its work.

An addictions framework

The Church should also step up to play a fundamental role in addressing consumption addictions. People’s habitual use and waste of resources is much like an alcoholic who just cannot stop drinking, even when the drink is destroying one’s life. Churches already host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in most every town, each day of the week.

Transition Towns takes seriously an addictions model for consumption habits that are harming the planet. The movement aims to build resilience in communities in response the end of cheap energy, climate destruction, and economic instability.

The movement’s handbook addresses the addiction to cheap nonrenewable energy. It proposes Heart and Soul groups to help participants face their own addictions. Churches provide connections for study groups or small groups for similar purposes; why not get involved in the community by hosting such meetings.

I experienced such a meeting when my neighborhood was the first in Chicagoland to become a Transition Town. In our early days, I was part of a Low Carbon Diet Group, much like Weight Watchers. We were accountable to each other to address whatever kept us from reducing our energy use.

One woman wanted to ride her bike, but was afraid of it breaking down on the road. Another member with more experience taught her how to fix bikes. This helped her address what stood in the way.

A therapeutic model for this sort of process is Motivational Interviewing an approach to working with resistance to change, especially in addiction treatment. Rather than telling an addict what to do, the interviewer explores the addict’s reasoning for avoiding change, like we did in the Low-Carbon Diet Group.

Neuroscience confirms how such a process fits with how the brain resists change. When we’re told what to do, the brain is triggered in the same area as cognitive dissonance, assessing errors. Change is also uncomfortable because we can’t just keep running on autopilot.

However, insight is more useful in change work, far beyond just telling people what to do. Right before we have an insight, an incredible flash of energy sparks in the brain, making neural connections all across the brain. We’re off to an amazing start!

To then make insight into lasting change requires intentional focus and practice, rewiring habitual responses. It’s possible yes, but it’s also work. That’s why I believe therapy should be a real workout!

If you’ll be at the conference All You Need is Love: Honoring the Diversity of Women’s Voices in Theology, join me Friday morning for storytelling, creativity and inspiration with insights from psychology together with scriptures for the way. Look for my workshop titled: She says wake up: Living and Leading with the Heart on Climate Change.

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One thought on “Awake! A Psychology of Climate Change

  1. Thank you, Charletta, for this perspective on what I think is the biggest challenge of our time. Just this week I fell into a period of deep despair for the earth, for my future, for my son’s future, and my inability to do anything about it. Those periods of depression hurt my marriage and my job performance; I become angry, short with people, impatient. But I think they’re important, because without grief we can’t find healing. I hope we can admit to each other when the burden feels too heavy and find community in helping each other work through the pain.

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