"Don't Americans care about climate change?"
I hear this question a lot. Sometimes it comes from students who arrive from elsewhere to study at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Sometimes it comes from other Americans. Environmental activists ask it. A few years back, when I was on a panel at Bioneers, I took this question from the audience: "What must we do to wake up America to climate change?"
Before I became a professor I worked with psychotherapy clients. That was a great education. It taught me (among other things) about the strength of what therapists call defenses: the measures we take to protect ourselves from intolerable levels of anguish. We all use them. They look like denial, distraction (consumption being our favorite in the States), rationalization ("I don't need to worry because" -- followed by an abstract explanation), paranoia ("Climate change is a conspiracy!") Many are the means by which we numb ourselves to unpleasant truths.
As a former psychotherapist and current ecopsychologist and educator, I can assure you that Americans do indeed care about climate change. We care so much we don't dare talk about it lest we feel overwhelmed by terror and helplessness. We don't know where to put our feelings about the destruction of the oceans, the darkening of the skies, the ecocide unfolding all around us. We are like abuse survivors who, not yet in a place of safety, can't talk about it -- but in this case the entire surface of the planet is being traumatized past the point of any recovery.
People can't grapple with, let alone heal, that level of trauma without safe places to contain and discuss it. Many seasoned therapists have worked with abuse survivors who cannot descend into the emotional aftereffects of family violence until the container of therapy feels secure. The good news is that it doesn't take therapy to provide that kind of safety.
In the case of climate change, a sturdy container for processing trauma includes empathic mentors, friends and groups with similar concerns. The mainstream therapy model remains too centered on individuals and too focused on diagnostics to provide this, however.
So we will. At CIIS we are putting together a Certificate in Ecoresilience Leadership to train participants to facilitate such groups. Our hope is that citizens who join the groups will feel able to explore their fears, receive accurate information about climate change and other planet-wide crises, pool resources and shape responses that will make a difference to the world. Group leaders will collect best practices and publish research on what makes for a change of attitude from denial and helplessness to thoughtful, lasting action. Certificate graduates will take their skills back into their communities and set to work.
Whether you come from inside or outside the States, do not be fooled by our busy, flippant exterior. Behind it we are worried sick about Earth, its creatures and each other. We are furious at politicians and financiers who either accelerate the damage or do nothing about it. Once we learn how many of us feel this way, watch us come to voice -- and remember: In America we never do anything small.