I’ve been trying for some time to fathom the psychology of educated and supposedly sophisticated people who, in paralysis and resistance, are unwilling to respond rationally to the perils of global warming. We need to look deeply into the heart of this issue.
Why haven’t we taken rational or logical steps to shut down our lethal fossil-fuels industry and to replace it with better conservation and renewable-energy technologies? An assortment of psychological reasons for our paralysis present themselves, including denial, greed, fear, passivity, stubbornness, self-centeredness, self-sabotage, and our species’ lack of compassion for future generations.
Some concerned citizens see greed as the main problem. They want to break the power of the fossil-fuel industry and force it to keep its trillions of dollars in oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground. They believe that if the industry is identified as the enemy of humanity, people will rise up to fight a moral battle against it.
This strategy is well and good, yet most of us know the industry can be ruthless and greedy, and still we aren’t dashing down the street to join coalitions. I believe we have to look deeper into our paralysis. We need to wage a psychological battle with ourselves as well as a moral battle with the industry. More of us have to grow psychologically if we hope to become a powerful collective capable of driving social policy and political action. Such inner growth enables us to connect more deeply with our better self. This awakens our integrity, courage, and sense of moral responsibility. From this vantage, we’re more likely to feel personally responsible for whatever needs to be fixed or reformed in our life and in the world. In this struggle to grow, however, we’re all battling against our own resistance. We fight ourselves every step of the way.
Fixing the climate problem means we have to become responsible citizens of the highest order. We’ll have to step outside our comfort zone and, quite literally, plunge into the metaphysical abyss, that middle passage from the known to the great unknown, when we die to the old way so as to be reborn into the new. Yet who are we to be so brave, noble, and responsible—so adventuresome and awesome? This is not the little me we’re all so comfortable with. Wouldn’t such an undertaking be just as scary as departing Old Europe in a rickety ship to settle an unknown land? Better to hope we’ll somehow survive without the need for change.
We’re pinned down by paralysis because we identify, in part, with a limited sense of self that sometimes is fearful, depressed, angry, cynical, and plagued by self-doubt. As one client put it, “It’s the only me I know.” We’re afraid to stray from our beaten path without our MAPS (memories, associations, and procedures for suffering). Passivity, indecision, and doubt are symptoms of our undiscovered self.
Most people are not in denial about climate change. We see our part in it. Yet we’re bogged down in our resistance. We have a sense that, should we allow ourselves to fully imagine the mass suffering that the climate crisis foretells, we’ll be obliged to join the struggle against the fossil-fuel industry. At that point, we have no other choice, really. When we fully accept a momentous truth, we either have to respond appropriately or else sink into guilt, disappointment, cynicism, and despair. Yet to respond and to act is initially frightening. We’re not really afraid of the powers-that-be. Rather, we’re fearful of awakening our better self. As author Marianne Williamson writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
If we change too much, we won’t know the mysterious stranger we’re destined to become. Psychologist David Seabury (1885-1960) wrote, “Fear of self is the greatest of all terrors, the deepest of all dread, the commonest of all mistakes. From it grows failure. Because of it, life is a mockery. Out of it comes despair.” Psychotherapist Alexander Lowen touched on this theme in Fear of Life, as did psychologist Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom. In our resistance, we cling tightly to our limited sense of self, convinced that letting go will pitch us into the void. Hence, our belief systems are mostly reassuring, sometimes verging on fairy tales. Thanks to resistance, we decline to access the reality that identifies us as dangerous creatures lacking in self-awareness and unable to regulate powerful technologies.
Resistance is both internal and external. Consider the fierce external resistance that suffragists encountered in trying to get the vote, or that black Americans faced during the struggle for civil rights. In my psychotherapy practice, I see on a regular basis how inner resistance pops up in the psyche of my clients as they struggle—two steps forward, one step back—to break free of limited, negative ways of experiencing themselves and the world. I also see how, as their inner work brings forth their integrity and goodness, they embrace the imperative of being responsible for the quality of their experiences of life.
The collective resistance to action on global warming is an external rendition of the inner resistance we have to self-development. We need to make inner resistance more conscious to avoid the repercussions of stupidity and self-sabotage. We’ve all felt our inner resistance, even if we didn’t recognize it as a psychological dynamic. It often arises when we’re considering whether to do something appropriate or wise, such as taking a walk instead of watching TV or cooking a healthy meal instead of eating junk food. The excuses we use to defeat a noble idea are the weaponry of our resistance. When resistance wins, humanity loses.
Those of you who meditate know all about one form of resistance. In meditation, we practice inner strength. We concentrate and focus in order to still the mind, produce inner serenity, and experience self-regulation and self-mastery. Resistance invariably kicks in, as our mind intrudes with random, aimless thoughts and speculations that reestablish the old order. In meditation, we can observe how this resistance favors the old order, as it tempts us with swarms of favored memories, attachments, and validations to abandon the path of inner development.
Now it seems likely that, to save our world, we have to win this great battle between the forces of our resistance and the calling of our destiny.