Dreaming of Eden: Psychoanalysis, Utopias and the Climate Emergency

A trans-disciplinary approach is essential if we are to attempt to address the threat of ecological disaster predicted by the climate emergency.

| 8 min read

When Steve Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary, said that Greta Thunberg should go and get an Economics degree before advising countries on how to manage their energy policies, he betrayed a couple of predictable yet worrying prejudices. Firstly, the statement was clearly a patronising attack by a middle-aged man on a teenage girl. Secondly, and perhaps more pointedly, it was a way of questioning someone’s right to debate because they don’t ‘speak the lingo’. Mnuchin’s position is one often occupied by academics ensconced within their various disciplines. That the climate emergency is a matter that requires a trans-disciplinary approach would appear self-evident, but Mnuchin’s remark reveals a defensiveness in the face of a populist movement which would seek to challenge the foundations of the Trumpian populism of which he himself is a beneficiary. The irony of a politician whose own party leader spurts out phrases such as, ‘I know words, I have the best words’, questioning Thunberg’s credentials to speak about energy policies, can hardly go unnoticed.

Thunberg’s repeated response to such goading is to invoke a higher authority: Science. ‘I just wish they would listen to the science’. It’s a fair enough rejoinder; science does indeed paint a bleak picture of the apocalyptic climatic changes that will come about if we continue to carry on merrily consuming without taking heed of the warning signs. And yet the idea that science can be a panacea for the world’s problems is a position that has been challenged by many thinkers since the devastation caused by World War 2. Whilst reason became the watchword of the Enlightenment and positivist philosophers such as August Comte saw a lot of mankind improving steadily under a scientific utopia, the holocaust and the atom bomb called the ‘benevolence’ of science into question. Whilst scientific progress has made us more technologically efficient, increased productivity and efficiency have also unleashed destructive forces which are unparalleled in the history of the human race.

The achievements of the scientific method have helped to usher in our current epoch of the Anthropocene, this period of the earth’s history in which human activity has a direct and irreversible impact on the environment. In such a situation we need to develop a scientific method which takes into account the ‘human factor’. This science would necessarily involve a ‘psychology’ rather than be purely positivistic; as human beings we are inextricably bound to, and implicated in, the effects and outcomes produced by scientific endeavours.

The immediate impact and context of coronavirus has thrown the matter of the ambivalence of science into even greater relief. The fact that the emergence of the virus is a direct result of the scientific quest for ever greater control over nature can hardly be doubted, even if Trump’s continued delusory assertion that it was created in a lab in Wuhan is given credence to. If the ‘perfections’ of science have led to the unleashing of devasting forces it is because humans have disrupted the delicate balance which exists between themselves and the natural world. And of course, it is to science that we look for a solution in the form of a vaccine.

Anyone watching the way that coronavirus has been reported on in the British press will not have failed to notice how politicised scientific advice has been, from the time-scale of lockdown through to the wearing of facemasks, not to mention the ‘Dominic Cummings’ saga.

In light of all this, it really feels as if the utopia of unchecked and unbiased scientific progress no longer bears weight.

The idea of ‘utopia’ has long been one of the collective fantasies of humanity; that there was once a place, or there may in the future be a place, absent of human suffering, where people live in peace and harmony. However, ever since the first utopian text, Plato’s Republic, the notion of a perfect society (utopia) has been haunted by its uncanny doppelganger, dystopia. For Plato, people didn’t know what was best for them and had to be tricked or forced into accepting their utopia. As Gregory Clayes has recently suggested in his book, Utopia, the History of an Idea, such totalitarian behaviour modification spawned a whole genre of science fiction in the 20th Century as writers such as Huxley, Orwell and Zamyatin began to explore the dystopian implications of utopian visions. In the 21st Century the concerns regarding political dystopias have morphed into fears of an environmental dystopia, as the price to pay for unrelenting technological advancement and industrial development is beginning to become apparent. As we have become more efficient, we have also become more destructive. How then can we make sense of the fact that the silver lining of ever-greater technological advancement appears to depend upon the increasingly threatening cloud of ecological disaster?

After the ravages of the First World War and subsequent personal suffering, Sigmund Freud was forced to confront a similar problem. If as human beings we are governed by the desire for pleasure, why is it that we continually seem to repeat traumatic events and search for traumatic situations? Why was it that many soldiers returning from the front repeated in their minds the horrific experiences they had encountered in the form of shell-shock? Why were human beings doomed to the ‘compulsion to repeat’ horrifying and traumatic experiences? In attempting to answer such questions, Freud was led to his last great theoretical breakthrough in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the idea that as humans we are conditioned not just by a ‘life instinct’ (which he named ‘Eros’) but also by the ‘death instinct’. This instinct, when projected outwards from the individual, becomes an instinct for destruction and aggression.

This theoretical breakthrough led Freud to publish a number of works towards the end of his life in which he attempted to apply the insights of psychoanalysis to a much broader set of disciplines; to religion, to anthropology and to cultural theory. The defensive position of ‘not speaking the lingo’ no longer applied. As psychoanalysis was a theory that took its starting point from the human being itself, it had to engage with human activity on the grand scale, it had to be taken ‘outside the clinic’.

Freud’s ‘second dual-instinct theory’ as it became known, argues that there is always a coupling of Eros and the death instinct in any human activity, that any human activity or venture will always have a deathly/destructive element to it. Psychoanalysis views human beings as fundamentally ambivalent creatures, neither wholly wrong, nor wholly right, and this attitude seems to echo through Freud’s writings. Indeed, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse was to argue that Freud’s late masterpiece Civilisation and its Discontents was both ‘the most radical critique of western culture and its most trenchant defense’.[1]

Our environment is at tipping point, and it's clearly no longer enough to refuse to converse with people who ‘don’t speak the lingo’. Greta Thunberg has helped to jog us out of our consumerist malaise and has made us question our most basic habits and desires. We are now aware that the climate emergency impacts the totality of our existence, from our social structures to our group activities, right down to our individual anxieties. In order to mobilise against the increasing threat of ecological disaster, we will clearly need a trans-disciplinary approach, in which the scientific model is married to a psychological one which recognises and channels both the creative and destructive potential of human beings. The time for genuine and open discussion is now- there’s no time to take that economics degree.

[1] J Dodds, Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos, Routledge, 2011, p.33

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Dreaming of Eden: Psychoanalysis, Utopias and the Climate Emergency

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