Nemesis Narcissus

What does activism mean? How do we reconcile ego and eco, in 2013? And - with apologies for existential crisis - what exactly is my job?

“I don’t do much about climate change, but I’m a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and I do my recycling.”

That’s a brave little line from “The id and the eco”, an online Aeon magazine piece well worth the long read, because it so neatly encapsulates the psychology of what this is all about - my job, environmentalism, what our lives will be like in fifty years.

It’s about how climate change - embarrassing, frightening, disempowering - has become almost a social taboo. People are (allegedly) aware, (reputedly) concerned - but not acting, and a bit frightened even to talk about it. We’re taking refuge in denial.

We want to feel good about the small steps we do take, like recycling, and helping the RSPB; above all, we want not to be told that they’re ineffectual, missing the mark.

The id and the eco” says that these negative feelings of fear, these responses of dismissal and defensiveness and denial, can only be resolved by talking openly and non-judgmentally about climate change.

Critically important, says its author, will be: “a ‘safe space’ where feelings can be explored, dilemmas examined and people’s creativity engaged”.

As I think the author herself suggests, there's nothing too new in the psychology of all this.

It's dissonance, roughly: two conflicting things, that present uncomfortable feelings - and to resolve the feelings, have to be reconciled.

Nor is it just climate change. More confronting even than that: it’s the whole way of human being that we’ve all spent our lives practising and learning; it’s culture as well as psychology; it’s environment tangled up with economics and politics; it's the truths of maths and science.

It’s our stories: a century’s worth of fossil-fuelled progress.

We don’t want to give it up - the personal lifestyles, the geopolitics - to have to admit that, in some respects, our definition of progress was wrong; that it was a treadmill, and a trap. Easier roads lie in denial, and trust, and hope.

Personally - my own way of reconciling the dissonance, I guess - I don’t believe we’d be giving up much of real value, with everything to gain. A promise of a better, kinder, fairer world - a liveable world - a promise of a good life.

But equally: this is is not a ‘safe space’ we live in now. It is profoundly uncomfortable, for all of us.

At atmospheric carbon levels of 390 ppm, with climate lag yet to feed through, it is the next five years that will count - if we are not already five years too late. Have we time to talk?

I am failing, failing badly, on the non-judgmental front. There is poignancy and compassion here, in this piece:

An older woman explained how the lists of good advice from the Energy Saving Trust irritated her. ‘It just doesn’t fit with how I live my life,’ she said. She liked to leave all the lights on because it made the house feel welcoming. To fill the kettle to the top in case someone else wanted a cup of tea. To heat the whole house (though she lived alone) and to keep the fridge well-stocked in case her children or visitors dropped in. These patterns were deeply connected to her sense of herself as a mother, a home-maker and a generous friend, and protected her from the pain of her single status and her loneliness since her children had left home ...

There's a willingness, on the author's part, to impute the most charitable underlying motives for people. They’re scared. They’re psychologically needy. They want to do right by their kids, but they don’t know what else to do.

For my own, more jaundiced, part, there’s greed, callousness, self-interest, myopia, shown in the article too.

It’s not polite, to say these things. It makes no friends. The best deal I can offer is: I will hear your irritation, and try to understand your needs - if you will hear my anger, and deep grief - and try to grasp any part of Nature's needs - and if we can start distinguishing 'Need' from 'Want'.

Are there substitutes for these human needs, like the lonely woman's, being filled in unconstructive ways? What is wrong with our education, our communities, our politics?

How do we respond when the need is not loneliness, but Ego - that is Eco’s nemesis?

I like the title, “The id and the eco”. In 2013, and for the coming years, 'ego' vs 'eco' is what it’s all about.

What is activism about? Is it about trying to 'fix' you/all of us - which, in a way, seems to be the mission of this piece - bound to elicit defensiveness? Or is it simpler: being the change you want to see, and telling about it?

Are people the project - sitting together in our safe space, talking about it all?

Or is nature the project - fingers in the soil, quietly, eyes on the rising sun?

The answer, of course, is both - because the fates of the ego and the eco, the tangata and the whenua, will turn out to be the same. And in half a line, worth fleshing out, I think there's another answer suggested here. It's an anecdote about Churchill - the importance of icons, of fighting them on the beaches, of "the stories that are told".