In my talks about climate change and storytelling I often ask the participants, mostly young people, what they expect from the future and I am invariably told that the climate crisis causes them a lot of anxiety. This is hardly surprising and anxiety could just be the tip of the iceberg. A BBC study (2020) of 8-16 year olds quoted in Lancet Planetary Health found, “73% were worried about the state of the planet, 19% have had a bad dream about climate change, and 41% do not trust adults to tackle the challenges presented by climate change”. Young people I have interacted with hold similar views.

While they are well clued in about what needs to be done to reduce emissions they do not know really how to process the anxiety and depression that an uncertain future triggered by growing emissions poses for them. How does one, young or old, come to terms and deal with a threat that in the words of Jem Bendell will lead to “near-term social collapse”? Understanding the science of climate change and the culpability of theories and practices of limitless growth and conspicuous consumption are definitely a first step. However, unless we can process the psychological content of the crisis it will be extremely difficult to take meaningful action whether as individuals or collectives, to address the task at hand.

Here we make an attempt to imaginatively explore how beliefs and thought patterns of individuals and larger groups interact with and disrupt earth systems, which in turn affect the psychological well-being of the masses. This we believe will help to reveal some of the problem areas where policy intervention coupled with individual and community effort could be directed to grapple with the psychological and material burdens of the crisis.

While studies to understand the mental health impacts and associated policy and community intervention agendas are developing at a steady pace, our effort here is to uncover a psycho-social pathway of the larger processes driving and aggravating climate change. This we believe will strengthen the support for population level remedial measures and interventions to strike at the psychological and cultural roots of the crisis or more specifically to choke the flow of harmful ideas that have polluted our minds.

In this analysis we borrow concepts and lenses from psychology and weave this with imaginative thinking of literature to arrive at a dynamic visualisation of the wicked problem of climate change and our entanglement with it.

Climate anxiety and grief

A recent study by Klayton and Karazsia to “develop and validate a measure of climate change anxiety”, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed younger adults exhibit higher levels of such anxiety. The Lancet has also flagged this problem by publishing a quite detailed call to action about climate anxiety in young people. Besides anxiety, there are also direct psychological impacts of disaster on young people. A paper in Child Development Perspectives cites the example of the 2010 floods in Pakistan and how “73% of 10 to 19-year-olds displayed high levels of PTSD” and “displaced girls were affected most seriously”. Elsewhere, and not very surprisingly, Schneider Mayerson and others found that millennials are among the biggest readers of climate change fiction.

The psychological impact of the climate crisis is being studied using increasingly sophisticated tools and analyses, and the emerging picture is cause for serious concern. In the early months of the pandemic The Lancet Planetary Health pointed to a sharp rise in “empirical evidence showing both the acute and chronic mental health effects of climate change”. While young people seem to be disproportionately affected by the psychological burden of the climate crisis in particular and ecological anxiety in general, there is evidence to show that they are not the only group.

The previously quoted Lancet report mentions a variety of mental health effects of climate crisis among the general population including “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, the exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, and suicidal ideation and suicide completion”. And then there is grief, grief from loss of life and ecosystems and the sheer weight of helplessly looking on while the familiar world falls apart before our eyes. Nature Climate Change journal in its examination of “ecological grief” points to three sources – those arising from “physical ecological loss”, “loss of environmental knowledge”, and “anticipated future losses”.

Climate change infecting our minds?

The reason for delving in some detail into the characteristics and contours of this impact of climate and ecological destruction on the mind is to highlight the fact that this is one more effect of the climate crisis that needs to be quickly addressed.

Today it seems climate change has been infecting our minds with its ever growing threat of unprecedented disaster and the real pain and suffering it inflicts. The raging wildfires in California, the unprecedented warming of the Arctic, the apocalyptic heat dome events of Canada and the ferocity of cyclones in India are but a few of the numerous manifestations of anthropogenic climate change and a quick survey of such phenomena seems to suggest that the planet has lost its mind as it visits suffering upon us. Has the planet gone insane and is harming us physically and materially while also infecting our brains with an ailment for which there is no simple cure?

There are different ways to answer this question but before we attempt that let us restate facts and not let our imagination run wild. While the unimaginable manifestations of the crisis do look like the workings of a deranged mind, the reason for their appearance is clearly anthropogenic emissions, resource exploitation and our slow breaching of planetary limits. So if we continue with the analogy of insanity we have to first accept that it is the actions of humans to begin with that has thrown the natural world out of sync.

Having accepted this fact we can now try to employ some concepts or lenses from psychology to approach and examine the nature and dynamics of the ailment and how humans and earth systems are entangled in a situation where a sick planet fumes and frets and its mentally affected inhabitants aimlessly despair looking for direction and motivation to change the state of affairs.

Transference and the mirror of desire

The first of these lenses is the Freudian concept of transference. Simply put, this is the phenomenon where a psychoanalyst gets affected by her patient because the patient unconsciously transfers some of her past feelings about another person towards the analyst. This feeling could be anger, mistrust, hate, love among several others. Now if we return to the analogy of planetary madness and its impact on mental health of people we can easily see how this parallels the “transference” described by Freud. It is as if the planet or Gaia or “earth systems” is redirecting negative feelings towards its inhabitants.

But there is a major difference here which needs to be pointed out. Even if we consider the planet or individual climate related phenomenon to have agency we are quite certain the earth is not redirecting or transferring past feelings about another person or entity towards us. What we are seeing is actually payback time. It is our exploitative relation with the planet that is getting reflected or redirected at us through unfolding disasters and mental agony. Therefore instead of transference we can call this “mirroring”, where our greed and desire contorted faces, fuelled by unsustainable production and the culture of conspicuous consumption are being transformed and reflected back at us with all its human ferocity.

While “transference” helps us approach this phenomena we need to give it a different name, a name that captures the character of the reflection in a mirror and the transformation into a kind of dark and grotesque echo of our individualistic actions. And yet it is still a kind of transference because the consuming subject or groups (populations with maximum per capita emissions and largest ecological footprints or the global North) which have been exploiting the planet to the maximum extent are only a section of the suffering subjects (low per capita emissions and low adaptability to disasters or the global South) on which the wrath of the planet, manifest in the destructive effects of climate change, is being unleashed.

Let us look for a parallel in literature. The psychotic teenage patient Bethany Krall in Liz Jensen’s climate novel The Rapture is a kind of archetypal example of the kind of transference and echo we are attempting to describe here. The violent and delusional Bethany begins to predict a string of disasters, including a deadly earthquake in Istanbul, a cyclone that flattens Rio, and finally a submarine landslide and a “methane gun” incident triggering runaway global warming. It is as if the agonies of the planet transferred to wrath are clearly reflected in her mind before they appear as disaster. At one point the author writes about Bethany, “her despair is earth-shaped…” Here the apparent insanity of the planet especially the climate disaster which marks the turning point of the story is anthropogenic, which is sharply mirrored back in Bethany’s ‘deranged’ mind in a strange and uncanny fashion.

Climate change and the uncanny

This brings us to the second psychological lens that has been used by Gregers Andersen to understand the impact of climate disasters especially in the context of climate fiction. This is the concept of the “uncanny” that we find both in the writings of Freud and Heidegger. Freud introduced the uncanny in his famous essay bearing the title “Das Unheimliche”. In his formulation the sense or feeling of uncanny arises in the observer when repressed fantasies animate objects. The appearance of ghosts, spirits, doubles or doppelgänger can all provoke this kind of uncanny feeling.

In Freud’s words, “Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” According to Andersen the eerie feelings that the observer experiences by witnessing phenomena where inanimate objects come to life is a kind of uncanny which pervades climate fiction, both stories and cinema. The observer in this case can be the reader herself or the character experiencing the apparent agency of the inanimate object.

A good example in this context is a scene from the movie Into the Storm. There the storm chaser Pete is sucked up high in the sky by the funnel of the tornado and in that eerily memorable scene the funnel slowly turns him around and a strange golden light falls on him. It seems the funnel is sentient and it is observing this human subject before flinging him down to his death. This scene and many others in literature and cinema affects us with an uncanny feeling, sending shivers down our spine.

Such animated objects which seem to have agency have been called quasi-objects by Bruno Latour. It would seem as if the inanimate object has come to life and is striking back at us in the mirroring and transference process we visualised earlier. Latour had elsewhere described objects as “mere receptacles of human categories”. This in the climate context would mean, the unmanageable wildfires, the frequent cyclones, the fast-melting Arctic ice are “objects” or phenomena infused with human elements. Following Latour we can say they are repressed and infected by our greed and they remain objects no more but a hybrid of the inanimate and our desires.

The concept of the uncanny also appears in the writings of Heidegger. While the Freudian uncanny is an “affective quality” or feeling emerging from the familiar becoming unfamiliar, the Heideggerian uncanny focuses on modes of being, and our inner worlds. Gregers Andersen, further develops this other more complex sense of the uncanny, incorporating insights from one of Heidegger’s disciples, to explain the changes within the characters caused by observing the unimaginable destruction of the surrounding environment as a result of climate change. In this other sense, uncanny “merge(s) inner and outer experience” connecting both the unfamiliar, unhomely aspects of the changed surroundings with the fear and insecurity of the inner world of the character or observer.

We find this sense of the uncanny pervading climate novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There the father and son characters trudging across a devastated American landscape are affected, as evidenced from their dialogue and actions, by this other kind of uncanny, triggered by the dystopian surroundings. While literature presents many examples of the Freudian uncanny, climate and disaster novels like The Road or Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann provide good examples of the more complex climate uncanny.

We have now seen how concepts from psychology (and philosophy) can help us get a better grip on the unimaginable aspects of climate change, especially with respect to our attempts to explain how the climate crisis affects our minds. Utilising ideas and conceptualisations like transference, mirroring, reflection, quasi-objects and the uncanny, we have observed how greed and desire is transforming the natural environment in unprecedented ways leading to untold suffering including impacts on our mental health.

While transference and mirroring elucidates the process through which the power of dangerous ideas infect people in turn impacting earth systems and getting reflected back at us affecting our minds, the concept of uncanny takes a closer look at this affective outcome on our minds and its connections with the transformed surroundings, where the familiar has become unfamiliar. Uncanny therefore tries to explain a condition, quality or a feeling while transferring and mirroring focuses on a process.

Is it the planet or us?

So it is very clear that the root cause of climate disasters and their many manifestations, is embedded in systems, practices, culture and world views driven by greed, desire, resource extraction and limitless growth. Is greed and desire a kind of insanity in itself? Is our own madness driving the planet insane and in turn impacting our material, physical and mental well-being, further transforming to grief, agony, fear, and death? Is our madness contagious and powerful enough to affect the “inanimate” world which is then clearly turning back at us, the exploitative initiators of all this suffering?

Evidently so, with the repeated caveat that those who suffer the most are not always the same people driving conspicuous consumption and unsustainable production, but there are overlaps. The insatiable desire to consume as if there is no tomorrow, the belief in endless growth and so on have been likened to insanity by many. Clinical psychologist John F Schumaker writes, “If consumer culture were a separate individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety. But since its lunacy is agreed upon, we lap it up.” Obviously we have knowingly or unknowingly imbibed ideas and world views that can be construed as a recipe for madness.

Once we arrive at this understanding it may be easier for us to devise better and more holistic interventions to deal with the psychological roots of the problem. If the root is madness what could be the cure?

Efforts and antidotes

At the level of individuals affected by eco-anxiety or grief there are increasingly better and targeted efforts to examine and manage the issue at various levels from individual to community based interventions. Multidisciplinary experts are closely studying individual and group behaviour (including the behaviour of companies) to understand what approaches could be successfully applied to curtail conspicuous consumption and production and what could influence people to take part in positive change.

Behavioural and experimental economist Donna Harris whose research examines how “social identity and social interactions (through observing other’s choices and face-to-face communication) influence people’s decisions and behaviours in a wide range of contexts” like “charitable giving and social preferences, cooperation, financial learning and financial decisions, decisions involving risk and uncertainty, and cooperation in public goods’ have flagged the importance of such interactions and contexts in understanding how we may or may not act in the face of the climate crisis.

Recent work has also directed attention on the training of health professionals and clinical support of the affected. The Lancet Planetary Health article quoted earlier dwells at some length on such interventions and points to six areas where efforts can be focussed. These cover training of health professionals, clinical support, use of group therapy techniques, community based work and socially prescribed actions to address mental and environmental health, family-oriented responses and equity of access to mental health support. All of these efforts are important and necessary but they might still fail to strike the psychological source of the crisis unless complemented by major initiatives to deal with the ideas that have polluted our minds. While such efforts will certainly be enriched and have overlaps with the suggestions and approaches mentioned above they will generally have to be implemented at scale covering large numbers of consumers and producers.

What then is the antidote to the root cause of the crisis, the ideas and worldviews which, like powerful spells, have taken hold of our lives? From religion to the suggestive powers of mass information campaigns, many ideas have been suggested. Schumaker believes the “weapons of mass persuasion” employed by the present order could be turned against it and could be effective in bringing about radical change. Writing about consumer culture he says, “Its only real vulnerabilities are the same weapons of mass persuasion conjured by our pinstriped soldiers of fortune.” Therefore, his prescription for change in minds is the deployment of billions of dollars into counter-propaganda for a society of minimalists and conservationists and overall a cleaner, greener and just future.

The power of religion and its influence on minds has also been suggested as an antidote to the destructive culture of consumerism and limitless growth we foster and inhabit. Amitav Ghosh believes changes that can bring about quick reduction of emissions can be catalysed if religious groups join hands with popular movements for the environment. Drawing attention to the important role that religion can play in this context, Ghosh writes, “If a significant breakthrough is to be achieved, if the securitisation and corporatisation of climate change is to be prevented, then already-existing communities and mass organisations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle. And of such organisations, those with religious affiliations possess the ability to mobilise people in far greater numbers than any others.” He further explains that religious worldviews, because they transcend nation states and acknowledge responsibilities across generations are better equipped to imagine and engage with the climate crisis.

Religious leaders and groups are already championing the cause of climate change in a big way but much more momentum is required. The encyclical published by the Pope before the Paris climate talks is one important document in this context. Hinduism has ideas of stewardship and conservation as part of its belief system and religious leaders need to direct their energies in foregrounding these in the public mind. Much more advice and exhortations are required if we have to see rapid change.

While the early animistic religions accorded an important position to “Nature” the newer religions including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have also joined the fray in different ways. According to Oxford academic Vahid Nick Pay, there are concepts within Islamic texts that can be interpreted to foster ideas of trusteeship which is important for environmental sustainability. In a recent lecture he explained how the story of the Garden of Eden can be reinterpreted as an exhortation to control greed while Sabbath can be seen as an idea to control over-exploitation of land and resources. The Jewish Renewal Movement in the United States has been championing similar causes and is at the forefront of the eco-Judaism movement.

There are several such examples in all religions but the need of the hour is to consolidate these efforts so that they can have a decisive impact on peoples minds. Another possible intervention that can change attitudes and beliefs is through the use of stories and storytelling. The stories we tell make us who we are, and if the stories change the culture changes too. Nick Admussen in his Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change writes, “Global culture has not just failed to adapt to the challenges we now face: it actively prevents us from facing those challenges. To change this, we need to break with our existing traditions of art and media, even if that means rejecting some of the works we love most.”

Fiction and storytelling has a persuasive impact in changing beliefs and ideas of readers and cinema audiences and there are many studies looking into this area. Research done by Matthew Schneider Mayerson, Denis Baden, Abel Gustafson and others have examined the impact of climate fiction on reading audiences. As we mentioned earlier, these studies have generally noticed that these books have more influence on younger people. They also found that liberals were more impacted by climate fiction compared to conservatives and these books have led to changes in their attitudes vis-a-vis climate change from cautious to concerned and concerned to alarmed.

Hopeful stories about the future also seem to have had more influence compared to stories of despair and doom. It has also been observed that personal stories of the impact of climate change tend to influence more people and seem to cut across the liberal conservative divide. All these findings coupled with a push to transform production and consumption mechanisms of mass culture, can play an important role in devising creative and awareness strategies for changing the minds of an educated book-reading cinema-going audience.

While stories of hope can definitely help in changing attitudes and beliefs and can even spur action, despair and hopelessness could also make us stronger spiritually and emotionally. These can cleanse us from the burden of world views that are harming the planet which seems to be passing on its agony towards its inhabitants. Jem Bendell, acknowledging the place of despair writes in his well- known Deep Adaptation paper, “the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair.”

Whenever I ponder upon the place of despair, hopelessness and even grief I am reminded of the life of the Buddha, especially the four sights that led him to leave his home and seek out the roots of suffering. These four sights were those of an old man, a diseased man, a dead man, and finally an ascetic. Three of these sights are troubling while the fourth could kindle some hope or point to an alternative. These sights together apparently gave him the motivation to seek the end of suffering and he finally founded a world religion that charts a way out of the clutches of desire. Buddha’s example seems to point to the fact that suffering, darkness, despair if rightly processed can spur positive action and can cleanse the mind. So there is hope in hope, and that is always desirable if it spurs action, but there is also a road through despair and even grief.

Will we wait for the darkest hour before ushering in the dawn or should we get down to work from today? Clearly time is not on our side. The latest IPCC report says we have only three years for emissions to peak and so radical change is the order of the day. We are in an emergency and we have to use all the means at our disposal to cleanse ourselves of the destructive worldview that has taken a stranglehold of our minds. In this task the role of psychologists will be as important as those of scientists, writers, community leaders, and policy makers for as we have seen, the impact of our acquisitive mind on the planet has been devastating and to deal with that doctors of the mind must have an important role to play.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a writer and climate activist. His new novel Spellcasters will be published in May. He tweets at @rajatchaudhuri.