Much is made of the relationships, the intersections, the similarities and differences between various feelings and emotional states. How do you tell envy from jealousy? Why does love so readily turn to hate? What are the tonal variations between shame and embarrassment, fear and anxiety, guilt and remorse?
I find myself churning over these questions in the shameful and embarrassing aftermath of having written a book about eco-anxiety that fails to mention guilt. It doesn’t appear once in the index. As I’m grasping a little too late, guilt is the supreme cause of climate-related suffering. Anxiety, grief, ‘pre-traumatic stress’ (a new-ish formulation that designates the sense of foreboding experienced by climate scientists observing the destruction of the planet in close-up) may be horrendous, but guilt stands out above them all; guilt about what we eat, where we go, how we get there, and what we wear en route. Not to mention guilt about having — or just wanting — children or grandchildren, about simply continuing to exist ourselves, or even on behalf of our entire species — past and future.
You could argue that guilt about climate change is so pervasive it barely needs articulating; it’s the white noise most of us live with at all times. Even deniers like Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro could be said to be in the grip of manic internal defences against guilt. Putin’s assertion that that climate change is caused by ‘forces in the universe’, rather than being anthropogenic, is the sort of fanciful obfuscation you’d normally expect from a child caught mid-misdemeanour. The more sociopathically ‘not guilty’ you appear, perhaps, the more urgently you are foreclosing the possibility of guilt’s painful eruption into your psyche.
In my psychoanalytic practice I meet numerous people who are kept awake at night by images of environmental damage, and I’ve all but begun to take it for granted that most millennials agree that having a baby would be an unforgivable transgression. These people also tend to be vegan, charity-shopping cyclists. And none of them flags guilt up as the key cause of their suffering — perhaps because they feel so guilty about pretty much every single aspect of their city-bound, post-industrial existences. To talk about guilt in analysis would only compound their First World, educated, white (if they’re white — and even if they’re not ‘ontologically white’ but have absorbed certain pesky aspects of whiteness), privileged, snivellingly guilty guilt. Guilt is the foundation on which one can build endless forms of suffering. Panic…Lash! Depression….Lash! Ruminations…Lash! Lash! Lash!
Of course I count myself among these people. With hindsight it seems perfectly clear that my failure to give guilt a discrete, standalone chapter — let alone its own paragraph — is because every single sentence of the book is so deeply guilt-infused. The more guilty you feel, the less you talk about it, perhaps for fear that someone will misguidedly take it upon themselves to try to make you feel better.
In Freud’s late, great masterpiece, Civilization and its Discontents (1930 ) he presents guilt as ‘the most important problem in the development of civilization,’ and argues that ‘the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.’ This, for Freud, all begins with the Oedipus complex. The family — the smallest form of society — is the crucible in which the developing infant originally confronts its sexual and aggressive urges. These must be brought under control in order to make co-existence possible. Initially our carers tell us off when we step out of line, but we soon get the message and begin to police ourselves, pre-empting a terrifying loss of love by making sure we behave as other people would like us to. The installation of the self-surveilling agency in the psyche — the superego — means we keep ourselves under constant watch lest our despicable, punishable tendencies show any sign of breaking out. And it’s not just actions that count; ‘bad’ thoughts also elicit an internal ticking off. To make things even worse, much of this psychic work is performed unconsciously — we’ve had the unacceptable thought, and had it punched back, without even consciously registering it; all of which is liable to leave us in a state of barely explicable anguish. For Freud, Oedipal guilt is the prototype for all social suffering. And guilt is everywhere for the simple reason that it’s the very thing that enables society to exist in the first place.
Any sensual or destructive urge risks alerting our superego to the notion that we’re not good people. Given that pretty much all forms of modern consumption entail damage — to ecosystems, to societies, to workers — whatever you do, you’re basically in line for a kicking. You can be as vegan as you like but your inner watchdog will be onto you, sniffing out any whiff of carelessness or bad faith. No wonder there’s so much pushback against it, in the form of Trump-like negation, or the more insidious neoliberal insistence that we ought to be having a lovely time, at all times. Don’t feel guilty! Life is for living! Don’t listen to that annoying shit in your head! (Or as they apparently say in L.A. ‘Don’t should yourself up’ — surely one of the most twisted injunctions around.)
So what do you put in a book for people who suffer from eco-anxiety? Perhaps you address the guilt without naming it. You acknowledge the extractionism, the post-colonialism, the exploitation, the destruction, the blotting out of unpleasant realities that all people in developed countries necessarily participate in. You confirm that we’re right to feel hounded and haunted by terrible thoughts. You make the guilt collective, less lonely, and then you make a comprehensive list of ways to begin to make amends.
P.S. The book is called A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: how to protect the planet and your mental health, published by Watkins.
Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer practising in London. She is a member of The Centre for Freudian Research, where she regularly lectures. She has written non-fiction: No More Silly Love Songs: a realist’s guide to romance (Portobello, 2010), Are you Considering Therapy? (Karnac, 2011), From Anxiety to Zoolander: notes on psychoanalysis (Karnac, 2018), A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: how to protect the planet and your mental health (Watkins, 2020) as well as writing fiction: Ringing for You (Harper Collins, 1999) and Darling Daisy (Harper Collins, 2000). She also writes about art and fashion, and contributes to The Guardian, Radio 4, and Resonance FM.
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