An urgent sense of the possible contributed to my pursuit of psychoanalytic training over a decade ago, back when CO2 levels were still below 400 ppm. At the time, my analyst and my own analysis were introducing me to an unanticipated world of depth, beauty, and tolerable terror from which I rarely wanted to surface. At the same time, and still today, I was struggling to take in my lived experiences of marked changes in the weather along with a larger body of scientific research, which described climatic apocalypse in my lifetime. In my professional life—which spanned many years in the nonprofit sector as well as higher education—people were teaching, learning, and talking about smart, sustainable policies to reduce our carbon footprint, to mitigate and adapt. And yet, I wondered, what was everybody feeling? How were they sleeping at night? How did others handle what environmentalist Aldo Leopold described as “a new thing under the sun,” namely one species mourning the death of another or, in this case, the human species now mourning its own present and future?
Apart from those regular fifty-minute sessions below the surface, I did not know how to ask others about their interior lives or speak about mine on our rapidly warming planet. Then, and now, I sensed that analytical mindedness might make it possible to bring our interior lives, our psyches, into these discussions about mitigation and adaptation, about loss on unprecedented scales. Then—and now—I believed that doing so might help upend our contemporary era, aptly named “the Dithering” by cli-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. There was no common language for grief, for dread, or for our lack of acknowledgment of something terribly new under the sun. As W.R. Bion reminds us in his 1957 essay on the “Differentiation of the Psychotic from the Non-Psychotic Personalities,” “problems can be solved because at least they can be stated whereas without [articulated speech] certain questions, no matter how important, cannot even be posed.”
Once in training, I was surprised to learn that while my new analytic friends, colleagues, and mentors may in general have been concerned as citizens about the climate, such concern did not necessarily translate into analytic theory or practice. Moreover, I was not a little disheartened to see how difficult and nonintuitive it was for me to integrate what I was learning about analysis with my own existential concerns. Or as Bion might say, I could not approach the problems because I had no language in which to pose the questions. Slowly, I began to realize that the foundational framework of psychoanalytic thinking as it was taught at many institutes did not lend itself to thinking about the more-than-human environment, let alone climate catastrophe. Those moments when the more-than-human environment emerged explicitly (for example, in the thinking of Freud, Ferenczi, and Searles among others) were not a part of the canon taught to candidates nor a part of clinical training. Not only was the climate catastrophe, or environmental degradation more broadly, missing, but the more-than-human environment itself was literally kept off the couch and out of doors. How were far too many of us so assiduously able to block out anything material, both within and without, of which we were comprised, on which we were dependent? There was no useful language to describe what I was sensing at the time—namely, a general lack of recognition of a more-than-human environment in psychoanalytic theories and practice.
In the Bionian spirit of articulation, I want to offer a neologism for now—the anenvironmental orientation, that is, an orientation to oneself and the world that brackets out the more-than-human environment. It was this orientation, I believe, that I was bumping up against in myself, in my psychoanalytic training and in the culture at large. Relying on the Greek prefix an meaning “without” or “lacking,” I understand anenvironmental to describe something without or lacking the more-than-human environment, in much the same way that we understand amoral to mean “without morals” or anaerobic to mean “without oxygen.” The idea of an orientation is indebted to Erich Fromm’s ideas about nonproductive social character orientations (such as the authoritarian, narcissistic, and marketing orientations). Fromm, a psychoanalyst and a sociologist, was interested in what Lynne Layton might call “normative unconscious processes” or those character orientations that a particular economy and society require of its members in order to sustain it, often at the expense of their own or others’ well-being. For example, as Fromm conceived of it, the authoritarian character orientation was socially sanctioned in Nazi Germany, symbiotically enabling and sustaining the fascist state.
What might comprise a socially prevalent and sanctioned, albeit often unconscious, anenvironmental orientation in certain psychoanalytic traditions and in the larger culture, symbiotically enabling and sustaining our neoliberal world order? In broad strokes, I suggest that an anenvironmental orientation means:
• a sense of self that in the face of the more-than-human environment feels invulnerable, independent, and impermeable—We no longer recognize how our spaces allow us to remain safe from and unexposed to the elemental, how they allow us “climate control” over our surroundings to the narrow temperature band in which humans can flourish. Is this dissociation? Disavowal? Foreclosure? All of the above in shifting combination?
• an immaterial sense of self, separate from our mortal, organic bodies, the atmosphere they require to live, and the multicellular life-forms of which they are comprised.
• an incapacity to mourn—It is perhaps not surprising that, if we cannot recognize a more-than-human environment, then we refuse to acknowledge and cannot mourn our shared, often unequal, degradation and likewise our unequal complicity in the process.
• a repetitively lived experience of omnipotence in relation to the more-than-human environment—We drive fast; we fly far. Figuratively and literally, our power is always on and flowing. This intense experience of omnipotence may be peculiar to our now-waning era of petromodernity.
• a stance of innocence, ignorance, insulation, and irresponsibility—We can remain unaware of the human and more-than-human costs of supporting and sustaining an anenvironmental orientation. Indeed, many of us are literally insulated from the people and places suffering most severely from the effects of environmental destruction and the related effects of climate change. Our view of reality remains pathologically limited and limiting.
• an obsessive focus on the interpersonal and intrapsychic which perpetuates an unreconstructed notion of our human exceptionalism—This focus feels especially prevalent in psychoanalytic theory and, likely, practice. For example, we might wonder about the Kleinian focus on the breast as the infant’s only source of nourishment, as if air, field, tree, stream, or ocean were not also relevant, if perhaps in less immediate and obvious ways.
• an unrelated sense of self in terms of big space and what cultural theorists Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker call “thick time” (that is, time that stretches across past, present, and future)—Despite relating to ourselves and others in intensely intrapsychic and interpersonal ways, we show relatively little interest in how the environmental past affects us, how our actions influence others currently living on the planet or how they will affect future generations. This seems one area, among many, where psychoanalysis can make a unique contribution, since analysts work with a conception of the psyche, the unconscious, as inhabiting big space and thick time (that is, a sense of psychic space and time that reaches across geographies as well as the past, present, and future).
As may be obvious, the anenvironmental orientation calls to mind already extant psychoanalytic theories, albeit ones not always brought into dialogue with the more-than-human environment. It can function as a toxic and intoxicating counterphobic defense against our dependency, as a reading of Harold Searles might suggest and toward which Stolorow and Atwood gesture in their “myth of the isolated mind.” An anenvironmental orientation exhibits qualities of a Kleinian manic defense, protecting us against defensive guilt for our excessive environmental destructiveness. We can also see in it a primitive Winnicottian position in which the more-than-human environment is riddled with projections rather than seen as existing in its own right. Or we might recognize Freud’s definition of psychosis, in which the id refuses to adapt to reality.
Happily, as a growing body of innovative psychoanalytic work shows, the field’s predominant anenvironmental orientation is rapidly becoming untenable (for example, see https://climatepsychology.us). Neither analysts nor analysands can pretend to live as if the more-than-human environment exists only beyond the couch, if it is acknowledged at all. The zoonotic spillover of coronavirus, wildfires erupting on every continent, rising coastlines, among other things, promise that what Fromm called the “pathology of normalcy” cannot continue in what is today a world with CO2 levels soaring beyond 417 ppm. Perhaps the neologism of the anenvironmental orientation can prove useful for now, helping us to recognize, name, and dismantle a pathological psychic and cultural dynamic that has become far too normal. And perhaps the phenomenon it describes is at least one extinction to which we can actually look forward. ■
Susan Kassouf, PhD, is a licensed psychoanalyst and a candidate at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP). She has written and presented about climate change and psychoanalysis, founded the Steps on Sustainability Committee at NPAP, and participates in several study groups grappling with environmental degradation from an analytic perspective. She has also translated works by and about Erich Fromm.
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