The news that the Australian Psychological Society’s website is posting a “tip sheet” for “people emotionally distressed by climate change” isn’t surprising – climatically, the past year has probably seemed like a fairly frightening one for most.

But for those of us who’ve had an active concern over the issue for many years, there’s a very different perspective available – in many ways, last year was quite a positive one.

It can be quite depressing being involved in researching a problem of such scope when it barely registers a blip on the media radar, because then you’re engaged in little more than the quiet cataloguing of destruction. Thankfully, nobody could by now sensibly characterise climate change as a media “blip”.

But while an awful lot of talking was done last year, the next – and far broader – challenge is how to engender a form of concern that leads to effective action, as opposed to a mounting sense of despair that induces apathy.

For me it’s been more than half a lifetime since global warming first crossed my radar. I have my Catholic upbringing to thank for furnishing my imagination with such a macabrely vivid mental picture of Armageddon (with a little help from Pieter Brueghel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ that I found in an art book), and as the eighties drew to a close, I became convinced that its secular equivalent was just topping the horizon.

As a result, I had debilitating anxiety attacks, shed weight by the kilogram, sprouted my first grey hairs, and lay awake watching TV until I fell asleep so that I didn’t have to lie in the dark and think.

This kind of response – particularly amongst the young – has led to accusations of scaremongering and alarmism levelled against the environment movement (often by those actively engaged in perpetuating the problem). On occasion there’s truth to some of it, but generally this strikes me as tantamount to the MC exhorting the guests in the Titanic ballroom to continue dancing while the ship sinks.

Though my imagination certainly got the better of me, what bothered me as a child was not the fact of climate change, but the lack of response to it. As a problem that had arisen out of a very clear set of choices we’d made, it seemed so simple that a different set of choices could solve it. But they weren’t choices in which I felt I had much say. Perhaps I underestimated ‘pester power’.

It’s natural for a child to feel powerless – you kind of are – but it seems like so many of us have come to do so as adults, too.

The global scale of the problem is certainly part of it. But there is probably also a tendency for the democratic and participatory muscle of citizens among stable, affluent societies to gradually atrophy. The use of the concept of inevitability as a beating stick by many “leaders” only accentuates that. The very fact that the word “leader” is so ubiquitous in a democratic system suggests the extent to which many of us have come to see ourselves as passive elements whose opinions and choices are of little consequence.

To me, this question – that of spectatorship versus citizenship – goes to the heart of why climate change seems so insoluble to so many, and thus induces such anxiety.

One inevitable response to the sense of disempowerment is appeal to a higher power. Perhaps to my parents’ eternal disappointment (and, if Father Bill is to be believed, possibly my eternal damnation), God didn’t rub off on me. But despite my scepticism of the divine, the political response of many denominations and faiths to change has been encouraging, and may yet prove instrumental. To the extent that prayer lends people the strength to engage on a social and political level, then, it might just be a positive thing.

But when treated as an alternative to the push for practical, earthly solutions to pressing problems of demonstrably secular origin, prayer can’t help but be disastrous. Fingers crossed then, that people like Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire ministries, quoted here in the Age, have it wrong: “It is being seen as a sign, that we’re an abundant nation that has abandoned God. That’s what the God-fearing farmers of Victoria are saying to me: ‘Danny, as a nation we have to repent and pray.’”

Interesting that our PM lends them his support.

Peter Fray

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