I haven’t been able to organize my thinking around what is taking place in Japan. I received, however, a thoughtful post from a colleague, Adrian Tait (UKCP Registered Psychotherapist, Member: The Guild of Psychotherapists, Visiting Fellow: Centre for Psycho-Social Studies, University of the West of England) written to a newly forming alliance of clinicians looking at the relationship between climate change and human behavior. He raises evocative questions and thoughts. See it here:
As I listened on the radio this morning to the news of a second explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant, warnings about the possibility of further severe aftershocks, and more descriptions of the scale of death and devastation in North East Japan, it struck me that there is a double unfolding here. There is the disaster itself, but also its impact on the minds of people all round the world.
Why comment in this forum? The Japanese earthquake is after all a natural disaster and has little or nothing to do with the subject of engagement with human-induced climate change and ecological destruction. That may be only partly true. Susan’s theme of landscapes, and how our consciousness is influenced by our geographical settings seems to have a place here. It also, presumably, links up somewhere with Sally’s theme of split internal landscapes.
Paul Hoggett’s “Apocalyptic Imagination” also seems relevant; one thing that paper sparked for me was a debate about James Lovelock’s thinking. I am on Paul’s side in objecting to a human being professing ruthless indifference to the fate of large swathes of humanity, or making a watertight distinction between concern for the planet and concern for ourselves. But, as Paul knows, I have always wondered whether this is an entirely fair depiction of Lovelock’s position. The latter seems to me to be saying that it is the planet (provocatively and evocatively depicted as Gaia) which is entirely indifferent to our fate as a species and that it is folly to assume that our highly evolved brains and sensibilities give us special privileges or immunities, as a life form.
On Saturday, I listened to a live performance of Hayden’s “The Creation”, in which a member of my family was performing – archaic and beautiful. The following morning, a Muslim scholar described on the radio the trouble he is in as a result of the attention and respect he has given to evolution “theory”. It is relatively easy for us to dismiss as ridiculous, if sometimes dangerous, the creationism of fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim. But do those religious myths not exercise a residual influence that is both subtle and widespread? If so, that influence is important to our project.
We would probably all agree that what matters most at the moment in Japan is the humanitarian and technical response to the terrible disruption and suffering. It is a question of containment, endurance and repair. But that doesn’t rule out questions about how this will play out, largely unconsciously, at the level of meaning in the wider world. What I imagine is that there will be the usual range of knee-jerk reactions ranging from the superstitious to the anti-religious, alongside emotional shock and genuine concern. Others, invoking rationality, will see in the disaster evidence that humans are a puny and insignificant force, compared to the natural processes which shape our planet. This is a favourite amongst deniers of human-made global heating.
Is there room for yet another response? Life is indeed inherently dangerous, but the power of natural forces to destroy us could be taken as a reminder to beware of hubris and omnipotence. Since Hayden’s day, we have eaten (if not fully digested) much more of the fruit of knowledge, both giving us power and concerning the consequences of how we use it. The responsibility that goes with that knowledge seems to apply to an increasing range of our decision-making, individual and collective. It certainly embraces the siting of nuclear power stations and the destruction of habitats, or our greenhouse gas emissions. And, as even the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledges, there is no divine safety net to rescue us, when we get these decisions wrong, or ignore the likely consequences of what we choose. This argument may seem so obvious as to not be worth advancing, but I’m not sure how deeply we accept it. As Clive Hamilton said at “Seeing Futures”, and Rosemary has pointed out in her blog, the roots of rationality may not go all that deep.
Sandra reminded us eloquently in “Beyond Sacrifice” that myths have great illuminating power. In this instance, I suggest that they also have the power to trap us in a dangerous internal polarity of impotence and omnipotence, whether or not we project part of this confusion onto “God”. From that position, there is little hope of much sense of reality, or realistic responsibility. I hold no mystical belief in Gaia posessing intentionality (any more than Lovelock does), but is there nevertheless a hope that terrible events like the Japanese earthquake can ultimately raise awareness of our position on our planet, in a useful way?
I’d welcome any responses to that question.