Interview with Caroline Hickman

📷 University of BATH

Journalist: Luming Cao

Luming: Welcome to SciSection. I'm your journalist for this episode! My name is Luming and today we're joined by psychotherapist Caroline. She's from the Climate Psychology Alliance and her research focuses on young people's relationship with nature and their feeling toward climate change. So thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today!

Caroline: I'm very pleased to be here. Thank you.

Luming: Yeah. so could you talk about your background and the path that led you to your work today?

Caroline: Absolutely. My background originally is in social work, and then I’m in mental health and psychiatry and child protection. And then I progressed to training and working as a counselor and a psychotherapist. In 2000s, I qualified as a psychotherapist and my dissertation was on our relationship with nature and saltwater, specifically looking at depression and anxiety, but also our relationship with the natural world and oceans and saltwater in particular because I'm a scuba diver. And what I had started noticing was the degradation of the marine environment, and that was really starting to make me more and more aware of the damage that we were doing to our environment. So then I started to put together that awareness with the scuba diving, with the love of the marine world, with the psychotherapy, and I joined the climate psychology Alliance. We're a group that is trying to raise psychological understanding of the climate and biodiversity crisis.

Caroline: We're trying to engage people in thinking and engage people with feeling. Because we've had the technological solutions for decades for the climate biodiversity crisis and not acted on them, we really think that really, what's one of the barriers to that action is engaging people, emotionally engaging people with how they feel about it. And that may often seem less rational, but it's no less important because as I said, we've had the technological solutions and failed to act. So actually it's a relational issue rather than an entirely practical scientific issue. And I'm not saying we don't need scientific solutions as well. So really my work in the last six years has been researching how children and young people feel about the climate biodiversity crisis. So that was useful because I was interviewing them before Greta Thunberg and before the youth climate strikes from schools. So I've been able to see that actually children and young people have been telling me for years how they feel. And how they feel is very frightened and very upset, very anxious, but what makes that worse for young people is when they see adults failing to act and adults failing to take you too seriously as they are. And that compounds that distress for children and young people. So that's my research, and that's research with children here in the UK, but also in the Maldives, in Bangladesh, in the Niger Delta and other parts of the world, because I want to be able to support children and getting their voices heard, particularly for marginalized communities. I mean, children and young people are often marginalized voices anyway generally, because adults can easily and quickly just dismiss the concerns of children, but even more so when you're from those countries in the global South, that haven't caused the carbon emissions which are causing the problems with the climate crisis, but they're paying the price.

Caroline: So for example, the Maldives will be under water soon. And the children in the Maldives know this and feel helpless and powerless to act on that. So I want to help get their voices heard. And on the other side of my work is as a psychotherapist and that's general psychotherapy, but increasingly working with children and adults about how they feel about the climate emergency. So dealing with eco-anxiety, eco-trauma, eco-grief, eco-distress, and people's desire to sort of emotionally engage and strengthen their emotional resilience by deepening their emotional engagement with this, their feelings about this, by maturing, not trying to get away from those feelings, not trying to strengthen their defenses, not necessarily always about growing up. Although I think growing up and maturing as part of this, but also growing down, so that we can engage with those more complex feelings, because we can't just wish-fulfill our way out of this.

Caroline: We have to face the harsh reality of what we've created, but facing that terrible sides of things alongside hope and optimism. It's not about splitting between one or the other. It's about holding tension between the two so that we can have hope and take action, but also really have empathy and compassion for the despair of what we've lost and what we've done. And it's both for three and four, not either or. So that's where I'm at. I live in a very rural place, which I'm very grateful for. It's very beautiful. I like to spend time in the sea as much as possible when I can get to the sea. And I have a much loved 13-year-old labradoodle dog, Murphy, on the sofa who might cough or bark or make noises occasionally, but he's the love of my life. So we'll just let him join in occasionally.

Luming: Thank you so much. So I think it's fascinating that you started working with children all these years ago before the climate strike started. So what made you focus on working with children? What drew you to this particular age group?

Caroline: At the times, five, six years ago, there was absolutely zero research being done about how children felt about the climate emergency. There was lots of research done on how the impact it would have on children, but when you research and look at the impact on children, that further disempowers children, and it treats children as though they're passive actors on the stage. And so we're only, you know, it's quite patronizing really. So I thought it was really important to us then how they felt, because it's their future that we're talking about. Children are going to inherit the world that we are creating at the moment. So I thought their voices should impart that narrative, that discourse about what sorts of future do we want? And I also found that children, there was some fascinating work done about how children engage with nature and the environment differently to adults and how they have this very powerful, strong, empathetic connection with the natural world and see the natural world as having rights, whereas adults tend to have that sort of knocked out of them over the years and start to separate themselves off from the natural world. But children often don't. So they've got this very strong empathy.

Caroline: So for example, one of the children I interviewed early on said to me: “Climate change’s happening is revenge. You adults have messed up the planet. Climate change is happening to rebalance something that's been unbalanced. People have lost sight of what's really important, and climate change is as if nature is fighting back.” So children were telling me about this interrelationship between their own vulnerability, the vulnerability of the planet, and the impact of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. And I felt that there was something really crucial about the way that children and young people could embody that and help adults, in turn, understand about vulnerability and understand about insecurity and uncertainty, because that's what these children were talking about, and that's what adults frequently struggle with. Adults frequently, like to think they've got the answers that they've got control, and that they can fix things, and that they can find the solutions, whereas children were a lot more open to, well, we don't know how to deal with this. And I thought that actually, what they were saying, there was absolutely crucial importance, and part of the hubris and part of the importance, it was really surrendering to that egotistical position of “we adults; we can fix this; we can conquer this; we can beat this”. Because actually, as we've discovered with the COVID virus, we can't fight nature. So actually part of our struggle with nature is partly what's brought us into this mess in the first place, particularly with the biodiversity crisis and the pandemic, the COVID pandemic is about you know, poor agricultural methods and, you know, wet markets and about, you know, loss of biodiversity, making us vulnerable to that virus leaping into humans.

Caroline: So surely we need wisdom to help us navigate this, and we need natural solutions as well as technological solutions. So for example, I get very excited about this. Did you know that seagrass, which is really small staff, real brown grass in the sea, can absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere than rainforest? So, but we're dredging up seagrass for industry and development. And we think nothing of destroying it, but we should be preserving seagrass because seagrass will help us. So of course we need to preserve rainforest, but we also need to preserve seagrass. Whales absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. So we should be protecting whales. So we should be working in harmony, in relationship with nature and the natural world. And prior to all of this, sort of 10 years ago, I was doing a lot of research into how working with therapy dogs, for example, would speed up our recovery from trauma. So I also work in how working with nature could help us repair trauma. Being, spending time in nature would help children recover from bullying and distress in schools. So it was a natural relationship and natural leap to move to the kind of eco-anxiety eco-distress. Because we have the IPCC report, we can see the world is getting worse. So really this is the single most pressing social, political, economic concern for us today to deal with the climate emergency. Everything else is important but the climate emergency is the biggest problem.

Luming: Yeah. And you talked about the COVID-19 pandemic, and I read in your recent article “Urgent and Immediate Danger”, you talked about your source of anxiety from this pandemic. So what do you think we as human beings could learn from our response of the pandemic and apply it into tackling climate change?

Caroline: Well, that's an excellent question. The question is, can we learn? Can we develop the humility and the hubris? You know, this kind of pursuit of progress above all else is getting us into deep trouble and it's causing the problems that we're now struggling with. And we can see that with the fires in California at the moment, we can see that with the flooding, we can see that with the scale of the environmental problems, as well as the scale of the COVID virus.

Caroline: So the virus I think is giving us a timely wake-up call that we cannot continue down this path of endless progress, endless development, endless consumption without reaping the consequences and without stopping and thinking and asking yourself serious questions about “is that progress really going to give us a world that children and young people can inherit?”

Caroline: I mean, it's very unlikely now that we're going to achieve 1.5 degrees of warming. We'd pretty much missed that Paris agreement target of 1.5 degrees. We're pretty much on track for two degrees, if not higher. Now, now with that level of warming, we're going to lose all the coral reefs around the world. And if we lose all the coral reefs and the knock-on effect, not just the distress and the impact of the loss of the beauty of coral reefs and the fish and the whole infrastructure, the whole biosphere, that depends on this. But then there's a knock-on impact on humans who depend on coral reefs, you know, for their own living and the protection of the landscape and the country. So where we are on, you know, we're well beyond our final warning. And if we don't get wise and start to put wisdom and decision-making in the hands of people that have got this knowledge, then we are in deep trouble.

Caroline: I've been talking with a group of climate scientists recently. Now, these are all older white men, who've been working in this field for a very long time, and you'd think that they are very powerful figures. What was really fascinating talking to them was that everything they were saying to me echoed what youth climate strikers say to me. It's men who are in their fifties and sixties and have been working for decades; they're scientists, powerful figures, were saying to me, “Nobody listens to us. Nobody takes this seriously. We've been wanting people for decades and they just dismiss our concerns.” So these powerful figures, these scientists, were saying the same. They were echoing youth climate strikers. So there's something terribly wrong where we’re in this endless pursuit of profits and economic drivers, which is egotistically driven by this idea that humans are apex. It's this anthropocentric worldview that it only matters what humans want, and it doesn't matter about the damage and destruction to the rest of the world. And it's a complete failure to recognize our interdependency with the environment, with nature. And if we destroy nature, we're destroying ourselves. And if we continue down that road and think we can continue—we will be finished. And we've already caused destruction that cannot be repaired. Even if we went to zero carbon emissions tomorrow, which we're not going to do, it would probably still be too late for the Maldives; it would be too late for Vanuatu; it would be too late for the Niger Delta; too late for, you know, all of these communities around the world who have not caused these carbon missions. They've not caused the climate emergency, but with rising sea levels, they will be underwater. They're losing their whole way of life. We're going to have millions of climate refugees, and we're going to need to budge up and make room for them, cause they've got to go somewhere. So we are culpable in Western industrialized society. We are culpable. We need to take responsibility, and we need to step up, and we need to start to deal with that with wisdom and compassion rather than blame. And if we continue to split and divide and factionalize and fight amongst ourselves, we’re just heading for disaster.

Luming: Yeah. So as I'm calling you from California, we can see that the scientific evidence for climate change is right in front of us. So what causes people, the inability to face climate change and how could we change that? Is it… does it just stem from people's ego? Is there any way we can change that?

Caroline: Well, that's a really good question. So, you know, there is, we also have to deal with the fact that there is not just mixed messaging about the climate biodiversity crisis, but there's deliberate misinformation being given by governments. Your government, our government are appalling, and being told… well, what was it that Donald Trump was reported saying today? That he said, even the scientists are confused. Now, as soon as he says that, people will take that and believe that the scientists shouldn't be believed. That is deliberately undermining the science and that is dangerous. And that is misinformation. And that is destabilizing communities and trashing experts. And not just deliberate. And that is so that policy can still be driven by the interests of economics. And that is the billionaires. And so this is in the interest of a very small group of people. And it's a crime as far as I'm concerned because it will not write itself. It will not go away. The earth will not call down all by itself. It's not just your government, it's our government and other Western governments, and some are worse than others. So these powerful figures are not just culpable and responsible, but they're criminals as far as I'm concerned now, in the way they're communicating about this, because it is dangerous. And they are deliberately deceiving people and lying to people. So the Climate Psychology Alliance used to have [inaudible], still does, called “Facing Difficult Truths”. And Chris Robertson this last weekend said, actually he thinks we should change it to say, “Why Do People Lie About This?” So we need to start thinking about why people are lying and it's selfish self-interest, arrogance, and greed. It's as simple as that.

Caroline: The most subtle version of that is disavowal. So we've got climate denial, but we've also got disavowal. And disavowal is where people who kind of care will say, “Oh yeah, it's really worrying. Isn't it? And it's really scary, but where are you going on holiday this year?” So it's almost like with one part of their mind, they worry about it with the other parts of their mind. They go, “Oh yeah, but it can't be that bad. Oh, the government will save us. Technology will save this. Oh, the scientists will figure something out, stop worrying about it. Your child, you're about to school, worry about your exams.” So they will dismiss and patronize and put down and silence and disallow voices, particularly from children and young people. That's, they're uncomfortable. That they feel… they make them feel uncomfortable. And quite honestly, my message is we need to be feeling uncomfortable right now because a sign of mental health is that we actually have a real response to the reality of the world going on around us. Anything else that's delusional.

Caroline: So my view right now is the reality is you should be feeling anxious. You should be feeling grief. You should be feeling despair. So we eco-anxiety, eco-grief is congruent, is real. And I would worry about people that didn't feel those things. They're either disallowing it, or they're in absolute denial. They've been living under a rock and they really don't ever look outside their doors. So people who are in denial are the problem; they've got the problems. As people wake up, they will feel anxious. And then they want to get rid of that feeling of anxiety because it makes them feel uncomfortable and it makes them feel out of control. So then they'll want a solution to that anxiety. So they'll want to be reassured and they'll want told, “It's okay. We can fix it.”

Caroline: Now, unless you can move through that disavowal and wake up and listen to these voices and say, “Actually, we need discernment. We need critical thinking. And we need to look at the evidence and say, ‘you know what? I'm not going to be reassured because that's the equivalent of lying to me now.’” So actually it's very hard to reassure people now. What we can do is we can say here's the truth and it's terrifying. And we need to feel how complex that is. We need to feel the grief, feel the sadness, and then we can take action. We cannot go straight from anxiety to action. We've got to go via depression and despair, but it is paradoxically through going through that, that we develop emotional resilience. And then you get the emotional resilience and the emotional intelligence to realize that feelings of depression and despair are not bad things. They're actually the things that will save us because they're real.

Caroline: And that's a sign of sanity: engage psychologically with the reality that we're being faced. And you look outside and you think this reality is pretty bad. I should be worried. I should be upset. I should be angry and need to start to take action on that. So it's incredibly complicated, but really the bottom line is we need people to now wake up and take action and realize that time pretty much has renounced to take action. So we need this kind of ruthless compassion. We need to push people into this awareness. I want to read you something:

“Ours is the last generation that will have the choice of wilderness, clean air, abundant wildlife, and expensive forests. The crisis is that severe. We live in perilous times. The peril is of our own making and many of us probably deserve it, but the children, and the native peoples of this world, and, most important, all the other species sashaying around in this great dance of life don't deserve the peril we have created. The ecologists Raymond Dasmann says that World War III has already begun, and that it is the war of industrial humans against the Earth. He is correct. All of us are warriors on one side or another in this war; there are no sidelines, there are no civilians. What's important is that you do something now. It is urgent. Do something. Now.” Now, that sounds like Greta Thunberg. That sounds like youth climate strikers. That sounds like climate activists today. The problem is, that was published in 1991.

Caroline: And those ideas have been around since the 1960s. We knew, and we failed to act. And we have to face up to that, take responsibility for it, not collapse in despair and guilt and shame and go, “Oh, it's terrible!”, but go, “Yeah, we got to get real. We've messed up. Now, what can we do about this?” urgently. And if we don't, then we should be doing.

Luming: Yeah. So could you talk more about eco-anxiety? It kind of has become a buzzword these days. And from what you just talked about, it's very real and it's a very rational response, but it's also affecting people's mental health. So how should we cope with eco-anxiety?

Caroline: Absolutely. So I'm always grateful for anything that gets people talking about feelings. I'm a psychotherapist. We want poeple to talk about how they feel about things. Eco-anxiety is the gateway to a conversation about how we feel about this, but it's not just anxiety, it’s grief, it's loss, it's despair, it's anger, it’s guilt. It's all of those complex emotions, which includes hope. And it includes desire to create a different world. One of the crucial things here is to not feel alone with this. Community, I mean together, collective understanding is crucial. This is not just an individual problem. It's a collective social global problem. And that is one of the things that reduces your anxiety and creates empathy and creates connection. What we want as human beings is to be seen, to be heard, to feel understood. And then we don't feel alone.

Caroline: So by communicating, by sharing these feelings of eco-anxiety, you're absolutely right, it can reduce the distress. It can reduce the despair and it reduces the suffering that people are feeling. They absolutely do not want to feel alone with this. So as a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time talking with people about this and many, always the first thing I say is, you're not crazy.

Caroline: You have every right to feel this way. It makes perfect sense. I understand your feelings, make perfect sense. You're not crazy. I get it. And that in itself reduces the stress, reduces the isolation.

Caroline: Really. It's often the feelings about the feelings that cause most distress. So the problem is, we feel anxious or we feel depressed. And then we start telling us that we shouldn't feel anxious or depressed, or other people tell us we shouldn't feel anxious with depressed. So then you're feeling anxious. And then you feel anxious about being anxious. Well, then you're feeling depressed and you feel depressed about being depressed. And then you beat yourself up critically and you give yourself a hard time and you start shaming yourself and you say, “Oh, I'm such a weak person. I'm stupid because I'm depressed. I've got nothing to be depressed about.” And then let's say one other person says, “What have you got to be depressed about? You've got, you know, you've got XYZ.” And then you say to yourself, “Yeah, I'm so ashamed. I'm a terrible person.” And then you stop telling people how you feel. So you hide how you feel and secretly on the inside, you're feeling worse and worse and worse and worse. Okay. This is lethal. So it's the feelings about the feelings that's dangerous, isn’t it? The way we talk to ourselves about our feelings. It is lethal. We need to have permission. We need to have tolerance. We need to have shared understanding that all of these mixed feelings make perfect sense. There is always meaning in them. Just because they don't make sense to you, they will make sense to somebody else. And we often need somebody else to help us make sense of what we're going through emotionally. So we need that shared relational understanding within which there is compassion. There is empathy. There is care. There is understanding. And that empathy connects us to others. And then we don't feel isolated. And then we don't feel alone. So I'm trying to reframe eco-anxiety as eco-empathy. So rather than saying that you're suffering from eco-anxiety, I'm trying to say, “Oh fantastic. You're suffering from eco-empathy, or eco-compassion, or eco-care because you know what? You would only feel anxiety because you care, and this is not a crime. This is a good thing to care about the world in which you live.” So we should be celebrating that, we should be supporting you in that, we should really be questioning when people don't care. So this is an ego failure to care, or what can we call? Is it kind of, you know, eco-narcissism or eco-selfishness where people don't care about other people, and they don't care about the planet, and they don't care about loss of species, and they don't care about other countries suffering and going underwater.

Caroline: So we should be labeling that as problematic, and we should be celebrating eco-anxiety. You're absolutely right. We need to be genuinely present for people with that suffering, but it’s the relational support that people need. They don't need treatment. They just need to be told that they make perfect sense. They're not crazy. I get it. I feel the same, but then we can model and show people, not just, I feel the same and I'm okay. So I feel anxiety. I feel depression and you know what? I'm still functioning. I'm okay. And actually I don't want to lose my anxiety and depression because it connects me and it helps me feel empathy. I just don't want it to overwhelm me. So I need to keep my anxiety and my depression in balance and regulate it with feelings of optimism and hope and compassion and courage and determination and anger and resilience and a kind of feeling of, “Well, we might be going off a cliff, but I'm going down fighting.”

Caroline: So we need to kind of get out of that mix, that balance, and allow ourselves to move between those feelings. You know, the kind of Western medical model says, we should feel good and we should get away from bad feelings. I'm saying those bad feelings give us sensitivity. They give us compassion. They give us care and they're not bad—they're wonderful. That struggle, it might be uncomfortable, but you know what, make friends with your feelings of pain and just don't let them get overwhelming. And then they will be your best friend. And they will give you resilience. I talk about not just external activism around the climate and biodiversity crisis, but also internal activism. And that internal activism means making friends with your depression, your despair, your rage, because you know what, that will fuel your activism and give you resilience for the future. So it's about reframing those feelings, so they're not bad and they don't overwhelm you.

Luming: Yes, absolutely. So on that note, thank you so much for meeting with me today. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your knowledge.

Caroline: It's been lovely talking to you and thank you. And I'm, you know, my heart goes out to you in California, you know, you’re facing an awful time. And we do care here in the UK, and our hearts are with you.

Luming: Thank you so much. And that's it for this episode of SciSection!

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