Shock and Denial

In 2005 my son told me that the average UK carbon footprint was 12 tonnes of CO2 and that a sustainable average would be 1.5 tonnes. As I questioned him, demanding more information, I became incredulous. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t think it would be possible to live if I had to decimate my energy use, or even just make a modest reduction. I threw up my hands in dismissal and changed the subject.

I recognised my reaction from my work as a psychotherapist. Shock and denial: the typical reactions to bad news. This made me curious. I began to wonder about the ways other people reacted to climate change. Did everyone respond like this? What other defences might people use? Was this a topic that made us uniquely anxious? I set off on a dual path of trying to understand people’s deeper responses to climate change – and trying to curb my own energy use.

Over the years I’ve experienced other shocks – the failure at Copenhagen, that the average UK footprint isn’t 12 tonnes, it’s nearer 15; that your footprint is related to your income and spending money ‘spends’ CO2; that saving energy in one part of the economy just releases energy to be squandered elsewhere; that the rebound effect means efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – and so on, and so on and so on…

Yet somehow I remain hopeful, in a dark kind of a way. I don’t give up. With each new shock I go through that same process of denial and then painful readjustment to the new reality, anger at the truth, grieving for the lost illusions, struggling to find something creative, something different, something new that will give meaning to the struggle. Underneath is a conviction,  that I think must come from childhood, that if there is a right way to live, then you must try to live it, even if at times it seems pointless.

I grew up in the 1950s. Peter Harper tells me this was a 4-tonne world, a fact that I find strangely comforting. I have not always had a mega-destructive footprint. You can live an OK life with a lot less energy. I don’t want to go back to the 1950s – freezing cold houses, breath-taking sexism, blatant racism, no rights for gay people or disabled people. But I could walk to school by myself at 5, take a bus across town at 7, and play out on the streets and in the woods from breakfast till dusk.

Over the last 8 years we have reduced the carbon emissions of our house from 5 tonnes to 1.2 tonnes. I haven’t flown since 2004. We got rid of the car and my travel footprint is about 0.5 tonnes a year. I only eat meat occasionally, though I’m still a sucker for cheese and I don’t like my tea without milk. I’ve moved towards semi-retirement but much of my comfortable income is still there, clocking up the CO2 with every penny I spend.

People sometimes say ‘Oh, it’s easy for you,’ and there’s some truth in this. My itchy feet no longer want to grab the next flight to an unexplored corner of the world, I haven’t got to make difficult decisions about careers and commuting, I don’t have teenagers pestering me for a new phone or money for fashion. But they also project onto me their own capacity for change, disowning what they could do because the conflict is tough.

There are no easy answers in this game. It’s about living with the conflicts, the anxiety, the rage and the despair – working out how to live in a world that must change.


Ro, Scotland