The myth of apathy

Don’t pronounce too harshly upon those who seem not to care about the environment, advises Renée Lertzman. They may only be paralysed by the size of the problem

Public apathy is fast becoming one of the hottest topics in environmental circles. It would appear that people do not seem to care or be moved to action in the face of urgent ecological threats. Running a close second to apathy is the topic of denial; the stunning way in which people can literally deny or pretend things are not as they are, creating enormous barriers and psychological blocks for making necessary change. But what if the ways we are thinking about apathy and denial are themselves misguided, and potentially damaging? What if the issue is not about caring too little, but perhaps caring too much?

Is it possible that our anxieties about ecological problems, and the existential dilemmas they raise regarding how we are to live, can be so great as to be unmanageable or unthinkable? Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?

Psychoanalysts would argue that extreme anxiety can lead us unconsciously to deny or pretend the problem is not there, or that it is the responsibility of someone else. This is a well-known phenomenon known as a ‘defence mechanism’, where we ‘defend’ against painful or threatening emotions or thoughts with mechanisms such as denial, projection, paranoia, grandiosity or an acute sense of inferiority. Analysts have been exploring defences for decades, both on individual and social levels.

Despite its reputation as being a rather esoteric field, psychoanalysis offers a sophisticated approach for understanding the process of change and the ‘resistance’ that can arise when confronting painful material. From the psychoanalytic perspective, the psyche is very adept at protecting its sense of safety and avoiding what is painful or anxiety-producing. Moreover, the experience of loss (evidenced not only in the loss of loved ones, for example but also of a place, species or favourite tree), if not properly acknowledged, can lead to numbing and a chronic sense of melancholia. We know a great deal about the complicated ways in which behaviour is often informed by unconscious motivations, desires, wishes and fantasies, and yet we still adhere to a simplistic notion that the absence of action is equivalent to an absence of caring. Why is this the case?

The notion of ‘public apathy’ was coined in the 1940s, when a study published in Public Opinion Quarterly by Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley blamed the failure of public information campaigns on ‘public apathy’. The public was thereby constructed as unfeeling or uncaring when it came to certain pressing social issues. This blaming of the public for inaction or inability to be ‘responsive’ has stuck in environmental circles, as increasingly urgent campaigns are launched into what seems like a black hole of public engagement.

The Greek root apathia, means literally without [a] suffering or feeling [path or pathos]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines apathy as: ‘Freedom from, or insensibility to, suffering; hence, freedom from, or insensibility to, passion or feeling; passionless existence, and the popular’. An understanding of apathy from a psychoanalytic perspective, however, turns the popular conception on its head. It is not so much about a freedom from suffering or feeling, but rather a strategy to manage and cope with such experiences by defending against them.

We want to believe that there is a causal link between information and action, but research has shown that there is nothing straightforward about this relationship. A recent study published in the journal Risk Analysis by Paul Kellstedt and his colleagues at Texas A&M demonstrated that levels of ‘informedness, confidence in scientists, and personal efficacy’ regarding global warming interact so that the ‘more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming’.

How is it possible to know more about global warming but feel less concern? This finding has been demonstrated in other social psychology studies, such as the work of Professor Jon Krosnick and his colleagues at Stanford University. Their study about attitudes related to global warming, published in 2006, found that ‘people stop paying attention to a problem when they realize there is no easy solutions for it… and people may judge as nationally serious only those problems about which they think action should and can be taken.’

Interestingly, what these studies suggest is that when it comes to understanding environmental behaviour, we need to look beyond attitudes and values. There may be other factors getting in the way of our becoming more engaged with the future of the environment. This is not a new idea. In the early 1970s, a few voices within psychoanalysis and psychotherapy were trying to alert us to a different way of looking at the problem.

Drawing on decades of clinical work with psychotic patients, American psychoanalyst Harold Searles strongly believed that the environmental movement needed to understand the ‘psychic mechanisms’ underlying the appearance of apathy. Far from being an absence of pathos, or feeling, inner feelings of anxiety, fear or powerlessness manifest as a lack of action or a paralysis. He compared such feelings to the vulnerability and fragility we experienced as infants in our earliest years. British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal expressed it as an ‘operation of denial’. In relation to nuclear threat, she describes ‘a particular form of splitting… In this split we retain intellectual knowledge of the reality, but divest it of emotional meaning.’

We know that being unresponsive to our ecological situation is lethal and disastrous. Perhaps it is now time to turn our attention more fully to insights generated from decades of clinical psychoanalytic and therapeutic practice. Rather than act like a disciplinarian therapist who shouts at a patient for being too slow, neurotic or unable to face the truth, we can learn lessons from how good psychoanalytic practice works: by finding the right ways both to inform and inspire, and stimulating action rather than paralysis.

This goes beyond ‘feel-good’ campaigns that focus solely on solutions and consumer choices – it means creating communication strategies that can acknowledge the truly terrifying and overwhelming nature of the myriad ecological threats we face, while at the same time steering us towards practical actions.

People heal and make change when they feel supported, understood and challenged. A good place to start may be with doing away with the concept of ‘public apathy’ altogether.

Renée Lertzman is completing her PhD in critical psychology at Cardiff University, and is a Fellow at the Biodiversity Project, an environmental communications organi-sation in Madison, Wisconsin

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008