Why Psychiatrists Should Go Green

January 6, 2010

I don’t know how many psychiatrists paid much attention to the climate-change conference in Copenhagen last month, but I came away convinced they need our help. Here’s why.

I don’t know how many psychiatrists paid much attention to the climate-change conference in Copenhagen last month, but I came away convinced they need our help. Here’s why. Given the scientific consensus that human behavior is the major cause of the planet’s undesired warming, who better to understand the roots, manifestations, repercussions, and treatment of that behavior?

But like much of our work, fostering change in this realm will not come easy. The industrialization that led to excessive use of the damaging fossil fuels fulfilled some of our basic psychological needs like safety, security, and survival. Once used to such lifestyles, they are hard to give up, and also come to be desired by poorer people. Usually, one has to receive some replacement reward to willingly want to try a change.

Moreover, the prediction that the major risks of climate-change are decades away naturally contributes to our passivity. We are equipped with a rapid fight-or-flight response to perceived immediate danger, which early humans faced day by day, but our brain has not evolved any automatic responses to future risks. Freud seemed to translate this biological process into psychodynamic understanding. The psychological defense mechanism of denial is helpful when we need to set priorities or to ignore something too painful at the moment. It is maladaptive when it leads to behavior that endangers us. Such maladaptive behavior as it relates to climate-change might be best illustrated by the legendary experiment of the frog and boiling water. If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump right out. However, if you put it in warm water and gradually increase the temperature to boiling, the frog will stay and cook to death. Who knows? If Freud were still alive, this experiment might be enough for him to revive his abandoned concept of a death instinct.

Maybe these natural tendencies contributed to some of the terminology that we use, which is not likely to evoke a sense of danger. The use of “warming”, as in the term of global warming, seems like psychological milquetoast. In fact, for people living in colder climates, like my Wisconsin, where the wind-chill as I write is minus 10 degrees, that terminology can paradoxically sound psychologically welcoming. Similarly for the terminology of the conference, climate-“change.” Such change can be perceived as potentially beneficial or not.

Unfortunately, the psychological repercussions of this challenge are slowly emerging. Among them are:

-Heat waves are associated with more alcohol and substance abuse.
-Just an average increase of 1 degree F seems to increase the risk of aggressive and violent behavior in warm climates, especially in the inner city and places of poor resources.
-Loss of your comfortable environment often causes a dangerous variation of grief, called solastalgia.
-So-called “climate refugees” have high rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorders, often complicated by “cultural bereavement.”

How, then, can we help? As usual, we could treat the panic anxiety, PTSD, paralyzing guilt, and malignant narcissism as it emerges, but this might well be too little, too late. Up to now, most psychiatrists have not paid much attention to this problem, probably for the same sort of reasons as the rest of the public. Even our organizational Disaster Response Teams are prepared for responding to acute disaster, but not to the more chronic and slowly developing ones. For one thing, then, we can expand the charge of such teams accordingly.

For another thing, we can recommend better terminology to evoke an appropriate degree of anxiety and fear. Akin to the frog experiment, how about “global boiling”? Akin to mental instability, how about “climate instability”?

Even though psychiatrists are not yet known to be desired role models, we can model environmentally helpful behavior in our offices and personal life. We can use subliminal messages, such as wearing more green, the symbolic color of environmentalism. Why, I’ve gone so far as to wear the costume of the Jolly Green Giant of vegetable marketing fame to become “The Jolly Green Giant of Psychiatry,” which- - believe it or not - - actually won first place at a benefit costume contest.

 

The Oddest Couple? The Jolly Green Giant of Psychiatry: He'll Analyze Climate Instability and The Little Red Riding Hood(lum) of Song and Dance: She'll Steal Your Heart and Soul. . .

The couple (Steven Moffic, MD and Rusti Moffic) is available for multimedia presentations in going green. . .

“We now need to hear more from . . . people who understand the wellsprings of human behavior and values.” -Dean Speth (Yale’s Green Experiment, Yale Alumni Magazine, November, 2007).