What it feels like to rouse painfully awkward emotions with fossil fuel executives

The trick isn't to make the discussion more comfortable, but to get better at sitting with the discomfort

Hi Gen Dread head! 

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Talking to fossil fuel executives about the psychological defences that protect their work

Something I do a lot in my professional life is give talks about my research. Recently, I was invited to give a talk about the psychological forces that interfere with how we address the climate crisis (which explain why many of us have been so terrible at it) to a network of Nordic energy executives, several of whom work with coal, oil, and gas. I was thrilled about this specific audience. It isn’t everyday that I get to speak with the very high powered people most activists in the climate movement are fighting. I didn’t want it to be a fight though. I wanted it to be a meeting of hearts and minds, and I think I got more of that than even I was expecting. 

In my 45 minute talk, I discussed what I call the spectrum from distress to denial. Distress being all of the ways that climate reality is now hitting people in painful ways, which manifests as eco-anxiety, eco-grief, hopelessness, paralysis, activation, etc. that more people, year on year, report experience with. Before people get there though, they’re often living in a state of what psychologists call "soft denial” about this crisis. For the majority among us, it’s not that we outright deny that this crisis is happening, but we turn away from its terrifying implications in order to protect ourselves from the anxiety and dilemmas it causes and resist the changes that are necessary but uncomfortable to make. Though of course sometimes, the denial is outright. So for the rest of my talk, I discussed 3 prominent ways that denial shows up: outright denial, negation, and disavowal. For my purposes here, I’ll just explore the first.

Outright denial

I laid hard into the outright denial that’s been fuelled for decades by the fossil fuel industry with an arsenal of truth: Amy Westervelt’s brilliant reporting in her podcast Drilled, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway’s Merchants of Doubt - a book about “how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”, and internal industry documents. Fossil fuel companies knew the real science decades ago but chose to fund climate denial and disinformation to distract and confuse the public about their bad and profitable behaviour. How often do executives in the industry talk about this, I wondered? 

I also shared research from psychoanalysis about how existential terror affects our behaviour, a story about the way in which nuclear scare psychologically affected my own family, and my favourite analysis of the climate crisis these days, which comes from a British psychoanalyst named Sally Weintrobe. Weintrobe says the decades of deceit and neoliberal agenda-setting that have shaped our world today mean we now find ourselves living in the “climate bubble”. At an event organized by the Freud museum in May, Weintrobe explained:

“A bubble is a socially constructed as-if world. It functions to minimize the moral unease, anxiety, grief, and rage that people would feel if the real world were seen clearly. Inside the bubble, the unsustainable way is thought to be normal and usual and indeed the only way. The bubble is seeded, inflated and then maintained largely through a culture of uncare, meaning a culture whose perverse aim is actively to regress people psychologically, to boost their infantile omnipotence, and to cause them to disassociate themselves from the part of them that cares and takes responsibility in life.” 

Weintrobe also explained how powerful people construct bubbles for profit using advertising, propaganda, and the reinforcement of certain social norms to make sure that when the bubble pops and fraud is revealed, it is not they who suffer. When the financial bubble of 2008 popped, bankers made money while 6 million Americans lost their homes and austerity measures upended people’s lives in many parts of the world for years to come. The political establishment and fossil fuel industry’s long standing knowledge of the dangers of the greenhouse effect is no different. In order to profit, they had to create a climate bubble. As Weintrobe says, “The climate bubble is far larger, far more consequential, and far more damaging than any bubble so far in human history and the fraud involves extracting all for now and leaving life bereft of a future”.

I figured that I’d prepared the energy CEOs in the audience for my skin-crawling content by beginning my talk with the following:

“I’m going to share some very critical perspectives from psychoanalysts studying the climate crisis, and I want you to know that they are offered as a provocation, or an invitation, to hear what you think of them. My intention for our time here is to create a space to explore ideas together, with compassion for and interest in what you do, and not to present a moral high ground.” 

I was trying to see the human behind the industry, and speak directly to them in a way that would lower their defences and create space for authentic emotional engagement. What I didn’t realize, was that I had not put nearly enough thought into how to make space for their emotions beyond this disclaimer. It was like I believed this boilerplate would be good enough, and then I threw them to the wolves. 

So at the end of my talk, when it came time for Q and A, that’s when my skin started to crawl. The zoom room of approximately 50 people fell silent. Not a word. Not a question. I tread water for minutes, trying to lure them to share even the slightest reflection on what they’d heard me say. After what felt to me like an unbearable amount of time to stir in that awkwardness, one man said “I think it is very emotional for us to be reminded of the terrible things that we do.” OK, now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. I tried to respond in a compassionate way that would further the conversation, but failed. After a few more awkward attempts at stoking the dialog, another man said “I think I am of the generation where I will die of old age and not climate change, but that doesn’t bode well for my children.” Hoo boy. OK. True! Well spotted sir. I tried to respond but by that point, the negative affect coursing through my body was shutting down my ability to perform my best. I don’t even remember what I said, all I know is that twenty seconds later, the host adjourned the annual meeting, and we all logged off on a terribly tense note. 

Later on I received a couple of emails in which attendees said the talk was very emotional for them, and they were simply lost for words. As one CEO wrote “my feelings around the subject as a whole: Armageddon kind of feeling.”

The debrief

I debriefed with climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman after the talk, whose advice has served me extremely well in the past, to ask her what I could do better next time to enable a more dynamic conversation. What she heard me ask is “what can I do to fix this?” --- a rational pull to try and improve the situation and make people feel more comfortable amidst the intolerable truth of our reality. She also said I was experiencing emotional transference, by taking these executives’ emotions on as my own. What if the way I communicated should not be fixed though, she asked. “What if it is perfect and exactly what you need to be doing?” Instead of grasping for a better technique for raising difficult conversations, Hickman pointed out that I need to get better at sitting with the discomfort - containing the emotions - both theirs and my own. Ding ding ding! A lightbulb went off. You can expect more on what emotional containment entails and how to practice it in future Gen Dread posts. 

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