Lives of the Climate Bloggers (5) PeterS
This is a continuation of an occasional series I began at
[First, this is not a Life. “Lives of..” is an in-joke, a reference to classic collections of “Lives” such as Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”, Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives of the Philosophers”, Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” and Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets,” all of which are full of precious information about fascinating individuals, much of which would otherwise have been long forgotten. Did you know that Erasmus hated fish, despite being born in Rotterdam, and didn’t like the beer in Cambridge either? Or that Piero di Cosimo, who painted the delicious Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in the National Gallery, lived on hard boiled eggs which he had cooked thirty at a time? Well now you do.
The internet has multiplied by magnitudes the danger of interesting arguments and points of view being forgotten forever, and nowhere is that more likely than in the field of climate scepticism. These articles are tiny memorials to free-thinking individuals.]
PeterS has commented at various climate blogs, occasionally at BishopHill, but most frequently at ClimateResistance between about 2010 to at least 2013, offering a devastating psychological analysis of the motivations of environmentalists. His interventions can only fully be understood in context, being long, complex, and related to the subject of the articles in often surprising ways. I sometimes expressed my hunch in comments at Climate Resistance that he is a psychoanalyst of one of the English schools, since his elliptical style recalls the style of my own psychoanalyst here in France.
You have to read a number of his comments in context in order to capture the flavour. You are being offered a challenging, sometimes outrageous, interpretation, but you are also being told – insistently – that you are free to disagree. Such an attitude is light years away from the methodology of cognitive psychologists like Stephan Lewandowsky, who announce peer-reviewed absolute truths based on statistical analysis of the responses of a few dozen of their students to some questionnaire or other mental task.
It’s an interesting fact, and possibly related to our disagreements with climate science, that the profound insights of Freudian psychoanalysis are almost universally dismissed nowadays as non-scientific, while any old significant beta value scooped out of a sample of ten or twenty students’ questionnaires is treated as gospel.
Here are a few of PeterS’s comments at Climate Resistance, chosen more or less at random:
Peter S on February 8, 2013 at 1:47 am said:
I, for one, would be interested in hearing more from Adam Corner about the unconscious. After all, he and his fellow psychologists keep referring to it as the place where people kick unacceptable realities – as a mechanism they identify as ‘denial’.
If it exists – as Adam et al repeatedly claim – it certainly has a lot to answer for. If there was no such thing as the unconscious (as a sort of psychic dustbin), denial would be impossible and I guess Adam and his friends would be out of a job. Having insisted upon the unconscious though – and giving it pride of place on the pantheon of obstacles to ‘fighting climate change’ – Adam might let us know if he accepts its more complete topography in classical psychology as the place where unacceptable motives are also kept hidden from view?
Of course, it may be that Adam believes the general public have unconsciouses, but he somehow doesn’t (and his output so far suggests this to be his view). But if he is able to recognise it as a part of being human from which no one is excluded, and then manage to reflect on what might be dumped into his own, his project may well propel itself greatly (in one direction or another). Until that happy event, he and his accomplices will continue to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theories’ what are, in fact, a mindful public’s perception of ulterior motives.
Peter S on April 23, 2013 at 11:32 pm said:
Ben – as human agency occupies a central position in your argument, you may eventually need to unpack the process and begin to identify and include its functions. It is, of course, the blanket refusal of this agency by environmentalism which gives the movement cover to carry on plying its wonky theories. Yet, insisting on its consideration whilst dismissing any value in its possible content, would be – if not actually colluding with the opposition – allowing them free-reign in dictating the parameters of the debate.
We might think of Thatcher’s ‘obligations and entitlements’ as a round-about term for ‘give and take’, and perhaps identify both these reciprocal actions as a valid definition of a human’s agency upon his environment (including the environment of other people). Viewed from this angle, there is no such thing as ‘society’, just a set of culturally agreed-upon conventions governing how such an exchange takes place (what can and can’t be given or taken and the relative values of what is up for offer, etc). Here, we could recognise that none of these exchanges are possible without negotiation… and it may be that negotiation is all humans ever do with each other – in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
If agency can be whittled down to giving and taking, neither would have any purpose without human felt-need – and specifically, desire – as its motivator… the giving up (or surrendering) one object, so as to take up (or acquire) a more desired – or more usable – one in its place.
The one thing the environmentalist does not want to surrender, of course, is his view of the world. And as long as an unpacked, fully-articulated representation of human agency is not laid out on the table in front of him, he is free to continue (with some justification) in his refusal.
PeterS on September 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm said:
We might think of the Guardian as a club for those militantly unwilling to get on with life. Its always-half-finished statements always leaving out the most vital component: what the environment – or space – must become before they are prepared to make use of it.
In seeking to force this space to be identified merely as “the environment” what is the Guardian excluding from its description? If a space is what’s left when something is felt to be missing, what is the “environment” missing that privileges it as a void – for people drawn to voids – rather than as a container with the potential to both confirm a loss as well as to meet it to some degree?
Of course, the risks associated with owning (up to) a loss and identifying the resources to address it may lead some to turn away from the process altogether. After all, it requires a less defensive description of oneself – vis-a-vis the environment – along with the chance of is what is being described receiving a humiliating rejection. Faced with such a seemingly daunting task – and, crucially, the negotiation intrinsic to its success – some might choose instead to flee to the pages of the Guardian… from where they can forever protest the space as being nothing other than an attractive, but useless, blank (indeed, its attraction being commensurate to its deemed uselessness). Its only facility being as cover-story for the half-finished statements – describing the half-finished lives – their authors wish to pass off as a whole.
To Lewis Deane’s question: “What do you mean by ‘space’ and ‘environment’?”
Peter S replied:
I mean nothing more, or less, than the dictionary definition of environment: ‘A person’s surroundings’. The first thing a person is surrounded by, of course, is a body. That in itself may place all sorts of demands upon its owner which he (or she) may find intolerable. For example, the demand to be fed, to be pleasured, to touch and be touched, etc. Such constant external pressures might be wholly at odds with the idea the person has of himself… which would result in a power struggle. Here, we might ask what the difference is between a bulimic and an environmentalist – other than the limit each places on what constitutes their surroundings?
is a very long post by Ben Pile about the media treatment of scientific expertise. Ben, in the heyday of CR, attracted the cream of commenters, including one Lewis Deane, who never says things once if he can say them fourteen times. And in verse. While drunk.
After fourteen of his comments, some of them requesting clarification from PeterS, I intervened to plead with Ben to please:
.. don’t delete anything… Ben, I imagine, would define himself as a logical sort of person, a practitioner of rational thought. Not everybody’s like that. Not everybody needs to be like that. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. And not all false strokes should be erased. Use the rubber sparingly, says my art teacher.
PeterS intervened on December 3, 2013 at 11:28 am:
Sorry Lewis – my first effort was unclear in places. Here it is again with a few bits polished up. Perhaps our host would be kind enough to delete the original?
‘Knowing too much’ is an interesting thought.
If eating too much is an attempt at self-curing one’s hunger, knowing too much might be an attempt to cure oneself of doubt. A climate expert (for example) claiming to hold all the answers may be insisting he’s found a cure for questions. If so, all further enquiry would not be seen as a symptom of curiosity, but angrily diagnosed as the irrational ‘denial’ of its cure.
Questions, of course – like appetites – can be unwanted reminders of who we are… the ever-present saboteurs of who we might otherwise wish ourselves to be. Losing either could seem like a logical progression to a person who finds their demands intolerable… just as legislating for their elimination – in guises such as Environmentalism – might hold out the promise of a more permanent solution. If we suspect there is a “swirling fucking madness” somewhere in all this, G. K. Chesterton might identify its location in his book ‘Orthodoxy’ – “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason”.
Perhaps, in our newly secular age, we do need to redefine (or re-remind ourselves of) what science is. Science may not be so much the finding of answers – but the search for ever-better questions to ask. Knowledge, simply a valuable byproduct along the way.
PeterS’s interventions are delayed fuse time bombs. Here’s a final one from a year before the Climate Resistance comments quoted above, a comment on the first exchange I had with psychologist Adam Corner. This is a psychologist addressing another psychologist. It’s a killer, and I don’t think any of us (and participants include several cliscep members) understood it at the time.
PeterS (June 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm):
In your first contribution here, you say: “…scepticism about climate change is not primarily caused by a ‘misunderstanding’ of the science but by motivated reasoning processes – rooted in ideological differences – that mean that the ‘same’ evidence is not evaluated in the same way.”
Narrowing one’s focus too closely, or too quickly, onto ‘climate change’ in an exchange about psychology and scepticism may result in a failure to find usable answers. When stepping back to take a broader psychological view of the problems you identify, a ‘rooted ideology’ may be seen as an expression of (and a self-justification for) a ‘clung-to behavioural pattern’.
I’m sure your expertise in psychology will include a knowledge of such patterns of behaviour – how they commonly reveal themselves and how, once ‘rooted’, an individual can carry them through life. You must also know it’s a psychological given that such patterns can become an obstacle to an individual’s ability to form fulfilling relationships in society (a process which involves accepting ideological, sexual, cultural differences etc).
From a psychological perspective, a formative example of such behaviour might be that of an exchange with a parent in which a wilful child seeks to exclude any considerations beyond how much ice cream he can have immediate access to. The parent, on the other hand, might insist that such a limited exchange is irrelevant because she has already determined the child will have none. Any parent will recognise that children often attempt overturn a ‘no’ by claiming that the quality of his/her life somehow depended upon gaining access to the desired object. The less able a child is to take ‘no’ for an answer, the greater effort (and drama) he is likely to invest in ‘proving’ life depended upon getting his own way. It is also a psychological given that, in such scenarios, when the parent repeatedly submits to such demands (in order to avoid the child’s tantrum, or to be seen as ‘loving’), she is in fact validating and cementing a pattern of behaviour which he will find it very difficult to emancipate himself from later in life (although, by then, its expression will have become a lot more sophisticated and elusive).
Being so rooted, we may wonder if and how this behavioural pattern might emerge and express itself in the ‘climate change’ debate? Such an enquiry would be useful (especially for psychologists) as it could contribute to placing the claims made in the debate into a context which could help us better understand them. For example, if an adult is demanding access to a desired object (or to a desired political rearrangement of his surroundings), how might he (re)introduce a more sophisticated claim that life depended upon his getting his own way? And, being adult, how might he exploit the network of like-minded adults he has established to collaborate in ‘authenticating’ and validating his demand (along with providing elusive evidence to support it)? What replaces parental authority in adult life – if not democratic authority?.. and how might an adult rooted in a psychologically identifiable behavioural pattern transfer a rejection of (or an ambivalence towards) one to the other?
Rather than searching for the ‘roots of scepticism’, any psychologist worth his salt might search instead for the roots of a rejection of scepticism. In other words, what patterns emerge when an adult, or child, is faced with an authority unconvinced by the extremism of its demands?
He thinks quite a lot as I think, although quite a bit more educated. Likely an INTP.
I accept the existence of an unconscious, possibly many, just as computer programs can operate in the background. They don’t have “focus”, they don’t get mouse and keyboard, maybe not even screen real-estate. Only one program can have focus at a time.
Well there’s a lot I would write (and did write) but have decided to let this page belong to Peter S.
A wonderful addition to Cliscep.
Great stuff. Whatever happened to Peter S? We could have great conversations on here about the unconscious (personal and collective) both as a repository for unwanted facts and observations and as a source of more universal and uniquely human motivations, such as the seemingly unquenchable thirst to imagine and plan for a future Armageddon. Fascinating.
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@Geoff Chambers: Many thanks for posting this “Lives of…” on Peter S. I do not recall actually reading any of Peter S’ comments/posts before, but what he writes seems to be on the nail pretty much all of the time. I am going to send my 15½ y/o daughter a link to this thread, as an example of rational thinking (which it seems to be). She’s studying science and philosophy and is aware that critical thinking is an important and transferable skill for use in all of her studies.
loved this thought –
“For example, if an adult is demanding access to a desired object (or to a desired political rearrangement of his surroundings), how might he (re)introduce a more sophisticated claim that life depended upon his getting his own way? And, being adult, how might he exploit the network of like-minded adults he has established to collaborate in ‘authenticating’ and validating his demand (along with providing elusive evidence to support it)? What replaces parental authority in adult life – if not democratic authority?.. ”
wonder where else it may apply ?
How does one go about making a submission for posting on Clisep
Woo – what a very nice surprise. Thanks Geoff. I do drop by this site now and then to catch up on what’s going on. Keep up the good work!
That last question is awesome….
He was last seen commenting on an early article at this very blog (though I can’t remember which one, and was hoping someone would find it.)
PeterS’s comments are profound, carefully worded, take time to absorb, and are therefore peculiarly inadapted to blog comment threads. I resisted the temptation to try and summarise them, or provide a compilation of quotes. I hope others will look at the articles at Climate Resistance and see how well they’ve weathered.
If they struck a chord with me, it’s partly because of my own experience of psychoanalysis, and partly because I recognise some of the “green” symptoms in myself.
At the age of ten I decided that the world would be a better place if everyone in the world was compelled to wear the same clothes, and I even designed a world uniform. It took me fifty years to realise that my Pol Potty tendencies were probably provoked by my unexpressed hatred of Saturday afternoon shopping trips to C&A. Imposing the same action on everyone requires a really, really big reason. I never found one. Others did.
Geoff, I just searched for comments by PeterS using the WP admin page and actually, there are several going back over the months. I also came across the most recent – on this very thread, which had yet to be approved and which I have now approved!
Thanks Jaime, and apologies to PeterS. My ancient server or whatever it’s called won’t let me access the innards of this site. That’s why I haven’t replied to William Kay above. I’m familiar with his interesting site and I suggest he gives an outline of what he wants to say here or on some relevant thread and we’ll see what we can do.