Back to Stories

Greta Thunberg And America's Dark Shadows Of Denial With Climate Change

When adults see the young Swede, Timothy Tate says, they catch a glimpse of their own childrens' anger staring back from the future

Photo courtesy Anders Helberg, altered by MoJo staff.
Photo courtesy Anders Helberg, altered by MoJo staff.
Greta Thunberg, called the teenage old soul of the climate crisis,” has come under attack by some who either disrespect her because she’s young, they can’t believe she’s so smart, or they aren’t concerned about the future that she and members of her generation are going to inherit from us. They claim she’s being coached, used as a tool by adults to advance their agenda.

At the same time, our President claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax. He purports to be smarter than the collective wisdom of thousands of scientists who are experts in ecology, atmosphere, oceans and physics, and he touts the virtue of “clean, clean coal" which does not exist.

Who is more believable? Who possesses more empathy?  And how is it that a Scandinavian teenager, embodying Asperger’s syndrome, can garner so much attention and get so under the skin of those who share the President’s version of reality?

Maybe some of this is analogous to what musician Rodney Crowell said about Hank Williams in Ken Burns recent documentary broadcast on PBS, Country Music: “When an artist (creative instinct) gets it right everybody gets it right.” 

In other words, when someone hits the tone, the right note so to speak and thus the nerve, we know the sound is true yet feigning deafness can be a convenient ruse.

Our President does not appear to possess any creative instinct—I am referring here to creativity in the clinical sense— nor does he appear to possess any compassion for those who will be inheriting the consequences of his actions. We’ll return to young Ms. Thunberg in a moment, yet let me avow that she reminds me of the vital energy I’ve seen in young people around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Rocky Mountain West.

Their concern for the future does not reside in political indoctrination just as the Baby Boom generation, who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, was not concerned about party identity when they were told to hide under their school-room desks as a practice exercise for possible nuclear attack. 

° ° ° °

Over the decades of serving individuals in my psychotherapy practice I have witnessed a repetitive phenomenon which goes something like this: That which is off kilter in an individual’s psyche often goes unaddressed until the symptoms have advanced to such a stage that dire action is required. 

This is most apparent in couples’ counseling which, as a rule I no longer provide, since the “last ditch” effort to “fix” the problem of a dysfunctional marriage is a crisis with a cause cast from one spouse onto the other; in other words one spouse cannot fix the issues inherent in another.

Yet if I extrapolate this approach to dealing with trouble which exists at the individual level out on to a couple, family, community, region, nation, and then globally, I see a pattern that bears investigation. That’s what I am seeing in the level of worry emanating from the youth movement now forming around climate change.

Years ago a line from a book titled Teaching as a Subversive Activity caught my eye. It had to do with progressive education and here I am  paraphrasing the gist of it from memory:

It basically said, “People will not change their perceptions (of reality) unless and until those perceptions no longer work at all.” 

Denial of serious environmental problems, denial of inequity in society, denial that lies are being passed off as truth, no longer work.

We’re talking here about crises caused by mental and cognitive myopia. We modern humans aren’t the first to wrestle with societal declines that first registered as a crises that became manifested on a mass individual level. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Chinese, and other variations of indigenous peoples bore witness to it when civilizations self-destructed.  In many cases, human ills were reflected in unhealthy environments that resulted in societal foundations becoming unsustainable. 
“People will not change their perceptions (of reality) unless and until those perceptions no longer work at all," he wrote.  Denial of serious environmental problems, denial of inequity in society, denial that lies are being passed off as truth, no longer work. We’re talking here about crises caused by mental and cognitive myopia.
If you aren’t feeling the collective angst in these times, then you need improve your personal level of awareness.

In Mayan mythology, there are references to cycles of embodiness—one in particular, a baktun some 35,000 years old—that suggested humans arrogantly believed they were closing the gap with the immortals. Their conceit had convinced themselves they knew nearly as much as the gods/goddesses knew.  And  so, as a punishment, the immortals embedded one thing in human consciousness: myopia—“lack of imagination, foresight or intellectual thought.”

I would add one element to the definition: myopia—the human inability to read the warning signs of impending personal and social destruction.  Nowhere is this manifested more clearly than with climate change. I see the anxiety registering with clients of all ages and in fear taking hold across the spectrum of society.  I am concerned.
I would add one element to the definition: myopia—the human inability to read the warning signs of impending personal and social destruction.  Nowhere is this manifested more clearly than with climate change. I see the anxiety registering with clients of all ages and in fear taking hold across the spectrum of society.  
Young people say they don’t want to have kids because they don’t want to bring another life form into a climate-changed world.  We should all ponder this message they are sending. Greta Thunberg is telling her elders—that’s us—that we need to pay attention.

° ° ° °

Dr. Carl .J.Jung regarded this myopic condition in human consciousness as our “shadow.” He defined it as: “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly…” 

Today, America has been cast into shadowlands in which the arrogant expression of ignorance by the President is stunning but most worrisome is the refusal of those in his own party to call it out.

Exploring or facing one’s personal shadow is the most challenging aspect of psychotherapy and, when confronted, represents a revolutionary move for the individual. However, for most who feel stuck, It will be avoided at all costs until and unless the individual’s learned strategies of avoidance, blame, denial, compensation, and defensiveness wither under the shadow’s pressure, creating an existential encounter with one’s self or character. 

How this encounter plays out is determined by the individual’s will/capacity/intelligence/character and most critically, her or his creativity. By creativity I mean our personal willingness to look inside ourselves and stop blaming others, to take personal responsibility for our own actions. 

Can facing one’s shadow give us the collective means to confront our climate crisis? Well, in the case of the President of the United States, it sure would help. If we are going to argue over whether Donald Trump ought to face his own shadow and how it might influence his followers who are told climate change is a hoax, then I’ll pass. 

But if we are willing to consider how looking into one's own darkside can affect others, then let’s calibrate its effect based on the individual’s station in life. 

In other words, if world leaders were forced to face their own individual deceptions—greed, corrupt abuse of power, hoarding of wealth and privilege in some grand encounter group at the United Nations facilitated by the Dali Lama—would the prospects for Mother Earth benefit? 

Well, she might stop suffering from fever.  Okay Tate, you might say, come back to reality. Our politicians are never going to engage in self-reflection, what are you thinking?
Whose dreams are being eclipsed in the long shadows of denial being cast by politicians who knowingly distort the scientific truth about climate change?
Whose dreams are being eclipsed in the long shadows of denial being cast by politicians who knowingly distort the scientific truth about climate change?
In actual fact, that’s what I am suggesting needs to happen. But how can it be achieved in our community and region? 

I agree with both Carl Jung and another clinician James Hillman when they help us understand that creativity is an instinct that those with character possess, not a hobby that is taken up on a whim. This  is not to be confused with the artistic form of creativity. Hillman in his book The Myth of Analysi,s states it this way: “As an instinct, the creative is a necessity of life, and the satisfaction of its needs a requirement for life. In the human being, creativity, like the other instincts, requires fulfillment.” 

° ° ° °

Let’s ponder the possibility that humans as a collective organism are now in a crisis state. If science has the value and making us more informed that we assign it and it concludes that our home, our nature, our life as we know it, is in danger of collapse due to the effects of global climate change and overpopulation, then it follows that the conditions which promote sustainable life are under siege. When they are in peril, so, too, is the mental health of society.

Those of us who appreciate the paradoxical “nature of life” understand that destruction and creativity are wound together like the yin/yang symbol represents. One breeds the other which in turn transforms itself. 

Hypothetically, let's agree that we are witnessing sufficient symptoms of a sick system requiring our attention. What is our creative move since there appears to be ample evidence that our world is infirmed? 

I imagine four possible moves all related to facing the individual/collective shadow:

Soul searching strikes me as an apt way to frame this encounter be it of one’s self, one’s community, one’s region, our nation and planet. These four domains of action share a similar approach. 

The first way is for we individuals to face our shadow. My predilection to this move comes from my profession and from my experience. I will spare you the details of what I have discovered about my own shadow but it has to do with how bright, moody, tall Northern European white men often feel entitled.

Never mind that such an attitude could only be supported through rationalization and denial of reality and the truth.  Remember, I was/am entitled. Therefore what activates my shadow is all the entitled behavior I witness in our community, region and country.

How else do I make sense of my behavior today when yet another car parked below the sign on North Church Street in front of my office that states graphically: “No Parking.” Did I get some relief when I placed a post-it note under the offender’s windshield wipers stating: “What is it about “No Parking” you do not understand?” 

We, yes even we psychotherapists—can be confrontational.

Is it out of some sort of ‘obey the laws’ move of an old crotchety man or do I witness that when cars are parked there our city’s Fire Engine #3, the hook-and-ladder truck, cannot make the turn from Mendenhall onto Church? 

Both are behind my reaction. And as my wife says, “It doesn’t matter.” On many days, it feels like there is nothing that can be done to stem the tide of the “whatever” attitude—as if we recognize there are serious problems but we resign ourselves conveniently to being apathetic and telling ourselves we can’t make a difference so why bother?

Facing our shadow can only happen if we are willing to engage in an intimate relationship with an “other”—someone who is willing to call our behavior out. 

The other can be a therapist, a partner, friend, offspring,  parent or community. Others tend to see my shadow better than I can since it moves with me hiding in ways I cannot see. On climate change, Greta Thunberg has emerged an an other. (Read this piece in The Atlantic titled "Why Greta Thunberg Makes Adults Uncomfortable.")

But what if individuals of character and import ,who hold positions of power and influence on the local and regional level, also took stands like Greta did? The real question is “why don’t they?”  What is preventing them from being outspoken on issues of growth affecting Bozeman and Jackson Hole,for example, and the impact of people on the natural well-being of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the fact that many people are coming to Bozeman and the Tetons to focus on playing while the rest of the world addresses issues of survival?

Our communities are blessed to be inhabited by world class athletes, wealthy entrepreneurs, musicians, authors and film stars, budding creative geniuses, and uber-wealthy business folk. 
Might facing their shadows allow them the courage to use their status and power for the health of the planet? Wouldn’t that be something?!

As many of you know, I am the son of a minister. However, being a Christian, convinced there is an afterlife in heaven, does not absolve one of facing their own shadow while here on earth. If Jesus had to face the devil for forty days and nights we probably need a few years to work on our own inner demons. 

If Buddha had to sit tight under the Banyan tree and encounter all the forms of evil that came to his consciousness then having the personal integrity to face our own scope of influence is probably worth the practice.  So, with this, we have covered the first possible move, one that individuals can take.

The other three moves remaining are: voting for elected officials who take a policy-based approach to tackling climate change;  strategic and well organized protests like what happened across the world on September 20, 2019; and, if all else fails, revolution.

I am straying from my expertise here to give advice on these options because I do have an opinion on their probable efficacy. 

Voting is based in both helping others register to vote and assisting the recently enfranchised eighteen year olds to cast their vote. If social awareness and activism has an age range it seems to be between 16 to 30 and 65 to 85.

I remember my first protest in 1970 when as the student senate president at the University Of Dubuque I attended called for a general student strike to protest the killing of student peers at Kent State. 

I had no clear idea of what I was doing other than following a sense of what was right garnered from my pastor kid socialization and a junior year abroad. I continue to march at protests yet harbor a disturbing feeling of their futility. It’s that that makes me reflect on revolution and what it would look like—a society confronting in mass the dysfunctional aspects of its behavior inherent in its shadow.

But can I even use this term without being investigated? Why, yes I can. In the 1980s, Republicans readily said they were part of the “Reagan Revolution.”

Revolution means that there is a tidal wave of unity led by skilled leaders to take dramatic action from the grassroots to a national movement akin to the American Revolution where the tyrant in question isn’t a person, per say, but pernicious unchecked power and the belief that laws do not apply.

How did we get here? The concept of soul-searching means that a level of introspection is engaged according to one’s capacity and motivation. [I assure you that on the spectrum of global dysfunction that mimics individual crisis, we are now firmly in the grips of planetary dysregulation].

A system that reaches the dysregulated state manifests its dis-ease in somatic ways:  unattended rage eats up the stomach; chronic anxiety disrupts sleep disabling intelligence and equanimity, polar bears, without sea ice and seals lounging on top of it, have nowhere to go. 

Once the dysregulated state is reached it takes years for personal recovery. When the planet hits the dysregulated state, what are its symptoms and how long does it take to heal? 

° ° ° °

I will leave that to the reader to assess but the climate activists in Berlin standing under the gallows on blocks of ice with a noose around their neck symbolizes my sense of urgency for intervention. As Joni Mitchell sang about all those years ago about paving paradise: “you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘till it’s gone.” 

Although it might seem that a state of despair is the outcome of such a story, it is not the case. At the same events Greta Thunberg is scolding the world she is also rallying young people with a message of hope. She is telling them they matter, that they needn’t wait around and wait for adults to reach the right decision of bold action (if they even can), and that telling lies and rationalizing apathy aren't cool.
At the same events Greta Thunberg is scolding the world she is also rallying young people with a message of hope. She is telling them they matter, that they needn’t wait around and wait for adults to reach the right decision of bold action (if they even can), and that telling lies and rationalizing apathy aren't cool.
I realized years ago that despair and hope are another example of yin and yang: the more attached to hope I am the more alarming my shadow’s despair. I have come to understand that my move in this quandary of an intelligent species soiling their own nest is one of taking personal responsibility. 

What that means is that there is no longer more room for excuses. It seems to me that Mother Earth will find her own way back to health, eventually. But the process of doing so may or may not involve a better future we convinced ourselves we were giving them as we put our own desires first. It may or may not include the rhinoceros, song birds, and perhaps even Homo sapiens. Yes, our own self-importance may be remembered in time as a declaration of our arrogance tolerance of ignorance. 

What we need is a realignment in thinking of what our planet, our ecosystem, and our community can sustain. Meanwhile it is incumbent for awake folk to stay in relation to their own shadow since it can be cast off only as long and far as it is ignored.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read Mountain Journal's investigative piece, "For Yellowstone and America, Climate Change Brings Our Moment of Truth."
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

CONTRIBUTE
CONTRIBUTE