Psychologist Mary Pipher on America’s Biggest Social Taboo

Psychologist Mary Pipher on America’s Biggest Social Taboo

During my interview with beloved American psychologist Mary Pipher, she was keen to point out that we were both “also America. I never talk in a condescending way on these issues, because we are America, and we are the earth too. We are all the same lowly beings trying to grapple with the truth.” A daughter of the Midwest like native Nebraskan Pipher, I appreciated the psychologically grounded, yet fiercely engaged approach she brought to the charged topic of climate change in her new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture. The following is an edited version and the second installment of our three-part interview.

Pythia: In our previous discussion on how you as a therapist would work with America as a patient on the issue of climate change, it sounded as if you were describing issues around addiction.

Mary: Addiction is a very problematic word — and I don’t want to present America as pathological. Most people, if they allow themselves to think about these issues, want their children to grow up on a sustainable planet with clean waters and green spaces. They don’t really want more nuclear and coal-fired power plants. So in that sense they want progress toward a sustainable planet.

But there’s an axiom in psychotherapy that everyone wants progress, but no one wants change — so the hard part around this topic are the changes we have to make to have that sustainable planet we all want. “What does this mean for me?” for example, is a big question. “Does this mean that I can’t use air conditioning when it’s a hundred and five degrees?”

These hard questions are made even scarier by the fact that we don’t even talk about them. So one of the places we could use an addiction model in this discussion on climate change is around the question of forbidden topics — and the secret that everyone knows. Because one of the biggest problems is that the frightening changes happening to our planet is not being discussed in any kind of meaningful way.

Pythia: In fact you describe it in your book as a social taboo.

Mary: Absolutely. If you’ve ever raised this issue with people, you can just feel how they respond. For me as a therapist, it reminds me of when I have to bring up uncomfortable things in a session, such as whether there’s any physical abuse in a family. Before asking these questions, I can feel my throat tense up. And in fact that sense that my throat is tensing up is a cue to me that I’m getting near something dangerous for this client.

It’s the same with this issue on climate change. It has a “verboten” quality; you know when you bring it up you’re likely to encounter immediate resistance. People will basically say, “I don’t want to talk about this now.”

But when is it that they do want to talk about it? They don’t want to talk about it at parties, they don’t want to talk about it in schools, because it’s too traumatic for children. They don’t want to talk about it with friends, when they just want to relax. They don’t want to talk about it in the workplace because it’s too controversial. Essentially, there really is no appropriate time to talk about it — which is what a secret is, as there’s no appropriate time to talk about it.

Pythia: Indeed these days we can more easily speak about sex or money than our overfished oceans and vanishing species. But just like social conventions once prohibited us from discussing sex, what are the cultural reasons that reinforce this repression around climate change?

Mary: One reason Americans don’t talk about this is because we don’t get good information. For twenty years now the culture has been mired in the least productive of all topics, which is “Do you believe in climate change?” It’s as if we were talking about whether or not we believe in extraterrestrials! Climate change is no more a matter of belief than microbes are a matter of belief — it’s an empirical fact based on evidence provided by international scientists.

But there are also leadership issues on this. Certainly if the media covered “parts per million of CO2”* in the atmosphere the same way they covered the Dow Jones, putting it on the front page or on the evening news every day, we’d be having a very different conversation, wouldn’t we? At the same time, I have some sympathy with leaders: It isn’t as if they can easily lead with this issue, because they keep running into the same wall of resistance.

Pythia: Which brings us back again to the issue of our collective defenses around the perilous state of the planet.

Mary: Well, one thing I’d say to America as a client on the couch is that the amount of psychic energy it spends in denial around this urgent and terrifying issue is enormous. This resistance to facing climate change isn’t a passive process: It’s a very active process that requires us to continually disconnect from our senses, our emotions, our bodies, our friends, our neighbors and even reality.

Pythia: Does this resistance actually feed our symptoms of over-consumption? In other words, rather than face the painful issue of what’s happening to the animals, the oceans and the forests, we say “To hell with it,” and go shopping or buy a new car?

Mary: I recently read a statistic that over six in ten Americans don’t believe climate change is a serious threat. That same day I read another statistic that almost seventy percent of Americans are disengaged from their work.** I believe these two things are tied together. You can’t disengage from one part of reality without disengaging from other parts of reality.

Pythia: Could you say more about the connection between these two sets of statistics?

Mary: Let’s return to the example of a family where the father is an alcoholic. All these things happen — dad’s grumpy most mornings, he misses work, and the kids are afraid to anger him — and yet nobody ever talks about alcohol. What that family also isn’t doing is feeling safe and vibrant, because there’s a big thing they can’t talk about. The amount of energy it takes to do all that filtering keeps the family from being loving and engaged in the ways families ideally want to be.

It’s the same thing with our denial of climate change: If you use a lot of energy to tamp down despair, you tamp down everything, such as your capacity for joy and love. In writing about Germans during the Holocaust in “States of Denial,” the author Stanley Cohen described the phenomenon of “willful ignorance” in which the Germans both knew and didn’t know what was going on at the same time. That state of “willful ignorance” he described is not a happy state — and that’s the state that Americans are in right now.

*Scientists say that 350 ppm (parts per million) C02 in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity. We’re now at 400 ppm CO2.

**How Americans See Global Warming:…

Most Workers Hate Their Jobs:…


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