The new place of emotions in environmental activism

Arrest at all costs. This is undoubtedly the watchword of Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience actions during this weekend between the two rounds of the 2022 presidential election.

The radicalism of their environmental activism is symptomatic of the way in which climate change is no longer just a political issue, but an existential, intimate one. Anxiety streaks the apocalyptic conclusions of the latest IPCC report.

Long delegitimized, because of their remoteness from an objective Cartesian reason, emotions are today widely reconsidered, even revalued, in (science) politics.

In the ecological sphere, the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity is therefore even more tenuous, from activists to researchers themselves.

From a restrained militant subjectivity to an overflowing militant subjectivity

But let us return first to the genesis of political ecology in France since the 1970s. The Greens tended to mark, more than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, the distinction between private and public sphere in their activism.

This impermeability allows them, among other things, to protect themselves from the irony of their opponents regarding “emotional” and “irrational” responses to nuclear energy, which (already) structures political ecology. Sure of their “vertitude”they preferred to put forward objective “common sense” rather than subjective “emotion” to convince outside their circles.

However, the place of emotion in environmental activism today arises less in a relational way, as a means of persuasion, than ontological, that is to say what comes under the “being”, the essence.

Often distressing and disturbing, it is more difficult to contain and sometimes overwhelms the activist, suffering from“eco-anxiety”. Ecological awareness no longer only constitutes biographical ruptures, as in the beginnings of political ecology, but is now an integrated part of the socialization of new generations to justify that the catastrophic perspectives are getting closer.

There are phenomena of Burnout militant, as here in a maintenance of the Jean Jaurès Foundation with a young activist:

“I have quite intense anxiety. The first time I realized it was when I saw images of forest fires. The devastation it creates… I remember very well the forest fires in the Amazon a few years ago, I was going to a conference in Antwerp, I couldn’t stop crying. »

So how can we explain that originally political questions take a psychic turn?

By working on “catastrophic socialization”, the political scientist Luc Semal presents the temporal bias of an ever closer (felt to be) apocalyptic horizon. Activists are all the more angry and anxious as the scientific reports are clear.

Where the time to (re)act to “contract”, as well as capacities for democratic action to prevent climate change. The “cognitive dissonance” between the not very prosperous apocalyptic perspectives and a need to believe in a better future (as urgent for the individual to take care of as the ecological crisis itself) is only reinforced.

Emotion, not an obstacle to political reason

Observing this inclination towards political psychology, for the past thirty years, research in the social sciences has tended to question the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity.

Mixing the two registers amounts to debunking the mystique of a rational individual in his political behavior. The anthropologist George E. Marcus, for example, integrates the contributions of neuroscience, in the way in which emotion is not an obstacle to political reason, but, on the contrary, a means of exercising it.

A bit provocative, the American goes so far as to write in The sentimental citizen. Emotion in Democratic Politics (2002) that worry would be more relevant than serenity in the electoral decision. The “disqualification” of the historical disqualification of emotions makes it possible to have a more interdisciplinary research on ecology than before.

Thus, the works in political science on collapsology builds on contributions from social psychology, which sheds light on the role of climate change resentment, useful from a public policy perspective. Emotions would be more reliable predictions of “ecological conversion” than traditional sociological variables.

But how is the negative emotion of the climate crisis transformed into positive environmental action?

From a theoretical point of view of moral philosophy, Hans Jonas proposes a fear heuristic based on a “principle of responsibility” for the shady future of the planet, while Pope Francis calls for a spiritual “ecological conversion”, in his encyclical Laudato si’ (2015).

More empirically, if too much alarmism creates a feeling of powerlessness that can lead to inaction, Luc Semal points action as a positive means of compensationthus counterbalancing the criticisms of catastrophist discourses as factors of demobilization and depoliticization.

Through action, the emotion of climate change becomes positive here, based on the experience of an ideal of emancipatory sobriety, for example. An idea shared by psychiatrists Antoine Pelissolo and Célie Massini in their book, The emotions of climate change (2021), which concludes with political foresight chapters on lifestyle adaptation to reconnect with action.

Questioning scientific “neutrality”

Ultimately, this confusion of genres between objectivity and subjectivity, caused by the overflow of emotion, is not without consequence on the positioning of the researcher, whose ethics are traditionally based on this objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy.

Is it, should it be hermetic to this decompartmentalization between emotions and ecological political behavior?

“Faced with the climate emergency, scientists must express their emotions”hosted researchers in a July 2021 op-ed in Release. They question the merits of scientific neutrality, following the disclosure of parts of the latest IPCC report, which, unsurprisingly, did not incline to optimism.

This question remains: is it up to the researcher to mobilize, even when scientific reality is implacable, and this, while scientific authority has provoked mistrust during the health crisis?