Doomed Planet

Treating Atmospheric Apocalyptic Anxiety

Dr Fiona Synapse, the controversial consultant psychiatrist, treats climate change worriers for eco-grief, lachrymal depression and related mood disorders at her secluded practice in South Devon, United Kingdom, known locally as The Funny Farm. She first entered the media spotlight several years ago after delivering a paper at the Tripe Centre for the Very Nervous on mental illness and religious experience.

The recent rise of Extinction Rebellion (XR) prompted Dr Synapse to return to the lecture circuit with a new mission: to get the technique that made her a world leader in the treatment of atmospheric apocalyptic anxiety (AAA) onto the National Health Service (NHS) approved list.

Here is an edited transcript of her presentation at Imperial College this month.


Ladies, gentlemen and gendered others, welcome to my “coming out” show in London. It’s a great honour to be talking to you tonight at the home of UK science and technology. Judging by the XR banners outside, there’s a lot of people who would have been happier had I stayed in Devon (laughter). But I’m on a mission too, so let the chips fall where they may.

The human mind, like climate change, is extremely complex. Nine-tenths of it is irrational and prone to idiosyncratic paroxysmal expression. Only one-tenth is rational. Let me say that again for the benefit of those outside: only one-tenth of your behaviour is rational. That’s on a good day when the moon is not full. Shocking, yes, but true.

We don’t do dodgy computer modelling down at The Funny Farm; nor do we dance to the tune of that fiddler with the truth, confirmation bias, and make up stuff for a media moment. Yet we still have ways of discovering orderly – or indeed – disorderly patterns among the mind’s multitudinous facets that are just as controversial (laughter).

Psychoanalysis is one of them. Based on the inferences we make from the verbal utterances of the mentally ill (MI), the worried well (WW) or unwell (WU), it can give us insight into what’s going on – or switching off – in the psyche or unconscious.

Freud and Jung disagreed about a lot of things. Both agreed, however, that superstitious belief and ritual are deeply rooted in our cerebral cesspools. Both agreed that superstition is not a relic of the pagan past, nor confined to a gullible or fearful underclass. It is part and parcel of all of us. It can come to the surface at any time, especially when there’s constant chatter about the end of the world and the Doomsday Clock is, allegedly, at three minutes to midnight.

Their evidence consisted mainly of patient case histories. Both stressed the emotional element in superstition. This helps us understand why confronting a superstitious person with contradictory information makes so little difference. In such cases, the rational mind is out to lunch, or literally “possessed” in some way.

XR is making claims that are, frankly, hysterical. Your website says there’s the possibility of billions dying. That is just not credible, is it? Your extreme weather story is utter nonsense. (4.0min.) (LBC interview, Nigel Farage and XR protester, 15min., 14 October, 2019)

But what is superstition? Any irrational belief or practice is superstition. It can arise from ignorance, from misunderstanding causality, fearing the unknown, or believing in fate or magic. For example, reducing the world’s fossil-fuel energy consumption (currently 85%) in less than a decade would be a magical outcome, yet some people claim it’s possible.

Before I go on, let me explain what I mean by mental illness (MI). It’s a condition of the mind with no known physical cause, except when drug-induced, as in the case of at least one XR disciple, co-founder Gail Cranbrook. A person experiences abnormal perceptions, such as hearing voices, feeling painful or pleasurable sensations in the body or mind, and crucially, interprets then in a way that leads to false conclusions.

For example, you may see a number 12 bus and conclude it means you are one of the Apostles. You may hear voices calling you “blessed saviour”, a “super-silly hippy anarchist” or the “demented offspring of a Westminster sewer rat” and conclude that God, the capitalist system, or Big Brother is messing with your mind. You may wave an incomprehensible research paper or unread United Nations report in the air and claim it means a Hothouse Earth or french-fry fate is just around the corner. You may see a group of people in white coats pontificating outside the Science Museum and assume they are climate scientists urging you to embark on crazy stunts in the name of “the truth”. Indeed, one of the most diagnostic features of AAA is a conviction that something or someone outside has chosen you to help save the world at a crucial moment in history.

The science is clear: It is understood that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. We are in a life or death situation of our own making. We must act now. …….Human activity is causing irreparable harm to the life on this world. Many current life forms will be extinct by the end of this century. We may right now be causing the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history. We are being corrupted and compromised by the human values behind our political and economic systems and consumer-focussed lifestyles.Extinction Rebellion website: the truth

The beginning of MI may be a period when a person feels everything is different, ominously or delightfully so. People’s gestures or conversations, the hoots of passing cars, the call of birds or indeed any other experience, may have some special meaning. A wolf whistle may appear as a hate crime . At some stage you may feel euphoric or excited, such as before another vote in the House on Brexit, a big XR demonstration, or while gluing yourself to a highway or structure with your partner.

At other times, you may talk incoherently, such as when arrested for being a public nuisance, or when pulled from the top of a train during rush hour by angry commuters and given a knuckle sandwich for breakfast. Your thought processes in such situations may be slow and communication poor, even if you were having a jolly good time attracting attention to yourself or parading indecently before the media (laughter, interjection).

Certain genes associated with MI may contribute towards someone being rather unusual, what today we call a highly sensitive person (HSP); or in some cases a deviant. For example, a person who does not take selfies, consume alcohol or drugs, bet on horse racing, sport or politics, or fool around on reality TV. Some of this deviance may be impulsive and unhealthy, such as annoying others “for their own good”, beheading or blowing up people in the name of a God, or just for the hell of it.

MI is less a multi-personality issue and more a fragmentation of a person’s psyche. Yet one cannot really summarise its symptomatology, given the diversity of causes and impact of social media. Suffice it to say that my profession is struggling to deal with a huge increase in admissions. Frankly, we are facing an MI pandemic.

But enough preamble. Put your psychoanalytic hats on and listen to some comments made by top XR folk now in the public domain. I mean, of course, the comments, for sadly one of them is not in the public domain. He’s in a HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs cell awaiting trial on 17 February next year. The charge: conspiring with others to cause a public nuisance between August 1 and September 14 by attempting to fly drones near Heathrow airport “in order to cause widespread disruption”.  More on him later.

First up is 25 year-old Ms Molly Lipson. I heard her being interviewed by Lucy Sherriff of Deutsche Welle Living Planet: Weeks of XR protests while driving up to London. An extract:

Molly Lipson, XR: Essentially the thing that kind of joins and connects all XR supporters is a lot of terror and grief, probably some depression and yes, fear and anxiety about what is happening to our planet (1.17min.)

XR is a social movement. We use non-violent civil disobedience to demand that governments around the world take emergency action on the climate and ecological crisis.

The group has three demands: (i) for the government and media to tell the truth about the climate and ecological crisis; (ii) to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions to a net zero in the next six years; and (iii) to establish a Citizen’s Assembly to come up with climate solutions.

Ms Lipson went on to say XR’s supporters were “diverse, from parents bringing their kids alone, all the way up to people in their nineties.” Most of them are probably HSPs. Unlike typical fundamentalists, however, they do not seem to have a Bible, a literal text they quote from constantly. Indeed, they seem to be driven more by feeling than fact, by slogans and silly stunts. How dare I spread such heresy (laughter, interjection).

Ms Lipson was also interviewed by Jessica Morgan at refinery29. “It can be tough not to stereotype XR as middle class hippies getting arrested for fun – because they can,” she said. “But the issue is more complex.” Indeed it is.

Jessica Morgan: The movement has drawn a lot of criticism, though. It has been described by critics as a “primeval, anti-capitalist cult“. What made you join XR in the first place?

Molly Lipson, XR: My background is in criminal justice reform in the US and through that I came to understand systems of structural oppression and how environmental racism is a huge element of that. Who will choose who gets to eat, who gets to live and who has to die? It terrifies me to think about that and the sheer overstretch of power that governments and corporates have in our global societies. 

Ms Lipson has discovered a grim truth: life is unjust, nature is unjust. Climate change is more than unjust, it’s indifferent too. Roger Hallam, the XR co-founder and “strategic mastermind”, made a similar discovery two decades ago, but not by reading an IPCC report. (BBC HARDtalk interview, 23 minutes)

Mr Hallam, 53, moved to Wales in 1999. He was “f—ed off with society. It’s not my cup of tea … If people want to consume stuff and compete with each other that’s fine but it’s not my deal.” He grew organic vegetables near Carmarthen and raised four children. Then he had a run of bad luck. His crops were ruined by weeks of rain two years in a row. Hallam blamed “climate change”, not Welsh weather. 

According to columnist Martin Fletcher, Hallam “had an epiphany when he heard an announcement about rising global temperatures while driving back to Wales and realised climate change was real and deadly serious. He broke down in tears.”

Roger Hallam, XR: It was like finding out about your own death. That’s when I knew the rest of my life was definitely going to be on the climate crisis. I moved away from doing the labour-organising thing, which I love, because it’s great fun taking down capitalists. I don’t want to do this type of work really because it’s so traumatising for everyone involved. It’s enormously emotionally upsetting.

With climate change it’s like everything you ever loved is going to get destroyed. Your children are going to die of starvation. What we need to do is completely transform the economy in five years, and take carbon out of the atmosphere, and even if we do that we are almost certainly going to go extinct….That’s the reality. That’s not nice on any level. (Martin Fletcher, New Statesman, 18 October, 2019)

Mr Hallam is not an optimist. He believes an “annihilation event” is hurtling towards us, a tipping point where warming becomes irreversible.

Martin Fletcher: Hallam does what he does not because he thinks it will work, but because it is the right thing to do. “We’re f—ed,” he told me several times, and put the chances of his children reaching his age at “somewhere between 2 and 20 per cent”.

Mr Hallam is not alone. Eco-epiphanies are on the rise. Andrew Medhurst, a high-flyer who designed pension plans, had one last year. The 53-year-old earned a six-figure salary and once worked for Lloyds Bank and HSBC. But he suddenly snapped around Christmas last year, gave it all up and joined XR. What’s the use of a pension plan when it soon will be game-over?

Gail Bradbrook, a 47-year-old molecular biologist also had an eco-epiphany.  She too had been searching for a cause for years before meeting Hallam in 2016. It was at her house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, that XR was conceived in early 2018. Bradbrook began the movement after taking ‘psychedelic medicines’, just days after climate protesters shut down central Manchester.

Gail Bradbrook, XR: It was a really intense experience and I actually prayed for what I called the codes for social change, I thought there must be something I don’t understand, and within a month my prayer was literally answered. (BBC Inside Out West documentary, 14 September, 2019)

If religion is the opium of the people, Ms Bradbrook wants both: the religion of “climate change”, and giving the people – if not opium or Aldous Huxley’s soma then – a suite of drugs currently illegal. Indeed, she’s recently called for mass ingestion of psychedelic substances to protest against their criminalisation.

Gail Bradbrook, XR: I would support a mass civil disobedience where we take medicine to tell the state that they have absolutely no right to control our consciousness and to define our spiritual practice. (Press briefing, Breaking Convention conference, London, 16 August, 2019)

Once again, however, time is running out. Bradbrook: “Whilst I’m all for psychedelic science – I think it’s fantastic – I don’t think we necessarily have time to wait for the science to tell us these medicines are useful. The indigenous cultures have already shown us the ways.”

Ms Bradbrook’s “Personal Story of Psychedelics, Ceremony and My Journey in Extinction Rebellion” can be viewed here.

Last but not least, an intriguing perspective from Mr Stuart Basden:  Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate.

Stuart Basden, XR: I’m a RisingUp Holding Group member, and a member of the XR Guardianship Team. I’m here to say that XR isn’t about the climate. You see, the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system of that has infected the ways we relate to each other as humans and to all life….It’s a call to the XR community to never say we’re a climate movement. Because we’re not. We’re a Rebellion. And we’re rebelling to highlight and heal from the insanity that is leading to our extinction. Now tell the truth and act like it.

I use the term ‘insanity’ carefully, with the intention of highlighting the need for healing. Indigenous First Nation people helpfully taught me to see the mindset of the coloniser as a sickness. In no way do I intend to marginalise or discredit the experience of people who have been labelled ‘insane’ by a normative system, nor who identify as being ‘insane’. (Medium, 11 January, 2019)

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Basden is right – or at least partially right. XR’s not about the climate. Let me rephrase that: XR’s not about the external climate. It’s about the internal climate. We are in the grip of a mass psychosis, a collective delusion, an infantile fantasy that we can control global weather, temperature and so on.

Yet, ironically, as someone once said, we have nothing to fear except fear itself; or in this case fear of climate change. Indeed, that’s the premise on which I developed my Paroxysmal Primal Scream Therapy (PPST). Let me take this opportunity to thank the late Art Janov for his pioneering work in this field. 

We believe that neurosis in an emotionally-damaged adult, especially an HSP, is often caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. At the Funny Farm, we bring it to conscious awareness for resolution. The patient is encouraged to recall and re-enact specific disturbing incidents and fully express the resulting pain during therapy. Repressed anger or frustration is released – not through “non-violent” street demonstrations where it is projected onto innocent others by disrupting their lives, or by sacrifices to an invisible deity — toss another virgin in the climate volcano – but through spontaneous and unrestrained screams, hysteria, or violence in a safe space.  We don’t do drugs.

My point is this: aspiring prophets, priests, psychiatrists, even climate scientists (laughter) – many are already shedding tears – are susceptible to this kind of projection of inner belief and emotion onto reality.

Even some of my learned colleagues in this place – and the New Scientist – seem to have been duped by Ms Bradbrook’s psychedelic musings. Dr Rosalind Watts, IC’s Psilodep 2 Clinical Lead, for example, suggests an important link between mental health and the ecological crisis. I agree, but whether “guiding patients” through magic mushroom, psilocybin or ayahuasca “therapy” will cure their AAA is quite another matter.

Rosalind Watts, IC: We are in an epidemic of depression and disconnection from ourselves and our environment. When you’re suffering from depression, it’s incredibly difficult to care and do something. (clinical psychologist, Imperial College, New Scientist, 19 August, 2019)

Why do I get an uneasy feeling of déjà vu? Carlos Castaneda all over again? Anyway, something worked for him. Perhaps the Teachings of Don Juan and those “magical passes”. He went into seclusion in California to work on his inner development in 1973 – with three women he called “Fellow Travellers of Awareness”. Nice work if you can get it (laughter, hooting).

Arthur Schopenhauer defined hope as “the confusion of desire for a thing with its probability”. Another insight of the late German philosopher is worth remembering as the deluded eco-crusades intensify: “It is natural to believe true what we desire to be true, and to believe it because we desire it.” 

Apocalyptic groups – like XR and indeed the UN – who believe “the end is nigh” believe it, I suggest, because they desire it, for one reason or another. That they believe it with such an irrational sense of urgency – “we must act now” – worries me. It should worry you too. As I said, it’s not about the climate, and it’s not funny. It’s insane. And I too use that word carefully (applause, shouting).

My friends, be careful what you wish for……..

The lecture was terminated at this point by IC security due to the risk to public safety posed by a vocal group of protesters outside the venue. Update: Dr Synapse’s PPST is now on the NHS list of approved therapies for treating eco-hysteria.

5 thoughts on “Treating Atmospheric Apocalyptic Anxiety

  • IainC says:

    Extinction Rebellion is more aptly named Extinction (of your current rights and freedoms) by Revolution.
    The psychological terrorization of children by the movement is fascinating. It’s the opposite of earlier politicized children’s organisations like the Hitler Jugend and the Communist Red Pioneers, where inclusive group bonding and outdoor team social activities were used as bait for training future Party members. Perhaps more like with the older teens in the Chinese Cultural revolution, where the promise of sanctioned violence and mayhem was more attractive? Maybe an expert could comment.
    Overheard on a Melbourne street corner recently.
    Activist: your life will be filled with misery and woe!
    Child: waaah….
    Activist: all that you love will perish in fire and flood and unquenchable flames as our earth bakes in torment under a blood red sky!
    Child: Mummy!
    Activist: your family will perish in agony in raging storms if you don’t obey our every command!
    Child: I want to go home!
    Activist: starving bouncy puppies and fluffy kittens will burst into flames as the rising seas roll towards them in a great mass!
    Child: my poor kitty, no…
    Passing Grown-up: stop psychologically torturing that child! Show her love and kindness instead. Comfort her.
    Activist: child-hating climate denialist!

  • ianl says:

    How long, he wonders, before satire is classified as “hate speech” and becomes subject to criminal law ?

    I know there are people who have hope that this engulfing mess will reverse itself. I cannot see any practical reason for this optimism.

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    Amazing – to me – the number involved in IC psychedelic research:

    Research team – 25; “collaborators” – 21

    Dr Robin Carhart-Harris set up the centre just this year, thanks to the generous support of its [unidentified] founders.
    How many, I wonder, are supporters of XR?

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    There is a fundamental principle in ecology, which I first read of in the Odum brothers’ classic text ‘Fundamentals of Ecology.’
    Biomass in a given ecosystem cannot be infinite. It rises to a sustainable mean level and stays around that, fluctuating according to circumstances (eg in Australia, bushfire.)
    In any given ecosystem we can have many species represented by a relative few individuals, as in a national park, or a few species represented by many individuals, as on a farm. What we cannot have is many species represented by many individuals.
    Consequently, people favour ecologies and ecosystem models according to their political and economic preferences. Short-term economic considerations (generally preferred by the political Right and those in thrall to it) commonly trump longer-term environmental considerations.
    Thus the present Premier of Queensland prefers coal mining to a pristine Barrier Reef (as do most of those economically downstream of the mining.) A past premier (Bjelke-Petersen) favoured oil drilling on that same reef. And as renewables are eating like white ants into the markets for both coal and oil, renewables are on the nose with ‘conservatives’ as well. This is only understandable within the framework of short-term economics. The politically ‘conservative’ (but with regard to the environment and non-renewable resources, rapacious) present owners of resources want them extracted and converted into $$$$ in their bank accounts as soon as possible.
    The politically radical on the other hand are more likely to want them conserved (in the sense of environmental conservatism, aka conservation.)
    Thus political conservatives tend to environmental radicalism (seen as vandalism by their opponents) while political radicals tend to environmental conservatism. Their opponents see them as economically naive.
    Once any species reaches a certain critical minimum population it loses genetic diversity sufficient to put it on an irreversible path to extinction. And extinction is forever.
    But the biosphere is a system with many internal links, only some of which we know about. A critical example right now is the decline of bee populations due to use of pesticides, leading to decline in critical plant populations due to lack of pollination.

  • dianne.williams says:

    ianl: October 29: satire already has been labeled ‘harte speech’. Any satirical cartoonists since Bill Leak and the clever chap who made us laugh with The tantrums of Serena Williams 2018 US Open have been all but burned in effigy for their work.

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