Call psychologist Mary Pipher, if you will, an apostle for America’s most enduring values. Whether guarding adolescent girls in Reviving Ophelia or upholding our immigrant ideals in The Middle of Everywhere, Pipher draws out the nation’s better self. In her new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, Pipher tells the story of her struggle as part of a local grassroots organization fighting TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- and how she drew on both psychological insight and Nebraskan plain talk to mobilize action against this threat to her beloved prairie state. The following is an edited version and the first installment of our three-part interview.
Pythia: America and China are the world’s biggest polluters; together the two nations are responsible for half the world’s pollution. This global rise in carbon emissions is contributing to record droughts, heat and rising sea levels.* So if America were on your couch presenting this problem on climate change, how would you begin to work with such a client?
Pipher: First, I’d be respectful of America as a patient, just as I am of clients in therapy. But one thing I’d assume about my client is something I generally assume about clients who are behaving in a dysfunctional manner: at some level, they know what’s going on.
So I’d take it as a given that by now most people have been exposed to issues around climate change. At this point to focus on information would be like telling an alcoholic, “Did you know that it’s harmful for you to drink ten beers?” Of course that person knows that! Instead I’d immediately turn my attention to defenses and resistance.
Dealing with people who are struggling with denial is what therapists do for a living. That’s not cause to be judgmental; in fact I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the country as it faces this situation because it’s unbearably painful to deal with head on.
Pythia: Do you feel that an alarmist approach isn’t useful in generating more action on environmental issues?
Pipher: There’s been a scolding tone: Why don’t people just wake up and deal with the facts? But people don’t respond to guilt and scolding. What people do tend to respond to, whether they’re therapy clients or consumers of media, is a deep belief that they’re loved by the messenger. So as a therapist, speaker or writer, my first goal is to love that person, and my country, and to hold them in my heart as I try to help them cope with upsetting information.
Pythia: And to America, you would say?
Pipher: To America, my patient, I would start by saying this: I deeply want to understand this place you’re in at this moment. Why, from your point of view, is this issue so painful? Is it thinking about your grandchildren’s endangered future, or the disappearance of a nearby forest you love? Or is it thinking about how hard it would be for you to imagine changing your life, and how painful it would be to feel like a victim -- whatever it is that keeps you from being able to accept this information, let’s try to understand that first.
Because resistance follows the process of accepting difficult information, I’d expect people to be angry, and to say things like, “I feel badly about it, but what can I do?” In listening very carefully to what “America” is saying about its collective anguish and inability to deal with this situation, I’d respond with using the client’s own language and the metaphors.
Pythia: And some examples of that would be?
Pipher: One thing Americans like to believe is that we’re in control; we like to think of ourselves as heroes, and that we’re basically good. And so one way to speak to Americans is to say, “If you think you have no power, you have no power. But if you believe you have the power to act in a way that’s good for the planet, then you have an opportunity to have control over your fate, and to have the possibility of being a hero.” That would be one example of using American language to talk to Americans about this.
Pythia: This was exemplified in your book in the figure of Randy Thompson, a “political conservative who looked like John Wayne and dressed in jeans…and a cowboy hat and boots,” and a Keystone XL activist who became the image of Nebraskans’ fight against TransCanada.
Mary: A lot of the language in my book and in our struggle references iconic American symbols like Randy: “We will not be bullied,” or “I stand with Randy,” or “I’m fighting TransCanada.” One reason Randy has been such a powerful symbol is because he uses wonderful John Wayne American language.
Pythia: In addition to using classic American symbols and language to awaken “America on your couch” to the urgency of climate change, what other therapeutic techniques would you draw on?
Mary: A good therapeutic tool is the “crossroads technique.” Say a client was struggling with a problem with alcohol. I might say, “Do you realize you’re at a crossroads, and that the decision you make today can take you down one road toward more despair and guilt -- or it can take you down another road toward a healthy new life?”
So to America I might say, “I wonder if you’re aware that you’re poised on the brink of enormous change? Do you understand that you’re at a crossroads, where our every decision about how we behave in the world can make a significant difference?” Or, “Do you understand that all Americans are community educators, whether we know it or not – and that every action we undertake is a lesson to everyone we know?”
Pythia: Can you say more about what it means to be a “community educator”?
Mary: One thing I don’t do anymore is carry a plastic bottle in public. Because I want to be the change we need in the world, I want people to see me carrying the metal bottle. A year ago my husband and I bought solar panels; now our house is on a solar tour for the city. This was an expensive investment that may take about twenty years to recoup – and I’m 65, so I may not be alive in twenty years – but we did it because we saw it as an opportunity to be community educators.
All of us have the chance to be community educators, even if it’s little things like bringing a cloth bag to the grocery store so you can tell the clerk, “I prefer not to use plastic.”