My guest tonight is Mary Pipher. She's a psychologist, an activist, an author, most notably of Reviving Ophelia, which opened up an important discussion about the challenges adolescent girls face in today's world. I had Mary on as a guest on my show a few years ago to talk about her book, Writing to Change the World. Now, her newest book is The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture.
MP: Thank you, it's good to be back Rob.
Rob: So in Writing to Change the World, you say, "Good writing facilitates the making of connections in a way that inspires open heartedness, thinking, talking, and action. Good writing connects people to one another, to other living creatures, to stories and ideas and to action. It allows readers to see the world from a new perspective." And I think what you've done with this new book, The Green Boat, is you've walked your talk.
MP: Thank you very much. I'm honored to hear that and you know my goal when I write is always to achieve something. You know Pete Seeger one time was asked something about did he like music. And he said, "Well what is music for?" and I'm a very applied person. I like...when I was a therapist I liked applied psychology. I didn't want academic psychology. When I was in anthropology, I liked applied anthropology, working with real people and the same thing with a book.
I really want that book to inspire people to think in new ways and have some new connections emotionally to the material and then to act and to know how to act. You know, the world is full of people with really good intentions that don't have an idea about what they could possibly do to be useful. So one of the things I've tried to do,from Reviving Ophelia on, is to really say, "If you agree with me about this and if you understand my thinking and are with me on my conceptual ideas about this problem, here are the implications for you in terms of actions." So, I'm real happy that you like The Green Boat in that sense, Rob.
Rob: I think the way you start the book is to talk about denial and some pretty negative stuff really in terms of the way people are dealing with our current situation and as a publisher of a progressive website, I am very aware of just how hopeless people are feeling. So it was really useful to just read your thoughts and ideas on that. Could you talk a little bit about that area, that aspect?
MP: I sure could. And one thing I want to say before I talk to your listeners and readers is when I wrote this book and when I make speeches on The Green Boat, I always caveat my remarks by saying, "I'm going to say some things that are kind of dark and depressing, but stick with me, there'll be a turning," because people just can't face much darkness. So, whenever I talk about these issues, I always feel the need to say that, otherwise people won't even come along for a few minutes in an interview or reading a book or in a speech, they'll just...they'll go numb. They'll go dead on me. So anyway I...that's the caveat for this conversation and then we're going to move into more positive material.
But one of the things, by the way, I don't think that despair is just about climate change. I was just talking to some of my friends recently and we all have been news junkies and political people and we all realize we never discuss politics anymore. I notice I usually listen to NPR. I'm not even turning it on right now because when I wake up in the morning I have a choice of listening to meadow larks and looking out at a beautiful lake and maybe walking with my friends, or listening to the news of Iraq and Israel and I just can't do it to myself, you know. So I think to despair, it's not just our climate that's failing us, it's almost all of our major systems from government and the whole idea of the nation-state all the way to banking and education and the court system and the prison system and so on and so on.
But specifically, about climate change, what I want to say is these problems are so frightening that people cannot...they're not emotionally equipped to deal with them we, are not emotionally equipped to deal with them. And the best psychological research on this is a study in a book written by a guy named Stanley Cohen called, States of Denial. It's very useful to me in thinking through the issues in The Green Boat around our denial of climate change. And he did research on Nazi Germany and people saying they could be living within the smoke of a crematorium, a camp and they would say they were unaware of what happened. And he used a really good term to describe that, which is "willful ignorance," where you both know and don't know something is happening. And it's too enormous and frightening to totally deny, but at the same time it's too frightening and horrible to take in. And I really think that's how we are about climate change. We just can't absorb it. Our systems aren't equipped cognitively and emotionally and communally to quite absorb it.
So there's an enormous amount of denial. Here's one example of it. If you think about the topic of climate change, try to think of when it is appropriate to talk about it. You don't talk about it at parties because it's a downer. You don't talk about it at church or at group meetings as a general rule because it's too political. You don't talk about it with your friends because they don't want to hear about it. There's just almost no place you can talk about it and that's one of the...Kari Norgaard wrote really good research on the whole politics of denial and one of the lines she used is, "Our national policy toward the devastation we face is "don't ask don't tell." So it's really...as a psychologist who has worked with trauma and denial my whole life as a clinician, this is a really interesting psychological, social problem.
Here's another example. We talk about, do people or don't people believe in climate change? That is just the oddest darn question when you think about it. We don't talk about do we believe in the law of aerodynamics. We don't talk about do we believe in the DNA code or far away galaxies. But with climate change, for the last 20 years, the whole question has been basically put aside for a meaningless debate on who does and doesn't believe in climate change. So it's just a very hard topic and for me to deal with it, first I had to break through my own denial and deal with the trauma of coming to terms with it, which is very, very difficult personally. And then I had to figure out a way to help readers break through their own trauma and denial and deal with it. And that also was a long process. This was, by far, the hardest book I've written in terms of figuring out the psychological work necessary to make this book good for people and something they could count on and learn from.
Rob: You say in the beginning of the book that people are denying it and this is what the beginning of the book is about. It's this denial and you say ""anytime we humans disconnect from reality, we enter individually and collectively what could be called a psychotic state." That's pretty severe.
MP: Well, when you think about it, we are at a kind of a psychotic state as a culture. You know individually, most of us are able to lead sane lives with people we love and paying our bills and enjoying our communities and participating in meaningful work around us. But collectively, we're teetering toward the edge of a cliff without discussing where we're going. And that is really psychotic behavior. You know, Bateson said, "The unit of survival is the organism and its environment." And for us to deal with this, realistically and openly and collectively in conversation, is a survival strategy. It's a moral issue in that the basic moral issue is, if we do not expand our moral imaginations so that we include the whole web of life in our circle of caring, we will destroy ourselves. But the survival issue is simply we cannot survive as organisms without an environment that's hospitable to us. So yeah, I think it's really a psychotic state that we're in as a world and as a country, in particular, because I think the United States has great power to do good and has for the most part not acted as leaders in this particular area.
Rob: Okay, you...I just want to throw a couple of things at you.
Rob: There are a couple of things that I cover a lot in my radio show. I call it the Bottom-Up Radio Show because I believe we're transitioning from a top-down to a bottom-up world. And I think your book...and I'm writing a book called Bottom-Up: The Connection Revolution. And you talk a lot about"
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