The world is at a dangerous crossroad. Our dependence on extractive resources is pushing the earth to a new, hotter, and more barren reality. If psychology truly wants to be fit for purpose in this new reality, it must defend civic spaces.
Climate change is more severe and widespread than previously expected. Most of the world’s ecosystems upon which life depends have been irreparably harmed.
Disasters, such as mass species die-offs, droughts, and famines are occurring at unprecedented levels. This destruction is inseparable from a demand for resources that is so unsustainable that the Earth cannot keep pace, lacking the ability to replenish itself annually1. In fact, it would take almost two Earths at this time to do so. Climate-related devastation is expected to dramatically worsen over the next two decades2.
Much of this destruction is part of a larger arch of colonial capitalism — or the varying but globally-networked systems of labour, financial flows, and conceptions of property that constituted colonial economies.
Within these structures, imperial powers saw colonies as sources of raw materials or “resources” for distant metropoles. Thus, extractivism or the “particular way of thinking and the properties and practices organised toward the goal of maximizing benefit through (resource) extraction” — was a key facet of colonial capitalism.
Today, although most colonial administrations have been dismantled, systems of extractivism remain pervasive — whether enacted through states or the corporations they support. Life within this logic, as Vandana Shiva explains, is treated like an open-access system, where local ways of being in the world, such as a sense of community as well as sovereignty and public participation, are not only undermined but seen as threats to extractivism. As a consequence, civic space is critically under threat.
Psychology has played a perverse role in this process. In using terms like ‘climate anxiety’ to describe climate-related distress, mainstream psychology risks pathologising and individualising distress resulting from the violence of capitalism. Historically, in placing the responsibility for distress on the individual’s internal psychic reality — or at most, on the family — psychology conceals how capitalism operates, and societal suffering.
Yet, suffering does not circulate through our lives and relationships as some passive response to anxieties about these crises. Rather, these anxieties arise as part of our experience of alienation, marginalisation, and exclusion in society that stems from ways of privileging capitalism — including extractivism — that destroys ways of life and societal bonds.
As under colonialism, extractivism’s proponents today still largely make the rules: they help develop weak environmental regulatory frameworks, for instance. At other times, they spearhead deals for extractive projects in the name of “development” and “progress,” but that often neglects rights to participation and self-determination for affected communities.
Today, capitalism is reproducing the same colonialist, racist logic that deemed much of the world’s population living on the margins expendable. This is particularly true at points of extraction, where United Nations Special Rapporteur, David Boyd says communities are transformed into “sacrifice zones” where environmental degradation, pollution, and unjust social arrangements pose extreme threats to well-being.
A critical dimension to these unjust social arrangements that create suffering is the status of civic space. Civic space is defined as the ability to organise, communicate, and participate meaningfully without hindrance or the threat of harm.
The closing down of civic space allows extractivism to create conditions in which residents who might organise, communicate, and seek meaningful participation to oppose extractivism are deemed a threat. Being labelled as a threat, in turn, sanctions silencing, exclusion, and physical violence toward community and environmental defenders.
This contributes to the wanton approval of deleterious mining and logging projects, the murders of land and environmental defenders, and other human rights violations.
Thus, these subjugating acts that close down civic space may, in turn, create significant anguish among those who resist – not by choice, but because of their very locality.
For many around the world, it is not climate change as some abstract weather occurrence that is distressing, but rather the grating against colonial capitalism in one’s daily life. Our pain indicates to us that there is something wrong with the colonial world order that seeks to repress differences in being and worldviews.
We need to resist the erosion of civic space and actively accompany one another, share experiences, and shoulder the risks.
Those who are effectively resisting often do so for the well-being of their community and find strength, hope, and meaning in these solidarities.
As mental health workers, we must be more active in documenting the psycho-political threats to civic space and in strategising together ways of resisting them and of promoting other ways of being in the world. Instead of perpetuating extractive dynamics, our practices must be connected to community struggles and feed into processes that contest power.
Gone is the luxury of being a neutral observer.
In our re-orientation, we can also learn from indigenous psychologies, radical psychoanalysis, and other critical psychologies to find new languages and ideas to name and contest colonial capitalism’s tactics, including the misuse and abuse of our intimate lives. Most importantly, we should be led by those resisting and asserting other ways of becoming in the world.