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from the editor's desk

Climate Crisis and Consciousness

Review of ‘Climate Crisis and Consciousness’ by Sally Gillespie

Gillespie, Sally. Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Reimagining Our World and Ourselves. London and New York: Routledge, 2020. RRP$52.99, 172pp, ISBN: 9780367365349

Mari Rhydwen


‘Individually and collectively this is our time in the desert—asking “What really matters?”’ (18) These words, from the author’s introduction to her book, proved prescient as I read them in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.  As I write, almost everyone in the country who is not deemed an essential worker must stay at home and maintain a distance when venturing out to buy food or do some solitary exercise. All of us, whether of a self-reflecting nature or not, must surely now be asking ‘What really matters?’ And the responses generated seem to range along the spectrum from ‘having plenty of toilet paper’ to ‘keeping everyone safe’. This is the same spectrum of responses that are generated by reflecting on the climate crisis, from concern about maintaining our comfortable lifestyle to concern about maintaining life itself.

Sally Gillespie’s book is an invitation to explore how we can best respond to the climate crisis. She expresses no doubt that it is happening, as any investigation of reputable climate science will attest, the issue is how we can respond appropriately.  As a Jungian psychotherapist prior to switching her focus to pursue doctoral research investigating psychological responses to climate change, her work focuses on our unconscious responses. She explores how existential questions manifest in our dreams, emotions, and imagination as we grapple with ecological collapse. Like anyone who is not in denial about the unfolding crisis, she demonstrates how, by facing into it, we may disrupt the habitual ways of being that have precipitated it.  

Gillespie addresses the fear that everyone must surely feel when faced with facts about the likely consequences of the current trajectory of global heating, acknowledging the anger and denial that is often the reaction to a terror that seems too awful to bear. She draws on the experience of many well-known activists and scientists who have had to deal with their own grief and anxiety in order to continue their work, and she cites research showing that the apathy that seems to affect some people whose environment is already affected by climate change is not a consequence of not caring, but of caring too much.

Gillespie guides us through the ways in which paying attention to our environment and developing an ecological consciousness changes us profoundly: ‘Arriving at the understanding that we are not apart from but an active part of the most beautiful world we can ever know, expands horizons, changes perspectives, transforms identity, opens hearts and develops relatedness’. (67)

She leads us through the ways this happens, the various forms of ecological consciousness that are a significant aspect of Indigenous knowledge systems, deep-ecology, Buddhism, eco-philosophy and eco-psychology as well as the works of poets and dreamers through the ages who have realised the necessity, and joy, of ‘surrendering egocentric perspectives to an experience of one’s self being part of a larger whole.’ (78)  She not only introduces us to ways we can ease our own anxiety but how, by finding values we share in common with even the most ardent climate deniers, such as a love for our local area or our children and grandchildren, we can open a door to the kind of human connection that is vital for survival in times of crisis.

As the most recent global pandemic has already shown, faced with an existential threat—combined with being forced to slow down and rediscover the pleasures of less traffic, clearer air, and, for those not on the frontline, more time to stop and stare—life is changed. While it is early days, and the changes for some are terrifying, there is already evidence that whole populations can quickly adapt to behaving differently if circumstances demand it. Gillespie encourages us to make changes now, indicating ways to respond appropriately, courageously and, importantly, imaginatively, before the climate crisis becomes an emergency we can only react to with fear.  


Mari Rhydwen, teacher at the Zen Group of Western Australia has also worked as a linguist specialising in Aboriginal languages, editor for oceanographic research journals in Indonesia, and English teacher in Japan. She has written two books: Writing on the Backs of the Blacks, based on her doctoral research and Slow Travel about her Indian Ocean voyages on a small yacht.

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