Shifting from Me to We will increase personal and social wellbeing…

…in a climate-disrupted world, argues Bob Doppelt in Transformational Resilience

Walking along the Water of Leith a couple of years ago, Dave Key, Margaret Kerr and I wondered if we were the only people who were fearful of what a society affected by climate change might be like – how would people individually and collectively respond to what was likely to be a challenging situation? It seemed to us that questioning the “one more push and we’ll crack climate change” orthodoxy was rarely welcome, perhaps because it opened up all kinds of personal fears and dissonance.

That conversation came vividly to mind as I read Transformational Resilience, where Doppelt writes:

it seems difficult to see how the rise in global temperatures will be limited to the 1.5° threshold. To the contrary, as of now, temperatures seem likely to rise by at least 2°C, and possibly much higher.

and that the negative impact of climate change on society and natural systems:

will be indisputably traumatic and exceedingly stressful, producing significant effects on the human mind and body.

He argues that this will lead to:

unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicides, and other mental health problems for individuals worldwide. These woes will, in turn, produce a boatload of psycho-social-spiritual maladies, such as increased interpersonal aggression, crime, violence, hopelessness, and more, that undermine the safety, security, and health of people all around the planet.

He then draws on his experience as both a consulting psychologist and environmental scientist to explain that:

traumatized individuals and groups exist in a fear-based self-protective survival mode that turns their focus inward, inhibits their ability to learn, and can all but eliminate their concern for the welfare of others or the natural environment. This will make it even more difficult to motivate people to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, prepare for climate impacts, and do their part to reduce climate impacts to a manageable level.

So far, so depressing.

However, Doppelt offers hope, presenting a range of evidence that:

when individuals and groups develop effective resilience skills, they are able to avoid personally or socially harmful reactions to adversity, recover more quickly when they happen, and use trauma and stress as catalysts to actually increase their wellbeing above previous levels.

He argues that these dimensions of climate change are so crucial that:

it must become a top international priority to proactively build the capacity of individuals and groups for Transformational Resilience. This will help people use the traumas and stresses generated by climate disruption as stimulus to make the changes in thinking, practices, and policies required to increase personal and social wellbeing, as well as the condition of the natural environment, well above current levels and thrive.

Climate change policy makers and practitioners must therefore add to the priorities of mitigation and adaptation, and

make major investments in preventative initiatives aimed at enhancing the capacity of people for Transformational Resilience.

In addition, he continues,

mental and behavioral health practitioners and policy-makers must rapidly expand their focus beyond treating psychological and emotional problems, and invest as much or more in teaching people how to prevent these maladies in the first place.

Can we break the taboo on discussing climate change failure?

As a result of our conversation, Dave, Mags and I surveyed around 800 people engaged with sustainability and climate change. We found that over half the 800 respondents believed things will get much worse for people and planet with little prospect of improvement within their lifetime; while forty percent said a transition to a sustainable and just world is likely, but that this will involve major disruption and hardship.

We wrote that the time that:

while we haven’t analysed the official public narratives of relevant international agencies, governments and NGOs, our impression is that while they highlight the challenges of climate change etc, they imply these can be overcome, and that the transition will be smooth and painless.

We noted that:

If this impression is correct, it stands in direct contrast to the majority view in this survey — that major disruption is inevitable.

We felt this raised several important questions, directly related to Doppelt’s message:

  • How can [people working on climate change etc] find the right balance between being honest about their fears for the future and conveying positive and motivating messages to the organisations and communities they work with?
  • If denial of the implications of our situation is both a coping strategy and holds back the chance of addressing it effectively, how do we move forward?
  • How can people working and campaigning on these issues best look after themselves and support each other?

We were disappointed that our attempts to explore these issues further made little headway beyond our immediate group.

However, in setting out so clearly and authoritatively the psycho-social-spiritual maladies that are likely to result from the failure of climate change diplomacy, mitigation and adaptation to maintain global temperatures within desirable limits, Doppelt’s work can do much to help break the taboo on discussing the the implications of ‘climate failure’. Hopefully this will help give these issues the importance they deserve – that we need them to be given for ourselves, our fellow humans, and all our children.

Shifting from Me to We

Transformative Resilience goes beyond an analysis of the problem, it also sets out in some considerable detail a prescription for addressing it. For Doppelt, the purpose of the approach he advocates, transformative resilience, is:

to help people become more effective in dealing with and alleviating adversities [resulting from climate change] by learning how to care for themselves and find meaning, direction, and hope in their lives by helping other people, and improving the condition of the natural environment and climate.

In other words, to use the hardships generated by climate disruption as catalysis to gain insight, grow, and thrive it will be essential to rise above a sole focus on “Me” to find meaning and fulfillment in life by enhancing the “We” which includes other people and the climate that make all life possible on planet Earth.

This shift from “Me” to “We” has strong resonance with the Common Cause approach which informs much of my work and that of colleagues. Indeed, as the Common Cause homepage says:

it is difficult to foresee long-lasting and adequate responses to some of today’s most pressing challenges emerging without working to promote [compassionate values, that underpin social and environmental concern].

Doppelt defines Transformative Resilience as:

the capacity of individuals and groups to use their existing strengths and resources to deliberately regulate their body, emotions, and thoughts, and use adversity as a catalyst to find new meaning, direction, and hope in life by making decisions that enhance personal, social, and environmental wellbeing.

Transformational Resilience is a bottom-up self-organizing approach to building personal mental health and psycho-social-spiritual resilience that can be developed person-by-person and group-by-group. It is not a top-down expert led psychological treatment that seeks to attain specific therapeutic goals and objectives.

So now you’re probably asking “well, what actually is Transformative Resilience and how does it work?”

Doppelt describes numerous examples of transformative resilience in practice, particularly in areas hit by climate change related extreme weather events, but also in communities tackling child abuse and neglect, poverty and educational failure (as there are more case studies in these areas). These are moving and eloquent stories of how individuals, groups and communities have made real personal and collective change. The activities and processes they use have their origins in mindfulness, psychotherapy, the building of social capital and similar approaches.

It’s clear none of this is a silver bullet — this is likely to be hard work for all involved, though hugely rewarding once its effects start to become apparent.

Organisations will need new stories too

Organisations as well as communities will, argues Doppelt, need to respond:

To learn, grow, and thrive in the midst of rising climate-enhanced adversities, the majority of organizations will need to adopt new social narratives—new stories—focused on the needs and benefits of increasing the mental health and psycho-social-spiritual wellbeing of everyone involved, as well as the condition of the natural environment that makes their entire operation possible. Put another way, they will need to restructure themselves to ensure that they enhance all forms of life, not just the economic condition of the organization.

Currently however, many organisations are he believes “trauma organised”:

[Trauma organised] describes an organization that has reacted to adversity by adopting mechanisms intended to protect it from the threat, but which instead generates more distress for members and stakeholders.

Doppelt relates an example:

I got a first-hand look at a climate-related trauma-organized organization a few years back when I received a phone call from a staff member of a large national organization focused on solutions to climate disruption. The staffer, a scientist, said the organization was in disarray and wondered if I could help.

Over the course of the next hour, the caller explained that employees were demoralized because they saw little progress being made in addressing the climate crisis. Many worked nonstop and were continuously stressed out. Tempers were short, people often harshly criticized each other, and many staff feared being humiliated in public. Managers did not grasp the problems. Instead, they called more and more meetings to discuss how to get work done, which only created additional stress for staff because they had less time available to do their work. Managers also issued decrees aimed at “improving” employee output that staff ignored or found ways to work around. This only angered the managers who issued more top-down directives. As a result, some key staff members had resigned and others were searching for new jobs.

The difficulties experienced by this group are not unique. Without significant preventative efforts to give organizations effective knowledge, tools, and skills, an increasing number will become trauma-organized as climate disruption worsens.

These threats need not be climate related – indeed it takes little imagination to wonder if this describes many organisations, across all sectors, in this age of so called austerity. Here are some of the common traits of trauma–organised organisation:

  • Are confused about their purpose, vision of success, and guiding values.
  • Lack good emotional regulation.
  • Lack agreement about shared norms and practices.
  • Include siloed and fragmented units and functions.
  • Have rigid and often punitive rules and regulations.
  • Experience constant groupthink, quick ­fix thinking, and the inability to learn.
  • Fail to acknowledge or correct injustices.
  • Display an inability to grieve losses leading to reenactment.
  • Are susceptible to authoritarian leadership and decision­ making.
  • Lack interpersonal trust, empathy, compassion, and social sup- port.
  • Experience widespread fears over personal, physical, psychological or emotional safety.

Drawing on the work of others working with trauma-organised organisations, Doppelt argues that transformative resilience can be applied to such organisations – and indeed that doing so is an essential aspect of climate change policy.

Build community

Doppelt is actively promoting transformative resilience at workshops for a wide range of national and international agencies; including one last year with the UK Committee on Climate Change. I don’t know how he’s got on; I’d be interested to hear more about this. Indeed, one area the book doesn’t address, that seems to me to be vitally important, is the strategy for raising awareness of, and action on, the psycho-social-spiritual impacts of climate change.

The reason I believe this is so important is because there are likely to be considerable psychological barriers for individuals and organisations to engage with transformative resilience as part of a preventative approach, rather than as a response to climate impacts causing widespread, acknowledged problems. My initial thought on how one might overcome this is stems from advice said to have been given by deep ecologist Arne Naess to students on a course he taught at Schumacher College. Overwhelmed and moved by the complexity and immensity of the challenges facing the world, they asked what they could do: “build community” was Naess’s response, “wherever you find yourself, build community”.

Alongside other, complementary, approaches, transformative resilience seems to offer a powerful conceptual framework and effective tools to build community – including within organisations – whether or not addressing climate change is the expressed purpose of such action.

Perhaps transformative resilience has something to offer the current interest in community action and engagement in Scotland — not just in climate change adaptation and mitigation, but also land reform and community empowerment generally. This seems to me a potential strategy for a wide range of organisations and groups to adopt the methods of transformative resilience, building personal and collective capacity to, in Doppelt’s words: “find new meaning, direction, and hope in life by making decisions that enhance personal, social, and environmental wellbeing”.


Transformational Resilience by Bob Doppelt is published by Greenleaf, 2016


I offer workshops in resilience for individuals and organisations with colleagues at The Surefoot Effect. Resilience and the role of values are central to much of my work with groups – for example my Wholehearted Approach to Change programme for the RADIAL Project at Glasgow School of Art.