The Psychology of Climate Action

A Conversation with Renee Lertzman
Double exposure of a woman's silhouette against a sunrise

Renée Lertzman, PhD, joins us from her home in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco. For 30 years, Renée has been building a practice that applies psychological insights to how sustainability, environment, and climate practitioners can be more effective at reaching people. She earned a Master’s in Environmental Rhetoric from UNC Chapel Hill, and her PhD in Social Science from Cardiff University in Wales. Since 2011, Renée has been running a consultancy, partnering with organizations such as WWF, NRDC, Skoll Global Threats Fund, the Alliance for Climate Education, the Endangered Species Coalition, and Google. She speaks and works internationally and has presented at CRED. Her work has been featured recently in Rolling Stone, CNN, NPR, and the New Yorker. She has been awarded grants from the KR Foundation and the 11th Hour Project to launch a new initiative called Project InsideOut, providing tools and resources for the sustainability sector.

In this episode of Earthfire Radio, Susan and Renée discuss three psychological concepts that are of great use when exploring what makes humans more or less likely to participate in taking action for the planet. This conversation is a follow up to Renee’s groundbreaking TED Talk, How to Turn Climate Anxiety into Action.

Learn more about Renée’s work at


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Susan: It’s lovely to see you again, Renée.

Renée: It’s lovely to see you, too.

Susan: We met at TED X Women, and there was an immediate understanding that Renée had really important information to share about climate change and psychology. I was immediately interested because I’m a psychologist deeply interested in nature, and I work a lot with deep ecology as well. I understood the importance of your work. If you’re willing, I think it would be great for you to go over the three main points. And then we can just have a conversation.

Renée: That sounds good. So in the TED talk, I addressed three key psychological concepts that I have found to be quite transformational and game changing in terms of how we understand human difficulty and challenges with meeting our ecological crises. How we relate with and come to terms with the impact that humans have had on the planet. Because this has been puzzling people working in the field for decades now. It feels like this black box of how can we possibly get through to people to recognize what we’re doing, and the profundity of what we’re doing, and what is at stake for all life on the planet? And so when I talk about these psychological concepts, I identify three dimensions of this.

The first one was the concept of the Window of Tolerance. This is basically the concept that neuroscientist, psychiatrist, author Daniel Siegel has created. He has been a master of translating neuroscientific research into frameworks and tools that people can grasp. So the window of tolerance is what he describes as that zone where we’re able to tolerate a certain amount of stress and anxiety and activation. When we’re overwhelmed, when we’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, we tend to go into either a collapse response, or on the other end of the spectrum, we can go into a hyper, manic hardness. He’s identified that there are these two ends of the spectrum: the collapse and the hyper-active, angry—

Susan: That includes denial, too, right?

Renée: Yes.

Susan: The rigidity of it.

Renée: Yes, exactly. It’s like the pushing away. You can’t handle it. Just pushing away. And obviously, a lot of us are moving between these all the time. It’s very dynamic. But his whole point is that when we’re outside of our window of tolerance—the level of anxiety and stress that we can tolerate—we are usually in one or the other of those ends of the spectrum. The window of tolerance is used now extensively in the clinical world, but hasn’t really been applied to help us understand what’s going on for us at a more collective, social level.

The second concept I talk about is the double bind. Gregory Bateson wrote about the double bind in the 70s and the 80s, when he was linking the experience when we feel like we’re caught in a bind where literally, you can’t make a right decision. So it’s like damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That in itself is a condition that gives rise to psychosis, to craziness, to schizophrenia. And I think we need to really understand that for a lot of people, their experience of ecological degradation brings up a profound sense of a double bind. I’m not saying it’s actual, but it feels like a double bind. People feel like, “Okay, I can’t make a right decision. If I stop flying, then what about my meat consumption? Or if I stop doing this? And what about this?” The double blind can feel like, “I really care about the planet, but I feel like if I were to do anything about it, it would jeopardize a lot about my life, and I don’t know if I can handle that right now. It would impact my relationships. It might impact my work. I might need to make different career choices, different work choices. If I were to choose to stop participating in practices like air travel, what’s the impact that that would have on my professional life, my personal life, my friends, my family, my spirituality?” A lot of people travel for religious reasons, for spiritual reasons. So this is the sense of a double bind.

Susan: Is there a sense of helplessness associated with that or is that something separate?

Renée: Well, I think that the experience of a double bind gives rise to a profound sense of helplessness and impotence. And it’s like, okay, what can I possibly do here? There’s a profound sense of helplessness that comes up with the double bind. These are incredibly uncomfortable feelings to have, and we will avoid them and push them away at just about any cost.

So I think that if we’re going to do effective environmental work in the world, we have to be a lot more tuned in to the psychological and emotional landscape that we’re in. As activists, as communicators, as funders, as educators, citizens, teachers, so forth, I feel like we can’t be effective unless we really understand at a deeper level the double binds, and the conflicts and dilemmas that people are wrestling with. Whether or not we agree with that, whether or not we think it’s true or accurate, doesn’t matter. We need to really understand that and meet people at that place.

That leads to the third concept, which is about attunement. And I talk about attunement, because I’m sitting here in front of my books, and if I open up just about any of my clinical psychology books—relational psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, trauma work—it all comes back to attunement and relationship as the basic building block of healing—how we can stay in our window of tolerance. How do we keep ourselves regulated? How do we stay in a highly functional place? I call it attunement. I use that term because I find it beautiful. I find it accurate. It’s elegant. I think you hear the word attune, you feel it—like “to tune in.” The resonance of it. But it’s also why community works. It’s why when people get together and do things together, that is a powerful way to move through our despair and our feeling of helplessness. It’s just a terminology that I think helps us understand why these things work.

And within attunement, I talk about three ways to practice attunement. I talk about attuning with oneself—the practice of just really being in touch with yourself, having the ability to check in with yourself and actually have compassion and kindness towards our own experience, our own suffering, our own pain, our own apathy, our own numbness, our own whatever it is we might be feeling. By attuning with ourselves, we’re regulating our own nervous system. And I get this from, the work of all kinds of people, including Sarah Peyton, whose work I love. She has written a book called Your Resonant Self. It’s like a self-help book that takes all this neuroscience around how do we befriend ourselves so that we can actually be effective and creative and more fully in the world? So there’s the self-attunement, which we need in order to really be able to be capable of attuning to anything else around us. I mean, that’s my argument.

Susan: I agree.

Renée: I think there’s no way around it. I think that our quality of our relationships and our ability to tune in to others is directly influenced by how well we’re in touch with ourselves. Hence, people who are critical, who are judgmental, projecting—that’s a reflection of what’s going on on the inside. So that’s why I direct our attention first to how are we relating with ourselves? And then we move into how are we relating with those around us?

And then the third is like relating with the earth. There’s the human relationality, and then there’s the relationality with where we are—the web of life that we’re in, human and non-human.

Those are the three domains that I talk about. And then I talked about what it would look like if this showed up as a form of leadership. What would it look like if our leaders showed up as regulated? As vulnerable? As human? When leaders show up in that way, it actually has the effect of helping us all regulate. And that’s something that I also got from Sarah Peyton. I interviewed her before I gave my TED talk, and she talked about research that shows that we cognitively pattern ourselves on whoever are the leaders in our social group. So if they’re leaders that are dissociated or not highly-functioning, then it leaves us in a dysregulated state—and then we’re really in trouble. She was talking about how people are finding leadership—okay, it’s not way up there, but where can we find it more in our communities at the regional level, at the state level, or whatever? There’s this amazing moment we’re in where we’re starting to see leadership arise from many different places and contexts.

Susan: One of the things that really caught my attention was your story about how you went on a two-month backpack and were really depressed. And as you began to share information with others, nobody tried to encourage you or say it’s not hopeless, and yet at the end of that, you didn’t feel hopeless anymore. You felt more hopeful. And how that helped you begin to realize the importance of human interaction to not just dealing with hopelessness, but to dealing effectively with things.

Renée: There’s a whole side that I didn’t get into in the TED talk, which was the impact that literally living in wilderness for two months had on me. It was a wilderness immersion course designed and informed by a particular pedagogy created by someone named Robert Greenway, who created a whole approach called wilderness psychology. His work was really based on the concept of immersion and leaving the front country and going into the back country. So not only were we out literally for two months—other than resupplies—in four different wilderness areas in California, but we were following a whole protocol of acute mindfulness of what we talked about. What we read.

Basically, we had entire days of unstructured time. We would backpack way, way out and we’d set up. We’d meet in the morning for class and then we’d meet for class after dinner. The teaching was very much around “nature is the teacher.” And so if you just sat on a rock all day, the teacher would consider that to be just as valuable as if you’d read a whole book. But we did have readings, and it was rigorous. We were reading a lot of environmental philosophy and literature and religion, and all that stuff. But the combination of that with actually being in nature: swimming a lot—pretty much everywhere we were, we had access to being in water. A lot of wildlife around us. Living in a small group of people. Fire every night with storytelling. Reading from our journals. Sharing what was coming up for us. All of those things work synergistically. For the TED talk, I spoke about one piece of that. But it was a key piece. It was the human relational piece. But it was obviously in the context of what was going on for me and how my consciousness was changed by several weeks in wilderness.

And then I was invited to go back and be his first T.A. As soon as he could have a T.A., he hired me. I had just finished my undergraduate at that point, so I was able to go back and go through it all again—which was an incredible gift, to come at it a few years older and in a more of a teaching role. You can’t unlearn that kind of experience. It’s in your system. There’s a sense of some sadness or some loss, having gone through something like that, because you always want to get back to it. There’s a post-immersion depression that can happen.

Susan: I spent time in deep, deep, deep wilderness, and you don’t really want to come back. And it stays with you forever, sort of grounding. How does nature do that to us? What is it doing to us, that we’re so profoundly changed forever? What is it that we’re missing? We can’t put seven billion people into nature. Was it nature somehow speaking to you and through you? That, as a result of the combination of your interest in psychology and being out there, you came to this profound, incredibly useful epiphany of what’s missing? Did that come from nature in some way? How does that actually work, from a more spiritual perspective? Was nature actually sharing with you what you needed to do when you tuned in? That it is simply an experience of who you were? But what you’re doing after those two immersion experiences is of extreme importance to all life at this point. And the impact of that really caused you to begin your whole life’s work, which is the missing element in all the environmental work—which is the human element.

Renée: Right.

Susan: How absurdly obvious it is—and yet, you’re really one of the first people who have profoundly put the two together. And from my end, when I talk in environmental conferences, it’s shocking how little the real environment is included. We talk about water and air and stuff, but there’s often little deep, vibrant connection with the actual feel of life and what it means to lose it or to be in it. The vibrancy of connection is missing. It’s more abstract conversation than it is a vibrant, natural, animal connection. How important it is to be profoundly connected to nature in a real deep sense and bring that to all these climate and environmental conferences. But we need both of those elements. The life is out of some of it, when we talk with the abstractions. Unless we’re actually feeling the life that we’re connected with—and we are ourselves—we’re also not going to make good decisions. And the other aspect of it is one of the things, and this is not anything new either, it’s just that we have to as humans, we have to hear it and rehear it and rehear it.

Renée: Yeah, totally.

Susan: The importance of small community and how that supports one another. The solutions are going to come—and the healing is going to come—from local, small communities talking together. Being together. Not from the government, not from the top down, not from political parties. Just because we are fundamentally tribal in the best sense—a small group like you had. And because of the resonances and some magical thing that happens when we support one another, we’re freed to connect with something greater. It’s another just enormously important thing for us to support one another in small communities—not just around the country, but around the world. I do some work with a wonderful man called Matt Zylstra, who would be completely simpatico with everything we’re talking about, and we keep talking about how can we make little communities around the world? Well, they are springing up. But to support it and make it happen faster. Like Paul Hawkins’ Blessed Unrest, only it’s not unrest fast enough.

Renée: Yeah.

Susan: One of the points you made, that I felt was really important was do we have time for this—the psychological learning and all the stuff with humans? And the answer is not only must we, but actually, as soon as you start attuning, answers so start to come.

Renée: Right.

Susan: So it’s actually a very efficient thing to do. It’s not far out at all.

Renée: Right. It’s basic.

Susan: Fundamental.

Renée: Fundamental. That’s why I feel so confident in standing by what I’m saying, because I know it’s actually real and true. We process the world in relationship. We think in relationship, as we’re doing right now in conversation. Whether it’s sitting in the woods and there’s a communication or relationship happening with the life there, or having a conversation, or a small group or even an online conversation like on Twitter, that’s how our minds work. I’ve just been incredibly inspired by the research coming out of the public health sector—. this whole approach that’s called motivational interviewing. A colleague of mine once called it psychotherapy 101 or psychotherapy lite. It’s a distillation of just basic good psychotherapeutic practice, but they’ve operationalized it in a way so that there are specific practices and tools and methods. And it’s all about how to attune. How do we show up in a way where we support the optimal conditions for the others’ creative capacities to come through? And really, it’s about creating an atmosphere of psychological safety. That’s a term that I’m learning is quite popular now in the business world. They’re starting to realize that people need psychological safety to thrive.

Susan: What a thought.

Renée: I know. [Laughs]

Susan: Like we thrive in fear and pressure and oppression.

Renée: I know, I know. What a revelation. But we need to show up for each other. It’s actually both fundamental and really complicated, because then we get into, well, what does that mean and how do we do it? But the reason I love motivational interviewing so much is because it’s based on this idea that—it’s not even an idea, it’s evidence-based—that when we relate with people from an attitude of empathy and curiosity and interest, then amazing things happen. We’re capable of a lot. And that’s the thing. My work is really very spiritually grounded. Basically, I’m a humanist, in a way. I believe that as human beings, we have we have enormous capacity. We have enormous capacity in lots of different ways, in different directions. But I’m not concerned about the human capacity to be loving and innovative and creative and healing and reparative. I mean, look around us. This is amazing. I’m living in a house. There’s heat. There’s running water. We’re talking on the computer. I can see you. You can see me. I’ve got this phone. I’m wearing eyeglasses.

Susan: And also art and music.

Renée: Exactly! I have this painting. We are profoundly creative beings. But the question to me that we have to keep coming back to over and over and over again is what are those conditions that cultivate our capacities to be our most beautiful and brilliant creative selves? That’s the only game in town.

Susan: Yes.

Renée: What are those conditions? And what does that mean for me? And ideally, it’s an invitation. It’s a sense of, “Wow, I’ve got this life. What does this mean for me?”.

Susan: Could you give us a brief outline of how we can create these conditions? Or how can I refer people to places where they can read about it and learn about it?

Renée: Well, I’m trying to get a book going, so hopefully, there will be a resource in about a year that we can direct people to. But in the meantime, creating those conditions has to do with a lot of things. It has to do with our attitude and relationship with ourselves—and with ourselves as human beings of compassion. And compassion, to me, includes this quality of forgiveness.

I’m thinking in terms of what promotes psychological safety. And then it makes me think, what’s the opposite of that? Which is guilt, shame, and fear. And feeling helpless, feeling hopeless, feeling powerless. I’m going from there, and I’m backing into what do we need to navigate those feelings and experiences that I think are, frankly, inevitable when we confront the horrors of what we are and have done to our planet. I honestly feel that a lot of people actually care very deeply and are, deep down, on some level, absolutely horrified at what humans have done. But it’s so overwhelming and it’s almost like I don’t even know how to deal with it.

I’m thinking about where you live and I’m thinking about wildlife, and I’m thinking about the destruction of wildlife. I’m thinking about the destruction of, let’s just say, wolves. I believe that more people aren’t actually engaging with the issue because it’s so traumatizing to even go there. It’s so upsetting. It’s so shocking. And somehow, I also feel guilty just on behalf of humanity. People just push it away and dissociate and shut down.

And then my theory that I’ve been working with for a couple of decades now is that that concern and that feeling—and even that love—doesn’t just go away. It goes underground. And so I think that we need to create these conditions that allow people to feel safe enough to say, “You know what? Here we are in this moment in history. We’re human beings. We are figuring out what it means to be human. How to live on this planet. We’re not that old, in the big picture. And we’ve really gone astray—especially over the past few hundred years.” Let’s support each other while we look at that. I think any environmental studies class should be it should be co-taught with a psychologist.

Susan: Yeah.

Renée: I mean, why not? It does not make sense to me. for these classes in environmental advocacy and environmental NGOs and foundations—for them not to engage psychologists strikes me as utterly insane. It’s like this dissociation.

Susan: It’s the same thing as talking about nature instead of feeling it as you speak about it. That’s an insane separation, as if we’re not part of it. “The earth.” As if we’re not part of it. It leads to this same separation you’re talking about.

Renée: Right.

Susan: We’re talking about environmentalism. We’re not talking about psychology—as if the two aren’t connected.

Renée: I know. To not include psychology in our environmental and climate work is literally ignoring all the research that we currently know about how the human mind functions.

Susan: And some of the causes of environmental destruction. We’re not even addressing the causes of it, which is our behavior.

Renée: Right.

Susan: We haven’t gotten to the core of why we destroy, which is another question. But we’re not even including, as you said, human behavior. You also mentioned that when you heard this environmental stuff, when you were in school, you nearly quit school. So it’s backwards. You’re turning people off with all the horrors. Not only do we need environmental studies and human psychology, we also need hope. And not unrealistic hope, just plain hope.

Renée: Well, we need stories to show examples.

Susan: And of where we might go instead.

Renée: Right.

Susan: It’s really very easy to turn everything around, in principle. It’s starting to value all life. If we make that one shift, everything will change. It’s not easy to do when there are massive, massive structures built against that. But the actual process of, quote, “saving the earth or saving ourselves,” is simply to connect deeply with nature. Feel the connection, and then we don’t do any destruction. So the fundamentals are really very simple. The execution is a whole different matter.

Renée: Yeah. I tend to focus a bit less on the people directly involved with perpetrating and harming. I tend to speak more to that middle majority of people who are not directly involved with shooting or mining. But we’re all connected to it because it touches our lives in in all kinds of indirect ways. Like when I turn on the power in my house. It’s connected, but I’m not directly, viscerally connected to that at all. It’s very abstract I’m able to just function in this dissociated way because it’s not tangible. So you’re right, I tend not to focus as much on the psychology of people who are literally making decisions to drill and to harm and burn forests.

Susan: And you may have good reasons for that. So I’m asking you, what’s your reason for focusing where you do focus?

Renée: Because that’s where I think the leverage is—where the opportunity is. Because on one end of the spectrum, people are just completely disconnected and never will be connected. And then you’ve got people who are super-connected. This is our life. And then in the middle, there’s this whole spectrum of people who are just feeling very distraught. Feeling stuck in their double binds. And so, I think my work is about unleashing all that energy. Not me personally, because there’s only so much I can do. But that’s sort of where I direct the focus of my messages.

Susan: Wouldn’t that be incredibly exciting if you can help all of us to release that creative energy?

Renée: I think we can. There was something I was going to say about what you said about how we need hope. And to me, it’s very important that we don’t just focus on the hope. We can’t move towards the light and the hope unless we also have a way of acknowledging what’s painful and loss.

Susan: I think that’s one of the things that’s so powerful in your work. It’s part of eternal wisdom, too. They say, “Work on yourself first before you can help the world.”

Renée: I think that is a differentiating message that I’m able to offer right now. Right now, there’s a lot of hope, despair, hope, despair. It’s not about hope or despair. It’s about hope and despair.

Susan: Right.

Renée: There’s such a powerful tendency in the climate and environmental sector to just push the hope, and I worry about that. I worry that it’s alienating and it turns people off because it’s not real. It’s not it authentic.

Susan: Anything that’s not real is not useful. To the extent we can with our brilliant but imperfect human brains, it’s really, really important to try to be accurate.

Renée: Yeah, I think we really hunger for that.

Susan: We hunger for it. We would feel relieved by it. I think our brains are basically structured for it. Just like with animals, too. If we’re not realistic, you die pretty quick. But then you got all this other stuff that gets added— religion and culture and guilt and families and all that stuff—because our brains are so brilliant and developed so fast. I think we’ve not learned how to help develop it properly. Balanced.

Renée: Definitely. These are the conversations that need to be happening. I’m the biggest champion of psychologically trained or psychologically-oriented people, particularly those like yourself, who also have that deep connection and consciousness. To me that’s where it’s at. That’s the future.

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