“Carbon psychosis”

Austin Williams | 24 September 2009

On the 70th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s death (23 September 2009), it is tragic to realise that many people are still debilitated by the affliction known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Freud characterised it as Obsessive Neurosis. Others describe OCD – a disorder that compels a person to commit ritualistic actions – as a physiological disorder caused by neurological triggering mechanisms in the brain. Whatever the cause, the sufferer’s repetitive behavior is intended to reduce anxiety but can still lead to depression and thoughts about self-harm.

Like ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), OCD is regularly caricatured as one of the ailments of our modern, materialistic western societies; endorsed by the fact that it has some curious symptoms and some celebrity sufferers. Cameron Diaz says that she habitually rubs doorknobs before opening doors; while Leonardo Di Caprio forces himself not to step on chewing gum stains on the pavement. Daytime TV ‘therapist’ Jeremy Kyle licks his mobile phone every time it rings; and Labour Member of Parliament, Sir Gerald Kaufman, says that he has ‘self-diagnosed OCD’ whereby he needs to eat the same breakfast every morning from £220 Waterford crystal bowls, hence their inclusion on his expense account.

For some celebrity hypochondriacs, OCD has become a fashion statement, for others it is just a chain around their neck. But there is one major obsessive compulsion that has become a central feature of all our lives to the extent that there is real kudos in becoming its victim. Far from reducing anxiety, the latest OCD – Obsessive Carbon Dogma – actually raises anxiety in order to give itself some therapeutic rationale. Fear of rising tides, of population growth, of China and India, of motor cars, of energy use; and of most other aspects of contemporary society, has led us to develop an infatuation with carbon and the mindless repetitive trivia of everyday life. Such is the extent of this compulsion, that it has even become government policy in many developed countries.

Paul Kelly, The Australian newspaper’s editor-at-largesays that ‘carbon is the currency of a new world order’; UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband thinks that ‘the idea of a personal carbon card is pretty iconic’, and Canadian opposition leader, Stephane Dion has a dog called Kyoto. Meanwhile, the town board of Woodstock, New York has adopted a Zero Carbon initiative, in what Councilman Stephen Knight called a therapeutic step toward ‘rescuing the nation from embarrassment’.

Nowadays, we are all encouraged to obsessively check what is euphemistically called ‘our waste stream’; to worry that the gas fire or bath taps are turned off; to compulsively monitor our CO2 usage and to relentlessly assess our carbon footprint. We are collectively developing a carbon foot fetish. These days, many of us cannot leave the room without frantically switching off the lights, appliances and standby buttons in an obsessive, ritualistic frenzy.

So while genuine sufferers of OCD try to cure themselves, everybody else is being encouraged to suffer the Obligatory Carbon Diet. As such, many people take perverse pleasure in performing mundane tasks many times over – it seems to give them a high level of confidence and satisfaction, but in fact it locks them into a depressing navel-gazing pyschosis.

Tony Sanders, described by The Sun newspaper as ‘Britain’s greenest homeowner’ happily spends 2 hours a day sorting out his rubbish. But you’re never too young to be allowed into the fanatical fold. Sara Pearson, a pre-school practitioner at a nursery for three year olds in Barrow, England says that her pupils ‘have all been looking forward to the trips to the recycling bins.’(1) This means that families that are outside the mainstream education system in the UK are likely to be slightly off-message. For example, in a BBC report on Romanian traveller communities, a British gypsy commented: ‘(There are) children from seven to eight-years-old up to maybe 12-years-old, playing and sorting out rubbish. Obviously I wouldn’t want my children doing that.’(2)

Get with the programme! All of us are told in no uncertain terms that we must carbon count, carbon trade, carbon monitor, carbon ration or carbon audit. We can track our carbon, assess it, compare it, or trade it. We can, in fact, watch every aspect of our erstwhile meaningful lives reduced to a carbon calculation and then we can spend all of our remaining time looking to see if it all adds up. As the ultimate symbol of Obsessive Carbon Decadence, we can even offset our carbon by paying someone in the Third World not to develop on our behalf. We have become a carbon-infatuated society. As The Times newspaper put it at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival, OCD frequently forces us to repeatedly tie things in knots.(3)

It is now commonplace to insist that homeowners habitually measure their waste and carbon production; and their energy and water usage as if these were the most important activities in life. Rummaging in bins and parcelling up your garbage is deemed to be the new cultural highpoint of the carbonista lifestyle. Haverford College, Pennsylvania celebrates ‘an entirely student designed-and-executed initiative’ focusing on ‘composting’.

Some acute sufferers are severely afflicted to the extent that it affects their judgement. Victoria Clarke from Stockport, for instance, was so keen to sort her rubbish that she left several bin bags on the pavement a day earlier than necessary. She was offered shock therapy in the form of a £700 fine for ‘advancement of waste’. The Ecologist magazine describes life in an OCD home: ‘I was unpacking a delivery of seasonal veg with my five-year-old daughter,’ says a desperate father, ‘when… I looked round and saw that she’d peeled a couple of leaves off a cabbage and was fashioning them into a pair of shoes’. (4)

Whatever help there is for these sufferers tends to remind us that we are, in fact, morally fallible and predominantly a lost cause. One private company that writes schools’ Lesson Plans wants students to ‘examine their role in polluting the environment’. A British Carbon Rationing Action Group – which are support groups for carbon obsessives – reminds us that: ‘Carbon criminals leave lights on. Turn them off, even if you’re only leaving the room for a short time.’ As we can see, OCD is one of the most intrusive ailments of our time. It invades our privacy and encourages the authorities to pry into our daily lives. Under new UK guidelines, for example, each occupier of a truly zero carbon home should flush the toilet no more than 1.46 times per day! Carbon counting is sending us all round the bend.

Many have gone over to the dark side – literally – and may never recover. Peter and Sarah Robinson, for example, reveal how they get up early in the morning but refuse to put the lights on. They open the curtains just enough to let sufficient daylight into the room to help them navigate their furniture safely, but not so much that too much heat escapes. In the dark mornings of winter, they see by the borrowed light from a streetlamp fortuitously placed outside their window. They own no television and their children are allowed to watch DVDs only on the weekend and only if the brightness control is turned down. Most evenings, the family spends its time in the kitchen in order not to have to switch ‘more lights on than necessary’ in other rooms. Mr Robinson’s Obligatory Carbon Doctrine started after he visited a prison with a group of psychology students. He noticed the repetitive routine that warders used to unlock and secure doors and he was lulled into performing his own rigorous lock-down activity at home. Because of OCD, the Robinsons have turned their home into a personal prison.

There is a simple cure for OCD sufferers and it is up to us who haven’t succumbed to the Obsessive Carbon Delusion to save them from themselves, We simply need to argue for rationality and reasoned debate. We should point out that not only does our world not revolve around carbon… but it is, in fact, CO2 that makes the world go round. Humanity is not simply the sum total of its carbon emissions – in fact humans make carbon meaningful. We would be nothing without expending energy, and lots of it, to transform the world and to make us what we are.

Even if carbon emissions are causing global warming; and even if global warming has the potential to cause dangerous sea level rise; it still doesn’t follow automatically that we should use less carbon. Maybe we should use more carbon. More carbon energy to create flood defences, build escape roads, create new cities, develop cheap flights to improve the ability of people to choose where they live. Unfortunately, the more that we become blinded by a carbon infatuation, the more we are in very real danger of losing sight of our options and our humanity. The cure for OCD is to use, create, invent and develop more things. Rather than keeping our heads stuck in our bins, this is the creative way to solve problems.

To that end, it is good that the Chinese want to aspire to modern motorized transport that is faster and more convenient than a carbon-neutral bicycle. It is good that India’s population is developing, so that rag-picking – a degraded form of Western recycling – is a thing of the past.

It seems that the real meaning of Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ is that personal inconvenience will grow – and our psychological inability to combat it will increase – the more that we sacrifice the gains of modernity on the altar of carbon bean-counting.

1. Natalie Chapples, ‘Recycling is fun to do: WISE children are starting young when it comes to caring for the planet’, North West Evening Mail, 18 February 2009



4. John-Paul Flintoff, ‘Second skin: why wearing nettles is the next big thing’, The Ecologist, 20 August, 2009



Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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