Marijke van Duin

Populism and climate change

Ecothee 19, 23-27 September 2019, OAC Crete Presentation M van Duin

Populism and climate change

Good afternoon distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen!

Let me briefly introduce myself. Over the last almost 25 years I have been involved in the ecumenical climate movement, in my own country – the Netherlands –, on a European level and since 2000 for the WCC. While monitoring the UN climate COPs my frustration over the lack of progress there, grew. Around eight years ago I wanted to find answers as to why there was so little progress, and I turned to the analytical depth-psychology of Carl Gustav Jung. I studied that for four years, and indeed I found some interesting answers.

Two years ago I did a presentation here on climate change and Jungian psychology. In the follow-up my fellow members of the climate change working group of the WCC asked me to do a similar study on populism. As we all know, populism is on the rise in many developed countries around the world. It is potentially dangerous, not only because of its related tendencies such as racism, xenophobia and extremism, but also because many populists are climate-deniers. Therefore populist movements can delay or complicate urgently needed climate policies.

In short, I tried to analyse populism as much as possible from a depth-psychological perspective. But this perspective proved to be too narrow: also socio-economic factors play an important role. In this presentation I will touch upon both.

Modern populism and its roots

First of all: what is populism? In general one could say that populists feel disadvantaged, not heard. They believe that an elite makes decisions without their input, decisions not in their favour or interest. Especially right wing populists feel threatened by refugees and migrants and feel that their own ‘original’ culture is under pressure. This results in a counter movement against decision makers and/or less interest for and participation in society.

Socio-economic factors


Over the last decades the dominant neo-liberal financial-economic system (DFES) has spread around the world, commonly known as globalization. Many governments handed over control of public areas to the corporate world/the markets, and became themselves an intrinsic part of the corporate world through shareholding. Thus the boundaries between the public and private realms became blurred. In order to overcome the 2008 global financial crisis, public money was used to save private institutions such as banks, and in fact DFES as such. In spite of criticism of the DFES after the 2008 crisis, there has been no systemic change to date. On the contrary: the corporate world has been expanding its influence in law making – administrations don’t bother, or struggle, to make regulations stricter.


As a result of the withdrawal of governments, societal systems based on solidarity, such as social safety nets, unions, health care systems, education and pension funds, weakened. In many DFES-countries labour migration has led and is leading to growing immigrant populations, often with different religions, cultures and languages. At the same time new technologies and artificial intelligence are on the rise.

All this has led and is leading to widespread social-economic insecurity and anxiety, mistrust of politics/governments and a growing gap between rich and poor, also within DFES-countries.

Oxfam reported in 2019 that the possessions of 26 individuals equal those of the (poorest) half of the world’s population…


Most (old) DFES-countries are proud that there are equal opportunities for all. The overall message is: ‘You are a free individual and on your own. If you do your best and compete well, you will succeed in life.’ The American Dream is based on it. But in modern times the notion of equal opportunities has become hollow. More and more education must be paid for by its recipients rather than by the state, resulting in a considerable advantage for those from rich families. Many old-fashioned professions have downgraded in valuation and are heavily underpaid, inciting young people to seek a profession that may not suit them. Why? Because somehow the mores of the corporate world have invaded society, seducing it with a ‘hero’ image that many feel called to pursue. This seduction, or even imposition, is carried by aggressive advertising on television, internet and in the new media. The marketed ‘hero’ image is that of an independent, rich, young, healthy and beautiful person, who has ‘succeeded’ in life and ‘has it all’. In short, a ‘winner’. Anyone less fortunate is considered less worthy, a ‘loser’ – that’s the hidden message.

(Socio-)psychological factors


Unfortunately the notion of equal opportunities still is strongly interwoven with the fabric of many societies. Therefore many people believe that equal opportunities do in fact exist. Combined with the hero image imposed by the markets, this creates very strong psychological pressure to become a ‘winner-hero’. But of course in real life this ‘heroism’ is often unattainable. Many (unconsciously) blame themselves for this ‘failure’ (after all, there were equal opportunities?). Hence they become vulnerable to flawed identity formation: the hero image imposed by the markets leads to addicitve consumerism and identifation with perceived as such, strongly marketed ‘winner-heroes’. Think of sports- and pop music ‘heroes’ or political ‘strong men’ and the degree of identification with these people which borders on hysteria. Social media amplify this effect to unimaginable proportions, and make ‘followers’ of many people with weak personal identities.


The pressure to become a ‘winner-hero’ has also invaded politics. Since a couple of decades, not political ideas, but politicians are placed in the foreground. These politicians magnify their personal importance and career in a narcissistic manner through the (social) media, aiming for many followers, e.g. US president Trump. After their political activities they often disappear in high corporate positions, ignoring public interest altogether. No wonder that many ordinary people have lost confidence in politics and the government: who is listening to the needs of so many, in an era of self-centered politicians and government withdrawal from the public domain? No wonder that many people look for a ‘strong man’, a political hero to follow…

(Depth-)psychological factors


What are the effects of flawed identity formation? First of all it can lead to a narcissistic, rigid personality structure. Such a person easily feels threatened and senses a strong need to belong. Therefore shelter will be sought in the own group, or ‘tribe’. Such a group is closed to the outer world; no-one from outside will be allowed in. Secondly, narcissism often hides (semi- or unconscious) feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, inferiority, being a loser, mental paralysis and/or anger and stubbornness in deeper layers of the psyche, linked to the ‘failure’ of becoming a ‘hero’. In order to break through those unpleasant feelings, a couple of strong mechanisms start to play a role: 1) (projection) identification with ‘heroes’ and docility – as mentioned before; 2) reinvention of and retreat into the own historic group or ‘tribe’ while emphasizing its identity and importance, and 3) true or false victimhood combined with the designation of a scapegoat.

These are the characteristics of populism. Populist regressive identity formation can be seen as analogue to a psychological regression as a result of trauma, stress or fear.


Where do victimhood and the scapegoat mechanism come into play? In depth-psychology victimhood, victim behaviour and the scapegoat mechanism are well known phenomena. Victimhood means that a person of group is or considers him-/herself a victim of something or someone. Often victim behaviour comes into play. This has a negative connotation in depth-psychology, because the affected person places responsibility for his/her well-being and actions with others, remains passive, and designates a scapegoat. In populist circles this scapegoat can be refugees, (labour) migrants, non-white people, women, (left wing) politicians, large parts of society and even climate change as fake news.

On the other hand, true victimization often remains hidden. Think of real victims of climate change: people in poor countries in the first place. But also populists can be real victims, e.g. of a system that favours the rich and famous, and ignores, or makes insignificant, people with ‘simple’ jobs, jobless or ill people. So when it comes to populism, it is imperative to distinguish its true from false victimhood, in order to be able to take adequate measures.


Why is it that we are all so vulnerable to the marketed ‘hero’ image? Here we touch upon a very Jungian notion: the archetypes. One of the most important archetype is the hero archetype. It stands for the inner struggle to reach psychological maturity, through gaining strength (often by defusing an imminent danger), breaking free from parental guidance, and accepting responsibility. Thus a new reality, a new identity, is created. Many myths, legends and fairy tales all over the world tell about this heroic struggle. Their popularity can be explained by the semi-conscious recognition, or ‘knowing’, in all readers and listeners.

My assumption is that the imposed (false) hero image is resonating with the hero archetype. During the archetypical struggle to reach maturity, a person is his or her own hero, which is necessary for adequate identity building. But if and when this process gets tangled up through identification with the imposed (false) hero image, a person may remain his or her own hero in a perverted sense. This can lead to inflation (an inflated self-image) and narcissism, often hiding insecurity and anxiety in deeper layers of the psyche – as mentioned before. Another possibility is that the person splits off the desired heroic position from his/her own psyche, project it onto a perceived hero such as a political leader, athlete or pop artist and identify with this person, thus resorting in a borrowed identity and in docility. This idolatry could even be seen as present day Roman ‘bread and play’.

Many (young) people, especially women, will easily suffer from unhealthy, addictive perfectionism, burn out and other negative psychological effects, whereas others, especially men, will resort to a reinvented historic group identity and rebel against other groups.

Climate change and populism


At last, climate change is getting more political attention, while many populists consider it fake news. They feel that governments use climate change to force through technological and energy innovations while depositing the bill with society, especially with socially weaker groups. And they have a point. In societies where environmental costs are still ignored and carbon taxes still heavily debated, vigilance is in order to ensure that the transition costs are shared fairly. The problem of the populist stance is, though, that the climate policy agenda can become a scapegoat and hence meet with a lot of resistance. This is dangerous: pressure from society is still very much needed for the adoption of adequate climate policies. Therefore it is imperative for the climate movement to recognize the climate denial tendency, and understand and support the needs of the socially disadvantaged, including – and especially – populist movements.


Also ‘normal’ anxiety can cause climate denial or resistance – as can globalization, labour migration and new technologies / artificial intelligence. The less certain one is of his or her means of existence, the less likely one is to acknowledge other threatening challenges such as climate change. Therefore it is imperative to turn back to secure employment and a thriving public sphere with strong social safety nets. But unfortunately the prevailing political stance is that only ‘green’ DFES can tackle climate change. There is still little attention in politics or media for the intricate link between climate change, social justice, poverty, migration and war. Yet, this ‘third road’ offers the best option to address and solve these issues: in their coherence. For that to happen we must distinguish true from from false victimhood, install free education and return to a more balanced (financial) valuation of all professions, while dismantling the hero image. Only then can everyone develop a more realistic identity and world view – including the reality of climate change and the equivalency of sexes and races. And only then the odds will increase that humanity can avoid disasters as a result of climate change or warfare.

Thank you for your attention!

Marijke van Duin

Amsterdam, September 2019

With special thanks to Barbara Miller and Herma van der Weide


Some interesting thinkers and literature

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2013; Capital et Idéologie, Seuil, 2019 (English version available March 2020)

Francis Fukuyama, Identity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018 (and other work)

Martha C. Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, Simon Schuster, 2018 (and other work)

Peter Sloterdijk, What Happened in the 20th Century?, Polity (Eng.), 2018

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Random House UK, 2011

Susan Neiman,

Dirk de Wachter, Borderline Times – het einde van de normaliteit (the end of normality), Lannoo Campus, 2012 (in Dutch)

Abram de Swaan, Tegen de vrouwen (Against women – a sociological study of mysogyny), Prometheus, 2019 (in Dutch)

Zygmunt Bauman, Culture in a Liquid Modern World, Polity, 2011 In its original formulation, ‘culture’ was intended to be an agent for change, a mission undertaken with the aim of educating ‘the people’ by bringing the best of human thought and creativity to them. But in our contemporary liquid-modern world, culture has lost its missionary role and has become a means of seduction: it seeks no longer to enlighten the people but to seduce them.”