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A study group to explore the contribution Winnicott’s ideas might make to our understanding of responses to the climate change crisis

About this event

Winnicott lived in an era that saw two devastating world wars, mass genocide and, later, the threat of nuclear holocaust. Writing in 1950, reflecting on the likelihood of individuals being able to see beyond their own national geographical boundaries and to espouse agendas without frontiers, Winnicott adopted a pessimistic tone “It is not possible for persons to get further in society-building than they can get with their own personal development. For these reasons we regard with suspicion the use of terms like “world-citizenship”. Perhaps only a few really great and fairly aged men and women ever get as far in their own development as to be justified in thinking in such wide terms.”

Is Climate Change, with the possible threat of eventual extinction, comparable?

Is the threat at another level or in a totally different category to 20th Century events?

Is it within human capability to build a society that can simultaneously maintain the facilitating physical environment required to survive and rise to the challenges of personal, interpersonal and social development?

This Squiggle study group is being established to explore the contribution which Winnicott’s ideas might make to our understanding of the implications and responses to the crisis of Climate Change.

It will run throughout 2022 and is open to everybody with an interest in the subject: participants from all countries will be warmly welcomed.

Participation is free.

Meetings will be via Zoom for an hour and a half on a Monday evening 19:30-21:00 GMT, three times a term for a year to discuss aspects of a relevant paper by Winnicott in the light of climate change.

Details available at


24th January The Theory Of The Parent Infant Relationship (1960) in Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

The fundamental importance of the facilitating environment where maternal holding meets the infant's need for absolute dependence. In this paper Winnicott thinks that Freud (and Klein) take this provision for granted. Winnicott outlines some of the consequences of failure of good-enough provision. We too can no longer take the environment for granted, with possible parallel repercussions. Related to this is the universal fear of WOMAN and the attack on mother earth c.f. Primary Maternal Preoccupation (1956).

28th February Fear of Breakdown (1963) in Psychoanalytic Explorations (1989) eds Winnicott, C. & Shepherd, R.

Defences, particularly, depersonalisation, disintegration, autistic states, are viewed by Winnicott as defences against primitive agonies, breakdowns at the time of absolute dependency which cannot be consigned to the past because they have not been experienced (because the ego was too immature) and cannot be remembered. Fear of breakdown is a fear of a breakdown that has already happened. This includes fear of death which is really about an earlier annihilation, the concept of death being a relatively mature acquisition. Many of Winnicott’s examples were highly functioning individuals whose defences had allowed them to be successful but the hidden anxieties were of a psychotic nature. Could the consequences of our destruction of the environment be equated with the consequences of failures Winnicott describes at the time of absolute dependency? How can we articulate or even bear to think about them, even though they are happening now with mass migration, extreme weather? What sort of setting is necessary to be able to experience these psychotic anxieties?

28th March Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self (1960) in Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

Winnicott describes a compromise between the True self and compliance necessary for social living but an excessive split between the True and False self leads to a failure of symbolisation, a poverty of cultural living and a search for impingements, living filled with reactions to impingements. Perhaps exceptionalism and entitlement e.g. “I need and deserve this luxury” are examples of this type of living. Excessive Impingement destroys the illusion necessary for healthy maturation whereby each external stimulus is met by a corresponding spontaneous gesture in the infant. Both the pandemic and Climate Crisis could be classed as massive impingements threatening to overwhelm our ego capacities. For Winnicott compliance is the antithesis to healthy living.


25th April The Development of the Capacity for Concern (1963) in Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

Concern implies care and responsibility. The attainment of ambivalence through bringing together the environment mother and the object mother, the importance of opportunities that the mother gives to her child for reparation and contributing, are highly relevant to the our response to the destruction we have wreaked on the Environment. This reworking of Klein's Depressive Position affords a different way of viewing and, perhaps a more hopeful response to the Climate Crisis.

23rd May The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications (1968) in Playing and Reality (1971)

This paper is a cumulation of Winnicott's unique views on aggression. Aggression is innate and bound up with the life force and muscularity and motility, not a reaction to frustration towards Reality, but essential in establishing Reality. The infant needs to destroy in fantasy the mother as a bundle of projections (subjective object) and greet the mother who survives the attack as the mother of value who is an objective object, inaugurating Reality. Destructiveness occurs if the object fails to survive. Despite our sophistication we could say that humanity has treated the non-human world as a ‘toilet breast’, a subjective object, with a disregard for objective reality.

27th June The Location of Cultural Experience in Playing and Reality (1971)

Imaginative play occurs in the intermediate area between inner psychic reality and external reality, between the subjective object and the object objectively perceived. This makes life worth living and is the basis of culture. Ben Okri wrote recently that we need artists and writers to respond to the Climate Crisis. We must tackle the profound resistance to imagining a potential end wrought by our continuing destruction.


26th September Adolescence. Struggling through the Doldrums in The Family and Individual Development (1965)

Winnicott lists the needs of Adolescents: The need to avoid a false solution, the need to feel real, the need to defy and the need to prod society. Greta Thunberg and the young persons' movement took the world by storm and uncomfortably held a mirror up to us, so called adults, who are behaving like children.

24th October Boundary and Space: Part 111 of Boundary and Space (1981) eds Davis, M. and Wallbridge, D. pp143-174

Davis and Wallbridge examine the concepts of Boundaries and Space by helpfully bringing together several papers by Winnicott. How does a study of individual development contribute to thinking about the response of society, its members and its leaders, to the ultimate existential threat?

28th November Plenary session and Conclusions

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