Corona, Glasgow, and Beyond - Rethinking Environmental Politics Through the Lens of Critical Fantasy Studies

Ayşem Mert

About two years ago, two emergencies were declared: In January 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be an international public health emergency. Only a few months before that the European Parliament had declared a ‘climate emergency’, while the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘climate emergency’ as the word of 2019, and a Climate Emergency Resolution was brought before the US Congress and Senate. The social and political responses to these two emergencies were radically different, even though each of these crises relate to each other in a rather complex and densely overdetermined conjuncture that draws on crises and transformations in interrelated spheres, including the scientific, economic and cultural spheres.

Around this time, I decided to focus my research on how the pandemic affected the imaginaries and fantasies of the world order, politics, and sustainability governance.  The project I am working on at Centre for Global Cooperation Research, titled Post-Corona Global Sustainability Cooperation: Imaginaries of New World Ordersis a part of this new focus.

I am conducting the first phase of my fieldwork at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (31 Oct. – 12 Nov., 2021). Here, at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland, the main issues are climate finance and the implementation of the Paris Agreement. There are several declarations and treaties emerging on issues such as methane reduction and issues surrounding forests. In trying to find out how climate and sustainability governance practices and politics have changed after the pandemic, I am meeting stakeholders, conducting in-depth interviews, and engaging in ethnographic observation.

However, in addition to the use of these standard qualitative methods, I will also be testing a new method. Building on an earlier collaboration with Vienna and Istanbul-based artist Eylem Ertürk titled Shared Walks / Climate Change Edition, a new set of cards has been prepared, to investigate the imagined climate futures after the pandemic, in collaboration with Jason Glynos. This new card set seeks to establish connections between time, space, fantasies of nature and various futurisms, under the rubric of Shared Walks / Futures. The project will be tested and improved, as far as the conditions in Glasgow permit. This is the story of how these fantasy-centered methods came to inform this broader critical and political project.

Crises, disasters and change: psychology to the rescue?

Throughout time, and across the ideological spectrum, the relation between crisis and change is an important research theme for social scientists (Hobbes 1991; Polanyi 2001;  Klein 2007; Brecher 2019). Milton Friedman (1962: 7) wrote that crises are moments when 'the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable'. According to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1989), such dislocatory moments make a new order possible. Dislocations refer to those moments when the existing structures, systems of meaning, and social imaginaries are put into question. Laclau (1990) suggests that the more profound the dislocation is, the more the ‘basic principles’ of a group will be shaken and hence the more prone the social structures would be to radical alteration. Arguably, COVID-19 constitutes this kind of radical dislocation, which opens up possibilities for radical change.

While the pandemic is not over, we can already see its various influences on our own behavior as citizens and consumers, as well as on our societies more broadly. In the case of global sustainability cooperation, new practices and ideas have already revealed newly emergent synergies and trade-offs between different policy objectives following the pandemic. But there are further questions relating to the global cooperation agenda: How are the narratives of climate emergency changing? How are practices associated with key events around global environmental governance, such as the COPs, shifting? How are institutions rewriting their mission statements?

In relation to the environmental crisis, scholars have developed notions such as ‘climate anxiety’ and ‘ecological grief’ to make sense of our reactions to the environmental crisis; in relation to Covid-19, some scholars have turned to the ideas of ‘the emergence of the real’ or ‘panic virus’. The references to psychology and psychoanalysis are not arbitrary. There is a dimension of these crises that taps into parts of our being that are not reducible to what is rational or even conscious, often keeping us awake at night. But this part of our being can also drive changes to the way we think and imagine social life and political change, even if it does not immediately translate into changes in individual behaviours. Paul Hoggett (2019: 8) uses the term ‘deep psychology’ to refer to approaches that take seriously the dynamic aspects of the Freudian unconscious, including climate psychology:

Climate psychology is concerned with the many ways in which we engage with climate change—how we avoid, deny, embrace or accept it, dream about it, get depressed, terrified or guilty about it, feel in two minds about it, think it is a sign of the Second Coming or homo sapiens’ final and deserved comeuppance, ruminate about it, wake up at night because of it, can’t get our head around it, feel that ‘really climate change is such a drag’, know that it is something one should worry about (even though one doesn’t), and so on and so on.

What matters, however, as Hickman (2020: 414) notes, is to not only recognize eco-anxiety ‘as a description of our emotional response to the threat posed’ by the ecological crises, but also to highlight the importance of developing ‘a frame in which this is understood to be a collective, social and global concern’. In other words, what is needed is a framework for critical political analysis that can connect climate psychology insights to broader social and global ones.


Critical fantasy studies: from deep psychology to political analysis

Political discourse theory (PDT) provides an opportune starting point in building such a framework, within which to study the above-mentioned transformational possibilities. This is because one of its main methods, the logics approach (Glynos and Howarth 2007), employs a three-tier approach to empirical analysis that takes its bearings from the idea of dislocation and how to think about responses to it: the social, political and fantasmatic logics. In doing so, PDT incorporates the psychoanalytic dimension into a politically informed framework for critical study of fantasies (Glynos 2021; Behagel and Mert 2021; Stavrakakis 1999, 2007).

PDT has been central to interpretive policy studies and critical governance scholarship for the last fifteen years (Behagel et al. 2019), with the influence of PDT on political science growing considerably after the introduction of the logics approach. Importantly, this approachrendered PDT more accessible to scholars of environmental policy and governance, as well as ecopolitical movements at the global (Methmann and Rothe 2012; Mert 2015) and local levels (Griggs and Howarth 2008; Behagel and Turnhout 2011; Mert 2019). The logics approach rests on the idea that critical analysis can be studied through investigating three interconnected domains: first, the domain of the social, which is constituted by habitualized,repetitive practices resulting from rule-following; second, the domain of the political, wherein meanings, articulations and identities are challenged and new ones are instituted (Laclau 2005); and third, the domain of the fantasmal wherein the radical contingency of social reality – i.e. the fundamental openness of social relations to political contestation – can be concealed by fantasies. Here, political desires are born (Stavrakakis 2005; Glynos 2008) and political projects find followers or simply disappear (Mouffe 2000; Boucher et al. 2017; Glynos 2014). Building on psychoanalysis, the fantasmatic elements in a discourse are associated with what affectively (emotionally) ‘grips’ people by providing them with forms of identification that structure their desires, often pointing to one or another future, whether beatific or horrific (Glynos 2014). Exploring fantasmatic logics shows how fantasies underlying hegemonic discourses can either block political action (Remling 2019) or turn ideas into vehicles for political change (Freistein and Gadinger 2020), as in the early years of sustainability politics (Mert 2015).

In crises and dislocatory moments, the force of desires and fears can transform what was previously unchangeable and unimaginable into something that suddenly and miraculously appears both possible and feasible. We can ask, therefore, how Covid-19, understood as a dislocation, can prompt new interpretations of sustainability or radically shift the balance between health, economic, and environmental priorities. This is how Critical Fantasy Studies frames the work I am doing at COP26 in Glasgow, as well as the broader project I am engaged in with colleagues[1]. For us, the psychoanalytic category of fantasy is an entry point from which to think about the way psychic[2] factors dynamically shape our responses to crises, including their interrelation with other (material, economic, moral) factors. This is because fantasy can serve as a key reference point in trying to account for emotional responses, such as guilt, anger, grief, fear, and so on, which are central to the way scholars have sought to talk about our responses to climate change and Covid-19.

For many, what we are facing is not really a crisis of imagination regarding what green economic futures are more desirable. One must only conduct a casual search online to find a burgeoning think tank industry that produces many perfectly innovative visions of a green future that are well within our means to achieve. The crisis, rather, concerns how we realise those futures, by what pathways. And here it becomes clear that the problem is rather challenging. There are of course some financial, technological, and social constraints, including classic collective action challenges. In addition to this, however, there are what we can call psycho-social constraints. These latter constraints suggest that we are often too wedded to those economic and other institutional constraints because they are intimately connected to our habituated way of life and the enjoyments we get from this life. Without acknowledging both the conscious and unconscious investments in our ways of life we risk underestimating the challenges posed by climate change and missing many of the lessons that we can learn from our responses to the Covid-19 dislocation. Taking seriously these psycho-social constraints suggests we need different conceptual frameworks, methods of research, and techniques of thinking. Critical fantasy studies, including methods such as the Shared Walks/Futures technique, moves us in this direction. It suggests, for example, that we should not conflate imagination and fantasy even though they are connected. Instead, fantasy is understood as that which mediates our imagined futures and our ways of being. It thus becomes imperative to study these logics of fantasy and to show how they are implicated in our social and political life and the responses to both Covid and climate change.


[1] This piece draws on a recent paper written with colleagues in the context of the Environmental Politics Post-Corona (EPOC) project funded by FORMAS: Glynos, Jason, and Ayşem Mert, Jelle Behagel, Elise Remling (forthcoming) “Get me out of here! A comparative psychoanalytic perspective on the crisis politics of covid-19 and climate change”, presented at the EWIS workshop The Role of Fantasy in Imagining Futures: Post-COVID-19 Subjectivities and Transformations of Naturecultures, 01 July 2021, (Thessaloniki/online) co-organized with Dr. Katja Freistein (GCR21).

[2] The qualifier ‘psychic’ simply refers to features and processes of the world associated with the psychoanalytic category of the unconscious.


Behagel, Jelle Hendrik and Turnhout, Esther (2011). ‘Democratic Legitimacy in the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive in the Netherlands: Towards Participatory and Deliberative Norms?’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 13(3): 297–316.

Behagel, Jelle Hendrik, Arts, Bas and Turnhout, Esther (2019). ‘Beyond Argumentation: A Practice-Based Approach to Environmental Policy’ Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 21(5): 479–91.

Behagel, Jelle Hendrik and Mert, Ayşem (2021). ‘The Political Nature of Fantasy and Political Fantasies of Nature,’ Journal of Language and Politics, 20(1):79–94.

Boucher, Geoff, Glynos, Jason, Sharpe, Matthew (2017) (eds). Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Žižek. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Brecher, Michael (2019). Crisis and Change in World Politics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freistein, Katja and  Gadinger, Frank (2020). ‘Populist Stories of Honest Men and Proud Mothers: A Visual Narrative Analysis’, Review of International Studies, 46(2): 217–236.

Glynos, Jason (2008). ‘Ideological Fantasy at Work’, Journal of Political Ideologies,13(3): 275–96.

Glynos, Jason (2014). ‘Hating Government and Voting against One’s Interests: Self-Transgression, Enjoyment, Critique’, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 19: 179–189.

Glynos, Jason (2021). ‘Critical Fantasy Studies’, Journal of Language and Politics, 20(1):95–111.

Glynos, Jason and Howarth, David J.  (2007). Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory. London: Routledge.

Glynos, Jason and Stavrakakis, Yannis (2008). ‘Lacan and Political Subjectivity: Fantasy and Enjoyment in Psychoanalysis and Political Theory’, Subjectivity, 24(1): 256–274.

Griggs, Steven and Howarth, David J. (2008). ‘Populism, Localism and Environmental Politics: The Logic and Rhetoric of the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign’, Planning Theory, 7(2): 123–144.

Hickman, Caroline (2020). ‘We Need to (Find a Way To) Talk about … Eco-Anxiety’, Journal of Social Work Practice, 34(4): 411–424.

Hobbes, Thomas (1991). Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hoggett, Paul (2019). Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster. Berlin: Springer.

Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. NY: Henry Holt.

Laclau, Ernesto (1990). New Reflections on the Revolution Our Time, London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

Mouffe, Chantal (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso

Mert, Ayşem (2015). Environmental Governance Through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Mert, Ayşem (2019) ‘The Trees in Gezi Park: Environmental Policy as the Focus of Democratic Protests’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 21 (5): 593–607.

Methmann, Chris and Rothe, Delf (2012). ‘Politics for the Day after Tomorrow: The Logic of Apocalypse in Global Climate Politics’, Security Dialogue, 43(4): 323–344.

Polanyi, Karl (2001). The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon.

Remling, Elise (2019). Adaptation, Now? Exploring the Politics of Climate Adaptation through Poststructuralist Discourse Theory (Doctoral dissertation), Huddinge: Södertörn University Press.

Remling, Elise (2019). The Affective Dimensions of Climate Adaptation: Fantasy and Future-Making in German Adaptation Policy, Manuscript.

Stavrakakis, Yannis (1999). Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge.

Stavrakakis, Yannis (2005). ‘Passions of Identification: Discourse, Enjoyment, and European Identity', in Howarth, David and Torfing, Jacob (eds.), Discourse Theory in European Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 68–92.

Stavrakakis, Yannis (2007). The Lacanian Left. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

About the Author

Ayşem Mert is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. Ayşem’s research focuses on democracy and the environment at transnational and global levels. Currently, her projects investigate the influence of the pandemic on the practices, imaginaries and institutions of environmental politics. She is the editor of Earth System Governance (ESG) Working Papers and serves on the editorial boards of ESG and INEA (International Environmental Agreements) journals.