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Pain, Paris and Climate Change

By David Butler NOI Notes Archive 03 Dec 2015


Making the link

A pain and climate linked discussion seems appropriate, now that the United Nations climate conference is underway in Paris.

The link between human activity and climate change is clear, but there are still significant numbers of people in the world, some in powerful positions, who do not want to know about climate change and could well do with an epiphany. Perhaps a climate change discussion could become integral to Explain Pain education?

Emergent phenomena 

Pain is like climate change – they are both emergent phenomenon: they are not progressive, sequential events where, say, a 1% increase in contributing factors leads to a 1% change in the output. In emergent phenomena where things just seem to happen, multiple interacting contributing factors combine simultaneously for a collective output. No single factor leads or drives the process- although critically, a shift or change in one component/factor/agent can have massive effects perhaps leading to a system out of control. In relation to a chronic pain state it could be one ‘small’ event – returning to a particular place, a memory triggering smell or sight, a thought or something someone says.

Similarly, climate change could be triggered by one ‘small’ tipping event -a slab of Antarctic ice calving, a volcano erupting, a methane release from a Siberian forest, another mass of boreal forest removed in Canada for tar oil, an Australian ex-Australian Prime Minister’s statement that ‘coal is good for humanity’, an Exxon Valdez or Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The longer the altered pain or climate state exists, the more power these tipping factors have. People with chronic pain may easily relate to this because they are experiencing it first hand. Perhaps it is not so clear with climate change which is sneaking up on all of us, slowly, but quickly gathering speed.

Emerging discussions

More and more clinicians are using emergence discussions as part of Explain Pain curricula. For example, use of the Protectometer encourages notions of emergence, ferreting out all the dangers and safeties in a person’s life at a particular time. Climate change provides a powerful and unfortunate metaphorical example of emergence and using it may well bring about a climatic epiphany for that person. Given that there are around 1 in 4 Homo Sapiens in ongoing pain, (not to mention the distress that other species endure), here is a huge, often reflective, information seeking group of people who are a willing target for education. We are all a part of the emergent output of the planet- it is possible to argue that a person’s understanding of this metaphor might well help them to see the bigger picture, both for their own personal pain experience as well as the broader climatic conditions we all endure.


-David Butler

Suggested reading: Naomi Klein (2015) This Changes Everything. Penguin.


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