Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis
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Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis

Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare

Sally Weintrobe

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eBook - ePub

Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis

Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare

Sally Weintrobe

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About This Book

Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis tells the story of a fundamental fight between a caring and an uncaring imagination. It helps us to recognise the uncaring imagination in politics, in culture - for example in the writings of Ayn Rand - and also in ourselves. Sally Weintrobe argues that achieving the shift to greater care requires us to stop colluding with Exceptionalism, the rigid psychological mindset largely responsible for the climate crisis. People in this mindset believe that they are entitled to have the lion's share and that they can 'rearrange' reality with magical omnipotent thinking whenever reality limits these felt entitlements. While this book's subject is grim, its tone is reflective, ironic, light and at times humorous. It is free of jargon, and full of examples from history, culture, literature, poetry, everyday life and the author's experience as a psychoanalyst, and a professional life that has been dedicated to helping people to face difficult truths.

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PART ONE
Exceptionalism: The psychology explained
1
The conflicted self
Henry Marsh, a celebrated neurosurgeon, described a gruelling lengthy operation on a young woman’s brain. A small wrong cut could kill her or leave her in a coma. He vividly conveyed the anxiety he had felt, his sense of heavy responsibility, his joy at the work itself, and his elation and relief when the operation was successful. On his way home, he called in at a supermarket.
I joined a long queue of people at the check-out. ‘And what did you do today?’ I felt like asking them, annoyed that an important neurosurgeon like myself should be kept waiting after such a triumphant day’s work. But I then thought of how the value of my work as a doctor is measured solely in the value of other peoples’ lives, and that included the people in front of me in the checkout queue. So, I told myself off and resigned myself to waiting.
(Marsh, 2014, p. 43)
Marsh is touchingly honest and open about an unruly part of himself. Many of us can identify with him and if not, it may be that a good conscience is a clear sign of a bad memory, as Mark Twain once ironically put it. His story reveals the way the self is divided, with caring and uncaring parts, and it shows open conflict over which part is to be in charge within the psyche. His caring part won this particular argument.
The narcissistic part of the self believes it is ideal. This is different from having ideals (that we want to live up to and occasionally might even live up to). Being ideal is based on idealizing the self, inflating it to become a narcissistic ‘big I am’. The ‘big I am’ hates anything that dims its glow as the special one, uniquely entitled to take all it wants and to dispose to others on its terms. It tends to see others as worshipful audience to its one-person show, there only to service the ‘big I am’.
Henry Marsh’s proper pride in his work and achievement that day had been temporarily eclipsed by a ‘big I am’ that felt falsely prideful and exaggeratedly entitled, and noticing this, he chided himself (‘I told myself off’). He was back in touch with knowing that, at the end of the day, he was a person like others; this helped him resign himself to the frustration of waiting his turn in the queue.
The conflictual struggle between caring and uncaring parts of the self is at the heart of great literature down the ages, and all major religions. Mike Brearley (2018) put it:
Perhaps we need to … recognise a narcissistic self, narrow, two-dimensional; and also a broader, more generous self, a bigger self, one that is three-dimensional, a true subject of thoughts and feelings, a self that knows it does not know itself fully. One self desires in a possessive and narcissistic way … the other … is capable of desiring more … reflectively and compassionately, with less need to control.
(Brearley, 2018, p. 91)
With the caring part in overall charge within the psyche, ‘myself’ can be like Brearley’s ‘true subject of thoughts and feelings’. It knows it has an uncaring part to struggle with. This ‘myself’, being broader-minded, is able to look on at the uncaring part. It is a moral self, concerned with issues of good and bad, and truth and lies in the self and in the world.
The caring part struggles with the uncaring part over which will act on life’s stage. I once saw a remarkable and touching TV programme about Siamese twins, two women in their forties joined together and not able to be surgically separated. They had worked out a way of living together such that each could express her personality. They allowed each other ‘turns’ during which times the other one would ‘blank’ herself. The film showed one twin playing the guitar and singing while the other ‘switched off’, and then the first twin ‘switching off’ to allow her sister to meet with a friend. This extraordinary example of sisterly love highlighted a plight that we all share: how do parts of ourselves with conflicting interests live with each other? How does each part live a life when by living its life the other part does not?
Living with the part we say no to
Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, asked the question, how do we live with the part of us that we do say no to?1 His question has profound implications.
The uncaring part wants freedom to be self-centred and greedy, while the caring part wants freedom to consider others as well as self. Having radically different conceptions of freedom and opposing ethics, values and ways of framing things, how do both parts reconcile, settle their differences and live together in the same mind?2
Politics – the exercise of power – lies at the very heart of psychological life. Which part of the self has the power to say no? How does that part live with the part it says no to? Williams’s question applies also to groups and to nations: how do groups live together with other groups whose values they oppose?
Both the caring and the uncaring parts, in endless conflict, are real and here to stay. One cannot ‘surgically remove’ either part, except through wishful thinking. Most of us find this hard to accept. If only we did not have to face inner conflict, how much more pleasant and comfortable life would be! A counter-voice may then pipe up with yes, and how much less meaningful and rich life would be. Is not facing moral conflict the essence of being human and humane?
Arguments that humans are either caring or uncaring by nature are usually based on ideology, with those to the right in politics more prone to argue we are selfish by nature and those to the left that we are caring by nature.3 One argument ignores our capacity for love while the other ignores our capacity for ruthless destructiveness.
How we say no
What matters is how we say no, whether respect and empathy are shown for the side that loses the argument. To live peaceably, people do not humiliate the losing side. They make it clear that whatever the differences, everyone still has a home, a part to play and will be heard.
Nelson Mandela would say no with respect and empathy on becoming the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. For example, the African National Congress (ANC) brought in a law that recognized eleven official languages, stipulating each person’s right to be educated in one of them. As part of this change, English was adopted as the main language of the administration and Afrikaans, now one of the eleven official languages, was dropped as the joint official language with English.
During the time of this change, Mandela praised Afrikaans language, literature and culture. He was saying to Afrikaners, we are in charge now, but we recognize and respect you, you are part of this new South Africa and your home is here.4 In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom (1994) he spoke of the importance of giving the people we say no to their corner of dignity.
This is essentially what Marsh was doing at the supermarket. He was aware that a toddler within him in a strop wanted to shout, ‘Everybody out the way. Step aside for the wonderful Henry Marsh.’ He owned and took responsibility for that part which could then feel it had a home within him.
Rowan Williams was raising deep issues of whether and how people can get along and live with each other. Whether we make progress towards peace and reconciliation within the self, and also between groups and nations, depends on how the conflictual tug of war between care and uncare plays out. To preserve the peace and to make a sustainable settlement with uncare, the caring part has to find robust ways to say no to it, while recognizing its right to abode, according it a corner of dignity and giving it respect where respect is due.
I believe the starting point for building a more caring society is never forgetting that care and uncare are inherent parts of us all, and that each seeks expression and dominance over the other; also remembering that just because care wins a struggle with uncare one day, it does not mean its way will endure. When the uncaring part becomes so triumphant and disassociated from the caring part that it poses a serious threat to life, it is imperative that the caring part reins in uncare. The struggle with uncare is ongoing. Because of this, care needs robust frameworks in place, and a culture of care to support and protect them. This is the book’s fundamental argument.
Bertrand Russell rightly said that most current discussions of politics take insufficient account of psychology. I would add that most discussions of psychology take insufficient account of politics, given that politics is about the struggle over which part – within the psyche and within our groups – is dominant and holds the power.
Later, I explore situations where the uncaring part has taken charge in a rigid way. First however – and to pave the way – I will stay with Henry Marsh to highlight one bit of his uncaring part: his inner exception.

1 In a talk, as I remember it, given to the Applied Section of the British Psychoanalytical Society, c. 2011.
2 Irma Brenman Pick has paid particular attention to the need for psychoanalysts to pay simultaneous attention to the needs of narcissistic and reality-seeking parts of the self (e.g. Brenman Pick, 2018).
3 An example of ideology framing how we view humans is David Loye’s (2007) argument that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, referred to ‘love’ ninety-five times and to ‘survival of the fittest’ twice, with an apology that he did not like the term ‘survival of the fittest’. ‘Survival of the fittest’ was popularized for largely ideological reasons.
4 Mandela had highly effective ways of insisting that he too was valuable and belonged. He wore the South African rugby team’s shirt and sat beaming and proud at rugby matches, winning many whites over to accepting that he was ‘one of them’, underlining racial inclusion in rugby.
2
The ordinary exception (contained by care)
‘The Great Henry Marsh should not have to wait in this queue,’ thought Marsh’s uncaring self before his caring self talked him round. This chapter is about the stubborn and wilful bit of the uncaring self that insists on ‘being an exception’.
An exception is a ‘refusenik’ who clings to these core false beliefs:
• I am entitled to see myself as ideal
• I am entitled to have whatever I want
• I am entitled to use omnipotent (magical) thinking to rid myself of any moral unease about holding these beliefs.
Each of the false beliefs props up the others, and together they form a false belief system, sustained by an adamant and unwavering sense of exaggerated entitlement.
Freud (1916a) thought the wish to be an exception lurks in us all and we never entirely give up the belief that we deserve special treatment. We start out as Her or His Majesty the Baby. Reaching the terrible twos, we demand that the world see things our way (the tantrum comes when we see, and refuse to accept, that the world does not obey our commands). We struggle to accept our position in the family, in the playground and then at work. Later in life many of us squabble over inheritances. Surely, am I entitled to the biggest slice of the pie? The pie often stands for parental love. This kind of ‘narcissistic’ entitlement differs radically from ‘lively’ entitlement to fair treatment and a fair share.
The exception’s position is ‘I am the centre of the universe; everything is for me and for my benefit.’ The exception never budges from this position. Sometimes the refusal to budge is open (‘I’d rather die in a ditch than give way’). However, this part of the self, being artful and slippery, may pretend to give way for social ease, expediency or fear of looking foolish. George Orwell illustrated this in 1984 through O’Brien, a flat earther, who explained to the central character Winston,
The sun and the stars go round [the earth]. … [However] we often find it convenient to assume the earth goes round the sun. … But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual sys...

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