by Rita K. Teusch, PhD
Rita Teusch, PhD, is a Faculty Member of BPSI. Her remarks below also appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of the Hanns Sachs Library Newsletter.
We are extremely fortunate to have British psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe in our international psychoanalytic community. Over the past two decades she has been dedicated to bringing the urgent climate crisis into our awareness, encouraging us to break through emotional paralysis and denial, and explaining the psychodynamics involved in our avoidance to engage actively with the reality of climate change (Weintrobe 2004, 2010, 2012, 2018, 2019). In Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, she maintains that most of us still do not allow ourselves to be truly touched by the stark reality of the climate emergency, because facing it is too painful. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in its most recent report (August 2021) that we are currently experiencing “a code red for humanity.” Unless we urgently and drastically cut the use of fossil fuels, global heating will reach several irreversible tipping points by 2025, which will make life unsustainable for millions of people in the southern hemisphere and create unimaginable suffering in other parts of the world, including ours. Millions are already suffering hunger and dislocation with the number of climate refugees steadily growing as a result of rising sea levels, devastating storms and wildfires, droughts, famines, and water shortages.
Weintrobe argues that the Western world, in the past 60 years, has been under the influence of an economic and political ideology, i.e., Neo-Liberal Exceptionalism, which in the Global North has led to a mentality of uncare. Weintrobe submits that the prevailing mindset of rigid Exceptionalism in economics, politics, and culture is characterized by a fundamental belief that we in the Western world deserve our privilege and are entitled to preserve it, even at the expense of others. Exceptionalist entitlement is a form of malignant narcissism, she writes, and it is characterized by psychic defenses of omnipotent magical thinking about reality, splitting human beings into deserving and undeserving ones, and a mindset of uncare, which prioritizes economic profit and exploitation of others over community, humanity, and care about the earth (p. 1).
Weintrobe’s book is written in accessible language, in a conversational, empathic, at times humorous voice, with evocative clinical, scientific, literary, poetic, and political references as well as numerous self-disclosing vignettes. The author grew up as a White child in South Africa under Apartheid rule and witnessed societally sanctioned racist violence and injustice. Weintrobe shares with us her growing understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis, the global injustice it has brought forth, and her own process of breaking through her denial of the structural and personal challenges we are facing when trying to work towards a more just and humane world. Weintrobe’s honesty helped me to stay with her difficult message and keep it in mind, even though it brought frightening dreams. Her book is an important wake-up call, and her hope is that reading her book will cause us to look inside ourselves and understand the psychodynamics and inner conflicts we have about “our own inner exception” (p. 67) and our inner struggles to land on the side of care. She submits that it is everyone’s inner exception that pushes us to collude with an Exceptionalist world-view. Weintrobe believes that we have the capacity as a society to move beyond Exceptionalism toward an ethic of care for others and the earth; she urges the reader to understand that together we are engaged in an omnipotent and illusion-based defensive avoidance of reality. She encourages us to listen to the younger generation that is more reality-based with regard to the state of our planet. Young people are demanding rapid action and greater care to protect life on earth.
The book is divided into ten parts, each part has several sub-chapters, some as short as a few pages.
- Exceptionalism: The psychology explained
- Exceptionalism’s rise to power in the neo-liberal age
- What contains Exceptionalism
- The culture of uncare
- How this culture operates
- We collude
- Exceptionalism grows fraud bubbles
- The new caring imagination today
- The climate bubble is bursting
- “The crazy”: Exceptionalism runs amok
Weintrobe wants us to read the chapters of her book in a way that feels right to each reader, not necessarily chronologically. She knows that breaking through climate- change apathy, overwhelm, denial, and grief is a huge task, and people can only take in so much at a time. She shares her own struggles to stay positive, empathic, and climate-aware, as well as her feelings of anxiety, guilt, grief, and shame about her complicity in the destruction of life that is already happening every day in one or another part of the world because of actions that promote global warming/heating. For example, the earth is currently losing a football sized piece of rainforest every six seconds due to aggressive deforestation.
Weintrobe begins her discussion of the psychological mindset of entitlement by naming two forms of entitlement: 1. narcissistic entitlement, i.e., feeling entitled to act at the expense of others and feeling deserving of privilege and entitled to defend one’s privilege. 2. lively entitlement, which occurs in normal, healthy narcissism (Kohut), i.e., to feel entitled to be respected for one’s difference, to have ownership of one’s body, to have freedom of thought, and to feel entitled to give and receive love and to act for greater care about our earth. She defines healthy narcissism as an entitlement of care, i.e., linking and connecting, versus malignant narcissism which devalues care and promotes disconnection, immorality, and exploitation.
Weintrobe provides a thorough review of how the past 40 years have seen the implementation of a systematic political and economic strategy of uncare. Neoliberal think tanks with bland, respectable names such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Center for Policy Studies, and Adam Smith Institute were created to maintain the entitlements of the Exceptions with a singular focus on profits and lack of care, including the denial of climate change. She outlines how a deliberate and systematic deception of the public has taken place, for example, Exxon knew in the 1980s that carbon emissions resulted in dangerous global warming; there was continuous deregulation of multi-national corporations which increased climate breakdown, depleted and poisoned the soil and the oceans, accelerated global deforestation, and brought about the collapsing of wild life and extinction of whole species. Sixty percent of all wild animals that have become extinct were lost in the last 50 years (p. 252). Weintrobe, quoting Keene (2012), writes that the ideology of Exceptionalism is based on false assumptions of endless growth possible on a finite planet, and the earth is fantasized as a breast/toilet mother who endlessly provides, absorbs, and cleans up. (p. 68).
Commenting on today, Weintrobe outlines how the mainstream media still does not report on the true daily devastation brought on by climate change, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Such underreporting allows us to stay in a bubble and carry on as usual, as if environmental devastation had barely occurred. The author gives several examples of underreporting. I was not aware that in 2015 a group of young people filed a lawsuit against the US government and various petroleum companies on behalf of future generations (p. 135). The US government and its co-defendants argued to dismiss the lawsuit. However, their request was denied on the grounds that the Constitution clearly recognizes the entitlements of future generations. The case is still ongoing.
Weintrobe discusses the various strategies, past and present, that Exceptionalism has used and continues to use to prevent the public from understanding the true state of our planet. She narrates a vignette of being at a climate conference and suddenly realizing that she had not fully understood the message that our society right now has the technical ability to transition to a world powered by renewable energy, and that we just need to have the political will, such as to implement the Green New Deal (p. 289). She attributes her lack of understanding to obfuscating messages from oil corporations to preserve their profits. She describes the strategy of the advertising industry starting in the 1940s, consulting Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, to manipulate consumers into buying unnecessary products. Bernays, using insights from psychoanalysis, advised treating people as consumers and not as citizens, which he saw as the key to controlling people in a democracy and keeping corporations in power (p. 108). Bernays was asked to subvert the idea of “good government,” and his strategy was to create “good business,” i.e., friendly corporations that enable one to live the American Dream. “Good government” was portrayed as the annoying parent (p. 107). Weintrobe comments on deceptive language used to obfuscate the truth, i.e., Bank Speak: the World Bank is a caring, green institution that can make profits at the same time. Conflict is no longer apparent there. In fact, any conflict is made to disappear.
Other strategies to maintain Exceptionalism: discredit scientists by calling them unreliable and corrupt; calling environmental protesters eco-terrorists; disavowing climate change by excluding it as the cause of suffering; calling climate refugees “migrants,” implying choice and agency; and denying how the loss of habitat for many animals has contributed to their mass extinction. There is also a strategy of “reversal,” i.e., climate change is portrayed as a good thing because it allows us to grow new kinds of food. Disavowal, deception, and reversal are artful strategies in that they convince us that the real state of our planet ought not to trouble us.
Weintrobe reminds us, throughout her book, that each of us carries an inner exception inside, i.e., a part that harbors a phantasy of omnipotence and exceptionalism. She asks us to confront this omnipotent part of ourselves and stay with our ambivalence and conflict about wanting to behave in a caring way, and not caring. We need to become aware of how we often collude when we consume the products that are offered by corporations, even though they are described as toxic and harming the environment. She cites Robert Jay Lifton who distinguishes between awareness of the climate crisis and “formed awareness”. We need to resist the normalization of the climate crisis. Weintrobe writes: “It is difficult to challenge a group ‘normalizing’ to preserve its privilege and sense of narcissistic entitlement. Such a group thinks well of itself and likes to feel comfortable. To say that flying and overconsumption add to climate instability and crop failures and cause others to suffer is potentially to throw a grenade into a carefully constructed group defense. Part of being an Exception is entitlement to exploit and harm others and have them carry the burdens of that exploitation.“ (p. 197). We deflect from the threat to restore our threatened selfesteem. Deflection involves erecting a psychic shield to keep the other out – changing the subject, formal and empty agreement, hand-wringing (What can I do, it’s the government!).
Weintrobe suggests that people react to living with the climate crisis in essentially two ways:
- Avoid it
- Accept it
- Vacillating between one and the other.
Weintrobe believes that increasingly group denial and our psychic retreat from reality is no longer working, and we are shocked by the reality we are facing. We are under the influence of climate trauma. Some of us feel shame and guilt, a collapse of our omnipotence; it dawns on us that our leaders are moving us toward ecocide. We feel eco-anxiety, or are paralyzed by futility. Our apathy can be a sign of environmental melancholia (p. 238). We feel morally injured because we know that we are also guilty. Others react with narcissistic rage, denial, or paranoia to being confronted with the true state of the earth. Weintrobe suggests that thinking like an exception is currently on the rise because of increased anxiety as a result of the climate bubble bursting. We build fences to keep climate refugees out to maintain the illusion powered by an omnipotent phantasy that everything can be perfect again, and we can be protected again, and that we will not face real loss. We need to be prepared to understand that when narcissistic entitlement is threatened, the person becomes irrational and paranoid, and vulnerable to narcissistic rage.
Weintrobe advocates that we create “frameworks of care,” be civil to each other, treat people as individuals with rights and responsibilities, and support each other during the urgent transformation that is needed. She mentions recent hopeful movements and efforts such as the Black Lives Matter movement, sustainable architecture, thinking of the world as an ecosystem that we are all part of, and efforts to protect the earth legally, by making Ecocide a crime (p. 215).
She understands that we need time to work through the consequences of these cultural shifts. We are not in a hopeless position because young people have made their voices heard and tirelessly appeal to leaders to listen to the warning of scientists, and act in a more caring way. The goal is to sit with the moral struggle that we are facing and arrive at a place where we can say no to our uncaring part. In order to do this, she believes – following the psychodynamics of recovering from severe trauma – we need to mourn the loss of our exceptionalism, mourn the damage that has already been done to the earth, and face guilt and shame about having participated in its destruction. Weintrobe writes: “It is as well to remember that we all have an inner exception, and that mourning our idealized picture of ourselves and the idealized provision to which we feel entitled is perhaps the hardest kind of mourning there is.” (p. 71).
Weintrobe wants us to develop a healthy tolerance of our internal struggles between the loving/caring tendencies and hating/uncaring tendencies. The culture of Exceptionalism/uncare has a seductive message: that it is possible to live without inner conflict and moral strife over our daily treatment of others and the earth. Weintrobe wants us to understand that “Climate wars are fought inside each of us as well as outside of us. Because our inner wars happen largely beneath our radar, we may not be sufficiently aware of this.” (p. 297). Weintrobe believes that we need to consider the earth and other people in every single thing we do, from the food we choose, to our mode of travel, to how we relate to our groups about climate, to our choices about what political actions we take to protect earth (p. 296). We need to stop treating our lively/caring self and its entitlements as unimportant.
Weintrobe ends on an optimistic note: we all have the potential capacity to emerge from climate change denial, face the true state of our planet, and understand that the only ethical option is to think globally, as the Covid-19 pandemic is currently teaching us. Our task is to enter the depressive position (Klein, 1935) with regard to our thinking about the earth. Weintrobe posits that, like her narcissistic patients with trauma histories who have gone into psychic retreat or built omnipotent illusions to avoid facing a painful reality, the Western world needs to give up exaggerated entitlements, face guilt and shame from having participated in damaging our fellow human beings and our planet, mourn our losses, and make reparations. Weintrobe suggests we inform ourselves about the climate crisis through reading and attending conferences as well as joining organizations such as Climate Psychology Alliance, Common Cause, Climate Outreach, Climate Psychiatry Alliance, Psychology for a Safe Climate, or Extinction Rebellion (XR). The International Psychoanalytic Association in December 2019 established a climate committee to increase awareness between the state of our environment and our states of mind.
Weintrobe’s timely and important book offers a sophisticated psychoanalytic understanding and political analysis of the great predicament of our time. I highly recommend that we all read her book and ponder its difficult message without dissociating or dismissing it. Hopefully an increasing number of us will feel inspired to strengthen our caring imagination and action on behalf of our planet and our less fortunate fellow human beings. We need to recognize that the wealthiest nations responsible for most of the emissions have not acted decisively to reduce CO2 emissions and have failed to honor the pledges made at past global climate conferences. As a result, carbon emissions are still rising and are currently at their highest level despite growing climate activism in the past decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2015) set the maximum safe global warming limit at 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert the absolute worst damage from climate change (p. 215). The current warming level has already reached 1.1 degrees Celsius, and the recent global climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, ended with only lukewarm commitments from Western nations to reduce greenhouse gasses, which, according to climate scientists, is too little too late to avoid irreversible destruction and unimaginable human suffering for millions.
Keene, J. (2012). Unconscious obstacles to caring for the planet: Facing up to human nature. In S. Weintrobe (Ed.) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge.
About the Author
Rita Teusch, PhD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst and faculty member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She is a part-time Lecturer in Psychiatry (Psychology) at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Health Alliance, and provides supervision to psychology interns and postdoctoral fellows at Cambridge Hospital. Dr. Teusch has a private practice in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA
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