Weintrobe (2021) Psychological roots of the climate crisis

Dr Chris Brogan, Adult Psychotherapist & Squiggle Trustee, provides his brief review and reflections on Sally Weintrobe’s

This is a book whose publication is very timely with COP 26 summit being hosted in Scotland later this year. Ms Weintrobe has been the main Climate spokesperson of the Psychoanalytic family and has chaired the Psychology Climate Alliance. She has written extensively about psychoanalytic perspectives of Climate Crisis, but this is her most comprehensive book.   Her economic, social and political analysis of neoliberalism and the Climate Crisis is hard hitting and makes compelling and chilling reading. For this reason alone, the book is invaluable and evidence for her arguments are extremely well researched. Although she tries to prepare the reader in a “containing” manner, by giving suggestions about how to read her book, I felt very despondent and rather overwhelmed by the end, despite examples of good frameworks of care, good leaders and a helpful chapter on feelings evoked by the Crisis.  Perhaps the model of human behaviour driven by the duality of love and inherent destructiveness where creativity emerges through mourning, guilt and reparation, doesn’t leave me with much hope for the human race, but again I may be in denial.

Her thesis is that the rise of neoliberalism with deregulation of institutions over the last 30-40 years has resulted in a mindset of exceptionalism, which has become pervasive in global culture. Powerful Neoliberal idealogues who were exceptionalists promoted a culture of un-care, promoting denial of limits, unfettered greed and fraud. Occupy, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have all mounted serious opposition. Ms Weintrobe elaborates on the idea of exceptionalism described originally by Freud and, before him, Shakespeare in Richard 111rd. Freud thought that Shakespeare cleverly helped us to identify and feel sympathetic with Richard 111rd despite his villainy, by hinting and not spelling out, a more hidden meaning in Richard’s soliloquy. Freud imagines Richard saying: “nature has done me a grievous wrong in denying me the beauty of form which wins human love. Life owes me reparation for this and I will see that I get it. I have a right to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back. I may do wrong myself since wrong has been done to me” Freud continues: “Richard is an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well. We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our Destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self love”. Weintrobe develops this idea of exceptionalism, linking it with a concept of a caring part of the mind and uncaring narcissistic part of the mind. It is the job of the caring part of the mind to limit the power of the uncaring part. In some leaders the Exception mind-set has become a dominating influence with grandiosity and omnipotence, just like it did with the sun god Amenhotep described by Abraham.

Weintrobe has skilfully, and convincingly woven in Freud ‘s notion of the Exception into a Kleinian framework of Paranoid Schizoid/Depressive schema. I wonder if a Winnicottian slant might shed a slightly different light on the infantile nature of these early wounds to our self-love and narcissism. I am sure I am not the only one who has wondered what Winnicott would have to say about Climate Crisis, the shocking destruction of our natural world in the last 50 years, the era in which he was alive. Weintrobe thought the three false beliefs of the Exception are Entitlement to see myself as ideal, Entitlement to idealised provision and Entitlement to use magical thinking to maintain the belief I am ideal. Indeed, this could be viewed as delusional thinking in an adult, but this omnipotence, far from being a defence is an essential experience for an infant. The Illusion that the world appears at the infant’s beck and call and is part of the infant, is vital in the early stage of absolute dependency and all future development depends on this happening.  Just like the meaning Winnicott divined behind stealing, could an adult whose mindset is dominated by feeling an exception, be reaching back to re-experience what he or she has missed out? Winnicott lay emphasis on the ubiquity of dissociation as a mechanism to cope with serious unrepaired fractures in continuity of being, to prevent annihilation and falling for ever, resulting in various degrees of False Self and the common feelings of futility and a schizoid type of depression. Could this way of thinking extrapolate to a macro level where we have become dissociated from our relationship with the non-human world, a world which can be infinitely exploited? The capacity for concern is predicated by a good enough environment where the infant can become a person, an ‘I’, a psychesoma unity, and can live creatively. Winnicott believed that the value placed on the child’s contribution was an essential part of this developmental achievement. If man is dissociated from the non-human world (and possibly the human world too), this natural normal process is impaired. One of the difficulties in engaging with the fact of an impending Climate Catastrophe that Weintrobe alludes to is the failure of imagination. If imagination is linked to creativity, then can this be re-vivified by attention to the dissociation from the natural world? For instance, many people are moved by David Attenborough’s films about wildlife in distant lands portrayed on their TV but oblivious and disconnected from the natural world closer to home. Perhaps the only positive consequence of the epidemic was the quietness in lockdown where sounds and sightings of local birds and animals became much more noticeable. 

James Rebanks in his recent book English Pastoral, an Inheritance describes very movingly how he was helped by a conservationist, who visited him after the Cumbrian floods, as he wanted to know if he could help at all on his hill farm to reduce the risk of further flooding. He was surprised that his father who was still alive then accepted her, as traditionally, farmers have a deep suspicion of environmentalists. The resulting discussion altered everything. Although deeply unhappy with the industrialisation of farming that had left some farmers with no choice, Rebanks and his father continued to work their hill farm traditionally and yet were in danger of becoming very isolated. Through a series of interventions by ecologists and botanists, Rebanks realised that his farm was part of much wider ecosystems, that it could contribute to carbon sinks through tree and hedge planting and bog management, that it could provide a very diverse habitat where the decline of birds flowers and insects can be reversed, and they could help reduce flooding downstream by allowing natural bends and wiggles in the becks that ran through their farm. The farm’s value is far more than providing cheap food to supermarkets on marginal returns. Traditional economic models do not account for natural value. Most of all, Rebanks’ perception of his farm and the landscape changed to a strong feeling that he had a responsibility of stewarding the land for now and future generations. Rebanks’ imagination helped him develop a broad vision of the future. In contrast, a farm which has been sucked into being an industrialised centre of food production, often with monoculture, severely depleted soil, a desert of wildlife, with the latest automated technology, is completely alienated from nature. Unfortunately, the dominant model of Economy still favours the latter.

Rebanks describes how a damaged environment can be repaired by good stewardship and how his relation to nature changed. He offers hope.  I feel the reparation was not driven by mourning so much as a reconnection with the natural beauty and infinite natural world on his farm. He had re-found a deep love, a renewed purpose and was living creatively. I think that a dissociation had been healed.    

I think as an organisation promoting the ideas of Winnicott, we might want to engage and contribute to psychoanalytic thinking about the Climate Crisis

Freud, S Some Character-Types met with in Psychoanalytic Work, SE Vol XIV 309-333

Rebanks, J. English Pastoral: An Inheritance London. Penguin 2020