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Neoliberalism has led to a society impervious to climate reality, argues a psychologist

Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis

Sally Weintrobe
Bloomsbury Academic
344 pp.
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Climate scientists have been getting some tough questions lately, not about their data but about their feelings. How does it feel to study such a badly damaged planet? To be condemned by opponents who refuse to engage with the evidence you have put forward? It is not often that scientists are asked to talk about their feelings, but many of those studying climate change seem grateful for opportunities to do so. They have admitted to experiencing anger, frustration, and despair, along with varying degrees of hope.

The psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe believes that we all need more opportunities to share our feelings about climate change. In Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, she explores the forces that conspire to distract us from doing so.

Weintrobe’s diagnosis centers on neoliberalism, a slippery term that gains contour and traction from her analysis. For Weintrobe, neoliberalism is more than a deregulated form of capitalism—it is a mindset. The problem is not simply that free-market ideologues have captured state power and undermined the authority of science since the 1980s; worse, neoliberalism has invaded the psyches of those living in the global north.

Every human being has both a caring and an uncaring side, Weintrobe explains. When the caring part dominates, the individual manages to rein in unruly desires out of concern for others. Neoliberalism, she argues, feeds the uncaring part of the human psyche and silences the caring part.

The result is a population of what Weintrobe calls “Exceptions,” individuals whose sense of entitlement is impervious to reality checks. Exceptions cannot tolerate evidence of their dependence on other people or on the physical environment. They refuse to acknowledge their own vulnerability, so they resort to denial—including the denial of scientific evidence. Like the heroes of Ayn Rand’s novels, Exceptions are immune to feelings of concern, guilt, or shame.

Weintrobe backs up these claims with vivid examples drawn from history, fiction, the media, daily life, and clinical practice, presented in short chapters with punchy prose. She shows, for instance, how advertisers have goaded us into seeking fulfillment in unsustainable habits of consumption, from sexy cigarettes to fast cars; they have even borrowed Freud’s insights to devise their ruses. She illustrates the predicament of the Exception with a vignette of a patient who believes himself to be perfect yet at night dreams of descending from his home at the top of a high-rise, betraying his desire to regain contact with reality. Her critical eye exposes the subtle machinations of the culture of “uncare,” such as the euphemistic language that allows corporations and the press to talk about environmental harms while evading questions of moral responsibility.

What will it take to replace neoliberalism with a culture of care? Government has a large role to play, Weintrobe argues. Genuine democracy and social welfare empower people to care by making them feel cared about. But a transformation is necessary at the individual level as well.
Facing climate reality means owning up to our vulnerability and our dependence on the people and environments we exploit. It means working through the feelings of anxiety and grief that may come with this recognition. Weintrobe argues that a proper culture of care can empower individuals to come to terms with their “inner exception,” the part of the psyche that resists unpleasant truths.

Among the signs of an emerging “culture of care,” Weintrobe points to a “paradigm shift underway in science.” This new science understands “the environment” to be composed of physical, social, and “psychic” systems: “Each requires frameworks of care and sustainable life depends on stability in them all.” She points to growing attention to the psychological cost of climate adaptation as one harbinger of this shift.

Beyond attention to mental health, Weintrobe sees potential in scientific approaches that prize humility and a diversity of ways of knowing. She suggests that science might further contribute to the new culture of care by mustering evidence against corporate perpetrators of ecocide, a crime that she suggests should be codified in international law.

Among the lessons Weintrobe’s book holds for climate scientists is that human vulnerability to climate change cannot be measured on a simple quantitative scale running from the most vulnerable populations to the most resilient. To be sure, the risks of climate change are distributed highly unevenly, with poor, marginalized communities likely to suffer the worst effects. Yet, for the privileged readers to whom Weintrobe addresses this book, vulnerability is not the opposite of resilience. Rather, feeling vulnerable is the first step toward building sustainable relationships.

About the author

The reviewer is chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA, and the author of Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (University of Chicago Press, 2018).