10 Sept 2015. The new imagination in the culture of uncare.

“Sue Roaf, in a wonderful phrase, called for architects to “reengineer their dreams” to build for a sustainable future[i]. This means nothing less than restructuring the architectural imagination. … ”



Sue Roaf, in a wonderful phrase, called for architects to “reengineer their dreams” to build for a sustainable future[i]. This means nothing less than restructuring the architectural imagination.

The imagination needed for our climate crisis is a caring imagination. My argument is a culture[ii] of uncare[iii] in the global north[iv] actively works to break our felt links[v] with the part that cares. It does this to block change and promote carbon intensive business as usual. I suggest we are all, more or less, influenced by the culture of uncare.

Roaf’s phrase, ‘reengineering a dream’, resonates with a psychoanalytic way of seeing: here thinking is an inner, psychic, dynamic building project in which we maintain links with care by keeping those we care for near by us in the internal world of the imagination, close enough to feel touched by them[vi]. A main way we break links to care is by spatially rearranging our relationships in the inner world of the mind in order to keep people at a distance[vii]. As ‘distanced others[viii]’, we do not care as much for them. An internal world[ix] with uncare in charge is an internal world in which our relationships have been reengineered spatially in this kind of way[x]. My argument is the culture of uncare works to promote this kind of rearranging which can lead to a distorted inner representation of the external world.

I will look at what sort of caring imagination we need to dream of and to build a sustainable world. I call it the ‘New Imagination’. Embracing the New Imagination involves repairing broken links with care, and forging new links with care. This can be difficult and painful to do, but can also expand the experience of self and of feeling alive[xi].

A concept I will emphasize is frameworks of care. The capacity to care is not just part of individual character, but depends on these frameworks of care. Architects build them when they build sustainably.

The culture of uncare

A culture of uncare has gained ascendency in the period of globalization since the late 1970’s. It has, by now, been extensively studied by social and psychosocial scientists, with each scholar naming it in turn the narcissistic, perverse, consumerist, extractive, entitled, arrogant, psychopathic, instrumental and manically triumphant, culture[xii]. All these are aspects of uncare, and together these aspects cohere to form a mindset, which I have called the uncaring mindset. It is organized, narrow minded, short-term minded, avaricious, and it tends to be set and tenacious.

The uncaring mindset is at the heart of the culture of uncare. It is driven by a powerful underlying phantasy[xiii] which is that the earth is an idealized indestructible breast/toilet mother, there solely to provide endlessly for us and to absorb all our waste[xiv].

The project to globalize the economy was driven by this phantasy. ‘Grab, grab, grab, now, now, now; undermine as many restraining trade barriers as possible, hide the true costs and let tomorrow go hang’ was the order of the day. Laws were framed and trade agreements put in place to facilitate deregulation. Naomi Klein (2014) has described this process in her latest book on climate change, This Changes Everything as has Joel Bakan in The Corporation. Deregulation means people working to undermine frameworks of care that hold excessive greed and entitlement in check.

The only possible outcome of globalization driven by a mindset that sees the earth as a breast/toilet mother was a pileup of social and environmental damage and the biggest problem for drivers of the global economy was how to get people to cooperate with an immoral and inherently unsustainable project. Happy carefree consumers were needed to boost profits. The problem was people care[xv]. The need was to reverse the human climate so that people would care too little, not too much. To date, trillions of dollars have been spent on undermining care through working to shift peoples’ bedrock ego ideals of caring behaviour. Undermining care has been brought about through political framing, mass media, the academe, general culture and advertising. It has led to a change in the culture of our social groups towards greater disregard for science, more materialistic values and the idea that to feel as free of care as possible is most desirable, rather than being a warning sign that one is living in a gated community, a psychic retreat, within the mind. All this money would not need to have been spent, and would not have been spent, if people were basically uncaring by nature. Instead, people are caring and uncaring by nature.

The global economy’s business plan was to drive uncare and to disable care, specifically in relation to our behaviour as consumers. The need was for people happily to consume ever more products produced in the cheapest possible way to maximise profits. The true cost was climate change[xvi] and rising social inequality. People’s moral qualms, their feelings of responsibility, their anxiety that it would all end very badly, their sense of guilt and their impulse to resist taking part, all stood in the way of the willing cooperation needed.

The new culture that came in had the ideological function of helping people find ways not to care too much about living in a way they knew deep down was morally wrong and unsustainable. The culture’s aim was promoting an uncaring mindset. This mindset has trickled down from corporate power, to governments, to social groups, to the individual psyche.

Lawrence Summers’ leaked memo

Here is an example of the mindset at a corporate level. In 1991, Lawrence Summers, then President of the World Bank, confided in a leaked confidential memo, “I think that dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?”[xvii] Here is the uncaring mindset writ large: outsource environmental damage to those who are far away and without power. Let them bear the suffering.

When this email was exposed, Summers said he was only joking. Presumably this was because he did not want either the bank or himself, as the bank’s leader, to be judged immoral. The problem is people care. They feel guilty and ashamed at having their uncare exposed, and even if they do not, they know others will. This is the main reason why damaging and inequitable trade treaties are negotiated in secret, away from public scrutiny.

Like others, I was shocked to read of Summers’ memo, but I too outsource environmental damage I cause, albeit obviously on a far smaller scale. Here is an example where I saw this clearly.

At the bus stop

I was waiting for the bus, having decided to travel more by public transport to reduce my carbon emissions. It was spitting rain, blowy and cold, and I thought, “I hate waiting for the bus. I wish I’d taken the car”. Suddenly, spontaneously, I imagined my grandchildren overhearing my thought. They were now young adults, not children. In my imagination their world, a future world, was right up close to my world. In my imagination, we were all close enough to hear, see and touch each other; close enough for me to see the extreme weather they were in and close enough to feel their suffering.

I felt ashamed. Part of my shame was feeling I was so much less of a person than I wished I was, and felt I can be. I felt trivial, fatuous and grumpy, like a spoiled entitled brat. I had heard myself in a different way and with a different perspective. I think this was because I felt a direct loving, empathic, link with my grown up grandchildren. And, because I felt this direct link so keenly, I managed to stay in touch with what I had understood, despite this being painful.

This was that I had, without being consciously aware of it, relocated my own grandchildren to in a faraway place in my imagination, a place I had labelled ‘the future’, and I had done this in order to sever a caring, loving, link with them. I had moved them from being close to distant so I would not have to feel guilty, ashamed and anguished about my carbon behaviour. Here I was, in an uncaring mindset, outsourcing suffering. In my imagination my grandchildren were now ‘distanced others’ far enough away to be outside the area of my love and concern. I had broken my caring link with their actual future experience so as to assuage my guilt.

I have often thought climate change will affect the lives of my grand children. I now realized this was with real empathy cut off. I had never felt affected like this. Here I believe I had repaired the loving, caring link between us. I had reversed mental distancing and brought them back close to me where they properly belong. This is the sort mental reengineering that I think is required.

The mechanism I have described – that of actively breaking loving links to avoid mental pain – is an ordinary human defence mechanism that can usefully protect us from being too emotionally overwhelmed. My point is that the culture of uncare boosts breaking caring links and boosts mental distancing on a daily basis. It does this in many ways and through different branches of the culture. For instance, take our social groups. Mine would be more likely say, “don’t be so hard on yourself Sally; give yourself a break. Don’t be omnipotent. Do you really think that your one tiny action of taking the bus is going to save the world?” They would be less likely to say, “Yes, it’s unpleasant waiting for the bus, but stick at it. Perhaps give yourself a break if you are tired or not feeling well. Face how helpless and enraged you can feel that government is not stepping up to tackle climate change[xviii]. Use these feelings constructively to help you do what you can towards combating climate change.” Or, take our newspapers. They mostly airbrush out references to climate change. For example, at his last inauguration as President, Obama spoke about climate change. The main headline across the mass media that day was did Beyonce lipsync the national anthem?[xix] Or, take advertising and general culture. These relentlessly exhort and seduce us to feel entitled to idealized conditions. They encourage the uncaring part of us that I heard in my inner voice at the bus stop.

The aim of this culture is to break links with care and encourage spatial distancing of the victims of our uncare in the internal world of the psyche. The aim is to keep us defended against feeling conflicted and anguished at our collectively damaging way of living.


These distancing strategies are part of disavowal, which is seeing reality but finding ways to remain blind to reality at a feeling level. Disavowal can leave us with highly distorted inner pictures of reality, with people we love far away or in the shadows, with important issues seen as tiny and trivial issues seen as big, with time’s steady march arrested to the present tense only, and with the environmental and social violence that we do carefully airbrushed out of the picture. We sanitize our inner landscapes through psychic reengineering and we do this to protect ourselves from emotional discomfort and pain. The culture, rather than help us face reality, invites us repeatedly to engage in disavowal. In this culture it is very difficult to resist being drawn in.

Omnipotent thinking

One particularly destructive aspect of disavowal is that it attempts to solve problems omnipotently, i.e. through an act of thought, rather than through making repairs in the real world. This is magical, ‘as if’,[xx] not rational thinking. My mental distancing is an example of ‘as if’ thinking. It was ‘as if’ I could rid myself of guilt and anxiety through an act of thought. I cut my links to care by locating my grandchildren far away, as if this would solve the problem. At one level it does solve the problem in that it gets rid of consciously experienced guilt. The cost is rationality itself. And, ‘as if’ thinking onely leads to problems getting worse, because damaging behaviour is not addressed in reality.

Genuine care involves mourning the phantasy that the earth is an idealized breast/toilet mother, and attempting to address the damage this phantasy has caused. ‘As if’ care is setting ambitious climate targets one knows will not be kept[xxi], or apparently minimizing the danger, or believing in miracle techno quick fixes, or avoiding hearing any news about the damage, or rubbishing the climate science community, or locating the damage in some future far off place, or preferably doing all these at the same time. All these magical repairs work by cutting felt links with care.

‘As if’, omnipotent, fake, solutions can be rustled up in an instant. They require no inner psychic work, which is needed to reconnect with care. Connecting and reconnecting with care is the only kind of work that will lead to real repairs being undertaken in the external world. The true aim of omnipotent solutions is to enable business as usual to proceed. Omnipotent thinking is now so widespread in relation to climate change that any troublesome aspect of the problem can apparently be dismissed instantly through an act of thought.

At the bus stop I was in disavowal, operating in ‘as if’ thinking mode. I think its purpose was to avoid guilt while still feeling apparently good and virtuous. In a state of disavowal I could write about the effect of climate change on my grandchildren without taking greater care to reduce my own emissions and I could push my guilt about this, and push them, to the edges of my mind.

The New Imagination

The New Imagination is made up of elements that are very old and also very new. It is the caring imagination that we need for now[xxii]. It is very old, because the ongoing struggle between care and uncare is as old as human kind. Homer described this struggle in The Iliad:

destructiveness, sure-footed and strong, races around the world doing harm, followed haltingly by … (care), which is lame, wrinkled, has difficulty seeing and goes to great lengths trying to put things right.

Homer. The Iliad, Book 9:11, lines 502ff.

In the New Imagination, care no longer appeases uncare. It is no longer led by the nose by uncare like an ineffectual parent clearing up after a self-centered, triumphant, toddler running amok. Care, in the New Imagination has come of age. It stands up to uncare. It represents the moment when the human race matures, starts to grow up and face reality.

The New Imagination recognizes that because of our environmental and carbon crisis, we are a unique generation, tasked with a particularly heavy burden of care about climate change. The last generation did not have the full picture and if we leave taking care to the next generation or even to ourselves tomorrow, it will be too late.[xxiii] The New Imagination recognizes that we face a full-blown emergency but also knows we can address it, and with existing technology.

One strand of the New Imagination is very new historically because only now, with scientific and technological advances and satellite pictures, can we more fully appreciate Earth in her otherness, her majesty and also as fragile and with limits. We now can see that she comprises complex interconnecting dynamic systems that support life. All this enables us to love her more fully and in a more mature way, and be very concerned when we see her damaged. The New Imagination helps us face our true dependency on and indebtedness to the earth. It helps us give up and mourn the narrow- minded phantasy of her as an idealized breast/toilet mother to exploit and think we can control. It opens our eyes to the need to share resources with other humans and other species living now and in the future.

The other strand we need for the New Imagination to flourish is a deeper understanding of the mind and of culture. This enables us to take a more sympathetic and a more critical look at ourselves. It helps us to recognize that care is not best understood just at an individual level. Care flourishes when frameworks of care are in place and it withers without these frameworks. I now move to frameworks of care.

Frameworks of care

A framework of care is a structure designed by people who care. It is a sign of background mindfulness. It does two things. It keeps destructive uncaring social behaviours in check, and it actively supports caring social behaviours. Frameworks of care exist at all levels, from laws that prohibit violence and theft, to social groups that disapprove of certain behaviours while also helping people face life’s difficulties, to parents who understand how their child feels and also provide discipline where necessary, to the individual inner moral code we have internalized that regulates our behaviour. Frameworks of care help us maintain our living, direct, links with felt care. They also help us mend caring links when these have become severed. They can do this in many ways. We vitally depend on our frameworks of care, and are often not even aware they are in place, only noticing their effects when they start to break down. A civil society depends on them.

When architects build sustainable buildings they build physical structures to keep people safe. With these structures they are also building frameworks of care and this is a profoundly important aspect of their work and the role they play. The frameworks of care they build are vitally necessary for mental health by keeping uncare in check in psychological as well as practical ways. If we live in a passive or active haus, and travel on carbon ultra-light transport, our carbon emissions drop right down. If our buildings are designed to better withstand ravaged elements, we are safer. This enables us to feel that our survival is cared about. An important insight from psychoanalysis is that to be caring we need to feel cared for. This starts in babyhood with parental care.

Architectural frameworks of care can bring us closer to people, nature and beauty in a way that helps keep our links with care alive. They help us reconnect with being citizens not just consumers in the way they arrange social space. All this expands our sense of self, boosts our creativity and connects us to others in a caring way. All this disrupts the self-idealizing idea that we are somehow superior to some other people and to other species, and entitled to live cut off from them.


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[i] Roaf, S. (2013). Global Green Building Forum. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hE3HcrA-Wa8

[ii] Culture includes mass media, government messaging, advertising, cinema, the arts and our social group culture.

[iii] I use the term ‘culture of uncare’ rather than ‘uncaring culture’ to emphasise the active way in which this culture seeks to uncouple us from care, i.e. to ‘un-care’ us. This culture is not just uncaring in a descriptive sense. It breaks links with care.

[iv] A culture widely called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ or ‘of the global north’, is increasingly recognised as largely responsible for rising carbon emissions. However, given its rapid spread to all corners of the globe in the period of financial deregulation since the early 1980’s, and given recent shifts in global power relations, it is no longer accurate to talk of a global north/south divide. A huge poster hanging on the wall of the hotel of the Indian government delegation to the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos highlights this. It said: “India. World’s Largest Middle Class Consumer Market by 2030. Join India. Lead the World.”

[v] Cutting felt links with care was written about by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in his (1959) paper Attacks on Linking. In Bion’s model, links involve directly felt experience of a relationship with the other. The other can include reality. My discussion focuses on the way that severing links with experience leads to dissociation, or more properly, ‘dis-association’ from the part that cares. One might ask if dissociation is present in Ben Van Beurden’s interview with Alan Rusbridger, then Editor of the Guardian newspaper. Van Beurden is CEO of Shell. In the interview he acknowledged climate change and the need to reduce emissions, but simultaneously endorsed Shell’s expansion of fossil fuel extraction, including tar sands and drilling for oil in the Arctic. He said, “I think about climate change all the time and I think about it not at all”. Guardian May 2015.

[vi] Locating the other far away in the imagination so as not to feel touched by them was described by sociologist Stanley Cohen as creating the ‘distant other’. I have looked at dehumanising prejudice as one example of distancing the other through spatially rearranging the other as living apart (apart-heid), on the other side of the mental tracks, and through scapegoating and vilification techniques in order to avoid guilt and shame.

[vii] I have written of how the culture drives us to split our internal world into near and far landscapes, in which we relate to ‘inferior them’ from a separated-off position of ‘superior us’. Weintrobe (2012a).

[viii] There are many examples of creating the distant other to stay in a psychic retreat. For instance, when economist Nicholas Stern wrote the Stern Review – which he has now acknowledged did not take the problem of climate change seriously enough – he used an economic model that gave inadequate entitlement to future generations. This is spatial distancing of ‘those in the future’ tucked away and hidden behind the equations. Stern is hardly alone in using the assumptions he did. There is widespread disavowal of genuine consequences for future generations in the models used by economists.

[ix] I find psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s (19 ) concept of the internal world very useful to understand the way we form an internal representation of the external world, one that can be heavily influenced by phantasy. In Klein’s view, relationships feature prominently in the internal world. This is because we are primed to relate and are primarily social as a species. She sees the internal world as literally ‘peopled’ by figures made up of realistic representation and distorting phantasy. My emphasis is on the representation of space internally, often envisioned as inner landscapes.

[x] Psychoanalyst John Steiner (1993) discussed the way that we can form what he called a psychic retreat in the mind. This is an area, often imagined as a sectioned off place, in which we ‘arrange’ the internal world so as not to be troubled by various sorts of anxiety or feelings of loss. Here I am suggesting our culture helps foster a collective psychic retreat from anxieties and psychic pain about our damaging environmental and social behaviour.

[xi] Sociologist and psychosocial theorist Michael Rustin (2001) has written on structures needed to facilitate care. He says, “In what containing social environments, can human beings tolerate recognition of the truth, and thus of each others states of mind, desires, needs and sufferings? This is a rather fundamental question for political and social thought, and is one to which psychoanalysis still has a large contribution to make.” Rustin (2001) Reason and Unreason. p6.

[xii] Social psychologists have called this mindset ‘instrumental’ (Kasser, Crompton, Darnton and Kirk). Sociologists and social commentators have called it ‘consumerist’ (Z. Bauman, N. Klein, Hamilton, Alexander) and ‘extractive’ (N. Klein). A lawyer has called it pathological and institutionally psychopathic. He distinguishes between a psychopathic corporate culture and individuals who work for it. Psychoanalytic authors have given the mindset various names: ‘narcissistic’ (Lasch), ‘narrow-minded’ (Brenman), one of ‘arrogant greedy entitlement’ (Weintrobe), ‘perverse’ (Long; Hoggett) and involving a sense of ‘manic triumphalism’ (Segal).

[xiii] Fantasy spelled phantasy indicates the phantasy is or is mostly unconscious.

[xiv] See Keene (2012) for discussion of the earth as a breast/toilet mother phantasy.

[xv] As Freud sagely put it, people may not be as moral as they would like to think they are but they are more moral than they realize.

[xvi] Strictly speaking ‘global warming’ refers to the long-term trend of a rising average global temperature and ‘climate change’ refers to the changes in the global climate, which result from the increasing average global temperature. However, the two terms tend nowadays to be used interchangeably. For a discussion see http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-global-warming.htm

[xvii] See Philip Arestis, Furore at the World Bank, New York Times, Feb 7th 1992.

[xviii] See Weintrobe (2012) for a discussion of how people came to realise after the failed Copenhagen climate summit that governments did not care about them at the level of their survival. It was traumatic to feel this uncared for.

[xix]See for example BBC news 31 Jan 2013. Beyonce admits to inauguration lip syncing


[xx] Hanna Segal has distinguished between ‘as if’ and ‘what if’ thinking. The latter seeks to test a phantasy against reality, by asking what if the phantasy were true. The former ignores reality and proceeds as if the phantasy were true.

[xxi] Argued by Hoggett (2012).

[xxii] Pope Francis’s basic argument in his recent encyclical on climate change is that we need to care.

[xxiii] “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” Obama Guardian 4.7.15. But Obama does not appear to have embraced the New Imagination. At the same time as saying this, he gave Shell Oil the go ahead to drill for oil in the Arctic. The danger is this is the ‘as if’ disavowing imagination.

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