Joe Glenton, a British soldier, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and went AWOL rather than return for a second tour. After months of wandering, taking drugs and feeling lost, he gave himself up. The army found him guilty of desertion and he served four of a nine-month custodial sentence in a Military Correctional Training Centre.
Talk to the British Psychotherapy Foundation, Trinity College, Oxford.
Joe Glenton, a British soldier, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and went AWOL rather than return for a second tour. After months of wandering, taking drugs and feeling lost, he gave himself up. The army found him guilty of desertion and he served four of a nine-month custodial sentence in a Military Correctional Training Centre. After his experience in Afghanistan, Glenton had many of the classic symptoms of PTSD: feelings of rage, guilt, shame, loss, despair, helplessness, disorientation, being emotionally conflicted and losing a sense of being properly oriented in time. PTSD is a diagnosis of mental disorder. A new way of understanding symptoms like Glenton’s is moral injury. Moral injury, which views traumatic suffering as a sign of mental health, not disorder, is the traumatic shock soldiers feel when they realise a war they are part of is immoral and that by taking part they have acted against their conscience.
Mental healing for Glenton began when he drew a moral line in the sand and found the will to refuse to return to Afghanistan. Those who study war resisters describe such moments as a ‘crystallization of conscience’. Glenton describes his like this:
Being a conscientious objector isn’t that you get out of bed one day and don’t fancy it. It’s something that develops and you have no control over it and no contract in the world can keep it in check. You feel it goes against the grain of your being to go back.[i]
Glenton gradually understood that Army Recruitment had sold him a distorted picture of soldiers as idealized heroes fulfilling idealized noble missions. Beneath this idealization he found a reality far more brutal and he began to see that the idealizations were cover stories for brutality. He outlines this in a piece on war heroes:
“It is my view that Royal Marine commandoes are the best light role infantry in the world – bar none. Boot necks, as they are colloquially known, are capable, professional and robust soldiers. But I can say this without once gushing about “heroes” and without ever once needing to shy away from an uncomfortable truth simply because it happens to concern soldiers. Soldiers’ daily experience can never be divorced from the over-arching political context. What radicalises soldiers is … (to understand) … the impact of policy on individuals and on the people you care about”.
What has Joe Glenton to do with all of us here today? My argument is that a new culture has taken sway. I call it the culture of uncare. This culture recruits us to active participation in an immoral project, which is to live in a way that causes huge environmental and social damage. I suggest that to understand this at a feeling level can cause the shock of moral injury. It can also radicalise us and here I return to the way Glenton puts this: “What radicalises … (is to understand) … the impact of policy on individuals and on the people you care about.”
Our current way of life in the Global North is largely dictated by a globalised deregulated economy founded on trade agreements that are a polluter’s charter: the polluter never pays, short term profit is all that counts, true costs are discounted and no-one is to be held responsible. Globalisation itself is not the problem. The problem is the uncaring mindset that has driven it, one that kept the cost of carbon intensive aviation fuel low and promoted squandering of resources. Products we buy are now produced in ways that hugely damage the environment as well as the social fabric.
French journalist Benjamin Carle researched where every item in his flat in Paris had come from (from food to TV to his bicycle) and found that only 4.5% were made in France. Carle called himself a “child of globalisation”. We are all children of globalisation and it is green wash to pretend it is easy to source local products and live in a sustainable way in our current carbon intensive world. Carle did achieve 96% ‘French made’ within 10 months, but only through considerable effort and foregoing items he thought essential.
Large corporations within a global deregulated economy are causing such damage that life itself is threatened. How do we live with knowing we are necessarily implicated in at least some of the damage by living in the global economy?
How do we square this with our ordinary sense of decency, our deep-seated need to be moral caring human beings and our awareness of depending on a healthy Mother Earth for our literal and spiritual survival? How do we manage our conflicted feelings when we see the logic of our lived lives so often pulling in a different direction from thinking in a joined up caring way?[ii]
In such a situation I suggest our culture plays a crucial role. This is to provide us with justifications for what we know deep down is an immoral way to live. These justifications become our cover stories, and are usually not thought about at a particularly conscious level. They are designed to screen out the pain of injury to our moral selves. Our culture enables the necessarily damaging lives we currently live to feel more palatable and bearable. It relies heavily on two processes to do this. The first is idealization. This works to disguise what is ugly about our collective behaviour by dressing it up to look hugely desirable. The second is outsourcing damage. I will look at both but start with the uncaring mindset that lay behind the globalization project.
The uncaring mindset
A way of life that has been called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ is increasingly recognized 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, calling this way of life ‘Western’ is no longer accurate.
A deep-rooted mindset is at the heart of this way of life. It centrally involves the belief the world is our oyster, there solely for us to exploit, with the justification that we are entitled as we are especially worth it.
This mindset has been the subject of much recent attention in the human[iii] sciences within the period of financial deregulation. Social psychologists have called its underlying values ‘instrumental’[iv]. Sociologists and social commentators have called the mindset ‘consumerist’[v] and ‘extractive’[vi]. Psychoanalytic authors have given it various names: ‘narcissistic’[vii], one of ‘arrogant greedy entitlement’[viii], ‘narrow-minded’[ix], ’perverse’[x]; and involving a sense of ‘manic triumphalism’[xi]. It has been likened to the position of the baby for whom mother (and Mother Earth) is an idealised feeding breast/toilet, solely there to provide super sized portions and absorb all our waste[xii]. In this idealized phantasy[xiii] view, Mother Earth is seen as indestructible.
Each of these descriptions highlights important features of the mindset: the sense of self-importance tending to hubris (imagining oneself with god-like powers) when not checked, the sense of special entitlement to super-sized portions and super-sized comfort, the narrow mindedness of a purely extractive exploitative position, ridding the self of experiencing unpleasant unwanted feelings by disavowing reality, the shallowness of experience that results from this, the drift to regressive more childlike modes of thinking, the growing sense of entitlement not to have to tolerate any difficult experiences, and the general corruption of truth and language.
I use the term ‘uncaring mindset’ to cover and include all these different features. ‘Mindset’ conveys a current, organized[xiv] cast of mind rather than a fixed way of thinking. The uncaring mindset is tailor made for the new deregulated global economy. This is because it encourages rapacious consumption and it sanctions the idea the polluter must never pay. Indeed the global economy in its current form could not grow and prosper without such a mindset: its profits depend on it.
However, it would be a mistake simply to equate the uncaring mindset with capitalism. In various guises and within various social formations it has a very long human history. Vaclav Havel (1986) for instance discussed the uncaring mindset behind Soviet-style culture, and gave prescient warnings to the West that, when not held in check by care, uncare blooms.
The culture works tirelessly to boost the uncaring mindset and to persuade us it is an ideal mindset to be in. Because this mindset inevitably leads to damage, the culture also works tirelessly to persuade us that it will not be we who suffer the damage, which it tells us will be minimal anyway and so does not count. I suggest both these strategies are designed to protect us from experiencing the traumatic shock of moral injury.
Outsourcing the damage
If we look at the way the deregulated global economy was structured when it was founded, we can see the uncaring mindset at work. A legal framework was established that required businesses to put short-term profit first[xv] and trade rules were agreed that allowed pollution with no cost and no system of accountability for damage caused. The damage inevitably started to mount up, but rather than address it, short-term ‘quick fixes’ were applied: steps were taken to outsource the damage as much as possible and to play down its effects.
Case study: Lawrence Summer’s leaked memo
In a leaked confidential memo in 1991 Lawrence Summers[xvi], then President of the World Bank, said, “I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles… Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?” Here revealed is the uncaring mindset. Zones of sacrifice were to be created and damage was to be outsourced to distant others and disavowed.
This memo is shocking, but what has also disturbed and shocked me is realising ways I too am often caught up in this mindset, as part of the culture.
Here are three examples of my struggle to see the effects of the culture of uncare on me. They all involve me experiencing the shock of moral injury. The first involves me at the supermarket buying food for supper.
Case story: at the supermarket
I was at the supermarket. I was in a hurry, it was late, I was tired and people were invited to dinner. An ordinary situation. I already avoided buying fresh flown-in food, uncomfortably aware it came with a carbon price tag and aware that carbon I am responsible for releasing into the atmosphere will stay there for thousands of years. That evening nothing locally sourced fitted with my plans and the time I had for cooking. Exasperated, I bought the flown in fresh vegetables. At the checkout I found myself thinking, “the problem is I’m busy, it’s late, I’m tired, and the so and so’s are coming to supper.” I noticed a tone of self-justification, and I registered I was struggling with feeling guilty. But – and this was the experience that stood out for me – I also heard a note of unwarranted self-importance and entitlement in, “I’m a very busy person”.
My next thought was, “what makes me so special and so entitled that I think I can act in a way I know to be environmentally destructive? I think my thought, “I’m a busy person” was meant to push this knowledge to the side and replace it with an experience of intensity and busy-ness in which I could feel at the centre of things. I had sidelined and eclipsed the person in me who cared about carbon reality.
It was not the first time I had used ‘busy-ness’ as a justification, and it would not be the last, but in this situation I did see my shopping choices as moral with far greater clarity than usual. It was as though the person in me who cared had dug in her heels and refused to be eclipsed and silenced.
I sounded to myself a bit like the White Rabbit, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date”. I then wondered, did I also make myself so busy? Was busy-ness food for my sense of super-entitlement?
Next, I became aware that in the inner world of my thoughts an imaginary audience was present that included many of my friends. I expected they would easily understand my predicament and, more importantly, would endorse my decision as the natural one to have taken. “Of course you bought it. You were in a rush. Don’t be so hard on yourself”. I imagined this group chiding me for feeling guilty about buying the vegetables. They might think it was a sign of self-importance or omnipotent thinking. Did I believe that by my one small action of not buying flown in veg I could somehow magically ‘fix’ a problem that was mostly structural?
I realised that the imaginary inner group culture I was relating to lent support to one side of the argument going on inside me. But in this instance, what remained alive to me was the shock of hearing my super-entitlement. I believe a more caring part of me does not feel entitled in this way. I think I needed to quell my discomfort by dispensing with reality. The reality here was external and internal: the external reality of the finite portion of carbon I would be responsible for and the internal reality of the guilt I feel about this. All my socially sanctioned cover stories were not sufficiently weighty in this case to bury the clarity of what I had understood: that I was in an uncaring mindset, and that I was using my inner pictures of my social culture to turn a blind eye to this. I had reach a moral tipping point a moment of crystallization of conscience.
Gradually I have made some headway with elements of the problem I faced at the supermarket. I allow more time for shopping and I plan meals in a different way. But, I believe I was only able to make these changes when I recognized that I was in the mindset and that it was culturally embedded.
I have described what I imagined my social groups might have thought. This is not necessarily what people I know would actually think, and this distinction is important. However, one’s pictures of one’s social groups are influenced by real interactions. An example is my telling a friend who was going to a conference in Scandinavia that I was going too. She immediately quipped, “how are you going to get there? Going to swim, Sally, are you?” My friend was flying but she did not know I was taking the train. It was meant as a joke, but it did not feel funny to me. One can feel lonely and isolated in this position. Ro Randall has written extensively on this topic in her account of ‘Carbon Conversations’ workshops where people discuss how others can receive them when they try to lessen their environmental impact.
People’s reactions have complex elements and we can only guess at what they are. In this case, I even wondered whether her comment might possibly have contained elements of anger and disappointment when she thought that I was going to take a plane. She knows I try to avoid flying because of the carbon and perhaps she felt let down by me.
Withstanding the culture of uncare involves withstanding pressure – both real and imagined – from one’s important, needed, social groups. It also involves reconnecting emotionally with groups one has outsourced the damage to when in the uncaring mindset. Reconnecting can feel traumatically hard, as my second example shows.
Case story: at the bus stop
I was standing at a London bus stop. It was spitting rain, blowy and cold. I thought, “I hate waiting for the bus. I wish I’d taken the car”. Suddenly I experienced my grandchildren listening to my thought. They were now grownup in a world ravaged by storms, but they were also right there next to me, standing very close to me, I in my world and they in theirs. I felt shocked and ashamed and part of my shame was feeling I was so much less of a person than I wished I was and indeed felt I can be. I felt trivial and fatuous, like a spoiled brat. They were not judging me – I was judging myself.
I write about climate change and I have often thought that it will affect the lives of my grand children. But this was the first direct conversation I had had with them, one that really factored in their experience, one that I experienced as talking to them face to face and us looking each other in the eye. Experientially, rather than me locating them in the future, and thus psychologically far away from me, I felt them close by; me in a bit of bad weather and them in unspeakable conditions with me saying to them in justification, “the thing is I didn’t like waiting for the bus”. It was so inadequate to me as a reason for not struggling to get my emissions down.
At that moment I spontaneously brought my grandchildren from being the distant other – distant by my having located them in a far away future – to being right with me. I could not have planned this experience; it was spontaneous.[xvii]
Case story 3 Birds
My other example of reconnection involves birds. During a recent autumn, when Britain was savaged by storms, I heard reports on the radio from fishermen on the east coast of thousands of migratory birds unable to cross the channel, with many dying in the attempt. I felt overwhelmed with sorrow. Climate change is bringing increasing sever storms. What had these tiny creatures to do with the problem of climate change, yet it was they who were feeling it right in their exhausted battered bodies? I think their plight also connected me in a feeling way with the enormity of the changes the culture of uncare is unleashing and how small and helpless I too can feel in relation to this.
Feeling overwhelming sorrow for the plight of birds was also key to my personal fight to avoid as much plastic as possible. I already knew about the outsourcing of plastic rubbish to the oceans so that by now there is an expanding area of plastic detritus the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. The BBC reported last week that the plastic in the oceans is now equivalent of 5 bags filled with plastic for every foot of seashore in the world.[xviii] But what tipped my moral scales to declare myself a plastic free zone as much as I possible could was seeing a photo of the skeleton of a baby Albatross, its stomach area filled with bits of plastic. Researchers tell us that albatrosses cannot distinguish between a small fish and a plastic bottle top when searching the seas for food for their young.
I have just described some of my own moral tipping points living in the culture of uncare. One cannot plan these moments; they just happen, although they probably happen because of hundreds of similar moments that have built up. To be clear, they involved my knowing that I am implicated in the destructiveness. Railing against an immoral system was not what caused me this pain. Seeing and taking responsibility for my contribution to it led me to change.
I want to emphasize a particular kind of jolting shock that accompanied my tipping points. The culture of uncare encourages one to live in a collective psychic retreat from reality. It does this by encouraging one to create a kind of gated community in the mind where there is an entitled in-group. The retreat is specifically designed to protect one from shocks of this kind. As the collective damage grows, the culture insulates one increasingly from the shock of moral injury. Partly disturbance is minimized by outsourcing the damage one’s behaviour causes to those far away; partly disturbance is minimized by diluting blame which is collectively shared within the group. In these ways, one’s moral position shifts from being an individual position to being a position held as a member of a group. The kind of moral tipping points I describe break with this way of seeing: first, the ‘sacrificed’ groups suddenly return from being far away to right next to one and with distancing reversed one sees the damage. Secondly, one’s self blame, which one successfully ejected into the group where it then felt less through being diluted, is forcibly returned; indeed in the moment of return they can feel over large. Another source of shock is one loses the security of the group. Suddenly one is an outlier, ejected from a position that may have felt cosy and where one could feel more at the centre of the group.
I see myself as one of the rapidly growing number of conscientious objectors to the culture of uncare, and the war it is waging on care. I see as my moral tipping points those moments when I felt that unless I resist I will lose my moral compass by going along with a way of living I believe is fundamentally wrong, indeed one that has idealized deadliness and destruction.
My tipping points also involve feelings of shame. I feel shame at finding myself seduced by a culture that at heart seeks to exploit everything and everybody – including me – for short-term profit. Part of my shame is also realizing I have so little intrinsic value in this system. This realization brings a sense of outrage too. My tipping points comprise moments when what crystallizes for me is a view of myself as both perpetrator and victim of the culture of uncare.
I think moments of acute personal moral conflict such as the ones I have described develop out of an accumulation of small daily experiences and a refusal to have them ‘normalized’ by the culture. I believe we are in the grip of a pathological and highly perverse group culture of uncare, one that has ‘normalized’ deadliness to the point where people even talk nowadays of there being no future in quite a casual accepting way.
Joshua Casteel is another conscientious objector to war. Casteel was a US army interrogator at Abu Graib prison who found himself faced with a crystallization of conscience. He makes the powerful point that,
“… war is not a particular venue in which you have to make ‘special choices’. In one sense it’s a venue like any other venue you could find yourself in. … We must be profoundly concerned about the decisions each of us must make in times of great inconvenience. Whether that inconvenience is putting on hold something in your personal life to care for someone else, or dealing with the ill repute you might get in your unit.”
I want to highlight his words, “We must be profoundly concerned about the decisions each of us must make in times of great inconvenience”. The culture of uncare makes daily life especially ‘convenient’ for consumers in the global north. But when we begin to see our culture and way of living as immoral, when we grasp the slow violence beneath this culture and appreciate the scale of the damage it is doing, when we challenge our mindset that we are super-entitled to consume without regard for consequences, or future generations we face ethical questions of the greatest inconvenience[xix]. As Casteel makes clear, what is inconvenient goes far deeper than giving up creature comforts. It involves facing real potential losses like one’s job, one’s sense of belonging in one’s social groups, and one’s cherished plans for the future. Al Gore called climate change an inconvenient truth. When we understand the violence beneath the illusion of our great convenience of living we face ethical questions that if we take to heart, leave us living in an historical time of greatest inconvenience. Personally, I believe that if we are to get to a sustainable future we need to be the generation prepared challenge the culture and make sacrifices to do so. What people who do this learn is how much they gain.
I believe one only really appreciates how pervasive the culture of uncare is when one takes steps to resist it. Stepping out of a culture of uncare, where uncare is institutionalized and organized, also involves one swiftly in difficult moral decisions.
For example, we may have decided to collect the grandchildren on the bus to lower our personal carbon emissions, but what do we do if we find the bus is on diversion one day and we have left no time to make other plans? Do we take the car? Do we refuse to collect the grandchildren? A grandparent wants and needs to express love and love has different parts: wanting to leave a viable world for the grandchildren and wanting to help their children and be with their grandchildren.
Structures that underlie the way we currently live – largely determined by politicians under the corrupting influence of large corporations – are making it far too hard, perversely hard, to express our love in a responsible way, and are taking far too heavy a toll on any human heart that seeks truth and that cares.
I believe that living in the culture of uncare pushes us far beyond what we can bear.
Taking climate change seriously means facing horrible realities at a feeling level, and beginning to face them often starts with small-scale decisions to cut personal carbon emissions, like the decision about taking the bus to fetch the grand children rather than the car.
It can feel more comfortable to disavow the seriousness of climate change and by so doing imagine one has avoided moral conflict. This is an illusion, one that can only be sustained by burying oneself deeper in a psychic retreat from reality and being less and less able to cope with the increasing trauma of moral injury as the damage rises.
I have so far pointed out the similarities between moral injury that soldiers and resisters to our culture face. There is one big difference. If we act right now we still have a good chance to avoid irreparable irreversible damage. We can get our personal emissions down by at least a half, and to anyone wanting to I recommend a new short clear book by Ro Randal and Andy Brown called In Time for Tomorrow. I have emphasized the difficulty of breaking up with the culture of uncare, and perhaps have not said enough about how much better and more cheerful I feel for my attempts to do this.
People, young and old, are at the point of beginning to find the collective courage to face the shock required to emerge from our retreat from reality. I say collective courage as I believe we need to help and support each other to do this. Again, I return to soldiers against the war. What is so moving about seeing Youtube videos of young soldiers honestly stating what they have done to people in Iraq at ‘Truth Out’ events is the way fellow soldiers on the platform spontaneously place hands on their shoulders to comfort them. We need to support each other to face our complicity in the uncare in the current world we find ourselves living in.
Robert Jay Lifton (2014)[xx] put his finger on what it takes to emerge from the culture of uncare and why we need to help and support each other. Noting the recent swerve towards a general and widespread deepening of awareness of climate reality, he saw this swerve as a shift from what he called fragmentary to what he called more formed awareness. He made a crucial point that formed awareness, unlike fragmentary awareness, has an ethical component. To quote Lifton, “people … are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren”.
[iii] I use the term human sciences rather than social sciences. Although people are primarily social, so are animals, as is increasingly recognised (see for instance de Waal).
[iv]Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press ; Crompton, T. and Kasser, (2009). Meeting Environmental Challenges: The case for working with our cultural values, Kirk and Daunton) Crompton,T. and Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity. WWF-UK publication.
[v]Bauman, / Klein, N. (2002). No Logo. Picador: New York. / Hamilton, C. and Denniss, R. (2005). Affluenza: when too much is never enough. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW. / Alexander, J. (2014). Killing the consumer. BBC 4 Four Thought. 29.10.2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04md5b0
[vi]Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: capitalism versus the climate. Simon and Shuster: New York.
[vii] Lasch, C. (1991). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Norton: London and New York.
[viii] Weintrobe, S. (2010). Weintrobe, S. (2010) On runaway greed and climate change denial: a psychoanalytic perspective, Lionel Monteith Memorial Lecture, London: Lincoln Clinic and Centre for Psychotherapy, published in the (2012) Bulletin Annual of the British Psychoanalytical Society.
[ix]Brenman, E. (2006). Recovery of the Lost Good Object. Edited by Fornari Spoto. New Library of Psychoanalysis and Routledge:London and New York. Page xxi.
[x]Long, S. (2008) The Perverse Organization and the Seven Deadly Sins. London: Karnac./ Hoggett P. (2012). Climate Change in a perverse culture. in Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York.
[xi] Segal, H. (2006). SEPTEMBER 11. Psychoanal. Psychother., 20:115-121
[xii]Keene, J. (2012) in Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York.
[xiii] When I spell fantasy with a ‘ph’ it is to indicate it has elements that are unconscious.
[xiv] I mean in ‘in an organised way ‘ to correspond with the psychoanalytic idea of a mental pathological organisation.
[xv] Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: capitalism versus the climate. Simon and Shuster: New York.
[xvi] Summers, L. See Philip Arestis, Furor on memo at World Bank. New York Times. February 7, 1992.
[xvii]There are so many examples of this creation of the distant other to stay in the 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 disavowal tucked away and hidden behind the equations. Stern is hardly alone in using the assumptions he did. There is widespread disavowal of genuine consequences in the models used by economists. Stern, N. (2006). Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. HM Treasury. www.National Archives/Gov/UK
[xviii] plastic parts per million figure
[xix]Al Gore called climate change an inconvenient truth.
[xx] Lifton, R. J. (2014). The climate swerve. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/opinion/sunday/the-climate-swerve.html?_r=2