Written by Sally Weintrobe Published: 04 March 2020.
“as I looked out into the night sky across all those infinite stars
it made me realize how unimportant they are”.
Peter Cook, comedian
Most of us have been living in a bubble of disavowal about global heating. We were aware it was happening, but we minimized its impacts. What might people be feeling as they emerge from the climate bubble? There is no space here adequately to explore this, so I will look at just two issues.
First, we know people find it difficult to emerge from a psychic retreat from reality. They are in danger of feeling flooded with anxiety, shock, shame and guilt as they see the reality more clearly. They struggle with alterations in their self-view and may rage, grieve and find it hard to think in proportion about their own responsibility. They are tasked with ‘working through’, including working through depressive and persecutory guilt. When in the climate bubble, personal responsibility and guilt can be projected onto and spread out over social groups all ‘in it together’, ‘it’ being a high carbon lifestyle. When the bubble bursts, people are vulnerable to experiencing the shock of what was comfortably projected being suddenly returned.
For example, I was talking with a friend who said people are shooting kangaroos in Australia now. Kangaroos are dying of thirst because of global heating and people are shooting them because do not know what else to do. We sat in stunned silence before we both acknowledged we felt deep shame at being part of this.
Secondly, because we did not act earlier, damage is much greater now and the struggles we have with shame, guilt and anxiety are now more difficult to face and to work through. Some damage is irreparable and knowing we have been part of causing it may feel too hard to stay with. I have in mind, for example, John Steiner’s paper on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus . Bereft of support, Oedipus put out his eyes and retreated to arrogance and omnipotence. Also, Hyatt Williams’s point that facing the irreparable can lead a person to want to obliterate all knowledge that the destroyed object ever existed . I began with the Peter Cook quote as the danger is that our love of the earth could be obliterated if we do not work through what it means that the climate crisis is human caused. Obliterated would be the part of the self and the group that feels love and grief. The climate emergency, because it is being faced at such a late stage, now brings difficulties with working through of a tall order. Collective psychic work is vitally needed if we are to emerge from and stay out of the retreat.
Emerging from the climate bubble at this late stage is also likely to stir survival anxieties of different – and conflicting – kinds. We ignore these anxieties at our peril. One realistic anxiety about not acting on climate is that there will not be enough food, water, clean air and shelter. One realistic anxiety about acting on climate is we lose the freedom to ignore boundaries and limits and act as we please.
People emerging from a collective psychic retreat often feel reenergised and more alive. However, they are also vulnerable. They need the support of a culture of care that values truth and provides a non-persecutory atmosphere. They need the grounding that an understanding of politics can provide. These help to gain a sense of proportion when trying to work through issues of anxiety, shame and guilt. They also need strong leaders to help them face inner and outer climate reality. By strong leaders I mean empathic leaders able to withstand omnipotence and able to help people withstand their own omnipotence. Currently there is virtually no support of this kind. Instead we see the rise of ‘strong-man’ leaders shamelessly offering omnipotent quick fixes as pseudo repairs.
The political world we live in is now being called ‘the crazy’. ‘The crazy’ needs considerable investigating, but it does seem to involve a rapid rise in contempt for inconvenient realities, laws and limits and increasing entitlement to use omnipotent thinking to bypass these in order to construct virtual realities. ‘The crazy’ is not just ‘out there’ in politics. It easily gets into us, and to stay sane in today’s world we need to keep reminding ourselves of this serious fact.
I believe two factors are adding to ‘the crazy’. The first is Exceptionalism. The second is mounting anxieties about the climate crisis, a crisis which in large measure Exceptionalism has caused.
Christopher Hering wrote a paper on a form of ruthlessness , one much studied in psychoanalysis, for instance by Eric Brenman who called it narrow minded and cruel . Hering said,“(it) does not know any concern or mercy; it is devoid of any scruples or conflicts”. He called it “the alien”. The alien is the disassociated ruthless part of a mindset that in my current work I call Exceptionalism. Exceptions regularly override their inner concern in order to preserve their felt entitlement to see themselves as ideal and special, to have what they want and omnipotently to arrange things so they need feel no moral conflict or unease. Apparently. A particular kind of entitlement ensures the ruthlessness. Here is an example: we know an oil-based economy leads us directly to global heating and to ecocide. Well it’s a no brainer – continue with business as usual. Where is the profit in taking care? Taking care conflicts with our entitlements as Exceptions.
I argue that neoliberal ideology and economics is suffused with Exceptionalism. This mindset, on gaining global power in the 1980s, outsourced factories to countries where labour was cheapest. It outsourced its pollution. It was behind the financial crash in 2008. It takes no responsibility for consequences, and that makes it truly frightening. If it sees profit on one side of the scales and suffering, death and destruction on the other, it will find that profit outweighs suffering. It put in place a body of corporate law to support this position.
Neoliberal Exceptions also put in place a culture of un-care that works to set our inner exception free. This suits the needs of the neoliberal economy. The current dominant culture incessantly invites and nudges us to collude with corrupt and corrupting arguments. This, I believe, is not nearly recognised enough. Here is one small example. Teresa May responds to public pressure by announcing the UK will decarbonise by the year 2050. Then, (under reported) the government makes switching to solar more difficult with a new rule that VAT must now be applied to solar installations . Many people collude with what is largely an ‘as if’ repair, achieved with a target, and they feel more comfortable continuing with their life styles as usual.
The Exceptionalist mindset seeded the climate bubble, the largest and most consequential bubble in human history. It bloomed voluminously during the neoliberal era, fuelled by the powerful in possession of oil and gas. It aggressively set omnipotent thinking free and it ignored limits. Hubris, greed and triumphalism were bound to soar in this era. For example, in 2000, after Putin won his first election, at his acceptance banquet his campaign manager Surkov made the shortest toast: “To the deification of power. To us becoming gods”, he said.
Whitebook argued that the phenomenon we currently witness – ‘the crazy’ – involves a “break with (reality) globally, and construct(ion of) an alternative, delusional, “magical” reality” . This is the inevitably drift of Exceptionalism. ‘The crazy’ is also being manipulated and shaped to try to ensure that an oil-based economy can continue.
Noah’s Arkism as a response to anxiety
All this is to introduce Noah’s Arkism, a rapidly rising form of ‘the crazy’. The idea, based on omnipotent thinking, is I will be saved, and the rest will be sacrificed.
In the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, God sees mankind as wicked, meaning violent and full of corrupt thinking, and Noah as the one and the only good just man. God drowns all life in a great flood, saving only Noah, his family and representatives of animal species. They all board an Ark that Noah has built according to God’s detailed instructions.
My argument is that 21st century Noah’s Arkism is linked with awareness we are in a climate emergency combined with an awareness that there is currently a dearth of good leaders with the power to enact a New Green Deal. A New Green Deal would in my view quell some of the anxieties people are feeling. I see it in part as a vital measure to improve mental health.
Here are some examples of current Noah’s Arkism:
1. Food, water and clean air are now threatened, and temperatures are rising. Being middle class, my economic position will save me. I must soon install air conditioning.
2. Being mega-wealthy, I can move to New Zealand. In the longer term, humans will have the technology to move to Mars. Not all humans obviously, but alpha types like me.
3. At least I am white and Christian. ‘Strong man’ leaders will save me. The price of passage onto the Ark is loyalty to the leader and accepting the leader’s redefinition of who is ‘us’ (to be saved) and who is ‘them’ (to be sacrificed and kicked off the ark if they try to climb aboard).
Here, ‘all of us’ has morphed into ‘a select group I am part of’. It is an omnipotently constructed phantasy involving a pseudo safe place, the Ark. People, under the pressure of survival anxieties, may build the phantasy according to detailed instructions given by leaders offering pseudo containment. For instance, Britain as an island Ark, with all wicked undesirable people kept out after Brexit through strict immigration laws. The US as a castle Ark with a stout wall to keep out all brown skinned bad people. Europe as an Ark with wire fences to keep out refugees who include climate refugees.
4. Another kind of ‘Arkism’ protects against unbearable feelings. For example, many climate scientists are currently suffering near unbearable feelings. I will save myself from these feelings by constructing for myself an impregnable Ark to keep the unbearable feelings in them (the drowned) and away from me (the saved). I am very expert at deflecting my feelings about climate reality. I do not notice that when I do this, I have thrown overboard the caring reality-seeking part of myself.
Christopher Hering said it is vital to keep recognising that the ruthless ‘throwing overboard’ alien is also part of us. I believe to do this we need to be talking now much more about the climate crisis and helping each other to face climate reality. The conversations we have with and about children are perhaps the most significant. We can choose to say how wonderful it is that the children are striking for climate and leave it at that and leave the problem with them (throw them overboard while sounding caring) or we can work with the children to support them and also work to help them to achieve a world they can live in.
I end with a conversation I heard recently. Someone said, how terrible that we are supposed todo all this repair work when the best we can possibly end up with is an earth that will still be damaged. Someone replied, yes, it is terrible but what is the implication? Do we think only ‘the perfect state’ is worth fighting for? Someone else said, young climate strikers don’t seem to be thinking like that. They know the earth is damaged and they also know it’s the only earth they have. They accept the damage and want to stop more damage. They are the realists. We who will soon be dead have the luxury of thinking it’s too much to face and it’s too hard to work to repair a world we have damaged. This is the sort of ordinary conversation I believe needs to happen on a big scale to help us work through the invidious effects of a culture of un-care that encouraged us to believe we could be excepted from facing reality because we were so ideally special. It gave me hope.
This article by CPA member Sally Weintrobe was part of a special issue focusing on the climate emergency of New Associations, the magazine of the British Psychoanalytic Council. Helen Morgan, a Jungian analyst and former Chair of the BPC commissioned the articles that comprised this autumn 2019 issue. (British Psychoanalytic Council www.bpc.org.uk) Illustrator: Allen Fatimaharan.