16 March 2013. Response to Polly Higgins: “The Earth Needs a Good Lawyer”.

Polly Higgins, in framing ecocide as a war crime, bursts the gargantuan bubble of complacency that allows us to maintain the fiction that we are living in a time of peace. We are living in the midst of a violent war being waged against Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. And, we are turning a collective blind eye to what has been called the ‘slow violence’[iii] of this war. Polly’s proposed ecocide act helps us take in the true scale of the violence.

Response to Polly Higgins: “The Earth Needs a Good Lawyer”.

by Sally Weintrobe

Climate Psychology Aliance Conference, ‘Psyche, Law and Justice’, London, 2013.


Polly Higgins, in framing ecocide as a war crime, bursts the gargantuan bubble of complacency that allows us to maintain the fiction that we are living in a time of peace. We are living in the midst of a violent war being waged against Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. And, we are turning a collective blind eye to what has been called the ‘slow violence’[iii] of this war. Polly’s proposed ecocide act helps us take in the true scale of the violence.

Corporate law currently sanctions runaway exploitative greed by making it the prime legal responsibility of companies to maximise profit.   The law is the set of rules under which we live, and these are set to ensure ecological destruction. Polly has proposed new rules, and they have radical implications. An ecocide act as the fifth international crime against peace would criminalise those in power who attack life and support those in power who protect life; it would hold power to account and provide necessary legal clout for good and mindful leadership; it would value and protect not only human lives but all lives. Implementing the act would require a shift in our moral and philosophical frameworks and the act itself would empower this shift.

Responsibility for ecocide

A  law of ecocide makes those who have ‘superior responsibility’ legally accountable for their ecocidal acts. Superior responsibility would rest with governments and CEOs of large corporations. In my response to Polly’s talk, I will concentrate on how ordinary people may see the extent of their own individual moral responsibility for damage to the environment and for the violence that underpins this damage. Viewed from a psychoanalytic perspective, this is a complex issue.

The starting point for my discussion is the ongoing underlying conflict we all have between – very broadly speaking – two positions. One is our awareness that we share resources with others who are as inherently worthy of respect and provision as we are. The other position is our wish to take the lion’s share and to justify this on grounds that we are somehow superior and special. The conflict between these two positions can be seen in childhood in sibling rivalry, and it plays out later in life in geopolitical conflict and issues of social and environmental justice. Morality begins with acknowledging the conflict and immorality begins with finding ways to dodge it.

The moral landscape of the common ground

When we think of ourselves in moral terms we tend spontaneously to visualize ourselves in landscapes[iv] that we imaginatively construct as phantasies[v] within the inner world of the psyche. I find it fascinating that, in phantasy, we tend to see our inner moral landscapes quite literally as patches of ground. I suggest this is because we are dependent for our survival on the ground – the earth, the soil – of the Earth and what grows from it, and our moral dilemmas centrally involve how we treat those we share ground with, whether well or badly. I will contrast two moral landscapes: that of ‘common ground’ and ‘high ground’.

‘Common ground’ is visualized as an integral and shared landscape. On common ground we claim no moral superiority and we see other inhabitants in the landscape as just as entitled to life, provision and respect as we are. Common ground is the soil from which our concern, empathy and generosity grow; it is where we recognize that what we share most centrally with other inhabitants is that we are all alive, fleetingly and for now, all equally worthy of respect as life forms, and that resources are limited and we share them and compete for them. On common ground we also face our differences from other Earth inhabitants, and we learn where we fit in within laws of nature not of our making. We face helplessness, need, and mortality.

Common ground is rich creative soil. Awareness of common ground goes with a warmer, sadder and more conflicted inner emotional climate, one that involves mourning our sense of entitlement to endless idealized provision. We tend to feel grounded on common ground, and I suggest this grounded feeling conveys our sense of being attached to the Earth and in touch with reality. We tend to see common ground with the mind’s eye as concrete and material, but it is an abstraction. For instance, common ground can be shared with all those who have lived and will live after us.

I suggest that we tend to visualize our moral selves and communities as living in a shared landscape is based on our profound understanding that we are part of nature. Within the internal world it seems that we configure our morality in ecological terms, where ecology is the study of the relationships that living organisms have with each other and with their environment. The word ecology is from the Greek word for home,[vi] and feeling at home with ourselves includes adopting a moral position vis a vis our living ecology. Psychoanalytic theory, by focusing mainly on relationships humans have with each other and tending to ignore relationships with non humans and with the environment, has unnecessarily restricted its view of mental life. The perspective I put forward here aims to broaden a psychoanalytic understanding of our internal world to include our ecological awareness. If we pay attention to mental phenomena, signs of our ecological awareness are everywhere to be found, for instance in the way in which the dreams of even those of us who live lives far removed from nature are regularly set in natural landscapes and ‘peopled’ by animals and plants of all kinds.

The moral high ground

The common ground of moral concern contrasts sharply with another psychic imaginary landscape, ‘the high ground’, a cold, barren and unsustainable place in which feeling ‘super moral’ or ‘holier than thou’ predominates. However, this is actually the landscape of immorality or amorality. The ‘moral high ground’ may be resorted to defensively when moral conflicts feel too much to bear.

Within the inner world of the psyche, the landscape of the moral high ground tends to be visualized as the top of a mountain or high rise building, an island cut off from the mainland, an idealised Eden-like special area or a ‘gated community’. The high ground is kept segregated from territories imagined as ‘down there’, ‘far away’ or ‘on the other side’.

From the perspective of the high ground, common ground is looked down on and so are nature and our ecological selves. We ‘occupy’ the moral high ground, and the act of occupation can be visualized as actively creating a fracture, a split, in the ecological internal moral landscape of common ground. The splitting is into separated chunks of landscape, kept far apart, designated ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’, to which we assign ‘us’ and ‘them’. When one occupies the moral high ground, one has split the ecological moral self, and its landscape of common ground is broken and shattered into pieces. The act of mental splitting damages the inner representation of the Earth as the common ground that sustains us all and is a psychic ecocidal attack on our capacity to think in a concerned joined up way about reality. The ‘high up’ ‘holier than thou’ ground clung to most fiercely, I suggest, is a position of apparent exemption from having to face that exploitative values cause environmental damage and involve violence.

In a psychoanalytic perspective, we lead strange inner lives, where we move between split and more integrated psychic landscapes, between positions of moral superiority and entitlement and the ordinary pain of realizing we have caused damage to our beloved Earth and damage to our emotional links with her, damage that we want to try to repair. This is our human plight.

Freud (1923)[vii] provided us with a cogent reason as to why we tend to split into ‘idealised superior us’ and ‘denigrated inferior them’ when he made the profound point that we are not as moral as we would like to think we are, but far more moral than we realise. Freud was pointing to a basic fact of human nature, which is that morality is central in our lives and we have a deep human need to be moral and be seen as behaving in ways that are moral. As animals primed to relate socially, our morality weighs heavily in us and when we behave in immoral ways we can be easily plagued by anxiety, guilt and shame. Splitting into superior/inferior is an omnipotent way of trying to rid ourselves of anxiety, guilt and shame at our immoral acts. It provides a ‘quick fix’ magical solution. If we convince ourselves that those we share the landscape with (animals and certain other humans) are beneath us, not our equals, do not feel things as we do, or need less than we do, we are not so discomforted when we exploit them and treat them unfairly or cruelly. But ‘superior/inferior’ splitting on its own is not enough. So persecuted are we by the possibility that we are behaving in immoral ways that we need to take further steps to protect ourselves from the truth. We fill ourselves up with ideas that we have special entitlement to claim everything we want when we want it for ourselves, and we mentally arrange things such that we are in as little danger as possible of being emotionally touched by – and so also plagued and tormented by – feelings of concern for those we exploit. We denigrate them and consign them to distant chunks of landscape in phantasy, where we can keep them out of sight and emotional reach[viii]. We narrow our view to only those we include in our circle of concern. All these kinds of omnipotent phantasy tend to operate together and in this way we can kid ourselves we are superly moral when we claim the lion’s share (and especially clever for finding our moral quick fixes). As Freud noted, we are not nearly as moral as we like to think we are. His other point, that we are more moral than we realise, I see as pointing to the way that deep down while behaving in immoral ways and pretending we are super moral, the moral part of us, also there, but kept in the shadows, knows the truth of what we are up to. It may experience mounting realistic anxiety and concern.

The psychoanalytic concept of phantasy is crucial to understanding how we construct the moral landscape in the internal world. A background sense of narcissistic entitlement to exploit others powers our tendency to split the internal landscape, while a lively sense of entitlement to know we share with others and a willingness to face reality powers our tendency to re-integrate our split inner landscapes. In other words, how we see the moral landscape in the mind’s eye – whether ground is more split or integrated – is heavily influenced by underlying power struggles going on between different and radically opposed underlying factions within us, and the outcome of these power struggles determines which kind of phantasied landscape prevails currently within the psyche. We are mostly not conscious of these power struggles going on.

Moral choice

Do we have individual choice about how much we damage the environment and how much we make repairs? This is a complex issue. Paul Hoggett (2012)[ix] has outlined the way in which our disavowal of climate change – and the environmental damage this causes – is not best understood at an individual level but when seen as part of the current culture, which is a perverse culture characterized by a lack of concern. The perverse culture involves, in the terms I have been using here, a brutal attack on common ground.

Polly Higgins’s work in this sense can be seen as a powerful expose of the laws that govern and prop up the perverse culture. Law that protects greed is perverse law that stacks the odds against moral behaviour. This perverse framing of the rules promotes mindless grabbing of resources. It is harder to heal our inner ecological selves in these circumstances as we are given no legal and structural backup to fight back and to make repairs, and, as I have argued (2012) elsewhere, we are actively encouraged in current ‘Western’ culture, to split into ‘us’ and ‘them’[x].

Culture shapes us profoundly and frames how we see the world we live in. But even where we recognise the perverse culture and its effects, we have limited free moral choice within it. It is not possible to live currently in ‘Western’ societies without causing at least some environmental damage. This is because unregulated capitalism gives us products produced, packaged and transported in a way that currently causes extensive damage to the environment. Because of this, every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to our love and work relationships, involves us in our share of causing environmental damage. Currently, with the best will in the world, with Spartan practices, and even if we try very hard and ‘walk our walk’ with the lightest footprint we can manage, we cannot avoid some damage and stay alive. Literally. It is important to note here that I am not talking about an idealized view of being able to live in a way that causes no damage. Instead I am saying that we are, each of us in our own ways, currently unavoidably implicated in a perverse and violent system that is causing extensive ecological damage.

Moral injury

This problem raises the question of moral injury. Currently, ordinary people are both victims of and active combatants in the immoral war being waged against the Earth. They are the foot soldiers while those in power hold superior responsibility. Participation in immoral wars leads to moral injury. Moral injury is a new term[xi] being used to describe distressed and dysfunctional soldiers returning home from immoral wars, unable to find themselves, in mental pain and suffering from outbursts of rage often turned against themselves. Moral injury replaces the psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD[xii] in suggesting that these symptoms are a normal response to being placed in an abnormal position where one is prevented from acting according to one’s inner conscience, and required to collude with violence one deep down knows is morally wrong. From a psychic point of view, the injury is felt when one faces the pain of seeing that the landscape of common ground, where one feels at home as a human being, is being forcibly shattered and fragmented on a daily basis, both by the culture and by the practices one is forced into participating in and colluding with. By landscape here I mean both the physical landscape and our capacity to maintain our internal landscape of common ground. Both the external landscape and the internal more integrated moral landscape are under heavy bombardment and attack.

I will try to convey my sense of the dislocation and distress of taking in such violence against Mother Earth through my experience of visiting Dachau with two friends. After being in Dachau, the physical place, each of us became lost and disorientated. I found myself standing on a vast parade ground, in a panic, having lost my two friends and not knowing how to find my way back home in a foreign land. One friend set off in the wrong direction on our way home and ended up head in hands not knowing which way to go, and the other friend suddenly started sobbing that evening on hearing some haunting music. It was, he said, as though beauty and hope had suddenly returned to his world.

I think the assault on our sense of hope that our love can make repairs is one of the most devastating results of the current ecocidal attacks, and it can leave us struggling with feelings of hopelessness as well as helplessness.

Facing damage, especially irreparable damage one has caused, is the hardest of human tasks. Each time we disavow the environmental ecological damage that each of our small actions cause, we nevertheless register this damage psychically; we store it up and it can feel increasingly unbearable to face. We may end up not merely being seduced by consumer capitalism but further colluding with it because we feel not strong enough emotionally to face the extent of our collusion.

I have recently found on the web some important echoes of this, in blogs where people are beginning to address the issue of seeking forgiveness from themselves, and going through the details of what they have disavowed and are seek forgiveness for. It is so much harder to forgive the self when one cannot repair the damage. In this exercise they are also painfully seeking to reclaim their fractured inner living ecological selves, rooted in the living ecology of common ground.[xiii]


Polly has made a profoundly important contribution. A law of ecocide could hugely help ordinary people manage their guilt about environmental damage. It would do this by introducing proportionality about who is primarily to blame. By helping to heal our fractured injured minds, it would improve mental health as well as making the important repairs we still can make to the environment. Mental health depends on the state of our relationship with our primary good object, Mother Earth. Indigenous communities we chose to see as ‘primitive’ understood this full well, and those that survive are currently in the vanguard of those of us who are fighting back.[xiv]



[i]Polly Higgins (2010) Eradicating Ecocide. Shepheard-Walwyn: London. (2012) Earth is our business: changing the rules of the game. Shepheard-Walwyn: London.

[ii]Sally Weintrobe is a psychoanalyst and a founder member of the Climate Psychology Alliance: http://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org

[iii] Rob Nixon (2011) Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Harvard Univ Press

[iv] In a paper (2012) On our love of nature and on human nature, published in Engaging with Climate Change Weintrobe (ed) Routledge :London and New York , I argue that common ground is configured as a series of landscpes of the mind, reflecting ourselves as social, familial, ecological, etc, beings. Here I develop these ideas on landscapes and focus on moral psychic landscapes as reflecting our ecological selves.

[v] Using the psychoanalytic convention of spelling it with ‘ph’ to indicate unconscious elements

[vi] οἶκος, Greek word for house or home

[vii] Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition XIX London: Hogarth Press, 1953, p52

[viii] Stan Cohen (2001) discusses the ‘distant other’ in States of Denia, Cambridge: Polity Press..

[ix] Hoggett (2012) Climate change denial in a perverse culture in Weintrobe, S. (ed): Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York

[x] See Weintrobe, S. (2012) op cit

[xi] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/02/a-new-theory-of-ptsd-and-veterans-moral-injury.html

[xii] Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

[xiii] See for instance http:/annabrixthomsen.com

[xiv] For example the “Idle no more movement’ in Canada: http://idlenomore.ca