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Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe: why neoliberalism leads to ecocide

The escalation of narcissistic entitlement in global politics means planetary limits are more likely to be ignored.

By India Bourke

Discussing politics with Sally Weintrobe is the opposite of a fiery social media exchange. In place of strident opinions, the soft-voiced psychoanalyst carefully weighs up her words. She asks to reserve her thoughts when she is unsure of the full picture and resists being drawn into psychoanalysing public figures she has not treated.

Yet, while cautious, Weintrobe’s insights are also devastatingly relevant to today’s political world. As she explains in her book, Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, we are all caught up in an ongoing conflict between the caring and uncaring sides of our psyches. And when a rigid, narcissistically entitled mindset prevails, people can exhibit exceptionalist behaviours – which, in turn, she argues, are responsible for environmental destruction across the globe. 

Such an exception-mentality means that people see themselves in idealised terms and believe they are not subject to the normal limits of law or morality, she explains over the phone to me from her home in London. Individuals who present themselves as “exceptions” feel entitled to rearrange unpalatable realities to better suit their interests — think of the former US president Donald Trump’s cries of “fake news” about the small crowds at his inauguration.

“The ‘exception’…cuts ties to reality,” Weintrobe says. “It might set a target, but it doesn’t have to reach it. It can say ‘we are the best in the world’, but it doesn’t have to back that up with facts. Reality and facts present limits to the exception’s scope – and the exception doesn’t like its freedom to be curtailed.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s identification with the Incredible Hulk in relation to the UK’s exit from the EU’s “manacles” is one example of such thinking, she suggests.

Exceptionalism as a wider ideological trend, which seeks to dominate and control on a macro-scale, also surfaces throughout history, her book details. It is “embedded” in the Judeo-Christian vision of man atop a pyramid of lifeforms and gained strength during 18th-century industrialisation and colonialism. It then reached new globalised heights post1980s with the arrival of neoliberal philosophy and support for aggressively deregulated forms of capitalism. By 2000, Vladimir Putin was toasted by his chief strategist with the words: “To the deification of power. To us becoming gods”.

Today, the ascendancy of such omnipotent thinking spells disaster in the context of the climate crisis, as it helps justify ever greater levels of extractivism — from oil to forests — while stripping protective bodies of their ability to contain and reform. “We face the prospect of ecocide unless neoliberal exceptions are ousted from power,” Weintrobe writes.

And exceptionalism’s grip on the global political zeitgeist shows no signs of slowing. “I think that the book’s argument is even stronger now than it was at the time of writing in 2021,” says Weintrobe.

In UK politics, Weintrobe sees this escalation playing out in the growing mismatch between what the Conservative government says it will do to tackle climate change and the policies it enacts. Despite self-aggrandising words at Cop26 about “leading” on global emissions reduction, the Conservative government has since re-opened the possibility of new coal and fracking operations, which run counter to its net-zero aims.

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Partygate is a symptom of this entitled behaviour, but also a “distraction” from it, Weintrobe fears. “Exceptionalism means you don’t have to take responsibility for consequences,” she says, referring to the government’s climate backtracking and its authoritarian creep. “We can all get caught up with party games, but I think these other things are much more sinister and serious”.

There is also now a new international dimension to exceptionalism’s threat. In Putin’s decision to go to war in Ukraine, Weintrobe sees disregard for boundaries being pushed to a new extreme. “The exception’s very nature is to drive through red lines and ignore limits. There is a great danger at the moment that revenge becomes unbounded,” she says with regard to Putin’s objectives. “It’s a very scary time.”

“Exceptionalism infuses a way of thinking about the fossil-fuelled world which ignores planetary limits in support of endless growth, and is shared by most economies. But [in transgressing legal and geographic boundaries to such an extent] Putin has gone rogue; really rogue.”

Fossil fuel interests and arms manufacturers also stand to profit while populations are distracted by the looming threat of all-out nuclear war: “There is a risk that people are so worried that they’ll be walked all over.” And she agrees when I suggest that we could already be seeing this in the rise of Nigel Farage’s anti-net zero campaigning, whose emphasis on deriving energy security from fossil fuels flies in the face of what climate science says is urgently necessary. “The exception always manipulates the situation for its own benefit; for its own advancement and its own power,” she comments.

But the conflict is also bringing out another side to the general psyche: the side that dwells with care and with what Weintrobe describes as a “lively entitlement” to life. By uniting so decidedly behind Ukraine, foreign leaders are demonstrating their firm commitment to such politics (and psychology). Weintrobe admits that it has “quite shocked” her, as a pacifist, to realise that she fully backs such international efforts. 

On an individual level too, the war is giving citizens a chance to demonstrate a psychology of care by offering to open their homes to refugees and prompting questions about how to treat and care for others.

Are these tentative signs that this is a moment of darkness before a new dawn when the world shakes off the tyranny of exceptions? Alternative leaders, from thinkers such as Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, to politicians such as the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, can help pull the world back towards a culture of care, believes Weintrobe. All recognise the trauma that so many people, especially the young, are experiencing and are taking that feeling seriously, she suggests.

And what about today’s strongmen leaders? “We need a reorientation of gender such that men can get more in touch with their caring side. We’ve all got our leaders — but they’re not always famous people, they are people who help us to know what step to put in front of the last one.”

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