Towards a more sustainable world

Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare (Bloomsbury Academic) by Sally Weintrobe, reviewed by Annie Mitchell.

This is a pivotal decade for global action to protect humans and other species from catastrophic climate and ecological harm. Climate scientists, including the UK government’s own Climate Change Committee, warn that despite warm words, vital political and economic regulatory changes are far from happening.

Why not? As Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh said in the December issue, almost every area of psychology has something to contribute to our understanding. This book is no exception. It is a fusion of Sally Weintrobe’s expertise in depth psychology and her lively perspective on the complex political and cultural forces that shaped Western minds during the twentieth century, rooted in centuries of patriarchal colonial exploitation of land and peoples. It forms part of an honourable tradition of women including Wangarī Maathie, Polly Higgins, Madeleine Bunting and Christiana Figueres, who call for shifts in values towards greater care, tolerance of uncertainty and complexity, concern for future generations, and critical challenge to prevailing law and politics.

Weintrobe offers advice for thinking about the climate: be willing to shift perspective from small to large scale, and from the personal to the political; ‘wait and see’ rather than trying to rush at understanding; do not avoid the difficult feelings that facing climate damage may bring. She suggests that only through engaging, rather than denying distress and harm, can we individually and collectively face reality and work towards a better and more sustainable world.

Weintrobe follows her own advice, gradually weaving together insights from a wide range of sources including and beyond her own field of psychoanalysis, to develop a thesis linking our inner emotional worlds with the outer world of politics and culture. She sees environmental harm being driven by a mindset of self-centred exceptionalism and entitlement in those who profit from neoliberal capitalism. This ‘exceptionalism’ has tipped (westernised) cultural values away from shared responsibility, care and community, towards selfish, competitive and extractive carelessness, ‘encouraging people to consume, devour, take over, over-run, the caring reality-based self through a gradual process of corrupting what things really mean’ (p.107).

If we are to stand any chance of halting and repairing climate and ecological catastrophe, Weintrobe concludes, we humans must grow up. We need to widen our gaze in space and time, across disciplines, cultures and generations. Depth psychology is rooted in understanding human developmental processes, and there is much for practitioner psychology, and academic disciplines of social and developmental psychology, to contribute in response to this impassioned wake-up and grow-up call.

There are no simple answers to the wicked problems we face. Interdisciplinary collaboration is vital, along with attention to voices from indigenous and spiritual traditions which hold compassion as a vital force for sustainable living. As environmentalist and communicator George Marshall said in The Guardian this year, governments will not make the necessary changes without a strong public mandate. With unprecedented public interest in psychology and wellbeing, this intelligent, accessible and engaging book will help inform and deepen our public debate about what the mandate for climate action should be.

- Reviewed by Annie Mitchell, Clinical and Community Psychologist

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