Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis by Sally Weintrobe

A serious question. How is it that a species of animal that describes itself as intelligent is destroying the only place it can ever live?

You may have asked yourself this question. If you haven’t, I suggest you should, because this is where we are. Human beings are making planet Earth uninhabitable.

I am writing this in July 2021. Last week, two months of rain fell in an hour in Germany. Around 200 people were killed in the devastating floods and thousands were made homeless in Germany and Belgium. A heat-dome is in place across North America. Canadian towns have experienced temperatures more akin to the Middle East. California continues to live under drought conditions and forest fires are raging. People forced from their land by desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa attempt to cross the Mediterranean to a new life in Europe. Many drown in the process. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people have to leave their land in Bangladesh when it is inundated by the rising sea. Most go to live in the capital Dakar, a desperately poor, mainly slum city that itself floods regularly. The Mayor of Miami Beach is raising roads in the city to combat the sunny day flooding that worsens year by year. Mumbai is partly underwater. Cross-country oil pipelines are breaking as the permafrost below them thaws and sinks.

We live in a world in crisis. We also know that the crisis is caused by human behaviour and we know how to stop it. Yet nothing substantial changes, we go on riding the roller coaster to our own destruction. You don’t have to be an observer from another planet to realise that this is madness.

Sally Weintrobe is a psychotherapist. It is her job to understand why people do what they do, and where behaviour is destructive and troublesome, help them change it. She identifies the personality trait of the Exception as key to understanding how we reached the current crisis.

The Exception is the part of the self that refuses to play by the rules, demands attention and puts themself first at all times. In most of us, this trait comes under control after the Terrible Twos and makes only brief appearances in adult life. But for some people, it is a way of life. Such people are Exceptions.

The Exception is narcissistic and self-entitled. They believe they do not need to care for others as the world is only about them. Morals are for other people. Because the Exception doesn’t care about the needs of others, they have no compunction about trampling other people to get what they want. This can translate into success in business and politics where ruthlessness and singlemindedness are rewarded with the top jobs. So, unfortunately, we find that many leaders are Exceptions. Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jacob Zuma and Vladimir Putin all fit this profile. Their world is about winner takes all. It is not a mindset that slows down to care for those who are most vulnerable or to assess the moral implications of their actions.

This mindset was supercharged by the advent of Neoliberalism 40 years ago. This ideology demanded that politics should bend to the needs of capital, no obstruction should be placed in the way of profit. So the banks were deregulated, environmental and social constraints on business were watered down. This also provided the perfect conditions for Exceptions to flourish. So, despite the oil companies knowing that their product was wrecking the climate, they went ahead and expanded their operations, and profits relentlessly. Despite all the evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are destabilising the climate, effective international action to combat this threat has been hopelessly inadequate. The wrong people are in charge; people who either Exceptions themselves or thrall to them. People who see the profit, not the damage it stands upon.

Weintrobe explains the phenomenon of the Exception and the conditions that enable them in this superbly well written and understandable book. She does provide real answers to my question at the top of this review. My own understanding of the climate crisis has always been hampered somewhat by my belief in the rationality of my fellow human beings. I have laboured under a nagging doubt; how could we be doing this to ourselves? Now it makes more sense but is no easier to bear.

One question which Weintrobe does not address, is how these deeply awful people gain enough support to rise to the positions of power that they frequently occupy? I’m no psychotherapist, but I think I can read between Weintrobe’s lines sufficiently to hazard an answer. An Exception is an embodiment of something that lurks in all of us. The brat, the tantrum-throwing toddler, the keyboard warrior, the road rage hornblower. The part of us that revels in behaving badly but which we usually don’t have the nerve to indulge. Is voting for that Exception a guilty pleasure in the polling booth? Or is indulging the psychopathic CEO at work a mixture of fear and exhilaration? Humans are complex, irrational and cannot be relied upon to act in their best interests. They are a mixture of good and bad education, loves, desires, hates and fears. Is our support for the Exception our darkest weakness, our Achilles heel, the self-destruct button that will summon the apocalypse?

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Chris Jerrey

Photographer, blogger, environmental activist. Interested in the climate crisis, rewilding and trying to make a change for the better.