- Published: 02 December 2015 02 December 2015
A vibrant new imagination is currently emerging of a different, sustainable future.
Fighting for this future means repairing environmental and social damage, and also repairing our hearts and minds damaged by our current culture of uncare. Understanding the toxic effects of this culture is crucial for change, as without this understanding we are in danger of imagining the future with blind, disaffected or despairing eyes.
To address climate change we need to care more. Only felt care gives us the strength to act for the good and sustains our will to act in caring ways in tough dark times.[i]
Care starts with a determination to face the real picture, and the real picture is that the present dominant culture in the global north – I call it the culture of uncare[ii] - actively undermines our capacity to care. It relentlessly promotes the false belief we can solve problems not in real ways but by rearranging our way of seeing the problems so they no longer have the power to disturb us[iii]. This is omnipotent, magical, thinking, akin to a fairy godmother waving her wand and instantly transforming a difficult situation into a carefree one. It may bring immediate emotional relief, but because it does nothing to address the problem in reality, it causes the problem, and our underlying disturbing feelings about it, to escalate.
The false belief that we can dispense with reality when it stands in our way or disturbs us has now entered a triumphalist phase. American neo-liberal politicians triumphantly refer to the reality-based community as a thing of the past[iv].
The reality-based community knows we are part of nature, do not control nature and we are highly dependent on what nature provides. No matter how much we big ourselves up and see nature as just a machine to be controlled by us, or a breast/toilet mother with the sole function of endlessly providing and absorbing all our waste[v], nature is there on her, not our, terms[vi].
The reality-based community also knows that nature includes human nature with its facts. Fact one: people are not inherently caring or inherently uncaring by nature; rather they struggle between a part that cares and a part that does not care. When we take this fact seriously, we know we need frameworks of care – both legal and moral - to keep our uncaring part in check and to support our caring part. We have witnessed frameworks of care dismantled in the era of globalization with frameworks ensuring uncare replacing them. Fact two: too much trauma, inequality and despair leads to volatility in the human climate with dangerous tipping points. The global economy has treated people like machines to be controlled, not real people who need certain conditions for civilized behaviour to be sustainable. The delusory false belief was these facts about human nature could be comfortably ignored because in the way of profit.
A false belief is an illusion when it can be given up and mourned. When a false belief takes hold in a more fixed way and is resistant to mourning it is a delusion. Our culture of uncare works to support the delusion that we can ignore climate reality by disavowing it. The pressure to disavow reality works in the following sort of way. Imagine when in full mourning for someone you love who has died, you are constantly reassured, “the good news is your loved one has not died after all”. This is what you most want to hear, and it most undermines your capacity to face reality.
The cosmetic carrot
Here is just one example of the false belief at work in everyday life. I stand in my kitchen with two carrots on the chopping board, one from my allotment and the other from the supermarket. My allotment carrot is a bit bent in shape with furrowed skin. The supermarket carrot is clean, smooth skinned and tapers to a point. Supermarkets only sell what they call ‘cosmetic’ vegetables. Looking at the two carrots, I think, “I’m very busy”, and I peel the cosmetic carrot. I promise myself, a bit guiltily, to use the allotment carrot tomorrow. Actually I don’t, and by the time I do, a bit in the middle needs cutting out.
Most of us would recognize this sort of situation. What makes it stand out for me is the night before I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV programme on food waste[vii]. In it, he presented how, because supermarkets insist on perfect parsnips, mountains of parsnips grown by our farmers are rejected and left to rot in the fields as too small, big, wonky or crooked. All are perfectly good food. One estimate is that if all the carbon generated by food waste were a country, it would be the third largest country in terms of emissions after China and the USA[viii].
I know that ugliness and squandering lies behind the shimmering appeal of the cosmetic carrot. By choosing it, I know I am implicating myself in a destructive system, gone out of control.
As best I can understand the situation, the thought, “I’m very busy ” is a cover story to justify my participation in an organized system I deep down know is shockingly immoral and destructive. I often use busyness as justification when making choices that would disturb me if I thought more about them. ‘I’m a very busy person’ contains some truth – people lucky enough to earn in the global north tend to work very hard. But I think “I’m very busy” here means I’m special, and being special, I am entitled not to feel responsible for my actions. “I’m very busy” feeds a certain sense of self-importance. I sense I would feel lost without my busyness.
The culture makes it harder to face that my choice is a moral choice by not disclosing and reporting the waste. This is why Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme is so important. He gives us a potent visual image of its ugliness with his pictures of parsnip mountains. When he asked shoppers whether they would be happy to buy the parsnips supermarkets discard and leave to rot, all said yes and that the waste was shocking. Supermarket bosses said most shoppers prefer cosmetic carrots, and, if supermarkets fail to stock even one item that shoppers want, shoppers will desert them for their rivals.
Shoppers and supermarkets are in a perverse collusion leading to squandering and global warming. Shoppers must have what they feel entitled to and supermarkets must provide this. Supermarkets also actively shape these wants with lies and deception. As Laurel might have said to Hardy, look what a fine mess we are in.[ix]
We, the reality based community, can address this mess, but to do so we need to understand the relationship between globalization, the culture of uncare and the degree to which we as individuals are affected by this culture.
Globalization was driven by an uncaring mindset[x]. The plan was, “grab, grab, grab, now, now, now, and damn the consequences.” Still unfolding, the project involved putting in place frameworks that guaranteed uncare. Wages of the many were driven down, wealth of the few soared[xi], trade agreements unfairly fixed who would profit and ensured no one would be held responsible; aviation fuel tax was kept low, despite there already being awareness of global warming. If this plan had been presented to the reality-based community from the outset, people would have been appalled, knowing it had to end very badly. They would have resisted taking part. This is why globalization was and is largely conducted in secret with its true aims hidden and obfuscated[xii].
Consent was needed for the global project to succeed, and the problem was people care. Trillions of dollars have been spent on attacking our bedrock capacity to care. This has been done primarily by: 1. Dismantling the frameworks that support our capacity to care and face reality. 2. Boosting the uncaring part of us by promoting greed and an exaggerated sense of entitlement[xiii]. 3. Denigrating the idea we have basic dependencies[xiv], and 4. Promoting the delusion that all the damage caused and the misery and pain felt could be instantly fixed through magical thinking[xv].
How did omnipotent thinking work in my case, faced with the two carrots? As best I understand this, I suggest my thinking became distorted at the point when I began to have moral pangs of guilt and shame at having chosen the cosmetic carrot. At this point I severed a connection with the person in me who had worked hard on my allotment and had enjoyed this; who knows from experience that allotment carrots taste very good. I severed my sympathy for the person in me who is working too hard and who needs a break. These aspects of myself were pushed to the margins. This involves active psychological distancing[xvi]. My thought “I’m entitled to the ideal cosmetic carrot because I’m a very busy person” was not compassionate, interested or concerned. It felt cut off from care.
In order to cut our felt links with the part of us that cares, we need to rearrange the way we see our relationships in the inner world of the mind. Specifically we need to distance ourselves from the part that cares. In this example I kept central and close to me the part of me that sees myself as busy because so important and entitled. The more caring part of me that feels conflicted and sees the difficulty when I act in environmentally destructive ways, was kept at a distance by a stance that in effect, says, ‘don’t bother this busy person with these small conflicts and concerns.’
The culture comes in at the point where I might keep the more caring part close by me, face the conflict and mourn the false idea I can banish pain by rearranging my mental furniture. The culture is firmly on the side of using any argument and any means to keep me in the uncaring dissociated mindset, split off from the part of me that cares[xvii].
Our false belief supports a picture of the world as a place where nothing is lacking and nothing needs to be given up. When we see our idealized picture assailed by weird weather, food shortages and desperate climate refugees, we, the entitled ones, believe we can and will still find ways to carry on as usual. Our culture protects this false belief at all costs.
We all want a fairy godmother
The fairy story of Cinderella clearly conveys what is involved with the false belief that real problems can be magically solved through acts of omnipotent thought. Cinderella is exploited with a hard life, no real prospects and no freedom. Her position is grim; she has no invitation to the ball, no entitlement. Then a fairy godmother appears.
“The fairy godmother said to Cinderella, fetch me a pumpkin. Her godmother hollowed it out and tapped it with her magic wand, and the pumpkin was changed in a flash into a beautiful golden carriage. Then she told Cinderella to fetch six mice that she turned into beautiful dapple mouse-grey horses. Next she waved her wand over a plump rat and changed it into a coachman. Six lizards were changed into footmen. The fairy godmother said to Cinderella, “well then, now you have all you need for going to the ball. Doesn’t that please you?” [xviii]
This fairy story conveys the peculiar mental state that our culture promotes when it fosters the delusion that difficulties can be instantly ‘fixed and removed. In my example, my real position was in the kitchen facing my disgust at the way the global economy is framed, struggling with trying to make moral choices within this framework, facing the abject position this system truly places me in and how little entitlement to care and be caring it offers me, and allowing this contact with reality to strengthen my will to oppose this system wherever and whenever I can. Instead, I waved a magic wand, transformed my inner world into one where I was self importantly, busily, off to the palace, the place where I am spared moral pain and anxiety.
Cinderella’s only two options are a world of grime and exploitation or a fairytale world of imaginary riches. This is split, idealized, black and white, either/or, thinking in which the only options are being abject or special. Our culture promotes black and white thinking. It encourages identification with celebrities, who are perfect, ideal and entitled, and it lets us know if not in the special in-group, we are abjectly non-entitled to any consideration. The false idea is we can instantly join an idealized in-group through an act of thought, by waving a mental wand.
Idealization undermines our will to act. It falsely leaves us believing that being not ideal means being abject; also because it is highly self centered, it blocks us factoring in the effects of billon of us acting in the same way. Idealization also blocks the mourning that comes with facing reality: hey presto, everything is as it was; no need to mourn.
Being pulled into idealization is very different to having ideals. Idealization is regressive whereas having ideals supports growth and mental development. Ideals constitute our noble most moral self. We may not be particularly conscious of our ideals, but they are there in the background of things and they guide us towards behaving in a moral way. Being in touch with ideals requires humility as it involves seeing where, realistically, one falls short of them. In this position one’s focus tends to be more on how the other is feeling than how the self is feeling. Having ideals helps one to see how one is treating others and what it might feel like to them to be in a relationship with us.
The culture of uncare attacks our ideals as our ideals help us resist the pull to idealization[xix].
The New Imagination
The people walking to Paris right now for COP 21 and the people doing all they can to combat climate change are powered by a new imagination. This is the caring imagination we need to build a sustainable world. It is an imagination guided by ideals of caring behaviour and it sees the ugliness and destructiveness behind idealization[xx].
This imagination has psychological elements that have been in place as long as there have been people. In this sense the new imagination is in part a very old imagination. It is also new, as only in the last 50 odd years have we grasped that our collective way of behaving is destabilizing the earth systems we depend on. It is very new because only now do we grasp at a more feeling level that tackling climate change means addressing that it is caused by humans, which means all of us. We were told this in the late 1970’s but we never really took what it meant on board.
Homer’s described care’s ancient struggle with uncare in the Iliad:
destructiveness, sure-footed and strong, races around the world doing harm, followed haltingly by … (care), which is lame, wrinkled, has difficulty seeing and goes to great lengths trying to put things right.
Homer. The Iliad, Book 9:11, lines 502ff[xxi].
Here care has admirable qualities but is too weak. Uncare, like a self-centered, triumphant, toddler runs amok with care, like an ineffectual parent, endlessly trying to clear up uncare’s messes.
Care in the new imagination is more authoritative and firm. It sees the problem cannot be addressed from within the established order of things[xxii]. It sees the need to establish firm, legally enforceable and effectively monitored, frameworks of care that can contain uncare and stop it from gaining the upper hand. It stands up to uncare, does not give way to uncare’s persuasive arguments, or appease uncare, or allow uncare gradually to corrupt its ideals. It knows there is too much at stake and too little time left. The new imagination is care come of age. It represents the moment the human race grows up and faces reality with real accounting and real arithmetic.
The new imagination is historically new because only now, with scientific and technological advances and satellite pictures, can we more fully appreciate the Earth’s otherness, majesty, fragility, limits, and as comprising complex interconnecting dynamic systems that support life. All this enables us to love the Earth more fully and in a more mature way, and be very concerned to see the Earth so damaged. The new imagination helps us face our true dependency on and indebtedness to the Earth. It opens our eyes to the need to share resources with other humans and other species living now and in the future.
It helps us give up and mourn the narrow- minded phantasy of the Earth as an idealized breast/toilet mother to exploit and think we can control. It helps us face we have no magic wand to fix damage we cause and we need to fix what damage we can in real ways.
It recognizes we are a unique generation, in a new situation, tasked with a heavy burden of care about climate change. The last generation did not have the full picture and if we leave taking care to the next generation or even to ourselves tomorrow, it will be too late.[xxiii] It recognizes we face a full-blown emergency but also knows we can address it, with existing technology and with our existing knowledge of mind and of culture.
The new imagination is already flowering in people right around the world. That it has yet has insufficient political legitimacy is not to underestimate its huge strength.
We have only recently begun to take in that climate change, being ‘human caused’, means all of us carry our share in responsibility for addressing the damage. While this is hard and painful to take in, it is not cause for despair. We have the means and the will to address the damage, but to do so we need to see that damage clearly and appreciate that it has been to our own hearts and minds as well as to mother earth.
This is the text of a presentation given to the conference organised by Confer The Psychology of Inspired Collective Action at the Tavistock Centre, London on November 21st 2015.
Also available on this site is Paul Hoggett's paper from the same event: Sustainable Activism
[i] Daniel Barenboim (on BBC2 TV’s Newsnight 18.8.14) put it that, “We have to continue and when we don’t believe we have to make (ourselves) believe and eventually we can make way”
[iii] See Hoggett, P. (2012). Climate Change in a perverse culture. In Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York for a discussion of disavowal of climate change by establishing virtual targets for reducing carbon emission without intention to meet them. The UK Green Deal is a good example.
[iv] The phrase "reality-based community" first appeared in a October 17, 2004 New York Times article by Ron Suskind titled, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." The full quote by an aide of GW Bush, refers to the reality-based community as a thing of the past. “The reality-based community believes that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality. … that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We are an empire now and … we create our own reality”. The quote is often attributed to Karl Rove.
[v] See Keene, J. in Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York fr the idea of the Earth as a breast/toilet mother.
[vi] Ro Randall called this the ‘No of Nature’. See Randall, R. (2009). "Loss and Climate Change: the cost of parallel narratives". Ecopsychology: 1 (3) 118-129.
[vii] See Hugh’s War on Waste, first shown on BBC1 TV on 4.11.15
[viii] See Rosie Boycott, food advisor to the Mayor of London, in the Huffington Post (18.11.2015) who reports that “roughly a third of the food grown worldwide is wasted. The scale of that waste is staggering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food wasted globally would be enough to end world hunger multiple times over. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter after the US and China”. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rosie-boycott/food-waste-supermarkets_b_8581468.html
[ix] Laurel’s catch phrase in the Laurel and Hardy films was actually, " Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." In referring to the mess we are in, I have shifted this from one side blaming the other (which is usually what happens when people start looking at a mess) to a situation of perverse collusion.
[x] Globalization as such was not the problem. The problem was the mindset driving it. See Weintrobe, S. (2015). The Culture of Uncare, Bb Gosling Memorial lecture, Bridge Foundation Bristol. http://www.sallyweintrobe.com/category/talks-interviews/
[xi] See Piketty, Thomas. (2014). Capital in the Twenty First Century.
[xii] For an account of the way globalization undermined legal frameworks of care, see Naomi Klein’s (2014) This changes everything. Penguin: New York
[xiii] We are currently addressed predominantly as consumers of generic services, not as passengers on trains, pupils at school, patients in hospitals, shoppers, readers of books and so on.
[xiv] Thatcher for instance said, “I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society—from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation”.[xiv] Her sleight of hand was to conflate dependence with passivity in a way designed to leave people feeling that to acknowledge their true dependencies and true social obligations was to reveal an unhealthy passivity. See Speech to Small Business Bureau Conference Feb 8th 1984. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105617
[xv] See Weintrobe, S. (2015). The new imagination in the culture of uncare. Keynote address to Sheffield School of Architecture International Conference 10 – 12 Sept 2015: “Architecture and Resilience on a Human Scale”. http://www.sallyweintrobe.com/10-sept-2015-the-new-imagination-in-a-culture-of-uncare/
[xvi] On creating the distanced other, see: Cohen, S. (2000) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Polity Press: London; and Weintrobe, S. (2012). On the love of nature and on human nature in Weintrobe (2012) (ed).
[xvii] For instance many of my social groups would tend to say, “don’t be so hard on yourself; your tiny individual actions are not going to save the world; it’s all hopeless anyway/technological solutions will be found so there is nothing to worry about.” Also, the media keeps the big picture off the front page, and so on. All these positions support business as usual. For more detail about this, see talk and interviews section of sallyweintrobe.com
[xviii] This description of the fairy story is taken from Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, (1985) Ego Ideal: Psychoanalytic Essay on the Malady of the Ideal.Psychoanalyst Chasseguet-Smirgel brilliantly captures and discusses the essence of disavowal.
[xix] For example Margaret Thatcher’s attack on ideals by promoting individual self-interest and undermining people’s identity as citizens.
[xx] Pope Francis in his encyclical said we have turned the earth during this era into a pile of filth.
[xxi] translation by Michael Brearley, unpublished.
[xxii] Naomi Klein brilliantly explains why in This Changes Everything. op.cit.
[xxiii] “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” Obama, The Guardian 4.7.15. But Obama does not appear to have embraced the New Imagination. At the same time as saying this, he gave Shell Oil the go ahead to drill for oil in the Arctic The danger is this is an instance of the ‘as if’ false belief that the problem can be fixed in virtual not real ways. (Shell have since abandoned the idea of drilling in the Arctic, but other oil companies are showing interest).