The Particular Psychology of Destroying the Planet–Bill McKibben

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      A reminder that plenty of people have been engaged in this kind of planetary sabotage came last week in a remarkable paper by Harvard’s Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes. After analyzing nearly two hundred sources, including some internal company documents and “advertorials,” they concluded that Exxon officials had embraced a strategy “that downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in, and individualizes responsibility.” And the authors found a model: “These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations—which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms—and onto consumers. This historical parallel foreshadows the fossil fuel industry’s use of demand-as-blame arguments to oppose litigation, regulation, and activism.” As Supran explains in a long Twitter thread about the research, “ExxonMobil tapped into America’s uniquely individualist culture and brought it to bear on climate change.”

      What kind of thinking goes into adopting a tobacco-industry strategy to protect a business model as you wreck the climate system? (And it’s not just Exxon—here’s an analysis of how Big Meat is playing the same climate tricks.) No one, of course, can peer inside the heads of oil-company executives or those of their enablers in the legal, financial, and political worlds. But there’s an interesting explanation in a new book from the British psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe. “Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis” states its argument in its subtitle: “Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare.” Weintrobe writes that people’s psyches are divided into caring and uncaring parts, and the conflict between them “is at the heart of great literature down the ages, and all major religions.” The uncaring part wants to put ourselves first; it’s the narcissistic corners of the brain that persuade each of us that we are uniquely important and deserving, and make us want to except ourselves from the rules that society or morality set so that we can have what we want. “Most people’s caring self is strong enough to hold their inner exception in check,” she notes, but, troublingly, “ours is the Golden Age of Exceptionalism.” Neoliberalism—especially the ideas of people such as Ayn Rand, enshrined in public policy by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—“crossed a Rubicon in the 1980s” and neoliberals “have been steadily consolidating their power ever since.” Weintrobe calls leaders who exempt themselves in these ways “exceptions” and says that, as they “drove globalization forwards in the 1980s,” they were captivated by an ideology that whispered, “Cut regulation, cut ties to reality and cut concern.” Donald Trump was the logical end of this way of thinking, a man so self-centered that he interpreted all problems, even a global pandemic, as attempts to undo him. “The self-assured neoliberal imagination has increasingly revealed itself to be not equipped to deal with problems it causes,” she writes.

      In her conclusion, Weintrobe contrasts this narcissistic entitlement with the “lively” (and psychologically appropriate) entitlement of young people who are now demanding climate action so that they will have a planet on which to live full lives. “They, who will have to live in a damaged world, need our support to stop further damage,” she writes. “The danger is that unless we break with Exceptionalism and mourn our exaggerated sense of narcissistic entitlement, we may pay them lip service with kind words but throw them overboard . . . while we carry on with carbon-intensive life as usual.”

      The biggest news of the week was Tuesday’s report from the International Energy Administration (I.E.A.) explaining that, to have any chance of meeting the temperature target set in the Paris accord, new development of coal, gas, and oil has to cease now. This epochal statement will be reverberating for weeks. (I wrote about it here.) For now, this interview with the I.E.A. executive director, Fatih Birol, gets the message across concisely. Putting new money into fossil fuel, Birol said, would be “junk investments.”

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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