Climate Change, Personal Responsibility & Collective Responsibility

ExxonMobil, the owner of this Louisiana oil refinery, has adopted a tobacco-industry strategy to protect its business model. Photograph by Barry Lewis / Getty

This is a question we ask, rhetorically, all the time. But we normally neither seek the actual answer nor come across the answer; but today is different, thanks to Bill McKibben’s weekly newsletter:

The Particular Psychology of Destroying a Planet

What kind of thinking goes into engaging in planetary sabotage?

Two weeks ago, I looked at the question of the anxiety that the climate crisis is causing our psyches. But, if you think about it, there’s an equally interesting question regarding the human mind: How is it that some people, or corporations, can knowingly perpetuate the damage? Or, as people routinely ask me, “Don’t they have grandchildren?”

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.

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