The psychology of why we sabotage our planet

In The New Yorker, environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben attempts to understand the psychology of how some corporations (and individuals) can do what they do knowing that it's killing our planet. In the essay, he summarizes a book on the matter positing that it all comes down to a curious form of narcissistic entitlement. From the New Yorker:

"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 Particular Psychology of Destroying a Planet" (The New Yorker)

image: Pexels (Public Domain)