Sally Weintrobe is a psychoanalyst and a founder member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. Her work is driven, in part, by a fascination with denial around climate change, and around neoliberalism and its culture. For Sally, you can’t understand psychological reactions to climate change without getting a handle first on the culture neoliberalism has created, and in which we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, implicated. I have been intrigued by her work and her thinking for some time. She has written about what she calls ‘the new imagination’, thinking that clearly overlaps with the explorations we’ve been having here.
Sally happened to be coming to Totnes to give a presentation, so I met her off the train, and we took the opportunity to sit by the River Dart on a glorious sunny afternoon, complete with over-excitable dogs dashing in and out of the water, ducks coming and going on the river, and plenty of passers-by, to have the following fascinating, and wide-ranging conversation. I started by asking her what does she mean by ‘the new imagination’.
It means a lot of things. The ‘received wisdom’ at the moment is still that the way things are is the only way: that the economy cannot be decarbonized and climate change cannot be addressed. I had a very transformative experience in 2013 at a conference held at the Royal Academy, called the Radical Reductions Emissions Conference. I sat and listened for two days to speakers from around the world by video conference all talking about how the low carbon economy can be achieved. Energy, shipping, transport, you name it; it can be achieved. I was absolutely amazed.
I realised that I had unconsciously picked up the attitude that it can’t be done. I was in the grip of a false idea that it can’t be done. Not only could it be done, but with existing technology. After 2013, interestingly, we saw the price of solar start to come down, and the idea it could be done started permeating through. But a cultural message that it cannot be done is still very strong. It stifles the imagination.
The new imagination starts with an understanding that it can be done, and with studying why on earth do we think it can’t be done? That’s where culture comes in and there’s much to say about the role of neoliberal culture; its effects on our minds.
For peoples’ minds and imaginations to flower, to flower, they need two conditions. They need to be able to love and to care for others and they need to be cared about. I don’t think this is said enough. You told me earlier that research shows a drop in the imaginative capacity of people from the 1990s onwards. Obviously that will have its complex causes, so I don’t mean this in any total sense, but we live in a neoliberal global economy that is not organised in terms of allowing people to care for each other or for the environment, because it doesn’t suit that economy. The new global economy does not treat people in a caring way either. It’s a purely monetised, competitive model.
That’s neoliberalism. So, it’s not surprising to find people struggling to see how they can flourish and grow and get in touch with the complexities of what it is to be human in this kind of environment. This is not an environment in which we would expect the imagination to flower.
It’s completely discombobulating.
Completely discombobulating. Also, the way things are heading with this sort of economic macro framework, as you know, is to increasing dysfunction. Imagining the future becomes more and more frightening. People get very blinkered because they start to fear to look. There’s a lot to say about the imagination. We’ve been implicated in the global economy, implicated at a very simple level. Everything we do every day is in terms of what Zygmunt Bauman called ‘the logic of living’. Any economy imposes a logic of living.
The neoliberal economy affects the way you eat, the shopping choices you make. Every time you go into the supermarket, you’re either blind to this, or you’re struggling with, “Where did this come from? What were the conditions of the people who produced it?” In the kind of neoliberal economy that we have, if you care about these things, those are going to be your sort of struggle when shopping. Bauman made the point that in a neoliberal economy, with the way it has evolved, to care conflicts with our logic of living.
As we’re seeing with all the Windrush stuff at the moment…
Exactly. There’s a whole subject area to explore about the way people feel guilty, or feel morally injured, or traumatised by this kind of logic of living that we’re all pulled into. I don’t think it suits the flowering of the imagination. It leads to distress, and to disavowal. Disavowal is a kind of denial where you push a problem to the side or you say it doesn’t really matter. There are an awful lot of factors contributing to the non-flowering of the human imagination right now.
I interviewed Lise van Susteren about the concept of ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’, because she was talking about that idea that actually the psychological impacts of living with the knowledge that climate change is happening, and it was a really interesting conversation where we said, actually it’s not really a disorder. It’s only a disorder in the same way that seeing a family having a picnic on the railway line behind us with the train coming, and thinking “Shit, they need to get off the line” is a disorder. It’s more a condition I suppose. What do you think that living with the knowledge that climate change, and many other things are unfolding around us, that kind of pre-traumatic stress condition, how does that impact the imagination, do you think?
First of all I want to just underscore what you’re saying, and what Lise is saying. These things, have been particularly studied in soldiers – because that’s where a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder has come from; not just in soldiers, but other traumatic events too. There is also the newer classification of moral injury, which started out with the Vietnam war, and Iraq.
Moral injury is where soldiers find themselves in battle conditions where they come to realise that actually the whole structure that they’re pulled into, and the role that is allotted to them to play, morally injures them. It attacks their very own ego ideals, and they are morally injured. I just wanted to include PTSD and moral injury, as we’re not talking about disorders here. In the first case we’re talking about what the human does in situations of trauma, how it affects the person. In the second case, one could be saying that it’s a sign that one’s moral sensibilities are intact if one suffers moral injury.
It’s a sign of health.
It’s a healthy thing. Very often the symptoms can be broadly the same. They can be tuning out, turning to various forms of addiction, going AWOL, quite literally for soldiers, but also in their minds. It can be various kinds of unpredictable rage. We might well see more and more of that one. It’s a severe condition.
Now in an ordinary commonsensical way, these kinds of things I don’t think are conducive to the imagination flowering. One needs a lot of strength to have to deal with these things. The other thing is that in our culture there is very, very little support from top down to even recognise there’s a problem. There’s a staggering lack of understanding that people need help to manage that climate change is here, right now, and going to get a lot worse if no action is taken. They need help to manage what it’s actually going to mean for human relations.
There’s a thundering silence about all this. Again, it’s a manifestation of a lack of caring. People feel not cared about. And they’re treated as if – and this was something I made a point about in a paper I wrote in 2012 for the book I edited Engaging with Climate Change – at Copenhagen we realised that the powers that be didn’t really care if we lived or died. That was stunning, actually.
These things are not conducive to imagination flowering. However, I also am an optimist by nature because I find the more I understand about these processes, the less I feel a victim of them. The more I can locate myself within them – I’m talking about political and economic processes that are driving where we’re at – the more I find my imagination flowering.
We must be able to have a picture of the future because people don’t change unless they see something better. I was listening to Nicholas Stern, the economist, and he was saying that actually there has been a change in the imagination between the climate talks at the Copenhagen and Paris summits. It was very visible to quite a lot of people, and widely talked about actually. It was that whereas at Copenhagen people thought it couldn’t be done, at the later Paris summit, people there thought, “It can be done” and not only could it be done, but that it was smarter, kinder and cleaner than the previous model. There had been a shift in the imagination.
Stern was describing a cultural shift where the future could be imagined in those ways. He made the point that the really important part was now ensuring that message is kept alive, particularly amongst the business movers, because if it isn’t, and particularly in relation to economic development in the third world, they were going to carry on with their existing technologies when what they really needed to grasp is that the technological base now needs to change and renewable energy embraced. What the new imagination really means needs to be embraced.
I found that quite heartening, but the disheartening side of it is of course we’ve seen very worrying signs just recently that that it is not being embraced. There’s a slipping back going on. But it’s always that way, because it’s a conflict. It is becoming possible to imagine a new future, just the beginnings of one. There’s such a big reimagining that needs to happen.
Let’s talk about the future. It used to be when I was a kid, loads of the stuff on the TV was all about the future, and the magazines we used to read were all about the future, and the future was going to be this, that and the other. You mention Bauman. He talks about retrotopia – that idea that actually we’ve got to a stage now where we saw with ‘Make America Great Again’, and with ‘Take Back Control’, that actually the future looks so confusing and scary and complicated, that we go, “Actually let’s make it like the fifties again, that was great”… if you were white, straight, male. What’s your sense of that kind of contracting or disappearance of the future? Is that just when we talked about 1990 and the culture of uncare coming in then? Do you feel that that’s just another manifestation of the culture that ‘uncares’ for us? Where did the future go?
One of the things that I think is needed for what I call the new imagination is that we need to mourn. We need to mourn our idealisations. We need to mourn the false idea that we can have everything we want. We need to mourn the idea that there are going to be idealised politicians, like idealised parents, who are going to come and rescue us. These things take huge mourning. We need to mourn our sense of entitlement that has also been encouraged by this culture of uncare. Massively encouraged, actually.
You could say the new imagination is a realignment of what it means to be human. We’ve been sold an idea somehow that we can live with no inner stress, that we don’t have to be in conflict. We’ve been sold the idea that – just as you don’t have to be troubled by nature; you don’t have to live in the rough and raw out there in nature; you can live indoors have idealised conditions of 23 degrees all the time – we don’t have to be troubled by our own inner nature either.
The reality we’re in conflict. There’s more than one self, and it’s an ongoing struggle, which is the basis of our morality, to be in conflict between something that feels more narcissistically entitled, and something that’s more outgoing and sharing. They’re both parts of ourself. This culture invited us to believe that we don’t have to struggle like that, and actually, it’s a recipe for death.
The whole ‘because I’m worth it’ culture…
“Because I’m worth it”. The new imagination is a more difficult imagination, in a way, because it reclaims those aspects of being human that do make us feel “worth it”. Hanna Segal contrasted two mental states: ‘what if’ and ‘as if’. For example, take this wishful idea that global warming is a hoax. Okay, I would like that to be true. We would all like it to be true, actually. None of us like this fact about carbon, okay?
So ‘what if’ says, “I will test that fantasy against reality” which means that I will be a scientist, who will study. I will do everything in my power to subject my wishful idea to reality testing. And what I will find is that my fantasy was not true. And that it needs mourning. It needs giving up, and that is painful because it’s painful to give up these fantasies. They’re part of us. So that’s the ‘what if’. It takes our wishes, and it opens them up to science and reality testing.
Or let’s take another example. A child says, “What if I really am the centre of Mummy’s world?” Reality testing will show that while in some way you’ve always got a corner of her, actually you’re not the centre of her world. She’s got other concerns. So the ‘what if’ is, if you like, linked with a fantastic lively curiosity about how things really are. What if thinking inspires the imagination. Because it’s only – to go back to the macro picture – when you really take on board that climate change is real that your imagination is liberated to find a solution. Until then it’s not.
So that’s the ‘what if’ scenario. It starts with our wishes, and it works through the pain of giving them up. But when we do, it can actually liberate our imagination. Another example of ‘what if’ might be, “So and so’s died. What if they’re really dead?” I’m not being silly in bringing this example. For instance, somebody’s died, and you know they have. Six months later, you have to sort through their clothes, and work out which ones have to go to the charity shop and which ones are going to be binned, and all the rest of it. And you burst into tears. Because there’s a level that you didn’t really face the reality.
What I’m suggesting is a model that we’re always caught up with wishful fantasies, and we’re always subjecting them to reality testing, if we are to be in touch with reality. But to go back to that example, when people are able to take that step with a parent who’s died for instance – which is a very difficult step to take– very often people will report feeling liberated. They feel a sudden surge of energy. Now they’ve mourned and they can get on with their lives.
‘What if’ is linked up with mourning one’s wishes. Hanna Segal also talked about ‘as if’. ‘As if’ says I have a fantasy. I started with the example, “Global warming is a hoax”. As if thinking proceeds as if my fantasy is true. It involves ignoring reality. And you can trace the ‘as if’ alternative down through all the examples. We all use ’as if’ thinking, by the way, in this way, that way and the other way. With ‘as if’ thinking, we’re no longer curious about reality.
We want to ward it off. We’re only interested in it precisely in order to ward it off, and keep it at bay. To be in denial, to disagree with it, and to preserve a bubble, a self-created bubble, inside of which we live. The neoliberal culture has driven us further and further into ‘as if’ and the fakery of ‘as if’. So, anyway, that was my response to when you said, “What if?”
Now, to go back to the imagination, you could argue that ‘as if’ thinking fantastically encourages the imagination in the sense that anything is possible. Anything and everything is possible. But it’s a dream world. It’s not actually linked to reality.
It’s the distinction between imagination and fantasy, I would say, is it? It’s ungrounded.
It’s ungrounded. I would put it that most thinking has fantasy in it. What matters is the ongoing work we do to sort out whether the fantasy has got any grounding in reality. What matters us our basic orientation towards reality. Whether we’re curious to find out about reality, or we only want to turn our back on it.
One of the things that I read about in a speech that you gave, you talked about “narrowing language”. I wonder if you could just say a bit more about that? One of the thoughts that triggered with me is I wonder whether – maybe this leads into it, maybe it doesn’t – but I read Robert McFarlane’s work, ‘Landmarks’, all about those different words that we lose that describe different factors of the world around us. I wonder whether one of the things that is impacting on our imagination and reducing our imagination is the decline of diversity that we see around us, in terms of languages, in terms of speech. We’ve lost half of the creatures we share this planet with during my lifetime. That decline of diversity, the decline of diversity of language, is that what you meant by narrowing of language?
What you raise is hugely important. The bit that I was talking about there was inner diversity. One of the things that’s happened in the neoliberal age, from the 1990s onwards, is that increasingly we are only referred to as consumers no matter what we’re doing. I’ve been on a train today. That train is a service, and I’m not a passenger on it, I’m a commuter on it. What that does is boost up a certain kind of identity, which is that I’m entitled. The whole world is there to service me, and I’m entitled to the service.
What’s stripped anyway is anything else that I might be. In the book that I’m writing at the moment I’ve got a chapter on – I call it newspeak, after George Orwell – the stripping down of diverse meaning, so that we become more and more entitled, and we have less inner diversity of selves. What are we? We’re children, parents, students, patients.
Dog walkers, swimmers, gardeners.
Conversationalists, lovers, fighters. But in this language, we are only consumers, clients, and everything is a service. Everything is a generic service. The example I give is going on a train, and the Northern Line in London says, “This service will terminate at High Barnet”. In that state of mind, you don’t actually care whether it does terminate. I mean, terminate at High Barnet because it’s like a one-use thing that can be thrown away.
And then discarded.
So long as it’s still there for use. That’s partly what I meant. Now this has a fantastically strong effect on the imagination. And not only that, it leads to a kind of totalitarianism because you’re only one self, and the voices in you that would countermand – and they’re more caring voices very often – that one message that we’re getting all the time every day, get dimmer and dimmer, in this culture. It suits the economic framework very well that it’s like that, but it affects the imagination.
It does so not only by reducing our inner diversity of self, and experience actually but by altering perspective. I have a colleague, Mike Brearley, another psychoanalyst. He distinguished between ‘narrow-minded self’ – he’s not the only one that’s called it that; the psychoanalyst Eric Brenman did – and the more ‘broad-minded self’.
The more broad-minded self can look on at itself. The narrow-minded self is just, “I’m here, and I’m the consumer, and everything’s coming to me.” I’m only in the present tense. It’s short-term-ist as well. It’s like a baby really, with huge expectations. The more broad-minded self knows it’s got a part like that that needs taking care of, but it can also see with a different perspective. It’s more long-term focused and it’s got the capacity to look on at itself.
A culture that pulls us into the narrow-minded self, the consumer self, is radically different in its intent to one that wants to encourage us more into the broad-minded self. I would say that the quality of the imagination that would result from a broad-minded self, is very different, because it has the imagination to see the other. The narrow-minded self doesn’t see the other.
And therefore doesn’t care.
And therefore doesn’t care. Well, it only cares about what’s coming to number one. All these questions touch on the imagination.
The question I’ve asked everybody is if you had been elected at the last election, as Prime Minister of this country, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imagination Again’, so you had decided that actually one of the key things that needed to happen now was we needed a flourishing of the imagination through education, through policy making, through public life, through building, through design, through everything – that actually many of our problems could be traced back to this imaginative poverty around us, and we really needed to boost that – so if you had been elected on a ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ platform, and you’re settling down behind the seat at Number 10, what might be some of the things you might try and do in your first 100 days in office?
I wouldn’t start with the imagination. I would really try to engage the public through government talking truthfully to people about what’s actually going on – in the environment, politically, what actually our government is going to do to address these things, some of the difficulties that’s going to pose.
I would engage people in asking them for help to find solutions. In other words, I would start with the absolute neglect of people, and their real welfare. Also I’d be very concerned to enable people to be on board in rebuilding something. I would give a vision of the future. I would address the two issues of people feeling unloved, and that they have have not been given enough opportunity to love. I would tackle that. Because I think the imagination would follow.
If you start taking the imagination as something you’ve got to put policies in place for, you’re not really going to the right level of things.
Could you just say a bit more about disavowal? You mentioned disavowal, and it’s a word and a concept that runs through a lot of your writing. I wonder if there’s links between that and imagination as well?
Absolutely. In that book I edited, Engaging with Climate Change, I address disavowal – and Paul Hoggett addresses it particularly. The word is a bit of a mouthful. Disavowal. You know, there are lots of different forms of denial.
Denial starts with when you see something, and you know it’s there, and then you repudiate it. That’s fundamental. You see reality, and then you repudiate it. So somebody dies, and you talk about them in the current tense and you don’t really accept they’ve died. That’s a kind of denial called negation. It’s just, “No, it’s not, it’s the opposite of what you say it is”. It’s not denial if you haven’t seen it, don’t know about it, haven’t been informed, or you’ve got it wrong.
Denial is a defensive response to pushing reality away. Then there are different forms of denial. In that book I go into negation quite a lot. It looks like negation is a serious form of denial, because if you say that a thing that is, isn’t, it’s pretty stark. However, I argue disavowal is often more serious, because straight forward negation, is one of the stages of grieving. When we’re faced with something we really don’t want, we say, “No. No, it’s not”.
Then we get angry about it. “Yes it is, but I’m furious about it”. And only then might we actually move on to say, “Okay, I’m very upset about it but finally I accept it”. That’s sort of grieving. So negation is often a first stage of a process of accepting reality. Reality can be difficult to accept. I’m talking about those kinds of realities not easy to accept. Disavowal is when we do something different. We stop the grieving process by saying, “Yes, I see it. I don’t deny it. I see it, but I deny it in another sort of way, which is I make it unimportant so that it doesn’t touch me”.
Then I live in a state of being split apart. With one eye I see it, and with the other eye I have to keep making it unimportant. So that’s called turning a blind eye, and we do that in all kinds of ways. With climate change we say it’s a problem for the future. It’s not a problem for right now. There are a myriad of ways… Or we bleach the destructiveness out of something. It’s called normalisation. Normalisation is a kind of disavowal. Or we say, “Yes, it’s true but it doesn’t really matter” or, “yes, it’s true, but it doesn’t really matter because they’ll find ways to fix it tomorrow”.
“The science isn’t certain.”
Exactly, or whatever it is. This is where the box of tricks comes in. It’s perverse in the sense that it shifts about and alters what’s true. So if you go back to what I said about negation, even though negation is saying, “It’s not true” it doesn’t bend things around. It’s not tricky in that sense. It’s just, “It’s not true because I don’t want it”, but ‘it’ keeps its shape.
With disavowal, ‘it’ doesn’t keep its shape. It’s bent out of shape. Disavowal is what my argument would be our culture has promoted as a means of living with contradictions. So yes, we go to the supermarket, and we do know – just about everybody knows – that if you buy certain goods, their carbon footprint is going to be higher, or they have moral problems attached to them. It’s not that people don’t know that, but they haven means of minimising that knowledge or pushing it to the side of the stage.
I give an example of that. I’ve got to make a choice, and suddenly a voice pops up, “I’m very busy today”. So suddenly I’m a very busy persona and there’s a kind of manic excitement that goes with that. And my moral problem is just pushed to the side. Disavowal is really the problem that we live with. That’s the main form of denial, and the trouble is it derails the mourning process. It stops it in its track.
I would argue that if current mainstream culture has got one chief aim, it’s to keep us stuck at an early stage in the grieving process between saying, “No, it’s not true” and getting angry. The disavowal mechanisms keep us from moving on to grieving. Facing loss, of any kind at all.
Then, thirdly, you’ve got what’s called denialism, which is industry funded professional, ‘Merchants of Doubt’ stuff. Which actually could be to promote negation or disavowal; indeed any form of denial. Denialism hones in on our different forms of denial to encourage them.
When you said we have a culture that keeps us oscillating between those two things, so we don’t go into the grief, and so much of our culture is around that terror of grief, that terror of death, all of that sort of thing, actually to healthily go through the stages of grief, you have to go into that grief and then out the other side, what would that look like in our culture if we actually allowed that to happen? What would a culture moving beyond that oscillating between those two things, and into the grief, and through it, look like?
To grieve, and I think to go beyond this disavowal, you have to respect and value things again. Because this whole way of seeing is profoundly contemptuous; it doesn’t value or even recognise nature, ‘the other’. You only grieve about something that you love and respect; something worth grieving for. I think in our culture the world becomes so debased that there is nothing to grieve about. It can feel more ‘comfortable’ to stay stuck traversing denial, anger and frustration. There, things are very narrowed down. But you’ve lost the object that you can love; that would pull you out of this.