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Earth Day and the Narcissistic Patient

By Paul Hoggett, editor of Climate Psychology

This year Earth Day, which falls on April 22nd, is also the day chosen by the Biden administration to convene a global climate summit. With Trump gone once more it seems that change may be in the air. The trouble is we have been here so many times before – Paris in 2016, Copenhagen in 2009, Kyoto back in the mid 1990s – that one hardly dare hope that things this time might be different.

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a global network which seeks to bring insights from psychotherapy and clinical psychology to bare upon this resistance to change. One of the paradoxes facing the psychotherapist is that the person who comes to therapy seeking to change also wishes to stay the same. 

Imagine then a highly narcissistic patient who comes to therapy. He (and it is most likely to be a ‘he’) imagines himself to be invulnerable and is impervious to all those (both human and nonhuman) that he depends upon. He simply doesn’t see the chaos and destruction that follows his passage through life until, at some critical point, reality bites back so hard he cannot help but take notice. 

But this dawning awareness doesn’t lead to change but to prevarication and to various bouts of wishful thinking. The trouble is our patient is still trapped within the bubble of his own myths and illusions. Being narcissistic one of these illusions concerns his sense of entitlement – he should be able to have his cake and eat it. Tell him he may need to have less cake in future so that those he depends upon are more able flourish and he complains bitterly and threatens to stamp his feet. He thinks he is special, an exception, and that the rules that apply to others do not apply to himself. As he becomes dimly aware of the destruction all about him he insists that the blame must lie somewhere else, not with him, for his own actions have been perfectly reasonable.

In the context of climate change it would be tempting to say that this narcissistic patient is none other than homo sapiens. Tempting but wrong. For we’re dealing with a particular subspecies (white, Western and Christian) who through historical good fortune ended up being the dominant force in the world and was largely responsible for what is these days called “the great acceleration” in carbon emissions. Perversely for this group (ie. ‘us’) it is a happy coincidence that the damaging ecological consequences of this domination will at first fall largely upon those who have been the victims of its historical progress (largely non-White, from the global South). It follows that this idea of progress, one saturated by connotations of mastery over other peoples and over nature, is another illusion that we need to relinquish if genuine change is to occur.

So change requires disillusionment. We in the West are not somehow special, we are not ‘more civilized’, technical solutions are not always available to solve the problems that our progress creates and we have not ‘mastered’ nature; indeed nature is now telling us in no uncertain terms that it is not simply a ‘resource’ or a ‘service’ for us to harness and exploit. 

This is the most painful part of the change process because disillusionment means loss. For the narcissistic patient this means loss of grandiosity. Far from being masters of the universe we are a perverse life form on a tiny fleck of a planet in what may turn out to be an uninteresting galaxy. It means loss of entitlement and the superior position that, like an Old Etonian, we naturally assumed we occupied. It means loss of exceptionalism – we are not special, we were not chosen by God, we are not super-natural. As Melanie Challenger succinctly puts it in her new book: ‘The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t think it’s an animal. And the future is being imagined by an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal. (Melanie Challenger (2021) How to be Animal. Canongate)

If loss cannot be mourned then what may ensue is an angry clinging to an idealised past, one currently manifest in the many nationalisms where grievances are held onto and nursed. In contrast mourning proceeds via a settling of accounts with the past, one which neither idealises nor denigrates it but sifts the good from the bad and takes nourishment from what has been lost. For the new to emerge the old must be allowed to die and in dying what was good in the old can provide nutrients for the new to grow. This is the path towards the discovery of the new in the old. Ideas such as growth, progress and civilization are not discarded but take on entirely new meanings, as do nature, humanity and human-nonhuman relations. Like a patient undergoing real change in therapy this is equivalent to a qualitative transformation, a change of pattern and not just a change within pattern. This is not business- as-usual nor even a tweaked or modified business-as-usual but an entirely new way of justifying our business on this planet.

Paul Hoggett is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of West England, UK. Paul is the co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and has worked as a group relations consultant over many years.