Thinking about Climate Crisis Ennui from a Feminist Retro-Perspective
by Emmeline Hawthorne, BSocP, GradDip Psychotherapy Studies
This essay proposes that climate crisis ennui originates from our need to dissociate from the cruelty of the capitalist system which determines our lives. It argues that the Western/European history of oppressing peoples, lands and particularly women, is structurally embedded in the global economy. The essay describes how gender inequality has contributed to a sustained attack on our planet. The competitive nature of free market policy is discussed as a deterrent of altruism which also exploits the psychological vulnerabilities that it creates. The dangerous harnessing of these vulnerabilities in social media platforms, and the neurobiological impact of this, is then examined. The essay concludes with the suggestion that only a unified, collaborative acknowledgement and working through of these entangled economic and psychic wounds will redirect our march towards extinction.
Ennui in the face of the climate disaster is likely produced by a deep need to dissociate from the human and environmental tragedy born from the globally interdependent economic structure. This dissociation ensures temporary survival. There are truths that need to be kept at the borderlands of consciousness in order to function as an economic actor within this global economy. These include the horrifying history of human and planetary exploitation that established the wealth of the countries, businesses, individual and family empires who now hold the swathe of power. This history involved colonisation, slavery, eugenics and a multitude of destructive practises such as fracking, drilling and mining. Another truth that must be defended against is the dumping of environmental repercussions by companies onto poor countries who are now dependent upon these businesses. This economic conduct exploits human labour in sweatshop, assembly-line factories, packing warehouses whilst freely polluting in countries with unregulated lines of production (Gayle, 2022) and non-existent or unenforced environmental protections. Ours is a world built on a treachery that must be dissociated from in order to survive. The process of this dissociation is brilliantly described in Alicia Christoff’s article entitled “Linking with W.R. Bion” (2018), where, when confronted by the origins of our material ease and privilege, we choose to attack our own “capacity to imagine the lives of others” (Christoff, 2018).
In addition to our aptitude for attacking links that would demand a transformation, an engrained deception of capitalism, or any financial structure that entrenches inequality, is to obscure the unpleasant origins of many fortunes. This profit-protecting process of obfuscation, realised through bureaucratic and physical means, reinforces the severance of links between the climate and inequality. Bringing these histories and practices into consciousness would require a process of psychological reconciliation that could result in individual change and collective action. Two complex forces are working against this reconciliation. Firstly, the structure of the globalised, free market economy was designed by men from a patriarchal perspective and is therefore inherently misogynistic. The second force, linked to the first, which obstructs climate-crisis reversal is the embedded competition, rather than collaboration, that is enshrined in the widely adopted neoliberal economic doctrine. The first force, misogyny, is beautifully examined by late French psychoanalyst Christiane Olivier in her book “Jocasta’s Children” (1980), where she lays out her thesis of gender development and offers a theory of uterus neid rather than penis neid. She is writing within the frame of Western/European experience. In her discussion, she describes the traditional conditions and limitations of the household as the female sphere of engagement. It is a world of self-sacrifice where the needs of children and the dominance of the husband are prioritised. Unlike her husband who participates in and influences the larger social and professional platforms, the arena for the feminine conscious and unconscious content has been the home and the children, and one understandably fuelled by discontent and frustration, envy and projection. Building upon this central thesis, I would suggest that women’s interests, expertise and experience was largely absent from the structural and relational design, the decisions and processes, that led to the globalised free market economy.
The exclusion from shaping the determinants of their own lives is a repetitive and painful historical fact for women. The impact of this flaw in the design is as prevalent as ever, with women, who are often solely responsible for the survival of their off-spring, taking the brunt of austerity driven economic reforms (Stewart, 2017). The Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the fact that women are bearing economic and social burdens (Gregory, 2022) of the profound disruptions that this virus has caused. The structural, historical and systemic oppression of women can be fairly described as misogyny. Olivier (1980) bravely asserts that this misogyny has its psychoanalytic roots in the early experiences of male children as they encounter women. In the context of this thesis, Olivier describes women who have been locked out from designing the world they inhabit, denied their own Oedipal opposite due to the lack of male participation in childcare, deprived of the time and attention received by their male counterparts and beset with family obligations that distract from realisation of higher aspirations. The boy child is engulfed by the atmosphere that this complex set of longings and sorrows creates, instigating resistance and avoidance which defends his burgeoning autonomy and protects from unconscious content that threatens to overwhelm his being.
Women tend to predominate in the workforces of early childhood education and primary school, social work and nursing, thus the young boy goes on to experience his world as encapsulated and determined by that sex which produced him. Olivier (1980) suggests that this social by-product of systemic inequality hold within it the complexities of romantic relationship dysfunction as well as the roots of misogyny. Women were unwittingly forced to be experienced as decision and rule makers, the restrictive gatekeepers of possibility. I would further propose that these roots of misogyny can be perceived in the actualisation of climate crisis, where men have chosen to maim and master this autonomous and abundantly procreative planet, in an act of unconscious retaliation against the mother. Irrespective of the overall advances, men’s absence from the world of children remains consistent. The reasons for this are social, historical and economic and beyond the scope of this piece. The impact of this absence is of interest here. The absence has resulted in an entitled and rarefied status for the father/partner which induces a longing for this father figure, for acceptance, for love. It could be suggested that absence leads to the deification of the father which then manifests in the regression to authoritarianism, both political and religious, that we witness during the most troubled periods of history. More pertinently, this longing for proximity with the absent father dovetails perfectly with the striving, perfectionism and adherence to authority demanded by hierarchal economic doctrines. These doctrines promise that with the merits of striving to be an ideal self, a perfect economic body, the rewards of wealth and success are inevitable and will sate even the deepest yearnings. The very same system that has prevented the presence of the father entices the notion that financial success will heal this void. These psychodynamic forces have resulted in a global economy where destructive financial and social competitiveness is culturally ingrained.
The urgency of the climate crisis demands a move away from envious comparisons towards a clear, universally adopted collaboration in an economic culture of care. The compromises of governance seem to make this vision unrealisable. However, social media has meant that grass-roots activism, lobbyists, petitions, NGOs, whistle-blowers and keyboards warriors everywhere gain momentum and grapple with the challenges of making change a legal reality, but social media also has a sinister thread. Our world has been profoundly damaged by social media and technology, a reality made stark in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” (Orlowski, 2020). The prolific platforms are designed to create profits for advertisers and shareholders, they are algorithmically aligned with this incentive. The notion that the invested parties should operate with a conscience is only recently being introduced as a legal imperative. The rupture and hatred that has proliferated out from these platforms indicates their role as a hub for effectively and fatally organising the shadow that resides within the heart of darkness. These platforms have emboldened the unconscious compulsion to identify an ‘other’ to blame for our rage, discontent and perceived persecution.
Our need to succeed, to be loved, feels more attainable if we have someone to hate and to blame for any disappointment, especially in an atmosphere without conscience, and so primitively competitive that people promote drinking aquarium cleaning chemicals to optimise performance (Rolfe, 2022). Encouraging an awareness of the source of this impulse to ‘other’ might serve to mitigate it but this complex task is unlikely to be undertaken by the profiteers of these multitudinous platform markets. Alice Miller, in her book “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence” (1983), proposes that vitality, creativity and expression has been stamped out in children in a sustained fashion throughout Western history. Miller provides an extensive and frightening expose of classic texts which shaped Western child-rearing pedagogy. The father, when present, is encouraged to be a cruel and merciless disciplinarian, who should obliterate wilfulness and disobedience in the child. Psychological and physical violent oppression of the freedom and confidence in the child instigates a cycle of repressed rage. This rage then emerges for expression against our own children, punishing them for our parent’s mistakes. Miller (1983) also suggests that damaged and bullied children will grow to seek an ‘other’ to hate rather than to smash the idealisation of the parental figure, who is actually accountable for this pain. Undoubtedly, this atmosphere of violent punishment and oppression continues to iterate throughout our existence today.
In its more usual form, social media platforms provide an opportunity for exhibitionism, for approval and acceptance, a place where the loving, containing gaze yearned for by infants might be fulfilled. Again, the desire to display oneself as a perfect, striving, ideal self in order to receive acknowledgement is expressed by the curation of the perfect life, body, home, job, holiday, children. It would seem that narcissism has become crucial to our psychic and economic survival. Not only are income streams inextricably woven into our relationship with social media but so are our neurobiological responses. When the quest for acceptance, money, or both, is met, our brain releases the rewarding, feel-good neurohormone, dopamine, which can become addictive (Waters, 2021). The volatility of the social media environment is evident in cancel culture, political controversies and vaccine misinformation and when we perceive a threat, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands as commanded by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (Longpre, 2021). These social media platforms have serious long-term ramifications for our neurobiological and endocrine systems, and thus, for our evolution. Social media has the power to exploit the vulnerabilities that originate in childhood, restructure our neurobiology based on these exploitations and increases access to forums where confusion, rage and grief can be collectively projected onto an ‘other’.
It is hard to imagine how these conditions will transform without transparent, meaningful and widespread comprehension of all these unconscious compulsions being clarified and addressed at the highest levels. The painful work required is to link the origins of our rage, to heal our family wounds and to take action against the inequality and injustice destroying our planet. This would require a self-awareness and self-reflection that feels as though it has slipped from our reach. The transmuting of dissociation, misogyny, narcissism into insight, understanding and activism offers the hope of discoveries that develop an altruistic and healed integrity. A unified response which incentivises these reflections will promote an atmosphere which is life-sustaining. For our planet to survive, a response that authentically prioritises restructuring our economies to save all living things, soil, oceans, insects, trees, animals, must become galvanised. Inspiration for altruism can be found in the nature that still remains, in the inherent creativity and beauty of being. Understanding the sources of our anger, apathy and ennui, supporting thinking about links and associations, is the crucial work to redirect the world toward the path of healing.
- Christoff, A. (2018). Linking with W.R. Bion. Victorian Literature and Culture, 47 (1), 7 December 2018. Linking with W. R. Bion | Victorian Literature and Culture | Cambridge Core
- Gayle, D. (2022, March 10). Millions suffering in deadly pollution ‘sacrifice zones’, warns UN expert | Pollution | The Guardian
- Gregory, A. (2022, March 3). Covid has intensified gender inequalities, global study finds | Gender | The Guardian
- Longpre, C. (2021). Staying informed without a cost: No effect of positive news media on stress reactivity, memory and affect in young adults. PLoS One, 16 (10) Staying informed without a cost: No effect of positive news media on stress reactivity, memory and affect in young adults (nih.gov) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0259094
- Miller, A. (1983). For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. Farrar Straus Giroux.
- Oliver, C. (1980). Jocasta’s Children: The imprint of the mother. Routledge; London, New York.
- Orlowski, J. (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film]. Argent Pictures.
- Rolfe, B. (2022, March 13). Scientist blasts 'stupid' influencer trend of ingesting aquarium cleaner - NZ Herald
- Stewart, H. (2017, March 9). Women bearing 86% of austerity burden, Commons figures reveal | Gender | The Guardian
- Waters, J. (2021, August 22). Constant craving: how digital media turned us all into dopamine addicts | Life and style | The Guardian