Systems of Denial


It would not be unusual to feel a bit affronted, disturbed, or saddened by the information and arguments I have just shared. In the past few years, many people have said to me that “it can’t be too late to stop climate change, because if it was, how would we find the energy to keep on striving for change?” With such views, a possible reality is denied because people want to continue their striving. What does that tell us? The “striving” is based in a rationale of maintaining self-identities related to espoused values. It is understandable why that happens.
If one has always thought of oneself as having self-worth through promoting the public good, then information that initially appears to take away that self-image is difficult to assimilate.

 

That process of strategic denial to maintain striving and identity is easily seen in online debates about the latest climate science. One particular case is illustrative. In 2017 the New York Magazine published an article that drew together the latest data and analysis of what the implications of rapid climatic warming would be on ecosystems and humanity. Unlike the many dry academic articles on these subjects, this popular article sought to describe these processes in visceral ways (Wallace-Wells, 2017). The reaction of some environmentalists to this article did not focus on the accuracy of the descriptions or what might be done to reduce some of the worst effects that were identified in the article. Instead, they focused on whether such ideas should be communicated to the general public. Climate scientist Michael Mann warned against presenting “the problem as unsolvable, and feed[ing] a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness” (in Becker, 2017). Environmental journalist Alex Steffen (2017) tweeted that "Dropping the dire truth... on unsupported readers does not produce action, but fear." In a blog post, Daniel Aldana Cohen (2017) an assistant sociology professor working on climate politics, called the piece “climate disaster porn.” Their reactions reflect what some people have said to me in professional environmental circles. The argument made is that to discuss the likelihood and nature of social collapse due to climate change is irresponsible because it might trigger hopelessness amongst the general public. I always thought it odd to restrict our own exploration of reality and censor our own sensemaking due to our ideas about how our conclusions might come across to others. Given that this attempt at censoring was so widely shared in the environmental field in 2017, it deserves some closer attention.

 

I see four particular insights about what is happening when people argue we should not communicate to the public the likelihood and nature of the catastrophe we face. First, it is not untypical for people to respond to data in terms of what perspectives we wish for ourselves and others to have, rather than what the data may suggest is happening. That reflects an approach to reality and society that may be tolerable in times of plenty but counterproductive when facing major risks. Second, that we can overlook how the question of how bad news and extreme scenarios impacts on human psychology is a matter for informed discussion that can draw upon psychology and communications theories. Indeed, there are journals dedicated to environmental psychology. There is some evidence from social psychology to suggest that by focusing on impacts now, it makes climate change more proximate, which increases support for mitigation (McDonald et al, 2015). That is not conclusive, and this field is one for further exploration. That serious scholars or activists would make a claim about impacts of communication without specific theory or evidence suggests that they are not actually motivated to know the effect on the public but are attracted to a certain argument that explains their view. A third insight from the debates about whether to publish information on the probable collapse of our societies is that sometimes people can express a paternalistic relationship between themselves as environmental experts and other people whom they categorise as “the public”. That is related to the non-populist anti-politics technocratic attitude that has pervaded contemporary environmentalism. It is a perspective that frames the challenges as
one of encouraging people to try harder to be nicer and better rather than coming together in solidarity to either undermine or overthrow a system that demands we participate in environmental degradation.

 

A fourth insight is that “hopelessness” and its related emotions of dismay and despair are understandably feared but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation. Alex Steffen warned that “Despair is never helpful” (2017). However, the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas. The loss of a capability, a loved one, a way of life, or receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and
despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008). In such contexts “hope” is not a good thing to maintain, as it depends on what one is hoping for. When the debate raged about the value of the New York Magazine article, some commentators picked up on this theme. “In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes,” wrote Tommy Lynch (2017).

 

This question of valid and useful hope is something that we must explore much further. Leadership theorist Jonathan Gosling has raised the question of whether we need a more “radical hope” in the context of climate change and a growing sense of “things falling apart” (Gosling, 2016). He invites us to explore what we could learn from other cultures that have faced catastrophe. Examining the way Native American Indians coped with being moved on to reservations, Lear (2008) looked at what he calls the “blind spot” of any culture: the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction. He explored the role of forms of hope that involved neither denial or blind optimism. “What makes this hope radical, is that it
is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (ibid). He explains how some of the Native American chiefs had a form of “imaginative excellence” by trying to imagine what ethical values would be needed in their new lifestyle on the reservation. He suggests that besides the standard alternatives of freedom or death (in service of one’s culture) there is another way, less grand yet demanding just as much courage: the way of “creative adaptation.” This form of creatively constructed hope may be relevant to our Western civilisation as we confront disruptive climate change (Gosling and Case, 2013).

 

Such deliberations are few and far between in either the fields of environmental studies or management studies. It is to help break this semi-censorship of our own community of inquiry on sustainability that motivated me to write this article. Some scholarship has looked at the process of denial more closely. Drawing on sociologist Stanley Cohen, Foster (2015) identifies two subtle forms of denial – interpretative and implicative. If we accept certain facts but interpret them in a way that makes them “safer” to our personal psychology, it is a form of “interpretative denial”. If we recognise the troubling implications of these facts but respond by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation, 
then that is “implicative denial”. Foster argues that implicative denial is rife within the environmental movement, from dipping into a local Transition Towns initiative, signing online petitions, or renouncing flying, there are endless ways for people to be “doing something” without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.

 

There are three main factors that could be encouraging professional environmentalists in their denial that our societies will collapse in the near-term. The first is the way the natural scientific community operates. Eminent climate scientist James Hansen has always been ahead of the conservative consensus in his analyses and predictions. Using the case study of sea level rise, he threw light on processes that lead to “scientific reticence” to conclude and communicate scenarios that would be disturbing to employers, funders, governments and the public (Hansen, 2007). A more detailed study of this process across issues and institutions found that climate-change scientists routinely underestimate impacts “by erring on the side of least drama" (Brysse et al, 2013). Combined with the norms of scientific analysis and reporting to be cautious and avoid bombast, and the time it takes to fund, research, produce and publish peer reviewed scientific studies, this means that the information available to environmental professionals about the state of the climate is not as frightening as it could be. In this paper I have had to mix information from peer-reviewed articles with recent data from individual scientists and their research institutions to provide the evidence which suggests we are now in a non-linear situation of climactic changes and effects.

 

A second set of factors influencing denial may be personal. George Marshall summarised the insights from psychology on climate denial, including the interpretive and implicative denial of those of who are aware but have not prioritised it. In particular, we are social beings and our assessment of what to do about information is influenced by our culture. Therefore, people often avoid voicing certain thoughts when they go against the social norm around them and/or their social identity. Especially in situations of shared powerlessness, it can be perceived as safer to hide one's views and do nothing if it goes against the status quo. Marshall also explains how our typical fear of death means that we do not give our full attention to information that reminds us of that. According to anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973): “A fear of death lies at the centre of all human belief.” Marshall explains: “The denial of death is a ‘vital lie’ that leads us to invest our efforts into our cultures and social groups to obtain a sense of permanence and survival beyond our death. Thus, [Becker] argued, when we receive reminders of our death – what he calls death salience – we respond by defending those values and cultures.” This view was recently expounded as part of the “terror management theory” proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski (2015). Although Marshall does not consider it directly, these processes would apply more so to “collapse denial” than to climate denial, as the death involves not only oneself but all of what one could contribute to.

 

These personal processes are likely made worse for sustainability experts than the general public, given the typical allegiance of professionals to incumbent social structures. Research has revealed that people who have a higher level of formal education are more supportive of the existing social and economic systems that those that have less education (Schmidt, 2000). The argument is that people who have invested time and money in progressing to a higher status within existing social structures are more naturally inclined to imagine reform of those systems than their upending. This situation is accentuated if we assume our livelihood, identity and self-worth is dependent on the perspective that progress on sustainability is possible and that we are part of that progressive process.

 

The third factor influencing denial is institutional. I have worked for over 20 years within or with organisations working on the sustainability agenda, in non-profit, private and governmental sectors. In none of these sectors is there an obvious institutional self-interest in articulating the probability or inevitability of social collapse. Not to members of your charity, not to consumers of your product, not to voters for your party. There are a few niche companies that benefit from a collapse discourse leading some people to seek to prepare by buying their products. This field may expand in future, at various scales of preparedness, which I return to below. But the internal culture of environmental groups remains strongly in favour of appearing effective, even when decades of investment and campaigning have not produced a net positive outcome on climate, ecosystems or many specific species.

 

Let us look at the largest environmental charity, WWF, as an example of this process of organisational drivers of implicative denial. I worked for them when we were striving towards all UK wood product imports being from sustainable forests by 1995. Then it became “well- managed” forests by 2000. Then targets were quietly forgotten while the potensiphonic language of solving deforestation through innovative partnerships remained. If the employees of the world’s leading environmental groups were on performance related pay, they would probably owe their members and donors money by now. The fact that some readers may find such a comment to be rude and unhelpful, highlights how our interests in civility, praise and belonging within a professional community can censor those of us who seek to communicate uncomfortable truths in memorable ways (like that journalist in the New York Magazine).

These personal and institutional factors mean that environmental professionals may be some of the slowest to process the implications of the latest climate information. In 2017, a survey of more than 8,000 people across 8 different countries – Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, South Africa, the UK, and the US – asked respondents to gauge their perceived level of security as compared to two years ago in regards to global risks. A total of 61% said they felt more insecure, while only 18% said they felt more secure. On climate change, 48% of respondents strongly agreed that it is a global catastrophic risk, with an additional 36% of people tending to agree with that. Only 14% of respondents disagreed to some degree with the idea that climate change presented a catastrophic risk (Hill, 2017). This perspective on climate may help explain other survey data that suggests remarkable changes in how people view technology, progress, their society, and the future prospects for their children. A 2017 global survey found that only 13% of the public think the world is getting better, which is major change from the ten years before (Ipsos MORI, 2017). In the USA, polls indicate that
belief in technology as a good force has been fading (Asay, 2013). This information may reflect a wider questioning of the idea that progress is always good and possible. Such as shift in perspective is indicated by opinion polls showing that far fewer people today than the last decade believe their children will have a better future than themselves (Stokes, 2017).


Another indicator of whether people believe in their future is if they believe in the basis of their society. Studies have consistently found that more people are losing faith in electoral democracy and in the economic system (Bendell and Lopatin, 2017). The questioning of mainstream life and of progress is also reflected in the shift away from secular-rational values to traditional values that has been occurring worldwide since 2010 (World Values Survey, 2016). How do children feel about their futures? I have not found a large or longitudinal study on children’s views of the future, but one journalist who asked children from 6 to 12 years old to paint what they expect the world in 50 years to be like generated mostly apocalyptic
images (Banos Ruiz, 2017). This evidence suggests that the idea we “experts” need to be careful about what to tell “them” the “unsupported public” may be a narcissistic delusion in need of immediate remedy.

 

Emotional difficulties with realising the tragedy that is coming, and in many ways that is upon us already, are understandable. Yet these difficulties need to be overcome so we can explore what the implications may be for our work, lives and communities.