The many faces of climate change denial
September 1, 2011 § 3 Comments
In popular parlance ‘denial’ can refer to anything from the barefaced lies of a politician to the psychobabble of checklists that tell you whether you are ‘in denial’ about any number of personal ills. Understanding climate change denial means unravelling both psychological and sociological meanings of the term.
The view from psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is specific. Freud’s concept of denial – usually translated as ‘disavowal’ – refers to a state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing that something is true. ‘My father is dead.’ ‘My father is not dead – he will be at the station as usual to meet me.’ If it is maintained more than briefly, this is a serious psychological condition that detaches the sufferer from any shared reality with others. Nonetheless, this sense that something is both known and not known describes public responses to climate change rather well. Rather than talk simply about denial however it may be useful to explore the many different defences people can use to protect themselves from psychological discomfort and pain.
Many forms of defence
There are many ways of not thinking and not feeling or of failing to take in an uncomfortable truth. For example:
Disturbing knowledge may be :
- pushed beneath the surface -“Let’s talk about something nicer.” (suppression)
- banished more deeply – “I don’t know what you’re talking about” – where it may re-emerge in the form of a symptom (repression).
- stripped of its significance “I don’t think it will affect me/it’s not as important as x/it isn’t urgent “(negation)
- locked in a separate compartment of the mind “I try not to think about it/I keep that for work.” (isolation/compartmentalisation)
The troubled person may:
- Shift blame elsewhere “Government should act/It’s the fault of the Chinese/What are you doing anyway?” (projection)
- Retreat to a stance of helplessness “It’s too difficult for me/I don’t understand it/I’m powerless to help.” (regression)
- Idealise their own or their group’s motives and actions “I do my recycling/The UK’s at the forefront/We’re a nation of gardeners.” (idealisation)
The pain that lies beneath
All of these defences can contribute to what is popularly thought of as denial. Behind each defensive move lies an experience that is unbearable or feelings that threaten to overwhelm: trauma, guilt, anxiety or an insult to one’s sense of self. As a result of these defensive moves, other affective states – indifference, defiance, apathy, depression, resentment, hopelessness, inertia – appear as the surface phenomena. As the work of Renee Lertzman on the Myth of Apathy makes clear, although the conflict is less painful on the surface it remains disturbing underneath.
The defensive moves listed above can be personally disabling, but in the case of climate change they are not. They do not, for the most part, bring people to therapists’ consulting rooms. Why?
The social organisation of denial
The answer lies in the way these individual processes connect with the wider social picture. We cannot explain collective failure to deal with climate change as the sum of millions of individual neuroses.
Stanley Cohen in “States of denial”, a study of political denial of atrocity and human rights abuses, identifies three levels of denial and relates the strategies of deniers to those of delinquents accused of a crime.
- Literal denial – “It didn’t happen.”
- Interpretive denial – “It happened but it doesn’t mean what you think.”
- Implicatory denial – “It happened but it’s not significant/important
This is certainly helpful in understanding the public face of common pronouncements on climate change and it fits well with an understanding of psychological defence mechanisms. Sociologist Kari Norgaard goes further in unravelling the connections between the personal and social dimensions with regard to climate change. As she explains in her 2006 papers and more recent book ‘Living in denial’ we are witnessing the social organisation of denial:
“…a process by which individuals collectively distance themselves from information… [through]… norms of emotion, conversation and attention and… an existing cultural repertoire of strategies…”
There are a number of ways this can happen.
1. Social consensus
Social consensus can stop the individual psychic defence from being experienced as a disabling symptom. If we (or our subgroup) all agree that the emperor is fully dressed, that the war in Iraq was a humanitarian intervention or that climate change is not urgent, then we create a psychic space where life can carry on normally, untroubled by regal nakedness, the civilian bodycount or melting icecaps.
2. Emotional management
Norgaard emphasises the way in which the management of difficult feelings takes place socially, through collective ignoring of awkward facts or collective reassurance that all is well. Some topics have social space made available to them, some are deemed trivial, others are taboo. Silence and inaction are normalised by the conventions of appropriate conversation.
3. Everyday practices
Social structures themselves offer confirmation that there is little to worry about: this is the normal/only way to do the laundry, this is the normal/only way to get to work, this is the normal/only way to take a holiday. Each enactment of these everyday practices consolidates the collective structure of defence, reinforced by the fact that the impact of these practices remains fragmented and hidden.
4. Cultural narratives
Meanwhile cultural narratives are invoked that tell an opposite story to the one of environmental destruction. In her Norwegian study Norgaard noted how the reality of Norway’s oil-rich expansion was masked by cultural narratives of a small nation that lives close to nature. In the UK the narratives are more likely to be refracted through the lenses of class and social division but we might point to stories of the English as particularly entitled, the idea of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ and the refrain that others (usually the Chinese and the Americans) are worse.
These social structures and systems exacerbate the surface phenomena of silence and indifference and reinforce existing power structures and systems of privilege. They dull the pain of the underlying troubling emotions and make it hard to speak of them. I will be writing more next month about the relationship of denial to power and the need to open up appropriate conversational spaces both personal and political.