The denial of despair – does unacknowledged despair compromise action on climate change?
October 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
We’re used to talking about the denial of climate change but are we seeing another kind of denial at present – the denial of despair?
In Al Gore’s 2006 film, he speaks of the need to find ‘…the place between denial and despair…’ – the place from which it is possible to act on climate change. It was a perceptive phrase. It catches the psychological truth that one source of denial may be an unacknowledged despair that anything can be done. In those more hopeful times it made sense to encourage people to believe that runaway climate change could be prevented and that their actions mattered. It could truthfully be said in 2006 that despair was not the most appropriate emotion.
A changed situation
The situation in 2012 is quite different. The last year has seen increasingly disturbing weather events – droughts, floods, wildfires and unusual weather patterns – being attributed by scientists to climate change, and all taking place against a backdrop of rising CO2 emissions and the failure of international action. The view that IPCC predictions were conservative is being borne out. The world seems set on a pathway to 4 or possibly 6 degrees of warming.
In the face of this, despair may be an altogether more realistic reaction and the people one might expect to express it would be those working closest to the action – scientists, policy makers, campaigners and community activists. It is an emotion that is rarely given voice however. One is more likely to encounter silence, or a cheerful focus on practical actions and a ‘we’re getting there’ narrative that focuses on small successes. Despair itself seems subject to denial. If conversations about it are taking place they are doing so in private, as if to voice them publicly would be to admit defeat or open the doors even wider to the tide of opinion that deems the problem too expensive, difficult or irrelevant.
The consequences of silence
Silence however has consequences. It involves a loss of authenticity. It is an act of bad faith. It creates a sense of make-believe about every campaign and every encouragement to reduce carbon emissions. Emotions that are not expressed do not vanish. They re-appear as symptoms, infecting actions with a sense of half-heartedness or leading to withdrawal. George Monbiot wrote presciently in his 2006 book Heat of the desire that “…we will wish our governments to pretend to act.” Paul Hoggett explores this dynamic in a fascinating essay Climate change in a perverse culture in the collection Engaging with Climate Change. Unacknowledged despair can take us in a similar direction, making our actions feel privately pointless and hollow.
The process of despair
Why should we still try if so much is lost? At a deep personal level each person will find their own answer to that question. Despair is a process to be lived through. It might matter most to you that some small part of bio-diversity hangs on for longer or has a better chance of survival. You might decide that anything that keeps the temperature lower rather than higher is worth doing. You might feel that it’s a question of justice and that the consequences of climate change should be more equitably borne. You might feel that it is an ethical question – why would the prospect of failure make you act any differently?
So should we be shouting our despair from the rooftops? No, I don’t think so. But we should risk speaking of it to each other and be open to conversations that share it more widely if we are to remain effective at all in the work that we do. For there is still work to be done, and it needs to be done from an engagement with reality – however difficult – rather than from a retreat into illusion.
Illusion and reality
The political philosopher Antonio Gramsci took as his slogan Romain Rolland’s phrase ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ It appeared on the masthead of L’Ordine Nuovo, the newspaper he edited in the 1920s, and he returned to the idea repeatedly in his prison writings. What I think Gramsci meant was that one should look always at the difficult truth, refuse illusion and yet still find the determination to fight for what one believes to be right and just. I often find myself misquoting the second half as ‘…optimism of the heart…’ because it seems to me that it is feeling as much as determination that allows people to continue when so much seems lost or impossible and it is connection with others that helps us carry on while acknowledging the despair that comes with the defeat of strongly held desires.
Hi: just a word to say I appreciate your postings. On the basis of your previous posting on grief and climate change I included in interviews and surveys I was doing for my phd research the question: “do you ever feel a sense of loss or grief relating to the environment?” In the 111 responses that I have, the answers were consistent: yes and explosive in that the emotional tone of the responses were cathartic (that is to say lots of exclamation mark statements). I would be most pleased to talk to you about the work I am doing and what I have found in trying to understand the ethical orientations of environmentally oriented activists, professionals, farmers, voluntary simplicity practitioners and individuals (n=233). I am just starting to write up the results chapter so insights are still emerging.