This week I’ve been reading John Foster’s book After Sustainability. He approaches the issue of climate change as a philosopher, and he’s convinced that denial is not just something that the bad guys do. We’re all involved in a complex culture of denial, he suggests, and climate activists are as likely to be caught up in it as everyone else.
Drawing on sociologist Stanley Cohen, he outlines three forms of denial:
Literal denial: This is the climate denial we’re familiar with – the insistence that global warming isn’t happening. It’s an active ignoring of the facts, and it’s easy to sustain. Just add the word ‘debunked’ to any climate related Google search you do in the name of ‘reading up on it’, and you won’t see anything you don’t want to see.
Interpretative denial: The second form of denial is more nuanced. It accepts the facts, but rejects the meaning, interpreting them in a way that makes them ‘safer’ to our personal psychology. So one might accept climate change, but conclude that there’s nothing we can do. Or you might choose to frame climate change as a purely technical energy problem or a market failure, making it something that experts need to address and thereby removing any responsibility to change the way we live.
Implicative denial: The form Foster is most interested in is the third kind, where we accept the facts and the interpretation, but suppress the “psychological, political and moral implications that would conventionally follow”. It’s how we let ourselves off the hook, “quasi-intentionally not following up on the uncomfortable implications” of what we know. Foster argues that implicative denial is rife. It’s why so many of us, politicians and campaigners included, can continue to say how important climate change is without ever doing anything serious about it.
By nature, implicative denial is covert – it has to be, because we’ve already agreed that climate change is happening and that it matters. It is seen in the jokey brushing away of climate change when it comes up in small talk, in the diversion of green consumerism, in what Norwegian psychologist Kari Norgard calls the ‘social production of innocence’.
It’s also seen in environmental activism, Foster argues. Whether it is dipping a toe in the local Transition Towns initiative or signing online petitions, there are endless ways for people to be ‘doing something’ without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.
I’ll come back to Foster’s ideas when I’ve finished the book, but it’s a provocative idea for those of us who like to think we’re doing the right thing.