activism climate change lifestyle

Three forms of denial

after sustainabilityThis 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.

9 comments

  1. But Jeremy, we can’t ‘seriously’ confront it alone. We won’t halt climate change unless the majority make it happen, so we have to unite. that’s why so many are relying on ‘Avaaz’ not knowing whether it can possibly produce anything worthwhile, but merely hoping. What does john Foster or anyone else suggest on how to do more?

    1. Of course, and I don’t think Foster is saying that things like Avaaz are pointless, or that all those who use them are in denial. He is pointing out that human psychology is conflicted and very good at wriggling out of difficult truths.

      I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m hoping he gets to the bit about how we get around the problem and what we actually do. I’ll get back to you on that!

  2. When you think of denial you need to be careful not to confuse it with disagreement. It is easy to label someone as in denial when they have an understateding of the facts, just don’t agree with you on what should be done.

    1. That’s true, and it’s a disrespectful way of dealing with people you don’t agree with. It’s important to note that Foster isn’t singling out particular people as in denial though. His whole point is that we all do it. It’s part of human psychology, and none of us get to think we’re above it.

  3. I copied this some time ago from one of Monbiot’s articles (it may be a couple of years old) – I thought it may be of interest here.

    ‘There Is No Stopping Climate Change Unless We Can Mobilize Against Plutocracy.

    Neoliberalism is not the root of the problem: it is the ideology used to justify a global grab of power, public assets and natural resources by an unrestrained elite.
    In other words, the struggle against climate change – and all the crises which now beset both human beings and the natural world – cannot be won without a wider political fight: a democratic mobilisation against plutocracy.

    I believe this should start with an effort to reform campaign finance: the means by which corporations and the very rich buy policies and politicians. Some of us will be launching a petition in the UK in the next few weeks, and I hope you will sign it.’

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