The question of the use of language such as ‘denial’ in the context of climate change has already emerged as an issue on postings on this website. The argument is that such language is unnecessarily provocative and polarising, and brands as ‘deniars’ all those who remain sceptical of some of the claims made by the majority of climate scientists (see piece in the Guardian March 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/climate-change-scepticism-style-guide).
Indeed my experience is that the use of the word ‘denial’ in conjunction with climate change seems to provoke a range of vehement responses. When we ran a conference on climate change denial at the University of the West of England in 2010 the on-line furore preceding the conference was such as to force one of my colleagues to consider organising conference stewards to prevent disruption on the day, something he hadn’t thought about since the days of anti-fascist politics in Britain in the mid 1970s. Wind forward to 2013 when Sally Weintrobe and I went on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed at the end of January to talk about climate change denial the following week the show’s host, Laurie Taylor, referred to “the maelstrom of correspondence” that our remarks had provoked.
At their most virulent such protestors accuse people like us of equating climate change denial with holocaust denial. We are therefore forced to question whether it is any longer appropriate to use a term which has become unnecessarily provocative. I want to argue strongly that I believe it is still appropriate, not the least because by insisting on the validity of this term we draw attention to a deeper truth about what we are all capable of as human beings and the tragedies that may then follow.
Holocaust denial is a case in point. It is a huge shame that the term has become synonymous with the ravings of a small band of miscellaneous zealots such as the historian David Irving andIran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, 60 years afterAuschwitz, still insist that the idea that 6 million died in the concentration camps is a hoax. By making this connection to a small group of denialists something much more disturbing is conveniently covered up, for holocaust denial more properly refers to the behaviour of a silent majority rather than a noisy minority. That is, the silent majority of Germans who, in the 1930s and 1940s, knew something was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to it. Hence the significance when, at an event in January this year to commemorate Hitler’s taking control of the Reichstag in January 1933 (exactly eighty years ago), the current German President Angela Merkel said that the rise of Hitler had been made possible because “the majority had, at the very best, behaved with indifference”. This is what the holocaust survivor and unsurpassed chronicler of life in the camps, Primo Levi, described when he said in his book The Periodic Table, “(A)t that time, among the German silent majority, the common technique was to try to know as little as possible, and therefore not to ask questions”. It is crucial to understand that this would have been us had we been living inGermanyat that time. We (and I include myself here) would no doubt have behaved in precisely this way, no differently to the way in which normal anxious German citizens behaved at that time. For this is how ‘silent majorities’ tend to behave when faced with unpalatable truths and unless we begin to realise this we are doomed to repeat the crimes of omission of previous generations.
This is what the late and much missed Stan Cohen picked up on in his book States of Denial, it is the organisation of denial in whole societies or specific institutions within a society (such as the UK’s Stafford Hospital) that is the problem, not individual denial or the denial of small groups. This is what we are talking about in the case of climate change – the problem is not the noisy minority (although they can be a distracting pain in the arse), the problem is the silent majority and that, to a greater or lesser extent, includes all of us. When Levi says that we try to know as little as possible, I recognise traces of that in myself. I’ve seldom visited the IPCC website or kept abreast of the latest findings in the scientific journals and when I do read some of the most recent research which suggests the IPCC projections were too cautious I fight hard not to be overcome by despair. I also recognise that there is a part of me that wants to be deceived, wants to be told that things aren’t as bad as they seem. The point is that we are not just dupes of powerful media forces, governments and advertisers, there is someone inside each one of us that wants to be persuaded that everything is ok and who is ready to collude.
Working as a clinician I see this on a regular basis, it seems to me to lie at the heart of the difficulty we all have when trying to change. Most of the people I see as a therapist gain insight into their difficulties relatively quickly but change is much slower to occur. This is, I think, the problem with cognitive therapies. Changing scripts or narratives is usually not a sufficient condition for personal change. To change, people also have to negotiate loss (the loss of old identities and meanings), contain the despair and anxiety that accompanies loss, and abandon the pleasures (often perverse) they got from old but destructive ways of being.
And this brings us back to climate change and why it is possible to have some insight about climate change and yet carry on with old forms of behaviour. As should by now be clear when I use the term denial I do not do so to refer to some group ‘out there’ who are different to me, I use the term knowing full well that it applies to myself. I remember a precisely analogous situation in the early 1990s when news reports were reaching us about ethnic cleansing in the formerYugoslavia. To begin with the response of ordinary citizens in theUKincluding myself was negligible, largely because the line being pedalled by the media and by politicians (of left and right) was that this was a civil war rather than a war of aggression by Serbs, and to a lesser extent Croats, on other ethnic groups. But more and more reports came through, including scarcely believable reports of rape camps and even people being held in conditions (at Omarska, Trnoplje and elsewhere) that resembled concentration camps. Yet still our response was negligible (perhaps just as it was in the early 1940s). I remember feeling many of the things I now feel in relation to climate change. Disbelief to begin with, surely this couldn’t be happening in a part ofEuropewhere only recently, like hundreds of thousands of others, I had been on holiday. Then, later, guilt, the evidence particularly from journalists such as Ed Vulliamy was incontrovertible and I can remember having that sense of what Sartre termed ‘bad faith’, feeling that ‘we’ or ‘they’ (the government etc) should be doing something whilst doing nothing myself. Finally in 1994 we formed a Bosnia Support Group inBristolwhere I live. No political parties or campaign groups were active aroundBosniaat the time and a national demonstration inLondonthat we attended only managed to rally a few thousand people. We raised money, twinned with a project for young people inTuzlawhich remained a multi-ethnic city, and eventually I went out there to see for myself. In a way, you could say, that only when I saw it with my own eyes did reality break through. But at the time and to this day I still feel that what I did felt like ‘going through the motions’, just enough perhaps to ease my feeling of guilt, just enough to enable me to live with myself.
Now come back to climate change. One of the preoccupations of climate change campaigners is that the ordinary citizen’s actions seem too little in relation to the scale of the problem we face. As a result there is much concern with communication, how to get the message right and how to communicate it in the right way. Much useful work focusing on the lifestyle choices and consumption habits of individuals and groups has been done here. But the fact is that ultimately climate change is a political problem and at the moment we have no political movement dedicated to this problem (no equivalent to the anti-poll tax, or anti-nuclear, or anti-war movements of the past). When you look at the history of political movements you can see the powerful effect of emotion in determining whether or not they get off the ground. Sometimes it is despair that has a demobilising effect, something explored vividly by Debbie Gould in Moving Politics her history of gay and lesbian activism in the time of AIDs. Sometimes, particularly in authoritarian societies such as those in much of the Middle East before the Arab Spring, it is fear that keeps people from taking action. But in democracies which rule by consent I believe that we learn to live with unpalatable realities through collusion, and denial is a crucial element of collusion.
So to return to my theme, the silent majority, people like us who consent to the political and economic regimes we find ourselves in and yet who are the true power in the land, unlike the noisy minorities, the ideologues. Of course in climate change politics we have our ideologues too, on both sides, united in their preferred position on the moral high horse, and what strikes me is the way in which both groups use the rhetoric of denial in a spiral of accusation and counter-accusation. In fact it is quite hard to use the term ‘denial’ these days without a chorus of injured voices immediately shouting on the virtual stage “how dare you talk about me like that!”. I think there is a secret enjoyment here, the thrill of victimhood. And to such people I would say that I’m sorry to disappoint you but when I talk about denial I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about me and people like me, those who through inaction, prevarication and omission are consenting to a civilization which seems increasingly bent upon self-destruction. Perhaps we should more properly speak of ‘denial and collusion’ because the two things seem to go hand in hand.
A final point. There is something about the age we live in which means that denial and collusion has become a necessary part of everyday life, part of what the German social critic Peter Sloterdijk calls the ‘unhappy consciousness’. In our world the means of communication are such that it is impossible not to know about things that have the potential to disturb us deeply. A child dies of hunger every 6 seconds, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates more than 20 million sharks are killed (just for the fins) every year (recent research suggests this dramatically underestimates the actual numbers), in September 2012 the extent of the summer Arctic Sea Ice was the lowest since satellite imaging began and was 50% below the 1979 to 2000 average, despite the Winter Fuel Allowance in the UK during the winter over 25,000 people (mostly elderly) continue to die from cold related illnesses. I could go on but my point is that our world is now saturated with this kind of information and therefore dramatically different to the world that existed just 50 years ago. And if we let all of these facts disturb us likely we would go mad. So we develop a thick skin and become versed in the arts of distancing, dissociation, rationalisation, diffusion of responsibility and all the other techniques of making sure that these facts remain just that, useless facts that don’t affect us. Hence the name of Stan Cohen’s book States of Denial. And you could say, this is our predicament, this is the predicament of being human and living in technologically advanced and relatively open societies. Except I’d add one extra clause and put ‘neo-liberal’ after ‘technologically advanced’.