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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

George Marshall: The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change (2001)


Satellite image showing major damage to houses, school buildings and St. John Medical Center, Joplin, Missouri, after a powerful tornado spun through a densely populated part of town, 22 May 2011
: photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

My first real exposure to the issue of climate change was reading a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1988, by a leading Australian climatologist. Climate change, he said, had the potential to destroy our society and even threatened our continued survival as a species. I was deeply moved (it even spurred me to write my only ever letter of appreciation to a newspaper).

One of a series of waterspouts seen spiralling up from the sea, near Avoca Beach, New South Wales, as heavy storms battered the area, 30 May 2011
: photographer unknown, via The Coming Crisis

However, what really shocked me in the following days was finding that the article had created not the slightest ripple; not one opinion, editorial, or letter. It may as well have never been written. It seemed to me that something very strange had happened. A highly qualified scientist had calmly and credibly outlined a process which, were he to be believed, made all other news in the paper marginal if not irrelevant. Yet the story had sunk without a trace. I could see only two explanations; either it was a hoax, which seemed unlikely, or it was so conjectural that no-one could seriously accept it. Either way, my immediate instinctive drive to do something was squashed.

One of a series of powerful waterspouts, reaching heights of up to 2000 feet, in the ocean off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, 30 May 2011; strong winds and heavy rain lashed the region, causing flash flooding and traffic chaos in Sydney
: photo by CBS News

In the following years, as the articles and documentaries and news items continued to appear, I realised that there was a third explanation –- that people can accept the truth of what is said without accepting the implications.

Hail covers the ground like snow, Australian Gold Coast, 30 May 2011: photo by Isabelle Vallin-Thorpe, via Watts Up With That?

In his excellent book, States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen argues that this capacity to deny a level of awareness is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society. He argues that ‘far from being pushed into accepting reality, people have to be dragged out of reality’. According to Cohen’s definition, denial involves a fundamental paradox –- that in order to deny something it is necessary at some level to recognise its existence and its moral implications. It is, he says, a state of simultaneous ‘knowing and not-knowing’.

Motorists drive through floodwaters following a sudden downpour that inundated low-lying areas in Manila, Philippines  Tuesday May 24, 2011.

Typhoon Songda strikes southern Japan, 29 May 2011: photo by AP/Bullit Marquez

This description is well suited to the current social response to climate change. The ‘knowledge’ of the problem is remarkably well established at all levels of society; the general public (68 per cent of Americans call it a serious problem in polls); the scientists (repeated letters of concern from scientific institutions); corporations (strongly worded statements by the CEOs of oil companies); the financial sector (reports warning of escalating insurance claims); the many heads of government (regular pious speeches warning of imminent disaster).

Yet, at another level, we clearly refuse to recognise the implications of that knowledge. Bill Clinton called for urgent action whilst his negotiators worked tirelessly to gut and destroy an agreement that scarcely began to reflect his own warnings. Newspapers regularly carry dire climatic warnings in the same issue as articles that breathlessly promote weekend breaks in Rio. Individuals, including my friends and family, can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new car, turn up the air conditioning, or fly across the world for a holiday.

Cohen’s analysis of the social responses to human rights abuses finds that the mechanisms of denial are extremely complex and varied. The circumstances that create any historical event are unique and it is unwise to make direct comparisons. However, following Cohen we can draw out certain consistent psychological processes that are highly pertinent to climate change.
Firstly, we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them. In Beyond Judgement, Primo Levi, seeking to explain the refusal of many European Jews to recognise their impending extermination, quotes an old German adage: ‘Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.’

In the case of climate change, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims. The language of ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘human impacts’, and ‘adaptation’ are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse; they are scientific euphemisms that suggest that climate change originates in immutable natural forces rather than in a direct causal relationship with moral implications for the perpetrator.

Secondly, we diffuse our responsibility. Cohen writes at length of the ‘passive bystander effect’ whereby violent crimes can be committed in a crowded street without anyone intervening. Individuals wait for someone else to act and subsume their personal responsibility in the collective responsibility of the group. One notable feature of the bystander effect is that the larger the number of actors the lower the likelihood that any individual person feels capable of taking unilateral action. In times of war and repression, entire communities can become incapacitated. In the case of climate change we are both bystanders and perpetrators, an internal conflict that can only intensify our denial.

Psychoanalytic theory contains valuable pointers to the ways that people may try to resolve these internal conflicts; angrily denying the problem outright (psychotic denial), seeking scapegoats (acting out), indulging in deliberately wasteful behaviour (reaction formation), projecting their anxiety onto some unrelated but containable problem (displacement), or trying to shut out all information (suppression). As the impacts of climate change intensify we can therefore anticipate that people will willingly collude in creating collective mechanisms of denial along these lines.

It seems likely, however, that suppression will dominate. In South Africa, many white bystanders who intellectually opposed apartheid adopted a passive opposition. They retreated into private life, cut themselves off from the news media, refused to talk politics with friends, and adopted an intense immersion in private diversions such as sport, holidays and families. In Brazil in the 1970s a special term, ‘innerism’, was coined for the disavowal of the political.


Centro de São Paulo, visto do edifício altino arantes
: photo by Lukasz, 31 March 2008

We can also draw on historical experience to anticipate which defenses we will adopt when, as will surely happen, we are confronted by our grandchildren demanding to know why we did so little when we knew so much. We can expect to see denial of knowledge (‘I didn’t know’), denial of our agency (‘I didn’t do it’), denial of personal power (‘I couldn’t do anything’, ‘no one else did anything’), and blaming of others (‘it was the people with the big cars, the Americans, the corporations’). For activists everywhere, it would appear crucial that an understanding of denial informs campaign strategy. As Cohen says, ‘the distinctions [between different forms of denial] may be irrelevant to the hapless victim, but they do make a difference to educational or political attempts to overcome bystander passivity’.

One conclusion is that denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end they dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy it is not working. Opinion polls reveal a high level of awareness with virtually no signs of any change in behaviour. Indeed there are plentiful signs of reactive denial in the demands for cheaper fuel and more energy.

A second conclusion is that the lack of visible public response is part of the self-justifying loop that creates the passive bystander effect. ‘Surely’, people reason, ‘if it really is that serious, someone would be doing something.’ The Herald article failed to inspire me to activity because I saw no evidence that anyone in wider society was paying any attention. Thirteen years later, we have vastly greater information with scarcely any more public action. The bystander loop has only tightened.

Tornado damage at St. John Medical Center, Joplin, Missouri, with ruins of local theater where two people perished in foreground
: photo by Intelati, 26 May 2011

People will never spontaneously take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient numbers of people demand a response. To avert further climate change will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilisation across all classes and sectors of society.

For all these reasons, the creation of a large and vocal movement against climate change must be an immediate and overarching campaign objective. People will not accept the reality of the problem unless they see that others are engaging in activities that reflect its seriousness. This means they need to be confronted by emotionally charged activities; debate, protest, and meaningful, visible alternatives. Simply asking people to change their lightbulbs, plant a tree, or send in a donation, however desirable in themselves, will not build a social movement. These activities alone, although valuable, will persuade few.

Anyone concerned about this issue faces a unique historical opportunity to break the cycle of denial, and join the handful of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders. The last century was marked by self-deception and mass denial. There is no need for the 21st Century to follow suit.

The city of Joplin, Missouri is reeling after a powerful tornado spun through a densely populated part of town. This satellite image shows the storm system moments before spawning the tornado that struck Joplin shortly before 6:00 pm CST, 22 May 2011: photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

George Marshall: The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change: from The Ecologist, 22 October 2001




Thanks for such a sounding of the alarm -- photos and text -- more rain last night (end of May? can it be?). . . .


sunlit whiteness of cloud above shadowed
green ridge, quail walking across bricks
in foreground, waves sounding in channel

vanish if is so chosen, can
line be in such a way

in time, physical, relative
to this impossibility

grey white clouds to the left of point,
shadowed canyon of ridge above channel

Marcia said...

Thanks, Tom, for this post. No rain here for months - none in sight. Water restrictions in place, but only 50% of the population observes them.

Anonymous said...

The Marshall piece gave me a lot to think about, much of which I never considered previously. I think the source of my own resistance in these matters is based on basic distrust of government-generated and circulated information on a number of levels and my belief that proponents of various positions are mainly seeking self-enrichment at my expense. A few years ago, when carbon credit schemes were becoming increasingly common and I started researching the subject because it confused me, it was good to see a left-leaning news source like the Financial Times publish a lengthy, detailed piece about carbon credit scams. And (at the risk of extreme oversimplification), citing boldface examples like Al Gore (on his way to being a climate change billionaire; lives in palaces and buys carbon credits from himself), Bobby Kennedy, Jr. (private jets galore and seems well past half-mad), Prince Charles (what can you say?) and Leonardo di Caprio and George Clooney (their publicists chide the doubting, critical peasants for not understanding that some people absolutely require private transportation), it’s difficult not to feel that you’re being played (again). I and everyone here, I’m sure, could mention other factors that have sown distrust, including the East Anglia University email trails, but the fact remains that although I’m not a scientist, I think I can analyze information reasonably well and discern sound conclusions from illogical ones. So, I guess someone will need to present the data to me in a new and more trustworthy way than is currently occurring.

Barry Taylor said...

Tom - It's very good to be presented with such a cogent revisiting and reanimation of the basic issues, and one raised to another dialectical level by considering why they remain, after decades, the same basic issues. My feeling is that a focus like this on the mechanisms of denial will only get us so far if it isn't in tandem with an analysis (and yes, a kind of psycho-analysis)of the dynamics of addiction - deliberately and systematically stimulated addiction - which drives the economics of consumption and growth-at-all-costs which generates 'our' share of the gases. For me it's the enormity of the task that that implies - the displacement of global capital as economy and culture - that induces my own version of bewildered passivity and resignation. But then you have to take a breath and get on with the smaller stuff, I suppose.

Marinela Reka said...

Great post, Tom!
Loved your blog :)

Short Poems

TC said...


The extremes rule. I do take note of your weather. We have exactly the opposite. Today: thunderstorms with hail, Day One of a seven-day forecast "event" to include several inches of rain and extremely low temperatures.

Whether business or politics or religion or denial make it impossible for some people to accept the situation, it's plain from the confusion of the scientists that something's going on, they just don't know quite what. And it's happening fast.

A sort of Older Dryas, as it were.

From my own narrowed point of observation, I find these words of Barry's right on target:

"deliberately and systematically stimulated addiction - which drives the economics of consumption and growth-at-all-costs..."

Bewildered passivity and resignation, yes. Alternating with a sort of fruitless anger, in this season of warped and shrunken fruit.

Marinela, let us hope that the future you inherit from us turns out somehow to be better than it looks at present.

Elmo St. Rose said...

when I arrived in Kansas
I expected to see Dorothy
and through her perhaps
the Wizard of the Emerald City...

and as someone passing through
I wished also to see a tornado
and was warned about cars tossed
100's of yards on to roofs and
about straw being driven into
brick and the conversation took
on a spontaneous biblical aura
with the concept of straw being
driven into brick

never did see a tornado but
met a few wizards...who had in
mind a whole library on a chip the
seize of the head of a pin or
a machine that would teach the
deaf pitch..

these people exist...white roofing
says the Sec. of Energy...a product
made close to home,if all the roofs
in the world were white there would
be no global warming

walk more drive less,drive 55mph
plant trees,
and as a water ouzel, a practitioner
of zen, an actual bird in a
waterfall, said to me many years
ago in the Sierra
"You eat too much, you think too
much and you shit too much" in other words you give off heat

Talk would be cheap in Joplin now
the Red Cross is a reasonable

TC said...

That water ouzel was definitely a wizard, Elmo. But alas such rare and wise messages require a responsive ear, as you surely know and do yourself provide, bless your soul. But of course the acoustic environment is also certainly a factor in any communication of messages. Conceptual and biblical and short-term economic static create a steady line noise, interferences, blockages, even total outages. The little old Walkman radio which is my middle of the night companion and information source sends along such a confusing and bewildering stream of contradictory messages lately that it's hard to sort out the biblical-crazy from the business-convenient any more. Tonight a voice from inside it (talk radio) told me in no uncertain terms that on 11/11/11 the earth will enter a Great Vortex that will last 26,000 years. It is all written somewhere, apparently. And the results will be complicated, localized, and mixed. Perhaps there are many people in many places who will not even know it has occurred. But of course that won't mean it hasn't, the guy pointed out.

And at least now we have been warned. (?)

In the interim, though, your Rx for practical protocols makes a whole lot of sense to me, doc.