Fifty Shades of Denial

We want to embrace and love nature but also seem ambivalent in the face of its destruction. Paul Zeal reviews a book that analyses these attitudes and welcomes the diagnostics he finds mingled with narratives of hope
We, the species that prides itself on rising to every challenge, are ducking this one

This excellent book is designed as a multi-disciplinary conversation between psychoanalysts and proponents of other human sciences. It addresses two main puzzles - Why is there so much denial and avoidance of climate change, and How can people be helped to engage with it more? The silver thread running through it is a many-voiced discussion of denial, and readers will gain useful new vocabulary.

At the top of the tower of destruction is what is best called denialism. This is the activity of those with power to influence who perversely set out to rubbish scientific evidence of global warming - seriously alarming climate scientists in the process. But paramount in the arena of personal and cultural psychological defences, are negation and disavowal. Negation is that state of shock when we say - "It can't be true!" It is an unavoidable response, as when a loved one suddenly dies - or we awake from a false sense of security. It is painful but it doesn't necessarily last long before, if we feel safe enough, other emotions come in.

But most pervasive and entrenched in our contemporary culture is the form of denial called disavowal. This is when we see something but turn a blind eye and carry on as if we haven't. Engaging wants to help us to understand and so to loosen our investments in this culture of disavowal. Thus the authors discuss anxieties about loss. Part of the thesis is that if we cannot bear losses and fears of losses that palpably need to be borne, we maintain defensive and destructive states of denial.

Engaging is thus a breath of fresh (psychological) air. We are living in the midst of this most extraordinary situation: that there is no collective will to change our life-styles in accordance with the new realities. We, the species that prides itself on rising to every challenge, are ducking this one.

The psychoanalytic vision is holistic wanting all parts of the self, however shadowy, to be included in awareness. It sees us as creatures tending to be in conflict with ourselves, between conscious and unconscious needs, wants and desires, and with tendencies to split off what we don't want to know. Thus we need to hold open reflective spaces for connecting up both sides of ambivalent conflicts.

The authors offer a number of compassionate, stoical studies into contemporary cultural denials of our true dependency on Nature. They explore, for example, regressive childishness and omnipotency (John Keene), anxiety (Sally Weintrobe), perverse anti-social profit-seeking (Paul Hoggett), denialism in fundamentalist politics (Clive Hamilton) - indeed all our complex reactions to being caught in the unintended consequences of our success as a species.

We, the species that prides itself on rising to every challenge, are ducking this one

Weintrobe also writes about restoring split internal landscapes. We both want to love and care for Nature and also to be seduced by a false sense of entitlement to have it all. But when we acknowledge our ambivalent relationships to Nature we can believe the advertisers less and serve Nature more. Rosemary Randall gives an account of ecological debt, and how people in her Cambridge Carbon Conversations, once they had recognised their indebtedness to Nature, would reconnect. At first defensively angry and fearful, they open up to feelings of guilt, shame and sadness. These reparative feelings were for many the beginning of a redemptive journey to develop life styles less carbon heavy.

Renee Lertzman discusses apathy as a myth - it's not that we care too little, but that we care too much. Her compelling narrative is that apathy is a mask. On the one hand people remember with nostalgia the natural habitats when still unspoilt, and on the other ruefully appreciate the benefits in employment and living standards that industrialisation brings. Realising that nostalgia and benefits are part of one conflicted narrative, they became more able to mobilise reparative energies.

Denying natural limits and getting away with it boosts a fantasy of being all-powerful. Generating collusive dynamics with others to maintain implausible life-styles gives a nice warm cosy glow. This book will help activists and educators to confront such illusions empathically.

Paul Zeal is a psychotherapist and teacher in Somerset.

Engaging with Climate Change - Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Sally Weintrobe, Ed. 
London: Routledge, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-415-66762-3 (pbk). ISBN: 978-0-203-09440-2 (ebk).