Sandra White maps a route through denial and towards action on climate change.
Despite growing evidence of climate change, only a few years ago I regularly heard people deny that it was happening. Temperatures are getting colder not hotter was one common view. And if global warming was happening it’s all part of Earth’s natural cycles, was another.
Since then, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough have moved the matter onto the mainstream agenda, and the media regularly links extreme weather events with climate change. Most people accept it’s real and more and more people are getting engaged. The prevalent view today is that in industrialised countries denial is no longer the challenge it was. But change to address global warming remains stubbornly slow to emerge, leaving commentators to look for other valid and relevant explanations as Naomi Klein and Ed Milliband have recently done.
So is it actually the case that we’re beyond denial?
Denial is a necessary and valid unconscious, psychological defence.
The answer to this question needs to guide our strategies for engaging all sectors across the globe with the practical steps of mitigation and adaptation. If we are beyond denial, then the only considerations need to be technological, logistical, geopolitical, and financial. In truth, the picture is much more complicated.
Denial is a necessary and valid unconscious, psychological defence. It kicks in whenever we are confronted with a situation that demands of us capacities and resources that we don’t have. I understand it as the psychological equivalent of white corpuscles in the blood, which are the first line of defence at the site of a new wound and seem to provide a holding capacity, ensuring that the wound does not worsen during the time it takes for the necessary treatment to arrive. Even though it cannot always succeed, we can see how much this function is needed and that it is designed as a temporary measure.
In life-threatening situations, when one is overpowered, it can be essential to buy time. Buying time enables potential remedies, new resources or different strategies to enter the scene, or simply for the circumstance to shift. This is a useful way to think about what denial achieves for us and to recognise, even honour it as a faithful servant. It will hold itself in place until no longer required. Yet, while we are held in its grip, denial prevents us from engaging creatively and realistically with the actual threat. Despite its necessary and valid function, it is disabling. I focus therefore on how to enable the mechanisms of denial to relax rather than present ever-better information about climate change.
The ability to release the grip of denial is dependent on meeting a pair of intertwined conditions: a return to safety and the alleviation of shame. While the safety issue must be the primary concern, relieving shame is critical in moving towards it.
Shame arises when our sense of ourselves as valid, valuable, and valued is overwhelmingly threatened. . Effectively, it is the shadow of self-worth. When consciously or unconsciously identified with it, we believe we are invalid, valueless, and unvalued, and self-sabotage and self-destruction often result. In this context, denial makes more sense as our primary defence against intolerable shame.
Most of us need the protection denial affords because the realisation that our modern, ordinary needs and desires are proving so destructive is genuinely un-faceable.
What we most need to grasp is that our human capacity for shame is one of our most important signals that we are social creatures, innately wanting to be of value to the group as well as to ourselves. Our sense of value is inextricably bound to notions of contributing well to those around us, and shame arises when that sense is profoundly threatened.
Climate change presents the kind of overwhelming threat that triggers denial. Most of us need the protection denial affords because the realisation that our modern, ordinary needs and desires are proving so destructive is genuinely un-faceable. On top of that, our prevailing, neoliberal economic model is accelerating the dismantling of the fabric of life on Earth alongside our social fabric. But the few at the helm of the economy profit from that model, believe in it, and depend on it for their sense of self-worth. Consequently, denial disables them even more when they contemplate the kind of far-reaching economic transformation needed.
And when the rest of us grasp the scale of global cooperation required across disciplines, sectors and nations to address climate change, the threat intensifies and strengthens our denial in order to defend us from the shame of feeling helpless.
What does this mean for us today, given that we are a long way from manifesting conditions that generate safety and alleviate shame?
I propose that we prioritise relieving shame to generate psychological safety to move us towards physical safety. It relies on each of us taking on a lifelong practice of listening and relating authentically to each other. And it demands that, counter-intuitively, we consciously take on the task that denial is unconsciously performing, to try to release the need for it. It is a combination of psychological insight, philosophy, and strategy (see box: Upholding innocence).
The next question is how such propositions can contribute towards systemic change beyond individual relationships. The answer lies in understanding the critical link between denial and shame. That understanding can help us to create a culture that builds the kind of psychological capacity needed to tackle the three main, interconnected risks that denial creates by distorting our behaviour, while it performs its essential task (see box: The three risks of denial).
These psychological considerations emphasise how much we need to move away from our competitive and materialistic assumptions about what creates a good life and towards collective psychological and material safety.
The 21st-century pandemic, financial crash and intensifying climate breakdown all show us that none of us is actually safe if only a few of us are safe. Living in service to the safety and thriving of human societies as much as our own individual lives, within the safety and thriving of all life on Earth, is the route to, and the outcome of, building our psychological capacity.
We all have a part to play. Understanding denial’s key role and its associated risks is, I think, an important ingredient in developing the kind of sophisticated psychological literacy we need.
And as more and more of us navigate the route to improving the future quality of life better, it may turn out that honouring our nature as social creatures and, thereby, taking more care not to generate conditions for shame, becomes our North star.