A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability
Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2014|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
The Many Faces of Denial
Originally published in
Approaching the Limits to Growth, 14 November 2013
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Denial wears many faces. Whether it's
average people who are too busy with their lives to take
on board the more extreme reports of environmental
degradation; bloggers and politicians who believe that
it's all a hoax cooked up by evil scientists to get grant
money for bogus studies; or, perhaps surprisingly, the
green activists who believe that more political or
technological change will improve or even fix the
situation - these are common techniques we use to avoid
confronting the horror of global collapse face-to-face. |
We are all familiar with the face of climate change
denial. The Koch brothers, James Inhofe, Anthony Watts and
a host of bloggers and politicians work tirelessly to
derail any efforts to address humanity's greatest
existential crisis since the Toba
super-volcano 75,000 years ago. They are a resilient
species, their fact-resistance bolstered by inoculations
of status and cash.
But this form of denial is easy to spot. There is a more
subtle form, one that is endemic among the white hats of
the green movement. They are the ones who tirelessly work
from the moral high ground - to change policies, to
develop and promote green technology, to encourage
sustainability. They resolutely refuse to countenance any
thoughts of our predicament being inextricable. Tireless
work, even in a lost cause, tends to keep one insulated
from the deeper, darker realizations, and lets one keep
fighting the good fight. Heroism has always been an
intrinsic part of our story: "Quitters never win and
winners never quit!"
Is it unfair to characterize (at least some) green
activists as being (at least somewhat) in denial?
Possibly. But it's true far more often than you might
I have no idea if we're facing "the end of the world",
whatever that hackneyed phrase might mean. However the big
picture that most green activists, including the
Transition folks and most Permaculturists I've met, fail
to take on board includes some very simple, very stark
facts: the entire planetary biosphere is collapsing,
including the oceans, rivers, lakes and land; we are going
to break the 2C degree "safe" threshold (which was never
safe to begin with) within a couple of decades even with
our best efforts (which we're not giving); we will break
4C and possibly 6C with BAU; the agricultural systems of
the world are destabilizing before our eyes due to extreme
weather; methane feedbacks may have already begun; the
world's populations of human beings and their food animals
are exploding while the world's population of wild
creatures is imploding; the bees and bats are
dying; starfish are melting; sea turtles are dying on the
beaches; the Eastern Cougar, the Western Black Rhino, the
Japanese River Otter and the Formosan Clouded Leopard have
all been declared extinct in the last year.
It looks a whole lot like the global life-support system
is coming apart at the seams, and we are doing what we've
always done: precisely nothing.
This is not a situation that Transition Initiatives or
Permaculture or Appropriate Technology can ameliorate,
because it looks to me like we're headed for world-wide
economic breakdown, social breakdown, dieoff - and
eventually human extinction. How eventually is still an
estimate, but a safe bet is sooner rather than later.
This is what I mean by inevitable, no exit. Not boom we
all fall down. Not with a bang, but with a series of low,
pitiful, drawn out whimpers from every living/dying
organism on the planet. Anyone who can say, in the face of
this evidence, that all of us have a moral responsibility
to "work tirelessly to make things better" is the victim
of a blindness so deep that it can only come right up from
Now, those activists who do get it, and prefer to do this
sort of work because it's what humans do, well they have
my complete empathy. So do those who simply say, "You
know, I think I'll just take a walk and look at the sky."
But the moment the word "sustainability" crosses someone's
lips, it's like they lit up a a big neon sign that says,
"I'm blind. Please follow me!"
I've been asked why I am so deeply pessimistic and hostile
towards the systems of civilization. Call it the
anger of trust betrayed.
Growing up, I was taught that the world worked in a
particular way: that governments were of the people, for
the people; that humans were conscious, rational
creatures; that policy was guided by sound science; that
human beings learned from their mistakes; that the future
would be better than the past.
Now in my 60's I discover that absolutely none of
it is true. Governments are of the rich, for the rich;
human beings are largely unconscious and most of our
decisions spring from emotion rather than reason; policy
is guided by greed for wealth and lust for power; most
people want today to be about the same as yesterday,
mistakes and all; and the future looks not just dim but
And I'm supposed to keep sucking on the hopium pipe so I
don't make the sleepwalkers feel uncomfortable? I don't
think so. I do leave a small space for a miracle in
my Flowchart of Doom, but that's the only concession to
the dreamtime with which I'm currently comfortable.
The few people who were awake to the knowledge of decline
did what they could. Their efforts speak for themselves,
and I doubt they will feel trivialized by my outrage. But
damn few environmentalists connected the dots to see where
the curve was really heading, and virtually everyone
has operated from the horrifyingly mistaken premise that
human nature is based on rational thought.
I've been accused of falling into the doomer trap of
believing the failed predictions of men like Paul Ehrlich.
Let's talk about failed predictions. I distinctly remember
being promised flying cars and electricity too cheap to
meter. Instead we got Macondo
When Ehrlich wrote his famous, and famously reviled, book
Population Bomb just before Limits
to Growth was published, the world population was
about 3.5 billion. Today it's double that and growing by
75 million a year. We have managed to materialize one of
Norman Borlaug's worst nightmares:
"Most people still fail to comprehend the
magnitude and menace of the 'Population Monster' ...
If it continues to increase at the estimated present
rate of two percent a year, the world population will
reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with
each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2
additional people are added to the world population.
The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3,
and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and
2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic
and preoccupied about this impending doom. The
tick-tock of the clock will continually grow louder
and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?"
And how did Dr. Borlaug's 30-year prediction hold up?
Well, by 2000 we were at 6.1 billion people (about 6%
short of his estimate) and we were increasing by 2.5
people a second. I don't think we can count that as any
kind of a victory over the evil Dr. Ehrlich.
~ from Norman Borlaug's Nobel Prize lecture, 1970
I usually do my best to stay "doomy but not gloomy".
I can generally maintain a semblance of emotional
equilibrium by taking refuge in the non-attachment of
Buddhist and Advaita teachings. Despite my clear
recognition of the predicament, that approach can can
cause equal consternation among the denialistas of the
engaged environmental movement. At other times the news
all gets to be too much, and I get f'ing pissed off. This
seems to be one of those times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Chefurka is a Computer Scientist with a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has spent over twenty years working in Research and Development in the Ottawa telecommunications industry, and is currently Project Manager at Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His personal web site, Approaching the Limits to Growth provides open access to his writings and is a valuable resource for study and reflection on many dimensions of the impending ecological crisis.
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