Disrupting the ecosystem of denial and building a culture of responsibility – Part 1

April 22, 2012

How can climate science denial continue to exist, in the face of so much evidence?  To get to the answer, I think we have to ask a different question:  How can the rest of us – the majority who accept the reality of climate science – continue to act as though we don’t believe it?

We’re all climate deniers now.  We’re functioning (kinda) in an elaborate ecosystem of denial, playing roles that keep the whole freak show working.   (The Discovery Channel’s Frozen Planet series  – which lavishly documents polar thawing while avoiding any discussion of the causes of climate change – is a conspicuous example.)

Since Jim Hansen’s landmark testimony to Congress on climate change in 1988, we have all had to adapt to life in the enormous chasm between what is physically and morally necessary to address the climate crisis and what we are in fact doing.  The dissonance between the conclusions of climate scientists and the scale of our response is intolerable, so something has to give.

For most people, what gives is engagement.  They just avoid the subject.  For those of us who work on climate and don’t have the option to disengage, managing the dissonance sometimes feels like walking a tightrope, with despair on one side and insanity on the other.

Every day, hundreds of things happen around us that would not be happening if we were remotely serious about preventing catastrophic climate change.  Every day, each of us does things that rational people would not be doing if they fully accepted the moral challenge that climate disruption presents.   And all those things become part of the cognitive infrastructure of our own denial and everyone else’s.

The scariest thing about the ecosystem of denial is how it reinforces itself — how each act of denial makes every other act of denial more likely and inescapable, in a vicious circle.  But the converse is also true.  Every act of responsibility helps reverse the circle, making every other responsible act more plausible.

So with this post begins a new feature of GRIP in which we’ll focus on reversing the toxic cycle of denial and inaction, replacing it with a healthy cycle of responsibility and action.

I will shine an unforgiving (but not humorless!) light on our complicity in denial.  The ecosystem of denial functions best in darkness, so relentless daylight can wither it.  (We’ll have fun with this, I promise.  Because denial isn’t just scary, it’s a hoot!  And we all do it, so we’ll be laughing with, not at each other.)

But documenting our role in denial is less than half the battle.  Denial has necessary functions that cannot be eliminated:  It is a psychological bridge, spanning the abyss between the dimensions of the climate crisis and the dimensions of our demonstrated willingness to deal with it.  So the ecosystem of denial cannot simply be named and removed;  nobody wants to dive into that abyss.

The ecosystem of denial must be replaced by something better – a culture of responsibility.    More on that in Part 2.


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