The Denial Syndrome

new internationalist
issue 206 - April 1990

[image, unknown] 7. Love your neighbour
The spectre of greenhouse warming will affect the entire global family: the atmosphere does not recognize the boundaries of nation states. So attempts to deal seriously with the problem will require co-operation on a global scale. Bridges must be built between nations in the search for common solutions to common problems.

[image, unknown]
Illustration: Jackie Morris
The denial syndrome
Faced with monumental change, we all tend to convince ourselves
that our lives will continue unscathed. But in the case of global warming
that very basic human trait - the psychology of denial - may
bring about our downfall. Anuradha Vittachi explains.

Once upon a time there was a frog which was dropped into water so hot that it leaped out, shocked - and saved itself. Later it was dropped into tepid water, which it found very pleasant. Then the water began to warm up, but only imperceptibly, so the frog remained lulled and relaxed, becoming more and more warm and sleepy ... until it was too late to escape, and it was boiled to death.

I was told this story three times in a single day by a Norwegian activist, a US politician and a Soviet scientist, at the massive Global Forum conference in Moscow earlier this year. Each of them stressed their anxiety that human beings were still swimming around relaxedly instead of taking urgent action to save the planet from the effects of global warming. And it does seem that public interest has been waning since the initial shock of awareness in the summer of 1988. Yet unless we spur ourselves into action soon, it may be too late to act at all; we will drowse, like the frog, to a dismal death.

Why are we so inert? At the Moscow conference, denial was offered as the chief explanation. Denial is the psychological process by which a painful truth is pushed out of an individual's consciousness. We use denial as a defence mechanism, to protect ourselves from the force of a truth we imagine will be too shattering for us to cope with. When someone we love dies suddenly, for example, for many months we may keep expecting them to come home as usual. We 'deny' their death, because we can't cope with the loss.

And that may be what is happening in our response to global warming. Certain high-consuming humans (like ourselves in the West) have been putting huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And now the terrible consequences of this behaviour are beginning to show, we suspect the imminent loss of our high-consumption way of life. Rather than acknowledging that loss and beginning to come to terms with it, we choose to deny the reality of the greenhouse effect.

Humans are chronically attached to the past. We don't like separation from what's familiar: it makes us feel deeply insecure. It always has done, from the moment of birth when we had to leave the womb, or the time of weaning when we had to leave the breast. Courage and psychological strength are needed to face an unknown future - especially when the future seems to be governed by forces beyond our control. But also we don't want to change our pattern of living because we high-consumers have been having a pretty good time. We like our 'modern' high-tech lifestyles, full of gadgets and glitter.

This is where denial comes into its own as a way out. It's a lot easier than thinking up a series of individual excuses - just deny the whole problem exists. Perhaps it won't happen, this greenhouse effect. There isn't any really hard evidence yet, is there? ('The water's just pleasantly warm,' said the frog, dreamily.)

Some scientists and politicians are experts in denial. A few centuries ago they knew the earth was flat. In the 1 970s they knew that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were harmless. And now some scientists know greenhouse warming is not a problem. Kenneth Watt, professor of environmental studies at the University of California, calls the greenhouse effect 'the laugh of the century'. Is Professor Watt right? Or is he denying a truth he finds uncomfortable?

But let's be charitable to those who deny. Denial isn't always bad. A woman who cleans the house all day to make it inviting for her devoted husband may one day discover a letter revealing a rapturous affair. She may stop cleaning, call a lawyer, throw her husband out and get a job - or she may go on polishing the furniture with redoubled vigour telling herself she misread the letter. But the period of denial may be an important shock absorber: while superficially she denies and polishes, she may be gathering strength to make her break and go back out into the world. Perhaps we too, as a society, are going through a period of shocked denial while we adjust. After all, the psychological changes we are being asked to make are sudden and profound.

We are being asked, for example, to dethrone the god of growth after centuries of apparent industrial success. We are being asked to believe that the Cold War is over and that national sovereignty is no longer the highest good, despite centuries of personal sacrifice in nationalistic wars; to hold 'earth patriotism' as more valuable than nationalism; to see 'the enemy' not as Soviets (or Americans) out there but to reconstruct it mentally as our own inner fear and greed.

And we are being asked to see nature not as a form of life secondary to humans, submitting willingly to our domination and exploitation, but as a complex, wondrous, universal system, of which we are just one small, integral part - and a rather disreputable part at that. These are just a few of the fundamental changes of perception being thrown at us, and during a very short space of time. After all, it isn't long ago that Ronald Reagan was saying: 'A tree is a tree. How many more do you want to look at? If you've seen one, you've seen them all.'

No wonder we are finding it so hard to adjust. But my sympathy for us shell-shocked consumers starts to fade when one particularly nasty form of denial rears its ugly head, and that's the displacement of our responsibility for the damage we've caused onto those who are not in a position to argue back. Ronald Reagan, for example, apparently claimed that 'trees cause pollution'. How's that for blaming the victim? Fortunately, not many people took Mr Reagan's views seriously. Far more worrying is the veiled victim-blaming indulged in by influential environmental experts who ought to know better. They seem to be reactivating the 1960s population-bomb bogey, blaming future greenhouse disasters on consumption caused by population growth among the poor, instead of consumerism-led consumption in the West.

But an average Briton uses 50 times as much electricity as an average Indian. So even if the population in poor countries doubled to eight billion people by the year 2030 and the rich countries' population remained static at one billion people, the rich would still be doing far more environmental damage through consumption than the poor.

And even if, by some political and economic miracle, every one of the poor eight billion people were allowed to earn and consume twice as much as they do now, the small numbers of the rich would still be consuming the lion's share. Added to this is the fact that several Western European countries are actively encouraging population growth (at least of white babies, though not of black) in their own high-consuming nations. Clearly, it is not consumption per se that worries the West but who gets to go on doing it.

A little serious energy-saving by the rich would make far more difference than any heartbreaking, subliminally racist manipulation of the poor. But this kind of practical information is not always welcomed by First Worlders (whichever country they were born in: being a member of the First World depends on your state of mind and your bank balance, not on geography). This is because it forces them into changing their own ways of behaving.

When, for example, an Indian delegate at the Moscow conference pointed out that some of the panelists' sentimental whimsies (like: 'We should see the birds and animals as delegates here') might not be as useful as vegetarianism, he was clearly regarded as a crank rather than as a man with a simple, practical suggestion. He was urged from the platform to let individual freedom rule: people should have the right to change their diets only when and if they wanted to, Fine. Just as mothers and fathers should have their individual freedom to have children when they choose - and not according to the panelists' preferred population figures.

To sum up, there are two main threats at present to the stability of the global temperature: massive damage caused by the rich world's consumption levels, and some damage caused by the poor. Both of these threats could be mitigated straightforwardly by a willingness in rich consumers to stop denying or displacing the problem. The outcome would be not only a safer planet but also a cleaner, greener, fairer life for everyone, rich and poor alike.

Anuradha Vittachi is a former NI editor and author of Earth Conference One, a book about global survival.


Ideas for Action
[image, unknown]

Climate Action Network
Annie Roncerel, Université Catholique de Louvain,
Institut d'Astronomie et de Géophysique,
Chemin de Cyclotron 2, B-1348 Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium.
Tel (10) 473339;

North America:
Kai Millyard, c/o FOE, 251 Laurier W,
Ottawa, Ontario Ki1P 5J6.
Tel. (613) 230-3352.

Global Greenhouse Network,
c/o Jeremy Rifkin, 1130 17th St NW,
Ste 630, Washington DC 20036.
Tel. (202) 466-2823.


Climate for Change
Molly Melhuish,
42 Waitohu Rd. York Bay, Eastbourne,
Tel (04) 684 873;

Jeanette Fitzsimons,
Dept of Planning, Auckland University,
Tel (09) 737-999 ext 8594;

John Poet,
Dept of Chemical and Process Engineering,
Canterbury University,
Tel (03) 867-001.


Australian Conservation Society,
340 Gore St, Fitzroy, Victoria.
Tel (03) 416-1455.

The Wilderness Society (NSW)
57 Liverpool St, Sydney, NSW.
Tel (02) 267-7929

Friends of the Earth,
56 Foster St, Surrey Hills, NSW.
Tel. (02) 211-3953.


587 Bloor Street W., Toronto,
Ontario M6G 1K1.
Tel. (416) 538-6470.

Friends of the Earth,
251 Laurier Ave W., Ste 701,
Ottowa, Ontario K1P 5J6.
Tel. (613) 230-3352.
Fax (613) 232-4354.

Atmospheric Environment Service,
Canadian Climate Centre, 4905


Friends of the Earth,
28-28 Underwood St, London N1 7JQ.
Tel (01) 490-1555.
FAX (01) 490-0881.

30-31 lslington Green,
London N1 8XE.
Tel (01) 354-5100.


Environmental Defence Fund,
257 Park Ave 5,
New York, NY 10010.
Tel (212) 505-2100.

Climate Institute,
316 Pennsylvania Ave SE,
Ste 403, Washington, DC 20003.
Tel (202) 547-0104.

Environment Action,
1525 New Hampshire Ave NW,
Washington, DC 20036.
Tel (202) 745-4870.

World Resources Institute,
1735 New York Ave NW,
Washington, DC 20006.
Tel (202) 638-6300.

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