This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to improve your experience...

Book reviews - reviews of selected recent publications in our field of interest

manns madhouseBy Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles

Review by Adrian Tait

This is a good read and the Mann-Toles partnership works well.

The text - clear and uncomplicated, is further leavened by the ironic humour of Toles’s cartoons. The mechanics of the madhouse in question are clearly explained , at least at an eco-political level. We are not told so explicitly the why, who and wherefore of ‘driving us crazy’, but the pain and stress arising from years of denialist attacks on Michael Mann himself is easy to infer. Anyone reading the title of this book who has also watched Di Caprio’s Before the Flood is likely to recall the scene in which Mann is brandishing a large drink and Di Caprio comments sympathetically that, if he’d had to take as much crap as Mann has, he too would be drowning his sorrows.


Here perhaps is the book’s hidden message to our hearts: climate scientists have to pay a price, explored by Hoggett and Randall, for holding the knowledge they do in a world that does not respond as it should. And those who speak out strongly are liable to pay a still heavier price. The cartoons, as well as oiling the wheels of communication, are part of a counter-attack against the denial industry. The narrative – on both the science and the denial game - is reasoned and well substantiated, but between every line we necessarily find ourselves at the interface of reason and passion. This is important reading for climate psychologists. The observable validity of the madhouse effect is enhanced rather than diminished by the passion. The word ‘despicable’ to describe oil-soaked politics is not used once, but is present throughout.

In one sense at least, some psychological thought went into the book. In the preface the authors state that climate communication is not succeeding….”at least not quickly enough to avert catastrophe.” They describe their joint project as an effort to engage both left- and right- brains, or head and heart.

There were two moments of particular pain for this reader. The first came at the instant of opening the book. I had bought it with enthusiasm, settled down expecting the lively read that was indeed in prospect, but was overwhelmed by a feeling of futility before I’d read a single line. My sense of the reason for this was reinforced in the first chapter. In the familiar context of a war on science and the ‘doubt is our product’ strategy comes the comment: “If you’re a fervent climate change denier, there is a good chance you aren’t reading this book anyway…” This is followed up by the equally familiar observation that echo chambers exclude information which would challenge the underlying beliefs and ideology of their inhabitants.

The second stab of pain came from the later pages of this 2016 book. So much of the hope in it for an escape from the madhouse is pinned on a redoubling of the Obama administration’s efforts to put the USA on course towards serious climate action. Like the Di Caprio film, the book is unequivocal about the importance of last November’s election and urged Americans not to elect a denialist president.

Despite that lost hostage to fortune, the unique qualities in The Madhouse Effect should earn it an honoured place amongst the literature on climate denial. It achieves the difficult combination of handling such a challenging subject seriously, but with a lightness of touch. Again, this is the result of a good working partnership. Chapters on the nature of science, climate change and geoengineering are seasoned with socio-political comment and interspersed with sections on the ethical and, in a limited way, the psychological dimensions of the subject. But whilst the book does a good job of encouraging the general reader to think about the interplay of factors in denial, anyone looking for a depth psychology perspective will be disappointed. Chapter 4: ‘The Stages of Denial’ is not as one might imagine a venture into the challenges which the subject poses for the individual, but a reiteration of denialist options, akin to a series of trenches from which a refusal to engage can be defended and moved between under pressure. The more people who are introduced to this piece of the picture the better, but the analysis is political and cognitive and any doors into questions of internal conflict, sacrifice, greed or destructiveness remain firmly closed.

Despite the adverse political tide, there is one important source of hope which unites Mann and Toles with many others. This is the pace of transition to renewable energy and other ‘clean’ technologies. Many pundits have agreed that the combination of technological development and market forces will defeat efforts by vested interests to halt the decline in fossil fuel use. This transition is a necessary condition for any chance of containing the climate emergency. It may also be essential as a hopeful narrative to help sustain the climate movement. But as Kevin Anderson and others have repeatedly explained, technology alone cannot get us out of the mess we’re in, given cumulative emissions. The Madhouse Effect covers important parts of the picture. After politics and technology comes the third dimension, psychology. The task of connecting that dimension with the others and of doing so with sufficient depth continues.