CPA Newsletter October 2016 - The Power of Wilful Ignorance Cannot be Overstated

This incisive claim was made in a short e-talk about industrial farming.

Kate Cooper outlines a collusion between producers, those who market the produce as wholesome and the consumers who are willing to swallow both the message and the meat. The psychology of wilful ignorance is pretty simple; it enables us to go on doing what we want to do and/or what someone is telling us to do without thinking much or at all about what’s involved. At least the result is simple, though the mechanism appears both deliberate and unconscious.

The film was forwarded to the CPA members’ google group by Sarah Deco, in a thread started by Paul Hoggett, titled “The Psychology of the Anthropocene”. Prompted by the news that the International Geological Congress may formally adopt the idea of the Anthropocene, Paul considers the environmentally toxic products of this era, then asks what the psychic by-products might be. Boldly casting us in CPA as the forensic psychologists of the Anthropocene, he considers what emotional and psychological symptoms are manifesting. There are many he says, but he returns to the one which gave rise to CPA in the first place, denial.

The controversy around use of this term “denial” is unresolved and perhaps unresolvable. In the culture-climate war, words are weapons. CPA’s position has surely to be unequivocal in the face of, for instance, continued perverse use of the term “scepticism” to lend respectability to denial of scientific knowledge. There are no doubt genuine as well as cynical and ignorant objections to use of the term "denial" in the climate change context, on the grounds of its association with the Nazi holocaust. But that very association is one of Paul’s points. The same mechanism is in play; ignorance is a chosen stratagem in the face of disturbing realities. The absence of a clear enemy alters the ethical dimensions of the problem, but does not diminish the billions of lives at stake or the inter-generational, racial, power and wealth issues involved.

George Marshall made the same connection in 2007 - a precursor of his theme of socially constructed silence. People pretended not to have heard the knock on the neighbours’ door when the Gestapo came to take them away. Life-destroying floods, tempests and droughts are “natural” events, hence a super-wicked problem rather than wickedness, but the absence of the questions: “what have we done to contribute to this?” and “how can we stop it?” is identical.

Paul concludes that we’ve hardly started to understand denial, at the individual or cultural level. Forecasts of its demise were certainly over-optimistic. On the international political scene, leadership change in Canada and Australia last year looked like progress, but the denialist Hydra re-appears in the form of Nicholas Sarkosy and Donald Trump. The latter’s energy policies would be a catastrophic setback to the USA’s, and the world’s, tentative de-carbonisation. Hilary Clinton, widely regarded amongst progressives as the lesser evil, herself hardly inspires confidence on this score, given that her campaign receives more fossil fuel funding than Trump’s and that her speech references to climate change have dropped sharply since she secured Bernie Sanders’ support for her campaign. There may be tactical explanations and she did briefly allude to the subject in the first TV debate, but hers still looks like classic case of disavowal – neither denying nor allowing the facts to genuinely inform her outlook. At least she doesn’t qualify for Bruce Springsteen’s description of Trump as a moron, a person offering trite answers to complex questions and a tragedy for American democracy. But isn’t it a tragedy too if the choice has to be between denialism and disavowal? The resilience of the denial Hydra in its various forms and in the face of all the facts confirms that cultural conditions continue to favour it.

In the UK, re-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has made clear moves in the direction of renewables and a serious climate policy including a commitment to ban fracking but what remains elusive in our culture is a combination of electability and climate conviction. George Monbiot summarises recent data confirming that the Paris agreement is inconsistent with opening up any new fossil fuel reserves. He comments memorably that “Our energy policies are reliant on vapourware”.

Malignant Narcissism

In the CPA thread mentioned above, the first pictures of Earth from space were recalled. The “blue marble” image was seen as a potentially transformative moment in history. Is it true to say that it marked the beginning of awareness of the Anthropocene, or is it destined to be experienced as “a collective selfie”? Chris Robertson replied thus to Sarah’s question: “That sums up how the potential of a transformational image can get stolen or misused by narcissistic social pressures - what is often called malignant narcissism. The dissociation, sense of entitlement, lack of accountability or responsibility, and sadism are all psycho-social toxins that feed malignant narcissism.”

If CPA is conducting the forensic psychology of the Anthropocene, does that itself have transformative potential? In a world of post-truth politics, where lies go unpunished so long as they tune in to enough people’s wishes and fears, you have to wonder which way things are tipping. The culture war is complex, but the battle lines are largely shaped by the opposing forces of narcissism and informed care.

Events and Activities

8th-16th October 2016 The Climate Coalition [of which CPA is a member] is holding week of action. It features a campaign to convey to our MP’s the depth of climate concern across the country. This matters – the more people who let their MPs know much this issue means to them, the more seriously they are likely to take it themselves and the less likely they are to act as if no-one really wants to know.

19th November 2016 CPA’s leadership event, London. We were very sorry to lose Caroline Lucas from our line-up of speakers, following her election as co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales in September. We are however delighted to announce that her predecessor Natalie Bennet has stepped in. We also have Phil Davison, sustainability lead for The Royal College of Psychiatrists. CPA tends to focus on engagement as a key ingredient of mitigation, but leadership in addressing the mental health impacts of present and unavoidable climate change has growing importance.

9th -10th December Medact Forum 2016:Healthy Planet, Better World. Sally Weintrobe - psychoanalyst, writer and editor of Engaging with Climate Change - is one of the speakers at a parallel session on Friday afternoon on Climate Change, Human Psychology and Mental Health. Judith Anderson from the CPA executive, has been a longstanding member of Medact and is chairing this session

Articles by CPA colleagues

We have two new articles from CPA colleagues Nadine Andrews and Susan Bodnar. Nadine has joined the Technical Support Unit of IPCC and has asked us to draw up recommendations to help address the absence of a thought-through psycho-social perspective in its assessment reporting. A CPA team to carry this out is forming. So we can begin to see the prospect of climate psychology gaining some real leverage at the level of international policy-making.

Susan has written a fascinating and thought-provoking article titled “David Lowenthal and Climate Change Denial”. It contains fresh and illuminating thought on internalised landscapes from the past and how these can function in the mind with sufficient power to eclipse perceptions of what is happening out there in present time. The article is likely to be a very rewarding read for anyone who is interested in the application of depth psychology to the problem of human engagement with climate change.

Further News Items and Articles

To keep this letter within bounds, here is a summary of further items that may be of interest:

From Carol Ride in Melbourne - Michael Hoexter on “Soft Denial” aka disavowal, includes “Fossil Fuels and the Hedonic Self”, aka narcissism.

Bill McKibben – A World at War

BBC News – Life in the Native American Protest Camps

Adam Vaughan on the speed of wilderness destruction

Our Children’s Trust – Eugene Oregon, Judge Ann Aiken has 60 days from 13th September to decide if the case will move to trial

While the UK government upholds the threadbare case for Hinkley C nuclear plant, tidal power which could supply 18% of Great Britain’s power receives a boost in Scotland

Is the UK government really concerned to make Paris work after all? Big spending on negative emissions technology – let’s hope Monbiot is wrong about vapourwear.

An update on climate maths and a reminder of how wide the science-policy disconnect is.

Finally, however bad it looks, the argument that catastrophism is as bad as denial.

Adrian Tait

On behalf of the Executive Comittee

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We are a diverse community of therapeutic practitioners, thinkers, researchers, artists and others. We believe that attending to the psychology and emotions of the climate and ecological crisis is at the heart of our work.


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