Why are so many people determined to deny that we are facing some daunting problems? I can understand that scientists interpret data differently, and don’t expect that scientific opinions will all agree. The denial I see, however, is mostly not coming from scientists.
Ignorance, lack of education, and misinformation are serious problems. One cause appears to be that some people haven’t the education to understand what they are being told when it comes to climate change, for example, or “peak oil” (the effects of oil supplies declining), or the population explosion. Without sufficient education it is easy for them to accept what they hear without question, and many fall prey to charismatic media pundits who have no incentive to provide good information. People aren’t simple, though. There are a lot of very smart people caught up in the debate around our current and future problems, which include global climate change (global warming).
Information overload and over-politicization of the issues are serious problems. Another cause of denial is that the topic of global warming may be so over-politicized at this point as to be simply confusing to many of us. Once the relative positions on the topic become attached to larger and broader political movements, the discussion becomes hamstrung by the political and emotional associations. The bigger problems of overpopulation and over-use of energy, and of the increasing cost of the limited fossil fuel supplies we have become so dependent on, are much simpler and clearer, but “global warming” has been given a much bigger place in the public consciousness as an effect of its politicization. As we face the need to deal with these global problems, we need to understand the specific motivations behind why many will deny those problems are real and impede the development and implementation of the solutions we will need. Many people and powerful organizations (especially large energy corporations) have an economic or political incentive to deny our problems. It has long been known and documented that some of the most outspoken deniers of global warming, for instance, are now or in the past have derived at least part of their livelihood from the big energy companies (link). This category includes too many of our government representatives, unfortunately (link). This does not obscure the fact that some proponents of global warming also have financial and professional incentives, including scientists who depend on grant funding which might be easier to get if it addresses an area that is getting a lot of media attention. People in this position have a reduced incentive to tell the truth or present other people or issues in a fair and honest manner. Corporate funding and influence tend to amplify the incentives, however, and can cause huge amounts of misinformation (and sometimes slander) to be injected into the public consciousness, warping the public perception and understanding, and harming individuals and groups as well as impeding the solutions we need. A quick read through the streams of comments on certain blogs shows plenty of attacks on environmentalists, Al Gore (producer of “An Inconvenient Truth”), and anything and anyone else who is a proponent of global warming.
The five stages of grieving are inevitable in the face of great loss. An additional factor that supports denial and other unhelpful opinions and behaviors is the simple, human process of grief. Certainly a decline in our standard of living would be a great loss, and we will react emotionally to even the thought of that. We can’t afford to get hung up in the grieving process to the point that we just deny what is happening and don’t act, however.
Denial is the first stage of grieving. There is already a great deal of denial of our problems in the world, and most of it is based on relatively petty concerns compared with our global-scale problems. Some people put enormous energy into denial, and are quite possibly hung up there, and need some help to get past it. Others are being paid by selfish personal and corporate interests to maintain this position.
Anger is the second stage of grieving. There is also plenty of anger which is easily directed at those we might see as being the cause of particular problems. A bit of “shoot the messenger” can be expected as well. In reality the entirety of humanity is at fault and nobody is to blame, as we have only followed our human nature.
Bargaining is the third stage of grieving. Many people (and even nations) are bargaining, another stage of grief, trying to find a way out of our predicaments in some easy way, but not in ways that address our problems directly.
Depression is the fourth stage of grieving. It is also the case that many are depressed, another stage of grief that is quite understandable. If some of us have given up, don’t think we can avoid calamities, and are withdrawing from hearing or following the news or being involved in local or world affairs that does none of us good, however. It does concern me that one response to depression might be to just carry on, or even be more wasteful and destructive to the environment, expecting that it wouldn’t matter in the face of an unstoppable calamity. The problems facing us are not impossible, fortunately, though they will undoubtedly require a concentrated effort and a lot of sacrifice on the part of everyone.
The fifth stage of grieving is acceptance, and we all need to progress to this stage as soon as possible. What we need is the fifth stage of grieving: acceptance, as that will allow us to look directly at what we know, work creatively to take control of the situation, and do the best we can to reduce the probability and severity of the negative consequences of our actions. Acceptance can free us to learn and work hard, and waste less energy on our emotions and the prior, counterproductive stages of grief.
Grieving may be unavoidable, but it must not be allowed to hold back progress towards a sustainable future. Collective action will be needed to address our problems. We each need to take the responsibility to learn and do what we can to create a better future for ourselves and our descendants, and to communicate with others (especially government and corporate representatives) about the importance of planning and acting for the long term.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim