On Climate Change Denial

Most of us are in disavowal about the seriousness of climate change. It faces us with responsibility for carbon we emit and with helplessness that governments are not acting vigorously to reduce emissions and move to renewables, writes Sally Weintrobe in the IPA Blog.

In this blog post I explore our disavowal through two of Trevor Paglen's large painterly photographs(i). In the first one, there is a mark so small that it looks like a speck of dust. In fact, it's a military drone on a kill mission. We only see the drone by looking very closely indeed.

Paglen has said of his work: "The idea is to create images that help us see the historical moment that we live in... (in ways that are deeply unfamiliar)"(ii).

He engages our feelings of shock about the violence of drones not by showing the violence, but by showing it as so tiny we do not notice it. We only see the violence when we shake ourselves out of familiar ways of seeing. 

I suggest this photo works as a metaphor, helping us understand what's involved with the psychological mechanism of disavowal. Disavowal involves finding ways to 'rid ourselves' of disturbing feelings that threaten to loom large when we face unpleasant or morally threatening realities. A common way disavowal works is to make what disturbs us seem tiny and insignificant. This is omnipotent thinking. One does not get rid of a problem with the quick fix of 'resizing' it from large to small. The only leads to the problem growing in reality because it is not addressed.

Most of us are in deep disavowal about the violence, suffering and increasing social unrest a carbon-based neoliberal global economy entails. It is tipping Earth's life systems into instability. My current work(iii) is on the way neoliberal culture heavily promotes the disavowal. It encourages us to see a photo like this next one (not by Paglen) as a glorious summer holiday. We need the inner resilience to resist our culture, to see that dead bodies are a part of this picture.  

The pain of stepping out of disavowal includes the pain of feeling abandoned and uncared for by governments who do not appear to see the consequences for real people in their idealised view of carbon-based economic expansion. It also includes the anxiety of knowing that the leaders currently in power are in such a state of disavowal themselves, they do not care if they and their families live or die (they live on planet Earth too).

To resist the siren-like cultural pull to disavowal is to shake ourselves out of emotionally comfortable but fake views; to allow ourselves to see the true scale of violence and suffering that lies behind an economy based on fossil fuels. Also, to see the true scale of uncare in a mindset that puts profit and unsustainable expansion ahead of life itself; that does not own this position as it has airbrushed the bodies out of the picture. 

Climate change is bringing a growing number of refugees seeking food and shelter and fleeing wars exacerbated by conflict over resources(iv). Many people look horrified if one says the war in Syria was in part caused by drought brought about by climate change. They reject this outright, whereas it is now a well-researched conclusion(v). When we admit climate change leads to refugees, the refugee story is no longer a story we tell about other people. It is our story and involves us all. To admit that brings emotional discomfort of a high order.

'Noah's Arkism', is now gaining traction, the idea that 'we', the special entitled ones, will be able to protect ourselves as resources get scarcer, by keeping others, including refugees, out. 'Noah's Arkism' tends to go with demonising the 'pushed out' ones as no good, feckless, wanting to invade us, and so on. 'Noah's Arkism' also involves pushing out and abandoning the part of ourselves that cares and knows we need to lessen our expectations and live within the limits of planet Earth. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is a vital part of addressing the refugee problem. 

We are incredulous when Donald Trump says: "I will build a wall". But we too build inner imaginary walls to keep out our pain at knowing our 'carefree' consumer lifestyles entail violence and suffering. We use inner surveillance to spot any felt pain, so we can quickly insulate ourselves from it with fresh applications of disavowal. 

I suggest the second of Paglen's photographs provides a metaphor for this inner surveillance and that it operates beneath our conscious awareness.

We see a holiday at the beach. What is hidden from view is the American NSA (National Security Agency) spy station that is here monitoring the world's messages as they are carried along fibre optic cables to and fro under the sea.

Disavowal works by constantly surveying our inner feelings of disturbance about all the violence and suffering our historical moment entails. This monitoring of our disturbance is not to help us face it, but to help us find corrupting psychological ways to fend it off so we can 'have a nice day'.

Sally Weintrobe is a Fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society. She writes about our relationship with climate change, and how this is influenced by neoliberal culture. She edited and contributed to "Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives" (2011) Routledge and the New Library of Psychoanalysis: London, which was short-listed for the Gradiva Prize for Contributions to Psychoanalysis. www.sallyweintrobe.com


i) They won him the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize in 2016.
ii) Personal conversation with Paglen.
iii) See: www.sallyweintrobe.com
iv) For an analysis of how climate change inevitably leads to increased wars see Harald Welzer (2006) Climate Wars: Why people will be killed in the 21st Century. Polity Press: Cambridge.
v) See for example John Wendle's article in Scientific American Dec 17th 2015: The Ominous Story of Syria's Climate Refugees. It tells of how farmers who escaped the battle-torn nation explain how climate change led to drought which together with government abuse drove social violence  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ominous-story-of-syria-climate-refugees/   


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Posted by:   Ms. Rhoda Bawdekar
Posted on:   2019-04-09 14:31 PM
Comments:   Post from : John Keene

As a fellow contributor with Sally to the Climate Change Conference in London in 2010 and the subsequent book, I was very pleased to see she has brought the subject into the IJP dialogue.

I completely agree about the disavowal of the violence suffering and increasing social unrest that a carbon based neoliberal economy entails. I suggest that the psychological forces powering this denial of unwelcome aspects of reality can be unpacked further. It is most unwelcome that the success of our ‘instinct for mastery’ as Freud put it means that our capacity to do damage and violence to the planetary eco- and social systems has far outrun the psychological mechanisms for dealing with external and internal (ie psychic) conflicts which derive from our environment of evolutionary adaptedness.

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Attachment:   John Keene climate blog piece April 9 19.docx
Posted by:   Dr. Gordon Yanchyshyn
Posted on:   2019-03-29 00:34 AM
Comments:   Thank you, Sally Weintrobe, for confronting us with this difficult topic. We psychoanalysts often ignore the vital importance of our contributions to this urgent dialogue that is occurring globally. Sadly, we too are not immune to disavowal of these existential threats.

As a complement to your ideas, I would highly recommend to my colleagues Christopher Bollas' latest (2018) book "Meaning and Melancholia -- Life in the Age of Bewilderment". He brilliantly explores the widespread defensive patterns that have developed in Western society that make it difficult to address these "unthinkable" but very real dangers to humanity itself.
Gordon Yanchyshyn
Canadian Psychoanalytic Society (Toronto)

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