.denial is not ignorance and to deny something we must first have seen it as real.
See no evil
Many people now accept climate change but disregard its significance. Psychological and sociological theories of denial have been used to further our understanding of this. All start from the position that denial is not ignorance and to deny something we must first have seen it as real. Freud (1925) wrote of two kinds of denial, ‘negation’, when something known is repudiated as not true, not there, not happening, and ‘disavowal’ when something is known but treated as unimportant. Denial can also be conscious and cynical, this is sometimes called ‘denialism’. This is industry-funded attempts to draw people to deny climate change. Denialism works to boost all the different forms of denial, to suit the purpose at hand, which is maintaining business as usual for the fossil fuel industry (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).
Disavowal: do not disturb
Disavowal is a term covering a complex set of ways of minimising felt emotional disturbance caused by facing reality. It can even enable a person to deny and acknowledge climate change at the same time, but with different parts of the mind. Disavowal is very similar to what the sociologist Stanley Cohen (2001) called implicatory denial, where facts are recognised without any consequent responsibility to act on them. It enables people to avoid feeling disturbed and hence responsible for their actions.
Disavowal and the individual
Within individuals, disavowal can assume many subtly different forms. Here are some examples:
“We went to India at Christmas, because we can [he laughs]; we did. Let alone what that means: what that nine hours of plane in the sky there and nine hours back meant for the environment – we didn’t consider. Even though we are both intelligent enough to know that lots of other people doing that is probably not sustainable.”
The salient word is ‘probably’. Lots of planes flying on fossil fuels is not sustainable. It is a fact. Falsely introducing probability presumably lessens the felt sting of knowing flying is currently harmful. This example shows disavowal as tricky, bending facts to justify one’s position so one does not feel implicated in the damage.
“I will fly to Canada and then go heli-skiing. It is wicked, terrible, for the environment, but I, that is what I like to do, so, I do it.”
This is not necessarily disavowal. It may be that the speaker is fully aware of the damage and has made a choice, possibly an amoral and cynical one. However, very often this kind of statement does involve disavowal. It relies on the person not fully seeing the destruction global warming brings. This leads to another potential form of disavowal, which is to use the phrase ‘climate change’ rather than the phrase ‘climate breakdown’. The climate is not ‘just changing’. It is breaking down.
Disavowal usually goes together with disassociation from care. The following example highlights the disassociation when opposite beliefs are held simultaneously:
“Where you hear on the news about the rainforest being cut down in Brazil, and you think, oh no! But, because it is so far away … and it is not on your doorstep, then it is not going to bother you. But of course it will, because it will have an effect on the world.”
Active implicatory disavowal is not the same as finding a situation unbearable and having to screen that out to keep going. Here is an example of the latter:
“It is not until you go up into the mountains above Los Angeles and look down into the soup, when you literally cannot see below you, the brown below you is not a cloud, it is actually pollution; but then you go down below and you forget again.”
To what extent is this person having to functionally forget what they basically know (the air they breathe is unbreathable and is slowly killing them) because to keep knowing that, moment by moment, is unbearable? To just call this disavowal would stretch the concept past its usefulness.
Disavowal and culture
Zerubavel (2006) saw everyday denial as cultural: children learn from adults what to ignore as ‘irrelevant’ - taboos, euphemisms, tact, avoiding the obvious. Denial is socially structured: the silent bystander implicitly accepts the speaker’s denial, and silence-breakers are sanctioned by being discredited or ridiculed. Norgaard’s (2011) study of socially organised denial within a small Norwegian community showed how cultural norms, and the fear of social consequences, inhibited individuals from speaking freely about climate change. Randall’s work with groups wanting to lower their carbon emissions (Carbon Conversation groups) has also highlighted the pressure groups can place on people to stay in disavowal (for example, said loudly in a work situation, “Here comes Barbara girls, best stop talking about flying!”) (Randall & Brown, 2015).
Sally Weintrobe (2019) has written on how neoliberal culture actively disassociates us from our caring side. It works to un-care us. She has termed this a culture of un-care, hyphenating the word un-care to indicate this is actively driven disassociation.
Denial – and particularly disavowal – is a concept that can help us better understand our difficulties in facing and responding to the climate emergency, but not when applied in a blanket way. In general, the concept can help us see we have a range of ways to ward off reality, either by keeping it at bay for the moment or by finding more rigid ways to block awareness.
Cohen, S. (2001). States of denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering. Cambridge: Polity.
Freud, S. (1925a). Negation. SE, XIX. 233-240.
Norgaard, K. (2011). Living In denial: climate change, emotions and everyday Life. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. (2010). Merchants of doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Randall, R. and Brown, A. (eds.) In time for tomorrow? The carbon conversations handbook. Stirling: The Surefoot Effect.
Weintrobe, S. (2019). Climate change: the moral dimension. In Morgan, D. (ed.). The unconscious in social and political life. Phoenix Press.
Zerubavel, E. (2006). The elephant in the room: silence and denial in everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.