Wake Up! Our World Is Dying and We're All in Denial
Continued from previous page
On all levels--international, national, and personal--many situations now seem too complicated to be workable. A friend of mine put it this way: "There are no simple problems anymore."
In addition to the problems that we can describe and label, we have new problems that we can barely name. Writers are coining words to try to describe a new set of emotions. For example, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to describe "homesickness or melancholia when your environment is changing all around you in ways that you feel are profoundly negative."
We experience our own pain, but also the pain of the earth and of people and animals suffering all over the world. Environmentalist Joanna Macy calls this pain "planetary anguish." We want to help, but we all feel that we have enough on our plates without taking on the melting polar ice caps or the dying oceans.
One night before dinner, Jim asked me to sit and have glass of wine with him. That day, he'd overseen the installation of a heating and air-conditioning system after a tree had crushed our old one. That same week, our refrigerator had needed replacing. And suddenly our dishwasher wasn't working properly either. I'd been writing about global climate change and working with the Coalition to Stop the XL Pipeline. I said, "I'll sit down with you as long as we don't have to discuss the fate of the earth." Jim agreed readily and added, "I don't even want to discuss the fate of our appliances."
The climate crisis is so enormous in its implications that it's difficult for us to grasp its reality. Its scope exceeds our human and cultural resilience systems. Thinking about global climate collapse is like trying to count two billion pinto beans. Oftentimes, because we don't know how to respond, we don't respond. We develop "learned helplessness" and our sense that we're powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen writes about Germany and the denial of the Holocaust. He talked about a state of knowing and not knowing that arises in ongoing traumatic situations. This "willful ignorance" occurs when information can't be totally denied, but can't be processed either. That's the state I think we're in now when we try to deal with global climate change.
We live in a culture of denial. A Pew Research Center poll in September 2011 revealed that, in spite of increasing evidence, belief in climate change was at its lowest level since 1997. In fact, belief had decreased from 71 percent to 57 percent in the previous 18 months. Even the manner in which we discuss climate change is odd. We don't talk about "believing in" the laws of aerodynamics, the DNA code, or faraway galaxies. By now the evidence for global climate change is solid and the scientific community is united. So why do we speak of believing in it as if we were speaking of belief in extraterrestrials?
Partly these poll numbers reflect a well-funded and orchestrated misinformation campaign by the fossil-fuel industry. Robert Proctor at Stanford University coined another new word, agnotology, for the study of ignorance or doubt that's deliberately manufactured or politically generated.
The poll results also can be explained by what Renee Lertzman called "The Myth of Apathy." She interviewed people about global climate change and found that they actually care intensely about the environment, but that their emotions are so tangled up and they're so beset by internal conflicts that they can't act adaptively. They aren't apathetic, but rather shut down psychologically.
All cultures have rules about what can and can't be acknowledged. This reminds me of an old joke about the Soviet Union. Two KGB men were walking together down the street.Â One of them said to the other, "What do you think of this system?" "I don't know," said the other one. "I probably think about the same as you do."Â "In that case," said the first, "I'm going to have to arrest you."