In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is murdered.
Denial is central to the terrible calamity engulfing us: the collapse of nature and climate and the knock-on collapse of social order.
There are five kinds. These are climate denial, budget denial, policy denial, lifestyle denial, and denial denial.
Climate denial, now becoming rarer, is the propaganda or delusion that there isn’t a lethal problem. Apart from a few sinister jokers in the pay of the fossil fuel lobby, and those who believe their lies, most people have moved beyond this, though some still hold the climate denier’s fallback claim that climate and nature breakdown are not caused by humans. Those clinging to the wreckage of such delusions tend to switch suddenly from saying the catastrophe isn’t happening to saying it’s too late to do anything about it.
Carbon-budget denial is the delusion that reaching net zero by 2050 is enough to save us from climate and nature feedback loops and runaway disaster. Most commercial organisations, think-tanks, governments, and even the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are crabs in this bucket.
The Paris Agreement commits nations to get as close as possible to a 1.5° increase at 2100 over pre-industrial temperatures. To achieve this target, already lethal for countless people all over the world, there is now a very limited amount of carbon dioxide, if any, that can still be emitted by burning coal, oil and gas. But the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Authority (IEA) and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) overestimate this budget. They do so in three crucial ways. First, they rely on the development of new technologies which don’t yet viably exist. Second, they use nature-based solutions such as forestry, which are already needed to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as an excuse to emit more. And third, they trust climate models that are too weak to capture the extreme risks from feedback loops such as melting ice caps and permafrost, the die-back of the Amazon rainforest, and the collapse of carbon-sequestrating marine biodiversity.
While some acknowledge the slender remaining carbon budget that we must respect to survive, policy denial advocates policy mixes which have no chance of delivering on it. Policy denial includes the delusion that we can stay within a 1.5° budget without, as part of the policy-mix, imposing a carbon price high enough to ensure that the costs imposed by polluters (known in economics as negative externalities) are paid for. But in order for these policies to work, they must be combined with measures such as criminalisation—a law of ecocide—regulation & social toxification. Plus border adjustment which taxes or bans imports which have high embodied carbon. Plus, finally, a carbon dividend in which the proceeds of both carbon price and border adjustment are redistributed in a globally just and politically palatable way which leaves the poor better off.
Without such forthright mechanisms, most of us are doomed. The alternative, which is central planning, cannot optimise carbon zero global food production, and by relying on it to do so we are effectively inviting famine to dinner.
The UK and Scottish governments, with their genocidal apathy, are in this crab bucket, since their policies cannot deliver on their ‘world-leading,’ but still lethally insufficient carbon budgets. Many of the most candid NGOs are also trapped in policy denial, often through ideological or social justice reasoning. But what kind of justice is served by hoping your climate policies will work when they can’t?
Lifestyle denial is the delusion that we can continue to live in a wasteful and harmful way, simply by replacing fossil fuels and biodiversity extermination with other sources of energy and stuff. In other words, that there is a viable green future for the likes of British Airways, Carnival Cruises, Heathrow, HS2, the Automobile Association and any other sponsors of energy-guzzling transit. It is the delusion that ‘civilisation’ can survive without radically changing its spots. Without everyone becoming frugal and ascetic, travelling less, eating less meat and fish. Without saying no to synthetic fast fashion. Without smearing less poisoned sunscreen on our children’s faces, or carcinogenic cosmetics on our own. Without becoming, in a word, happier and less driven.
But the ugliest denial of all is denial denial: underestimating the power of propaganda to blinker and mislead us about the predicament we are in, the terrible damage that has already been done to people and nature, and our responsibility to desist. We are all more or less mad. Our minds have not evolved to see how suggestible we are. Most of us are agony-averse and yet behave as if we’d rather die than renounce the delusion that we can survive without radical and immediate change.
Each of these five forms of denial is lethal. Unless we can defuse them all, end the conspiracy of silence and trigger a mass emergency disaster-response that dwarfs our response to Covid, denial will lead to the death of many, perhaps even most of us. And due to tipping points in the climate and nature system, this may happen relatively soon. In this version of the prisoners’ dilemma, all choices but co-operation risk a mass death-penalty.
Let’s say no to that revolting scenario. Far too many have already died.
So what do we do?
Step one is understanding the different forms in which denial comes. Step two is defusing them. Step three is acting at a scale proportionate to the staggering horror of this emergency and enabling others to do the same. Together, as citizens of the world, we have no excuse for failure because we have the strongest forces in the universe on our side.
Our love of children.
Our love of nature.
Our love—even—of ourselves.
Call to action: Understand the system while you try to change it, and test your theory of change in evidence-based ways. Beware of ideological presuppositions.
Roc Sandford, a trustee of Mathematical Sciences UK and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, is a writer, artist and organic farmer who lives off-grid on the Hebridean Island of Gometra. A founder member of the Archipelago Forum, Roc has campaigned successfully against the damaging consequences of salmon farming and to reform salmon aquaculture. They have been involved with Extinction Rebellion since inception and helped start Extinction Rebellion’s Catalyser program of dialogue with people in places of power, and the campaign group Ocean Rebellion. www.rocsandford.com