The Many Faces of Denial

Denial wears many faces. Whether it's average people who are too busy with their lives to take on board the more extreme reports of environmental degradation; bloggers and politicians who believe that it's all a hoax cooked up by evil scientists to get grant money for bogus studies; or, perhaps surprisingly, the green activists who believe that more political or technological change will improve or even fix the situation - these are common techniques we use to avoid confronting the horror of global collapse face-to-face.
We are all familiar with the face of climate change denial. The Koch brothers, James Inhofe, Anthony Watts and a host of bloggers and politicians work tirelessly to derail any efforts to address humanity's greatest existential crisis since the Toba super-volcano 75,000 years ago. They are a resilient species, their fact-resistance bolstered by inoculations of status and cash.
But this form of denial is easy to spot. There is a more subtle form, one that is endemic among the white hats of the green movement. They are the ones who tirelessly work from the moral high ground - to change policies, to develop and promote green technology, to encourage sustainability. They resolutely refuse to countenance any thoughts of our predicament being inextricable. Tireless work, even in a lost cause, tends to keep one insulated from the deeper, darker realizations, and lets one keep fighting the good fight. Heroism has always been an intrinsic part of our story: "Quitters never win and winners never quit!"
Is it unfair to characterize (at least some) green activists as being (at least somewhat) in denial? Possibly. But it's true far more often than you might expect.
I have no idea if we're facing "the end of the world", whatever that hackneyed phrase might mean. However the big picture that most green activists, including the Transition folks and most Permaculturists I've met, fail to take on board includes some very simple, very stark facts: the entire planetary biosphere is collapsing, including the oceans, rivers, lakes and land; we are going to break the 2C degree "safe" threshold (which was never safe to begin with) within a couple of decades even with our best efforts (which we're not giving); we will break 4C and possibly 6C with BAU; the agricultural systems of the world are destabilizing before our eyes due to extreme weather; methane feedbacks may have already begun; the world's populations of human beings and their food animals are exploding while the world's population of wild creatures is imploding; the bees and bats are dying; starfish are melting; sea turtles are dying on the beaches; the Eastern Cougar, the Western Black Rhino, the Japanese River Otter and the Formosan Clouded Leopard have all been declared extinct in the last year.
It looks a whole lot like the global life-support system is coming apart at the seams, and we are doing what we've always done: precisely nothing.
This is not a situation that Transition Initiatives or Permaculture or Appropriate Technology can ameliorate, because it looks to me like we're headed for world-wide economic breakdown, social breakdown, dieoff - and eventually human extinction. How eventually is still an estimate, but a safe bet is sooner rather than later.
This is what I mean by inevitable, no exit. Not boom we all fall down. Not with a bang, but with a series of low, pitiful, drawn out whimpers from every living/dying organism on the planet. Anyone who can say, in the face of this evidence, that all of us have a moral responsibility to "work tirelessly to make things better" is the victim of a blindness so deep that it can only come right up from our DNA.
Now, those activists who do get it, and prefer to do this sort of work because it's what humans do, well they have my complete empathy. So do those who simply say, "You know, I think I'll just take a walk and look at the sky." But the moment the word "sustainability" crosses someone's lips, it's like they lit up a a big neon sign that says, "I'm blind. Please follow me!"
I've been asked why I am so deeply pessimistic and hostile towards the systems of civilization.  Call it the anger of trust betrayed.
Growing up, I was taught that the world worked in a particular way: that governments were of the people, for the people; that humans were conscious, rational creatures; that policy was guided by sound science; that human beings learned from their mistakes; that the future would be better than the past.
Now in my 60's I discover that absolutely none of it is true. Governments are of the rich, for the rich; human beings are largely unconscious and most of our decisions spring from emotion rather than reason; policy is guided by greed for wealth and lust for power; most people want today to be about the same as yesterday, mistakes and all; and the future looks not just dim but bleak.
And I'm supposed to keep sucking on the hopium pipe so I don't make the sleepwalkers feel uncomfortable? I don't think so. I do leave  a small space for a miracle in my Flowchart of Doom, but that's the only concession to the dreamtime with which I'm currently comfortable.
The few people who were awake to the knowledge of decline did what they could. Their efforts speak for themselves, and I doubt they will feel trivialized by my outrage. But damn few environmentalists connected the dots to see where the curve was really heading, and virtually everyone has operated from the horrifyingly mistaken premise that human nature is based on rational thought.
I've been accused of falling into the doomer trap of believing the failed predictions of men like Paul Ehrlich. Let's talk about failed predictions. I distinctly remember being promised flying cars and electricity too cheap to meter. Instead we got Macondo and Fukushima.
When Ehrlich wrote his famous, and famously reviled, book The Population Bomb just before Limits to Growth was published, the world population was about 3.5 billion. Today it's double that and growing by 75 million a year. We have managed to materialize one of Norman Borlaug's worst nightmares:
"Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the 'Population Monster' ... If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year, the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The tick-tock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?"
~from Norman Borlaug's Nobel Prize lecture, 1970
And how did Dr. Borlaug's 30-year prediction hold up? Well, by 2000 we were at 6.1 billion people (about 6% short of his estimate) and we were increasing by 2.5 people a second. I don't think we can count that as any kind of a victory over the evil Dr. Ehrlich.
I usually do my best to stay "doomy but not gloomy".  I can generally maintain a semblance of emotional equilibrium by taking refuge in the non-attachment of Buddhist and Advaita teachings.  Despite my clear recognition of the predicament, that approach can can cause equal consternation among the denialistas of the engaged environmental movement. At other times the news all gets to be too much, and I get f'ing pissed off. This seems to be one of those times.

 Paul Chefurka
November 14, 2013

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