Environment & Animals

Thinking about denial: its impact on the climate, our politics and the writing of history

As Atlantic hurricanes of devastating and quite likely unprecedented ferocity hit the Caribbean, Cuba and Florida. Houston, Texas is beginning the hard work of recovering from an extraordinary deluge, the greatest scale of rainfall ever measured in that city. Meanwhile, terrible monsoons have battered Bangladesh; droughts decimate parts of Africa. In face of all this, the question of climate denial seems more urgent than ever.

It is never possible to use any single instance of weather, here or there, as definitive proof of an unfolding, global climate catastrophe. ‘Deniers’ will point to occasional freak storms of such devastating import that were recorded far in the past. Yet the patterns of events — including statistical data on storms and hurricanes, floods and droughts, as well as average annual temperatures — pile up evidence of changes afoot so compelling and calamitous that the vast majority of climate specialists across the globe are no longer in doubt as to what is happening. Although many factors may converge, the fundamental ‘why’ question is no longer a matter of mystery either. Credible authorities, in their droves, have shown us the writing has been on the wall for many years. Yet the pace of the global political response across and beyond the last two decades of the twentieth century has never been commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Some still prefer to close their eyes and ears altogether. Trump, of course, notoriously pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and has dangerously declared climate change to be a Chinese ruse.

On the precautionary principle at least, it has long been evident that fundamental, orchestrated global action is required to change course: a decisive shift away from our dependence upon fossil fuels is needed. Some change is now belatedly happening. There is an emerging economic interest in new energy technologies. But what if the reason for the individual and collective sloth we have seen is not the fact that evidence is too scant or questionable, but rather, in recent years, the evidence is simply becoming too painfully abundant – too immediate – too painful to ‘see’ at all? As Bill McKibben asked in a recent Guardian article, ‘What do you think it means when your forests are on fire, your streets are underwater, and your buildings are collapsing?’

Writing in The Independent, the Green MP Caroline Lucas describes how, in the British House of Commons, she was sanctimoniously told that she ‘lacked humanity’ for urgently seeking to link the immediate tragedy to any wider, unfolding, climate debate. Her opponent implied her statements smacked of a lack of tact, as though to shame her and anyone else from hard thinking about the disaster, rather than merely emoting hollow words of sympathy and contributing, ad hoc (as, no doubt we must) to charitable clean-up operations.  A new means of bolstering complacency: save your analysis for another time, Lucas was told. Just pass around the bucket meanwhile. Sometimes, indeed, thinking, seems to be the hardest word.

What makes it possible to avoid such analysis? Why are we tempted to turn the page even as the waters rise? Why do we so easily repudiate thinking, evade posing questions, and in our millions still prefer to go on denying what is happening around us even in the face of compelling warnings, and evidence? Clearly the power of the fossil fuel industry and corporate interests provide one answer. They have been skilful at using what was once a radical critique of scientific expertise for the most cynical purposes. Another way of thinking about such wilful myopia is to consider ‘denial’ in its unconscious as well as conscious dimensions.

It seemed to us, as historians, well worth examining why and how such mechanisms might work more closely. Could a fatal marriage of cynical material interests and psychic propensities to ‘denial’ operate in tandem? Can we assume such propensities — to be torn between knowing and a will not to know – to be shared, even universal, psychological traits, as Freud, for one, insisted? If so, how is it that individuals, groups, institutions and even whole nations may, at times, be able to override the attractions of ‘denial’, and at other times prefer to circumvent the painful realities under their noses? How might psychoanalysis help us to think about these psychic as well as social mechanisms

The idea of denial is too little considered by historians, we contend, even as they, along with politicians and journalists, often refer to it. We have assembled a collection of newly commissioned essays that consider explicitly ways in which denial might have held a person or a group together, or have shaped collective and national memories. These include  the struggles there have been to remember and forget the Holocaust, to face the scale of collaboration with Nazism in occupied France, or to integrate knowledge of the Third Reich and its one time mass popularity into post-war German cultural and political life. Sometimes we may prefer even to deny the denial.

An introductory essay by Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick asks how useful the cluster of Freudian concepts concerned might be for historians. How can ‘denial’, ‘disavowal’, splitting’, and ‘negation’ help us to understand both individual and group behaviour? Two vignettes, one about the Nuremberg trial and another about Edward Long, the eighteenth-century historian of Jamaica (one of the first people to attempt to theorise essential racial difference) provide striking instances of denial or disavowal, knowing and not knowing. A case in a London borough in the late twentieth century arguably points to the significance of collective denial when the truth is too painful to bear. The neglect, abuse and murder of a child was shockingly ‘missed’ by a succession of social agencies and individuals, who had ample evidence of the violence in front of them. Together these instances provide a context in which to explore such states of mind and the tools that can be utilised to make sense of them.

Other essays investigate denial in a range of contexts: in settler Australia (Bain Attwood) in contemporary Germany (Geoff Eley), in relation to Hiroshima (Ran Zwigenberg), in Red Cross practices at the time of Mau Mau (Yolana Pringle) on questions of imperial violence and its comprehension in postwar Britain (Erik Linstrum) and in facing how a particular minority was treated in the Czech Lands (Sarah Marks). Not all the authors turn to Freud and psychoanalysis, but all are concerned to document the significance of denial in specific historical instances. The hope is that these essays will help us to think both historically and in the present. As Hannah Arendt memorably wrote when insisting on the importance of understanding Nazism and genocide, this means, ‘examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us – neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be or might have been’.

This collection of essays will appear in History Workshop Journal Issue 84, available online from 29 September 2017.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *