No time for denial

Jonathon Porritt


The gaps we face now are much more problematic, in terms of both the manifest inadequacy of the actions currently being taken, and the despair-inducing lack of political leadership at almost every level in every corner of the world.




Optimism in the teeth of adversity is perhaps the single most important personal attribute for that generation of campaigners who saw what was happening to the world more than thirty years ago, and since then have devoted their lives to doing something about it. Mark Edwards is pre-eminent amongst photographers in that regard. There is a fierce, uncompromising integrity in his work, often causing discomfort, even intense pain amongst those with whom he shares it. But as an activist, his anger and indomitable determination to bring about change for a better world invariably ends up lifting spirits and renewing campaigning energy.

But it’s getting harder and harder to stay true to that balancing act as the barriers to change become more complex.

Initially, the barriers were more to do with lack of data (people today have little understanding of the way in which 30 years of intense scientific investigation and analysis of the state of the earth and its people has completely transformed the political debate about the environment) and lack of awareness. The data gaps are long gone – we really know everything we need to know to justify the kind of radical transformation that is now required. The awareness gaps are mostly gone, though political dogma and wretchedly inadequate media coverage still serves to keep far too many people in a state of continuing ignorance and confusion in countries like the United States, India, Russia and so on.


The capacity for denial




The gaps we face now are much more problematic, in terms of both the manifest inadequacy of the actions currently being taken, and the despair-inducing lack of political leadership at almost every level in every corner of the world. Their capacity for denial remains extraordinary, not so much in terms of the empirical environmental and social data (which is by now largely undeniable), but rather of the implications of that data. For most, the basic model of progress achieved through unfettered growth in an increasingly global economy still remains sound, requiring only a little bit of market-based corrective action for the environment and more concerted efforts to address poverty in the world’s poorest countries. A few, however, are beginning to question and even lose faith in the model itself; and one particular aspect of our latter-day Faustian bargain – that it is acceptable to go on trashing the planet for a better life today – looks increasingly suspect. But why do these voices still command relatively little traction in politics and the media today?

© Michael Leunig

The field of cognitive psychology tells us that even at the best of times most humans have real difficulty coping with uncertainty and complexity; when overwhelmed, we tend to fall back on familiar “rules of thumb”, reassuring habits and defensive routines. It’s only human to want to maintain a worldview or a way of life that suits us, and to block out that which puts it at risk. Emotionally, it’s even harder to cope with grave threats to our wellbeing or to those we love, especially if we feel there’s little we can do about it – and we often default to “sanity-maintaining” mechanisms of repression, denial, detachment, hopelessness or anger. “Denial” does not need a conspiracy to make it work; it just needs normal people who are content with the way their world is organized.

In the face of today’s portfolio of environmental “horror stories”, Thomas Homer-Dixon, in his wonderful book The Upside of Down1 points to the three layers of defensive barriers that people erect:

“First we might try existential denial: in this case, we’ll say the environmental problem in question – for instance, climate change – simply doesn’t exist. But if the weight of evidence becomes impossible to ignore, we can turn to consequential denial. Here, we’ll admit the problem exists, but say it really doesn’t matter. Finally, if we can’t credibly deny both the problem’s existence and its consequences, we might say we can’t do anything about it. This is fatalistic denial. For the diehard environmental sceptic, fatalistic denial is a last and all-but-impenetrable line of psychological defence.”

Each of these mechanisms can be powerfully reinforced in the face of apparent uncertainty (“perhaps all this stuff will just go away after all”), and continuing controversy (“if so-and-so believes that, and I trust so-and-so, then we’ll probably be OK”), even when it’s patently obvious that much of that controversy can be traced back to people and organizations with deeply vested interests in keeping people in denial. This poses a serious problem for educators and advocates for change: straightforward scientific evidence – however authoritative and objectively convincing – will not necessarily be sufficient to stimulate changed attitudes and behaviours, unless that evidence can be framed in such a way that it also makes sense at a deeper “values-based” level. Ian Christie2, one of today’s wisest commentators on the dynamics of sustainable development, puts it as follows:

“What we see here are a series of ‘culture wars’. The climate debate is a culture war, for sure. And the broader struggles over sustainable development are also of this kind. At stake our basic beliefs about the relationship between people and planet, the values that should underpin human society and striving, and the place of the money economy in our lives. Seeing sustainability as the focus for a culture war helps us understand why the accumulating evidence of unsustainable development makes so little difference to politics and business-as-usual. Deep-rooted cultural factors make it all too easy to live in denial of unsustainability.”


System failure




For the last seven years as Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, I’ve watched politicians struggle with the phenomenon of denial, needing first to overcome it in themselves, and then apply themselves systematically to addressing it in their electorates. After all, it’s not as if they don’t have an extraordinarily well-stocked political toolkit to start breaking down the barriers, all the way from direct regulation, land use and planning, economic instruments (taxation, grants, subsidies and other financial incentives), through to voluntary measures, negotiated “covenants” with business, “walking the talk” in the use of public money (sustainable procurement, for instance) and in how it manages its own buildings and travel, through to exhortation and mobilizing people around a common cause. All today’s post-modernist wittering about the space available for politicians to mandate or inspire change having shrunk dramatically over the last twenty years or so is just so much claptrap as far as I’m concerned. There’s almost limitless space – so long as they choose to fill it creatively and purposefully.

It’s the failure to do the really easy things that is particularly galling. For instance, we know that our towns and cities are much better places to live in the easier it is for people to get around them on foot or by bike. There are literally countless examples of how cities in mainland Europe have dramatically improved people’s quality of life while simultaneously reducing their environmental footprint simply through reduced car use. But the amount of public expenditure on so-called “soft measures” to encourage cycling, walking, traffic-calming, local buses and so on remains utterly pathetic here in the UK.

Even more galling is the fact that our politicians know that the longer we delay in doing the easy things, the harder it will be for politicians in the future. In his blockbuster Review3, Sir Nicholas Stern tried to focus their minds on the benefits of early action:

“The investment that takes place in the next 10 to 20 years will have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next. The overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more. In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.”

He concludes: “the world does not need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development.” Or at least it doesn’t have to make that choice right now. But it soon will, giving politicians only the shortest period of time (the IPCC estimates no more than 15 years, and possibly as little as eight years) to put in place the policy platforms from which every nation will then be able to drive forward their low-carbon economies. Some remain sceptical about such hard-and-fast time predictions, but their value should be to overcome remarkably persistent NIMTO (Not In My Term of Office) mindsets among politicians, reminding them that somewhere out there, not very far away, is a tipping point we absolutely have to avoid: the point at which we lose the ability to command our own destiny as a species as accelerated climate change turns into runaway climate change, which turns into irreversible climate change.

But this historical moment is massively problematic. We’re just at the end of a 25-year interlude in the history of capitalism which has been dominated by free-market absolutism and a passion for deregulation and low taxes. “Let the market rule and get government out of the picture” has been the ideological hallmark of this interlude, powerfully endorsed by global media either in the ownership of or in craven thrall to an élite of media moguls who just happen to be amongst the principal beneficiaries of such a perverse economy. It’s all very well for someone like Nicholas Stern to point out (quite rightly) that climate change is best addressed as “the greatest single market failure the world has ever seen”, but the clear implication of that is that we need a generation of politicians who would dedicate themselves to correcting this market failure. Even when those corrections will hurt the self- serving, already inconceivably rich élite who are quite literally sucking the life-blood out of the support systems on which we all depend.


The carbon conundrum




So here’s the conundrum for politicians: do they seek to seduce people out of their earth-trashing, high-consumption lifestyles into low-carbon, more sustainable lifestyles, or do they simply regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases out of the economy by setting incredibly strict minimum standards, banning certain products, and using prices and taxes to punish all CO2-intensive businesses? The Leunig cartoon above admirably summarizes the dilemma in which they now find themselves, increasing the risk to politicians who get this wrong.

Seduction often takes forever, and “forever” is exactly what we don’t have. In the end, it’s just simpler for governments to regulate for reduced environmental footprints than it is to leave it up to individual consumers to find their own way there. The best exampIe of this is energy-efficient light bulbs. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) have been widely available in most OECD countries for years, yet their market share has increased only very slowly, with surveys demonstrating that too many people just can’t get past the price tag. Even though CFLs use no more than 20% of the energy that incandescent light bulbs do, and last on average ten times as long, the higher price at the point of purchase remains a huge barrier. Given that lighting accounts for around one fifth of the electricity OECD countries consume, this consumer confusion over the last decade has resulted in tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere that could easily have been avoided. So it’s great that the EU and Australia are now intent on mandating the phase-out of incandescent bulbs over the next few years.

One of the problems, of course, is that no single government can act on its own anyway – hence the calls from NGOs for a Global Convention on Corporate Accountability. Although most NGOs acknowledge that multinational companies are already achieving a certain amount through voluntary mechanisms, they do not believe that this can possibly go far enough. A new convention would include mechanisms to obtain redress for any stakeholders adversely affected by the impact of multinationals. Those individuals and organizations should be given legal standing to challenge corporations in their own home country. The convention would identify clear social and environmental duties for corporations, which would include reporting on environmental and social performance in a verifiable fashion, seeking what is called “prior informed consent” from affected communities, and defining rules for consistently high standards of behaviour wherever corporations are operating anywhere in the world. These rules would be based upon the principles enshrined in international environmental, social and human rights agreements.


How can we save the planet?




The current rhetoric around climate change tellingly reflects this ambivalence. Politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton had no difficulty in telling people that “climate change is the greatest challenge that humankind now faces”, but proved completely incapable of converting that genuinely held sense of urgency into anything vaguely resembling a coherent programme of action. For that reason, many NGOs have urged politicians to start deploying “the language of war” in order to stop citizens thinking of climate change as just another problem that can be sorted out with a little bit of tinkering around the edges. In How We Can Save the Planet4, Mayer Hillman uses uncompromising images and languages to ram home the message, preferring to talk about “carbon rationing” as a less mealy-mouthed way of getting people to understand what’s really going on:

“In comparison with food rationing, carbon rationing would, in some respects, be less prescriptive and intrusive in everyday life. People could select from a range of ways in which to adjust their lifestyles and energy use in order to reduce their personal carbon dioxide emissions. However, the need for carbon limitation is likely to be less clearly felt than the need for food rationing. This was necessary to ensure that populations remained well fed at a time of national crisis and restricted food supplies. Education has a key role to play so that the public understands why rationing is being introduced and for that reason supports it as the only fair and realistic way of responding to climate change.”

However much one may doubt the “sellability” of wartime mindsets and the language of sacrifice, Hillman is right to bring it all back to education and to the complex psychology of transforming people’s attitudes and lifestyles. As the American economist Lester Thurow has written: “The proper role of government in capitalist societies is to represent the interests of the future to the present.” Yet in many ways that gets harder and harder in a world seemingly obsessed with instant gratification and short-term profit maximization. Perhaps we aren’t experiencing as yet the real pain of the loss to come – with not enough “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to shake us all out of our inertia. What will it take to help us feel our way through to a different model of progress in which we seek to cohabit rather than subjugate the natural world, to work with rather than against all other nations? To put it crudely, perhaps one Hurricane Katrina wasn’t enough?

Perhaps the extreme weather events already taking place in our midst – floods, droughts, storms, fires – with all the social pain and dislocation they are already causing from growing financial costs through to millions of environmental refugees uprooted from their land – just aren’t registering? We haven’t yet learned that we really are right up against these natural limits, and that we really are all in it together if we intend to fashion solutions to this global crisis.

At the heart of the concept of sustainability lies an often unspoken philosophical challenge: to rediscover the reality of interdependence. Having spent several centuries promoting a model of progress that emphasizes our independence of and separation from the rest of the natural world (and indeed from others elsewhere in the world, especially those less fortunate than ourselves), we now know how foolish and arrogant that has been. The American philosopher Willis Harman identified “the ontological assumption of separateness” as the single most lethal illusion that has undermined our model of progress since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Which brings us back full circle to Mark Edwards’ astonishing contribution to today’s debate. Mark’s lifetime work as a photographer and as a passionate advocate for a fairer, more sustainable world, has been based on countering that “assumption of separateness”, on drawing people in to a deeper understanding of interdependence, of our shared destiny on this troubled planet.

Hard Rain 2nd edition, 2007


1 The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon, Island Press, October 2006

2 “Culture War” by Ian Christie, Elements journal, Environment Council, June 2004

3 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change by Sir Nicholas Stern, The Stationery Office, January 2007

4 How We Can Save the Planet by Mayer Hillman, Penguin Books, May 2004

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