Why Are We Still In Denial?

Sean Hannon | istockphoto.com

It would appear to those concerned about climate change and its catastrophic consequences for human civilisation that ‘we’ are still in denial.  Policies everywhere continue to favour economic growth and securing fossil fuels over any attempts to reduce energy use or accelerating the transition to renewable energy. Given the real-world constraints on renewables replacing fossil fuels, policies need to decisively shift to reducing waste and to degrowth, but that is not even a topic of discussion in the mainstream media.

In order to explore this apparent paradox more carefully we should probably start with the question: “Who exactly is in denial?”.

We would suggest that denial about the looming collapse is largely manufactured to protect the short-term interests of the rich and the elite. We refer to the elite as the top 10-15% of income earners (and those retired from this group), but exclude the top 0.01%, who we term the rich for simplicity.

To understand their behaviour and the manufacturing of climate/collapse denial, we need to look at the interplay between the rich and the elites. The rich know that the game is up and that collapse is inevitable. They want to survive, so they are investing heavily in building luxury bunkers, buying productive assets (Bill Gates has apparently bought 270,000 acres of farmland so far) and acquiring properties in countries that are deemed to be better protected from climate related collapse (such as in New Zealand).

Of course, coordinated action among rich could change the current global policy settings, but they know that their ranks are filled with psychopaths and sociopaths, who are not agreement capable. Winning the survival stakes is therefore the logical strategy pursued by the rich across the globe, which means grabbing as much of the dwindling resources as fast as possible, thus accelerating the collapse. The rich believe survival is a zero-sum game, so in their mind competition, not cooperation, is the only way to success.

If the rich know collapse is inevitable, why do they support manufacturing denial? There are seemingly two main reasons. One is that their wealth depends on the system continuing its growth trajectory. Most of their wealth is in financial assets, which will tank in value if degrowth becomes the new strategy. That means keeping consumption going, keeping growth going, getting governments to create more money so they can create more debt and so on.

Calyx22 | Dreamstime.com

Financial markets price the future, and if the future is bleak, the asset prices are not going to go up. In our highly financialised system, confidence about the future is crucial, so manufacturing denial about the climate emergency and potential collapse is essential to winning the game.

The second reason to manufacture denial is that the rich are not really in control. Their perceived control is dependent on the cooperation of the elites (also called the professional managerial class), who run the system on their behalf. The elites want to preserve their superior status and their (relative) wealth and privilege. This drive and ambition can only be maintained if the elites feel that the prospects of their children (which they invest heavily in) remain far superior to the children of the ‘deplorables‘. Hence the continued cooperation of the elites in the prime occupation of the rich – getting richer – depends on maintaining the fiction of growth and progress.

As this fiction becomes harder to sell to the broader masses who’s living standards have been declining for decades and even to the parts of the elites who are unable to maintain their status, discontent is rising and the resulting anger needs to be channelled into topics, such as culture/identity wars, that don’t threaten the elites. That only works for so long and as opportunities for elite members decline; rebel elites are and will be forming. Rebel elites have been the main instigators of popular uprisings in the past, as per Turchin’s analysis in Secular Cycles:

As a result [of declining opportunities], the elites tend to lose their unity and split along numerous fission lines: new elites versus old, one religious faction against the other, regional elites against the center, and so on. Because there are not enough resources for everybody, certain segments of elites, or groups aspiring to elite status, inevitably end up as the losers. We refer to them as the counterelites, or dissident elites. Usually, the counterelites do not constitute a true sociological group, because there is little that unifies them apart from hatred for the existing regime and a burning desire to bring it down.”

The point where we are at now is that we see evidence of counterelites and their movements, but not yet with the intention of bringing the system down. Like with the new wave of ‘Teal Independents’ in Australia, at present its mostly a struggle for power and status, which ignores the ever-greater problems faced by the non-elites and the countries already heavily effected by climate risk (Pakistan, Somalia etc.). That means that today it still suits the rich, the elites and the counterelites to manufacture denial about where we are headed.

This manufactured denial is becoming harder to uphold. Anyone outside the elite pretty much sense that the climate catastrophe is already upon us. The current strategy is even more insidious, as Cory Doctorow points out: “…the greatest trick billionaires pulled on us – making us feel like we are alone in our understanding of how they are destroying our world and our civilization”.

Hence manufacturing denial is not only about denying the climate emergency, but also about sowing artificial divisions to keep people distracted from that which could unite them – halting the policies that are leading us to self-destruction.

This is going to get much more difficult now that we have openly entered the pincer movement between rising energy costs and increasing societal costs due to adverse climate effects on both infrastructure and food production. This will further increase discontent both in the elite ranks and in the broader population. Channelling this discontent into opposition to the current system is going to be decisive for our collective future.

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Peter Lanius

Peter Lanius is a physicist by training who has worked in IT, Telecoms and as an executive coach across many industries. He believes in collapsing early to avoid the rush and lives on a 20acre property in regional Australia.