Denial in Environmental Communication

People tend to deny information that they find uncomfortable. In the seminal book States of Denial sociologist Stanley Cohen states that a proclivity to deny disturbing facts is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society. Cohen’s book is based on wide-reaching cross-cultural studies including Nazi Germany, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Rwanda and others zones of human rights abuse, genocide and state sanctioned or institutional violence. Cohen describes strategies of denial on a personal level as psychological and cognitive, and on societal level as communicative and political. Denial can function psychologically below levels of awareness; denial is a ‘high speed cognitive mechanism for processing information, like the computer command to delete rather than save’ (Cohen 2001:5). On a cultural level, communication breakdown works to support denial. Relativism reinforces denial strategies in popular culture and in political debate. In its most extreme form, relativism makes all value systems equal, even those responsible for human suffering and the destruction of the natural world. In this way, relativism is corrosive to moral action.

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Although Cohen’s analysis of how disturbing information is avoided is based on violence against people, this work on denial is relevant for environmental communications as first suggested by climate communicator George Marshall (2007, 2009) and further developed in this thesis. Understanding the psychological and communicative processes at work inform strategies to break denial in order to facilitate acknowledgement of environmental crisis – the essential first step towards transformation. This chapter will examine how environmental communication can break the numbing effects of denial of ecological self through a greater understanding of associated psychological and social processes.

Denial is complex and multi-faceted and a primary communicative obstacle in environmental communication. Cohen describes the psychological and cognitive processes supporting denial in individuals. The ability to block out, remain passive, apathetic, indifferent and unresponsive is, an unconscious defence mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety or other disturbing emotions aroused by guilt. The psyche blocks off information that is literally unthinkable or unbearable. The unconscious sets up a barrier that prevents the thought from reaching conscious knowledge (Ibid:5).

According to Cohen, denial manifests in three different ways (although each of these has endless characteristics):

1) Literal (nothing happened)
2) Interpretative (what happened is really something else)
3) Implicatory (what happened was justified) (Cohen 2001:99)

Each of these strategies for denial must be circumvented with care. These types of denial are further complicated by levels at which they become evident within individuals:

1) Cognition (not acknowledging the facts)
2) Emotion (not feeling, not being disturbed)
3) Morality (not recognizing wrongness or responsibility)
4) Action (not taking steps in response to knowledge) (Ibid:9)

Each of these states of denial is also a stage towards acknowledgement as part of a strategy to break denial. The processes that occur in individuals are multiplied across cultural groups where denial becomes institutionalized and systemic (Ibid:94).

Denial in social groups is exacerbated by communication failure and by powerful interests that benefit from keeping denial working in their favour. On a cultural level, multiple individual cases of denial leads to normalization, then ignoring which develops into collusion: ‘People trying to look innocent by not noticing’ (Ibid:xii). Here cultures of ‘splitting’ develop characterized by dissociation and psychic numbing (Ibid:93). Cohen describes how cultures plagued by high levels of denial escape into a state that he calls ‘innerism’, defined as an ‘escape from the public sphere into private life and consumer interests’ (Ibid:156). The spectacles of consumer capitalism clearly provide sufficient distractions.

Cohen’s work on denial has useful insights for the communication of ecological literacy. Collective acknowledgement must become an explicit goal. Cohen explains that ‘acknowledgement is what happens to knowledge when it becomes officially sanctioned and enters public discourse’ (Ibid:225). Collective acknowledgement is transformational as it ‘makes previously normalized conditions into social problems… [and]…social institutions, policy strategies, and, even a new language are in place to undermine denial and encourage and channel individual acknowledgement’ (Ibid:250). This dramatic change comes about through the work of social movements and public discourses that aim to chip away and eventually shatter denial. Strategies for breaking denial involve creating the individual and social capacity for acceptance of circumstances. Social movements use processes of consciousness-raising or politicization to effect this change (Ibid:11). Tactics for breaking denial aim beyond merely presenting the facts and invoking moral arguments to directly addressing the social and psychological mechanisms that support denial.

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Learning to accept denial as a natural phenomenon and not demonize those who perpetuate denial (despite the destructive consequences that are a result of the lack of political will and motivation for change) must be a foundational concept for effective environmental communication. Understanding the psychological processes of denial can help communicators assist individuals through the difficult process of acknowledging and reacting to disturbing environmental information. Getting to the point where denial is acknowledged and actively addressed is key. Cohen explains:

Instead of agonizing about why denial occurs, we should take this state for granted. The theoretical question is not ‘why do we shut out?’ but ‘what do we ever not shut out?’ The empirical problem is not uncover yet ever more evidence of denial, but to discover the conditions under which information is acknowledged and acted upon. The political problem is how to create these conditions. This reframes the classic studies of obedience: instead of asking why most people obey authority so unthinkingly, let us look again and again at the consistent minority – nearly on-third, after all – who refuse to obey (Ibid:249).

Communication strategies can be designed to turn denial into a category of social deviance. For example, drawing analogies from the feminist struggle, compare the social acceptability of misogyny in 1950 versus 2011. Environmental communicators must work to make denial of ecological conscience as socially unacceptable as misogyny.1 Pressure groups and social movements work on shattering denial to end the normalization of ignoring and help create collective acknowledgement. Cohen’s work is based on denial of human rights abuses rather the harm humanity perpetuates on the natural world but the lessons learned from these struggles can inform an understanding of denial of ecological relations. History has witnessed radical social change in the past where new moral codes were created and we have consciously changed power dynamics, laws and institutions accordingly (obvious examples are the civil rights, feminist and anti-colonization movements). Similar strategies are now needed to encounter denial of ecological relations in order to move to acknowledgement and action.

This text is re-published (slightly edited) from my 2012 PhD ‘The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Designing, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception‘, which is available here.

2012: ‘The World is Not Ending. It is the Opposite’

Over the holidays I have read the latest Club of Rome report Bankrupting Nature. I did this not because I enjoy reading non-fiction over Christmas but because I am grateful for the time I have to celebrate and I am compelled to consider how others will be able to do the same considering the deterioration of global ecological systems.

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Two things became apparent: 1) the extinction crises is accelerating, 2) we have more knowledge and understanding than ever to address ecological and social crises. That second point was the good news. The bad news is that I can say with some confidence, as someone who works in London at the interface of environmental communication, ecological informed design and sustainability education, that we are simply not making the ecological crises a priority. Instead of using the wealth that is still abundant in this country to address environmental problems – we are squandering the opportunities we now have to catalyze transformation.

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With severe ecological destabilization, possibilities for future prosperity disappear. Yet in education and economic policy, the basic fact that we depend on the stability and abundance of the Earth is largely ignored. We are simply not building the social institutions that would enable social transformation. Part of the problem rests with the educational establishment; ecologically literacy is still marginal in higher education. For this reason, the capacity to understand, much less respond to current problems is extraordinarily low. This blog will review the state of our capacities for cultural transformation in the UK at the end of 2012 by looking (very briefly) at social institutions and social movements. I will start by proposing that we take note of the words of the Mayan people.

In 2012 we survived the final of all the anticipated ‘end of the worlds’ and the media typically simultaneously mocked and commercialized what became the spectacle of the end of Mayan Long Count calendar, the 5,125-year cycle that ended on 21 December 2012. A film called  ‘2012 The Mayan Word’ documented the voices of the Mayan people who had some potent things to say:

“The world is not ending. It is the opposite: we are finishing ourselves off…The prophecies are given for us to check ourselves. What are we doing? It’s clear that if we don’t do anything to recover the equilibrium of Mother Earth, we are digging our own grave” (Maria Amalia Mex Tu’n, 26 mins). Continue reading

Flows of Money Into and Out of Low and Middle Income Countries

In wealthy countries such as the UK we like to think that rich nations help poorer nations with aid and other types of development funding. We have millennium goals to eradicate poverty, surely we are helping our Southern neighbours develop sustainably?

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Activists from the Global South tell a very different story. This map illustrates this counter-narrative using data from World Bank depicting the hidden flows of capital into and out of low and middle-income countries. It exposes the disturbing fact that rich nations extract significantly more money from the low and middle-income nations than they give in aid. Continue reading

Visualising the Economic System – and Alternatives

Over the past six months I have been helping Occupy Design UK explore how design can be used to facilitate popular education on the structural causes of the recent economic crisis. During the London Design Festival we held an event at the V&A called ‘Exposing the 1% and De-branding the City’ where we examined information graphics and animations that illustrate the complexity of our economic system and exactly what went so wrong in the recent credit crisis. The following visualisations expose the dynamics and structural problems within the current economic system and propose what we can do to create a more resilient system for long-term prosperity, social justice and sustainability.

Crises of Capitalism. RSA Animate. Cognitive Media.

This animation features Marxist historian David Harvey’s analysis of the structural causes of the economic crisis and the role of crisis in the history of capitalism. Here animation studio Cognitive Media use the Monopoly metaphor that the Occupy Movement has also repeatedly used to describe the systemic dynamics of capitalism (another example can be found below). This video presents an overview of the contradictions of the capitalism system. While the Royal Society of Arts funded this animation, Harvey’s interpretation of the causes economic crisis remains marginal in mainstream economic discourse. The Occupy Movement has successfully created at least some discursive space in mainstream media for radical critiques such as this one.

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Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme

CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective and Packard Jennings. Pdf back of poster.

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The poster included with the CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective book ‘Work’ is based on a classic illustration Continue reading

Strategies of Denial of Ecological Self

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This week I am finally publishing Chapter Nine of my PhD: ‘Communication Failures: Strategies and Denial of Ecological Self. I have been stalling to post this chapter with the rest of my PhD as I am aware that many parts of the left that have been somewhat hostile to deep ecology and especially some of the content I cover in this chapter. Deep ecology has sometimes been dismissed due to its association with a lack of criticality, disengagement from political struggles for social justice and its recuperation by capitalism. While I sympathize with this critique, I will argue that deep ecology and ecopsychology associated with ecofeminist analysis have vital contributions in describing both the ways in which social relations are reproduced and the psychological challenges associated with making social change possible. Principally this analysis sheds light on denial, dissociative alienation and pathologies arising from the repression of ecological self.

Ecopsychology characterizes the repression ecological self as resulting in a narrowing of awareness and a psychic numbing. The psychological, social and political implications of denial of the ecological self and the reductive understanding of ego are evidenced by mental illness, cultures of denial and political systems designed with little regard for the well-being of the ecological and social contexts that makes economic prosperity possible. Herein social and ecological injustice are symptoms of errors in perception and understanding of self. Working to heal the psychological problems that result from the denial of ecological self is part of the process of making political change possible. Political theory needs deep ecology and ecofeminism as much as deep ecologists need political theorists to help do the work of making political change possible.

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Cultures of Denial: What we Must Learn from the Exposure of Jimmy Savile

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The several decades worth of pedophilia by TV celebrity Jimmy Savile revealed by ITV’s ‘Exposure’ constitutes a national tragedy. These moments must be recognised as opportunities for feminists to demonstrate the ways in which patriarchy works to cultivate cultures of denial. In the wake of this week’s ITV documentary, a thorough reflection on the social practices that allow children to be raped is necessary. 

One of the things that is so astonishing about the Savile ‘news’ is that so many people were not surprised. For this reason, the rapes and sexual assaults by Savile are even more culturally significant than the horrific sexual acts on the dozens of actual girls and the boys involved. What the BBC did by making Savile a celebrity was to legitimize sexual predatory behaviour and create a culture that perceived this kind of behaviour as inconsequential. 

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Transition in an Age of Austerity

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What is the potential for the Transition Towns movement in the current political climate? Is ‘Lambeth the Co-operative Council’ a legitimate solution for south Londoners? Just how dangerous is it to mix up constructed scarcities with geophysical scarcities when talking about how to build resilience into local communities?

These were the quesitons in my mind when I listened to John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception, at the launch of the RSA Student Design Awards last week. Thackara gave an overview of environmental challenges in design education and as usual he did a good job talking about sustainable design. His is a voice of reason in an industry that often neglects to addresses the consequences of its own activities. Nevertheless, Thackara’s support for Transition Towns and Lambeth as the UK’s first co-operative council deserves some attention.

As someone with first hand experience of Transition organizing in Lambeth, I need to stress that the movement is far from a panacea for this community’s problems. When I tried to highlight this issue from the floor as a question, I was cut off and the moderator reframed my question into an issue about labour rights. This might be a good question (but it was one that Thackara misunderstood and not the question I had in mind). This blog will examine how transition movements relate to the political realities in an age of austerity – and the serious dangers associated with using the notion of scarcities to justify austerity.

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1990s Road Protests Sites Mapped

1990s Road Protests Sites in a larger map

Thanks to Tom Hiron who collect the list of the sites. We are still missing sites. Anyone interested in adding/correcting, please fill write in comments below.  I am interested in developing this project and need more information about which sites were won and which were lost. Feel free to add new sites to the map directly in Google Maps if you have this information. Also – where are the present spaces under threat?

On Solidarity, Not Charity

Solidarity is created when people are able to discuss political realities and act according to collective values and political critiques. Cultures of solidarity recognizes that social change is the work of everyone – not just a few activists willing to devote time and money to address injustice and environmental crises. Solidarity implies that we see ourselves as a community who depend on each other – not just in good times but to address collective problems, including political problems. Showing solidarity requires taking the time to see how our actions – or our silences, affect those facing injustice.

Solidarity is not created through charity. Solidarity is working to make justice possible so charity is no longer needed. Charitable aid, for example, will never effectively address poverty in the Global South. Consider that in 2010 total external debt payments from Global South (private debt as well as public) were $583 billion. (Source: World Bank). Meanwhile, total aid from western (OECD) countries in 2010 was $128.5 billion (Source: OECD). Northern countries such as the UK are siphoning over $5 from the Global South for each pound we give as aid. The policies of the World Bank and the IMF are Continue reading

The Role of Design in an Era of Crisis at V&A

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The statement below introduces a seminar at the V&A on September 19th. I will also publish two statements on apolitical design. The events is free but booking is required. 

Does design practice today work for the common good? Are our cultural institutions serving the interests of common people and the planet? While capitalism imposes harsh austerity on the public – it is also increasing profits for elites, the 1%. This dynamic is a threat to democracy and our collective futures, but these dangers are camouflaged by the design industry and our cultural institutions that fail to take the crises we face seriously enough as we head toward unprecedented and irreversible ecocide brought on by the logic of profit for profits sake.

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Road Protests, Stories and Politics at Dark Mountain

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An installation of slate signs by Tom Hirons commemorates protest sites against UK government’s road building programme in the 90s. The commemorative plaques mark the 20-year anniversary of the start of the road protest movement at Twyford Down. It was one of a number of activities focusing on the road protests movement at Dark Mountain’s Uncivlisation 2012 festival this weekend.

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While many individual sites mentioned on these plaques where lost to roads, the protests did seriously damage the prospects for Thatcher’s road building programme, which was significantly reduced as a result of the forest occupations. The protests were, as described in the Uncivilisation 2012 programme; ‘a high-water mark in the history of the UK environmental movement’. Many of the people who were defending these forests, valleys and meadows were nothing short of heroic in their defense of the land. Living up in the trees and buried in the tunnels, winter and summer alike, these forest occupations worked to stop some of the proposed roads. Continue reading

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

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The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?

The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products.

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Design vs. The Design Industry

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Five days ago I uploaded a new paper titled ‘Design vs. The Design Industry: Conflicts in Emergent Orders‘ to the EcoLabs website that has now been downloaded over 470+ times. I should include an explanation as the paper is a bit of an oddity. This paper was not written for design audiences (although it is highly relevant for them). I was invited to write the paper by the ‘Atlas Economic Research Foundation’ and it will be published on this journal on-line hereContinue reading

‘One Planet’ Olympic Games 2012

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The Olympic Games 2012 won their bid partially on the concept of ‘One Planet Olympics’, meaning an Olympics that worked towards lowering its ecological footprint to a level where the earth’s bio-capacity is not diminished. The ecological footprint is a metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet. Tolerance levels are determined by how much stress an ecological system is under due to resource extraction, pollution (including carbon emissions) and other human activities. A key awareness is that critical thresholds can provoke dramatic change and even collapse of ecosystems on various scales. The ‘One Planet’ concept is the challenge of living within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth, essential to avoid risks for civilization that result from destabilized ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the London Olympics Games 2012 are not the ‘One Planet Olympics’. Rather they an abuse of the concept of the concept of living within the Earth’s ecological boundaries. The UK government is spending £11billion+ on the Olympic Games but this same government cannot afford to fund a single independent environmental government watchdog. In 2010 the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government’s only independent environmental body costing only £3million a year, was abolished. Grandiose green claims and pretensions to aspiring to ‘One Planet’ living are not supported by environmental infrastructure or government policy. Meanwhile the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales is having to dramatically cut staff. At the Olympics the WWF and BioRegional are helping the UK Government whitewash its image by using the ‘One Planet’ standard for an entirely unsustainable Olympics.

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The Politics of Future Visioning – on #FutureScapes

Sony, with the help of Forum for the Future, had launched a project called Futurescapes. The project relies on four scenarios which can be seen on the project website. Typically, these scenarios are not informed by the most menacing dangers to our collective futures. While scenarios can be powerful tools, if scenario builders are not willing critique their own assumptions (especially in terms of ecological realities and social justice) – they are wasting their time (if the goal is exploring sustainable futures). Limiting the analysis in this way, however, IS good for Sony and other corporations interested in inspiring consumer confidence.

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