The preoccupation with economic growth is deeply rooted in the worldview of capitalists all around the globe. Influential post-modernist writer William S. Burroughs said, “When you stop growing you start dying”. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States where growth is a key assumption. Few seem to have noticed that this economic model has been shown to be illusory and ultimately perilous. The only way that growth is tenable is if we decouple it from both emissions and resources. However, questioning our preoccupation with unfettered growth is considered heresy in some conservative quarters. For many the belief in growth borders on gospel and those who question are derisively dismissed as
To help people to move beyond reflexive dismissal we need to understand some of the entrenched psychological reasons why we have difficulty acknowledging the perils of our fixation with growth.
Just as we deny the full scope of ecological degradation, we ignore the ways in which our economic model is fundamentally flawed. The psychology of climate denial can help us to understand why we ignore the adverse impacts associated with our preoccupation with growth.
Why do people eschew science and deny the facts? Acceptance is difficult particularly when the facts are both terrifying and personally damning. The situation is further compounded by misinformation from politicians who prioritize industry interests. Nonetheless, coming to terms with reality is a vital step towards taking responsibility.
The psychology of denial is a key tenet of the psychoanalytic movement starting with Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). Freud popularized the idea that when something is too painful it is excluded from our conscious apprehension as part of a defense mechanism called repression. More than 40 years ago Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book that proposed a model commonly known as the Cycle of Acceptance. According to this model, we manage radical change by going through a series of stages starting with denial. As eloquently articulated in a scholarly book called The Denial of Death, Ernst Becker expounded on the idea that we find clever ways to avoid rather than confront terrifying realities.
Another facet of the dynamic of denial involves the rise of the individual disconnected from the world (and its biosystems). With the demise of social norms and religious affiliations, individual actions are less likely to be subject to limitations. People commonly perceive themselves as being separate from the environments that they inhabit and this is antithetical to our survival as a species.
As revealed in the writings of Ayn Rand and others individualism is a core feature of conservatism and a central tenet of American culture. This tendency has grown in recent years as a backlash against globalization. People are now estranged from the wider community and the larger world.
The ruling US government is eviscerating regulations and dismantling institutions that limit its power. They are abandoning multilateral deals and promoting their sovereignty so that they can make decisions unfettered by consideration of the collective best interest. The arrogant pursuit of this type of insular freedom takes precedence over the carrying capacity of the earth. As the government pursues more freedoms people are being manipulated by sophisticated targeted propaganda from foreign actors, industry, and our own governments.
Erik Linberg has written extensively on the subject of growth and he says, “I am not so naïve as to hold that a communal truth is universal or transcendental, any more than an individual one. Rather, I am suggesting as we face the consequences of individual truths, we need to develop strong collective and communal ones to take their place, with the keen sense that most recent collective and communal truths have not worked out very well.”
The paralyzing apathy of so many people makes it abundantly clear that we humans are intellectually challenged and emotionally immature. We are far too often slow and self-interested. However, incorporating basic psychological truths can be as simple as giving people personal reasons to act.
All of this psycho-drama is taking place against the backdrop of a ticking time bomb. While we must acknowledge that paradigm shifts take time, we cannot afford to ignore the very real possibility that it will take more time than we have. Despite the urgency, it makes no sense to tell people to run if they cannot walk.
Being impatient or insistent with people does not work.
Rather than flog a dead horse, people are leading by example and doing what they can through their personal actions and professional lives. Even in the context of irrational governments, people continue to advocate for an evidence-based policy agenda.
A psychological understanding of denial can help inform our efforts to rescue ourselves from ourselves. We need to apply these insights so that we can speak in a language that people can understand and so that we can craft approaches that people can accept.