“…the most basic commandment of our culture [is]: Thou shalt pretend there is nothing wrong (Derrick Jensen (1)).”
Denial is a broad term used in psychiatry to describe a defense mechanism by which a person avoids unpleasant truths by simply denying them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Denial is rampant in the modern world and manifests in two primary forms. The first kind of denial includes an unconscious real defense mechanism in which an individual psychologically denies a reality that is too painful to bear. A mother, unable to come to grips with a brain-dead child, will sit by his bedside day after day, reading him stories and telling herself that he will eventually wake up. In this situation, nobody can blame the bereaved mother for her actions, and her denial is a natural defense mechanism that enables her to gradually deal with the horrific truth.
The second form of denial is conscious and not entirely innocent. A small child, caught with his hand in a cookie jar, steadfastly refuses to admit he was going to take a cookie. The white lies of childhood are benign enough, but conscious denial can take on pathological proportions when practiced by manipulative adults. Dr. George Simon summarizes, “With disordered characters, what we commonly perceive as unconscious defenses (e.g. denial) are more often deliberate tactics of impression management, manipulation and responsibility-avoidance (2).”
The contemporary environmental movement suffers extensively from both of the above expressions of denial. On the one hand, global ecological realities, when acknowledged truthfully, are atrocious. Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, human beings have slowly, steadily and continually degraded the environment. The progression of destruction has been linear and has never reversed itself. The simple math in this equation does not provide any hopeful outcome. Those who care about nature and life are almost obligated to deny, ignore and turn the other way simply to be able to get through the day without being utterly devastated.
People of strong religious faith are also compelled into denial over the environmental reality. Their patriarchal God of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran would not sit idly by and let one of His organisms destroy Creation. In fact, after the great flood in the Bible, God promised that He would never again punish humanity with environmental annihilation. Faithful adherents to the three primary monotheisms therefore believe we are free to “fill up the Earth and subdue it” without any environmental repercussions, despite all evidence to the contrary. Classic denial.
But where was God when the last dodo or passenger pigeon was axed by human hands? Where is God now while we denude the global rainforests, poison rivers and choke the planet with exhaust? In fact, the divine hand of God has never stepped in to remedy the destructive acts of humanity. What makes us think He is ever going to? In our persistent destructive, one-way march, we appear to be reaching the proverbial end of the road. Unfortunately, the end times we are precipitating won’t be punctuated by a glorious rapture for the faithful. Instead, all of life on Earth, including dogmatic adherents, is destined to go down with the ship humanity is sinking.
Whether denial is based on religious faith or a simple inability to cope with the formidable reality of a dying Earth, the above forms of denial can be sympathized with as normal defense mechanisms. But a more insidious form of denial is at work in our culture. Some of the most powerful entities on the planet have their hands in the cookie jar, are stealing all the cookies, and are denying they are even in the kitchen.
Whether the issue is global climate change, genetic food modification, mountain top removal or any other anthropogenic ecological impact, a corporate entity is likely at work trying to convince the public that nothing is wrong. Monsanto successfully lobbied the USDA, without any scientific supporting evidence, to declare that genetically modified foods are substantially identical to their non-genetically modified counterparts. Exxon has spent millions of dollars hiring pseudo scientists to concoct doubt against the very real threat of global climate change, and energy and forestry giants have been at work for years annihilating entire ecosystems, rendering old growth forests to toilet paper and majestic mountains to slag heaps while simultaneously persuading entire towns of people their ruined lives are in their own best interest.
DARVO is an acronym which describes a form of denial frequently employed by abusive persons. Initially, the abuser will Deny the abuse. Then, he will Attack the victim for trying to hold him accountable thus Reversing the Victim and the Offender. The victim in a DARVO situation then appears to be at fault, while the offender establishes himself as victim (3).
In this way, environmental abusers also make scapegoats of their victims. Rather than Exxon being a morally bankrupt corporation that will stop at nothing (even combusting all life on the planet) to boost their bottom line, climate scientists are selfishly conspiring to topple the wealthiest and most profitable corporations on Earth and have therefore concocted the odious prevarication of climate change.
Rather than trying to aggressively patent and gain a monopoly on global food crops, Monsanto is a benevolent corporation trying to feed the world, while evil Certified Organic producers are trying to inhibit free trade. The most prevalent constructed denial of all is that corporations who rape the Earth of resources, leaving a swath of devastation in their wake, are simply developing industry and creating jobs. The ecological walls crash in around us, while those who benefit from the destruction instruct us to ignore the corporate giants behind the curtain.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler Ross described the stages of coming to grips with devastating truth in her landmark work On Death and Dying. In order to heal, victims must come to grips with reality through a series of stages including anger, denial, bargaining, testing and acceptance. In order to be effective in dealing with the enormity of our contemporary, self-inflicted environmental calamity, we must likewise go through the stages of grief. First, the majority of us, who don’t have our hands in the cookie jar, must accept the extent of ruination to our planet and grieve what we have lost in order to move forward. Anger is entirely justified and must be directed effectively at the responsible parties. Bargaining (with the perpetrators) has been underway for some time, and it doesn’t work. You can’t bargain with terrorists, and the corporate entities and the political lapdogs who are ruining the planet are nothing less than ecological terrorists. They will not rest until every sellable resource has been stripped off the face of the Earth and sold for profit. It’s time to take our heads out of the sand and stop them.
1- Derrick Jensen, 2000. A Language Older Than Words, Context Books, page 108.
2- Dr. George Simon, PhD, 2008. From the World Wide Web at http://counsellingresource.com/features/2008/10/08/denial-as-defense-mechanism/