Apocalypse when? (Not) thinking and talking about climate change

Apocalypse when? (Not) thinking and talking about climate change

Matthew Adams (University of Brighton)

Released in the autumn of 2014, the final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) restated the ‘extremely high’ likelihood that climate change is primarily caused by humans, is accelerating, is impacting extreme weather and is already affecting growing numbers of people. The headline statement was that ‘without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally’.

These are unequivocal warnings. As the environmental scholar, Bill McKibben, puts it in a piece for the Guardian, ‘for scientists, conservative by nature, to use ‘serious, pervasive, and irreversible’ to describe the effects of climate falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola… But, thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned’.

A significant majority of the populations of wealthy nations outwardly appear to be ignoring the advancing ecological crisis, continuing their consumption patterns unabated, and failing to mount a significant public response. Meanwhile ‘new recruits’ from fast ‘developing’ nations with disposable incomes play catch-up with consumerist lifestyles, further exacerbating the crisis. We are warned, but individually and collectively we are failing to act. Why?

Psychologists are identifying countless psychological ‘barriers’ that obstruct behaviour change despite knowledge about anthropogenic ecological degradation, that include perceptual, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and group processes (see Robert Gifford’s overview). Some researchers, inspired by psychoanalysis, study how defence mechanisms act as barriers to action in the context of ecological crisis. Originally conceptualized by Freud, defence mechanisms are psychological processes aimed at avoiding, or protecting one’s self from, experiences of emotional distress, destructive impulses, or threats to self-esteem. Many – like repression, regression, projection and denial – have entered into everyday language.

As a social psychologist with roots in sociology, what I find particularly fascinating is the apparent social character of these mechanisms. Clearly the threat of catastrophic planet-wide degradation is experienced at a psychological level – we respond with a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. How we think, talk and feel about these issues also relies on complex unspoken interaction norms, involving the shared management of emotions (like anxiety and embarrassment), and the mutual projection of acceptable identities that would have fascinated scholars of social interaction like Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel.

Understanding how we (don’t) feel, talk and think about anthropogenic climate change and related crises is important in making sense of how we respond individually and collectively to it. Consider your own response – how do you feel when a conversation about climate change crops up in everyday life? I like to imagine this first question in the context of the UK television quiz Family Fortunes (Family Feud in the US). The show follows a format in which members of a family are asked in turn to guess the most popular answers to a question asked of a survey of 100 people. ‘We asked 100 people what they think about, when they think about climate change’. Two families compete to guess the most popular answers (what would you say?). It is a question that, to borrow the words of Goffman, ‘casts a shadow of sustained uneasiness’ over a social encounter.

The climate change communication analyst George Marshall puts it like this: “I am consistently dropping climate change into conversations with strangers, talking about the weird weather or something similar. I’m always casual about it… but however I say it, the result is always the same: the words sink and die in mid-air and the conversation suddenly changes course. This is hard to describe, but anyone who tries it knows exactly what I mean. It is like an invisible force field that you only discover when you barge right into it. Few people ever do, because, without ever having been told, they have somehow learned that this topic is out of bounds”.[1]

The nature of this ‘invisible force field’ is elaborated upon by recent work in the social sciences that studies how defence mechanisms are supported by and shared with others (see my infographic on Flickr for a visual overview).[2] ‘Others’ here include immediate others – friends, family, peers; but also the more physically distant ‘others’ we find in news coverage, advertising, entertainment, institutional practices. Uncomfortable emotions generated by information implicating us in ecological degradation are readily channelled into various interpersonal, group and culturally sanctioned explanations that allow us to carry on with ‘business-as-usual’ behaviour. These explanations form part of broader ‘narratives’ – so called because social scientists consider them fundamental to how we meaningfully ‘plot’ our own lives.

What form do these narratives take? Rosemary Randall identifies familiar narratives in various communication forms tacking ecological crisis such as fiction, film, advertising, sustainability campaigns, news media.[3] She notes how the consequences of ecological crisis are persistently depicted as apocalyptic whilst solutions are portrayed as technological fixes and minor behaviour modifications. Rather than thinking of these as independent, Randall claims that they are ‘parallel narratives’. Superficially at odds with each other, they are actually part of the same collectively reassuring defence. Imagining catastrophic loss engenders anxiety, but it is projected into a non-specific future – it is experienced vicariously and fatalistically. Solution narratives, on the other hand, avoid loss, and normally envisage carrying on more or less as normal through alternative technological means (e.g. nuclear fission), or even a better life following painless adjustments (‘small steps’).

Other research highlights how defence mechanisms are socialized through narratives as diverse as consumerism, nationalism and religion.[4] It seems that it is difficult to overestimate the power of collective denial narratives to shape our response. Ongoing work by George Marshall and others illustrate how, even following direct first-hand experience of extreme weather events attributed to climate change, everyday conversations and personal reflection amount to a ‘socially generated silence’; and an overwhelming tendency to avoid mention of climate change in related news media coverage.

Norgaard refers to ‘socially organized denial’ as a general term for these interlocking narratives that deflect individuals and communities from acting on the implications of knowledge about environmental problems. The term might also include denialism, which refers to intentionally co-ordinated ‘campaigns of misinformation… funded by commercial and ideological interests’.[5] Socially organized denial encapsulates both the planned and intentional activities of powerful interests, and what the rest of us might experience as more immediate, unplanned and unsolicited responses, that nonetheless reflect shared narratives. Denialism maintains and is maintained by everyday forms of collective denial.

Denial narratives must be challenged. The more uncomfortable realities they obscure must be addressed. This isn’t easy. A more likely vision of the future involves, as Vinay Gupta bluntly states, a different kind of social imagination: one where the ‘we’ of relatively affluent consumer lifestyles, are ‘living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee’. No technological salvation, no apocalypse: ‘it’s not the end of the world: it’s rejoining the rest of the human race’.[6] Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is very little cultural articulation of this possibility in predominant narrative frames.

We need to better understand the everyday relations that contribute to the social organization of denial, and how they might be effectively breached, perhaps in part by reviving the interactionist spirit of the social sciences encapsulated by Goffman and Garfinkel. These are processes in danger of being relegated to the margins in contemporary sociology, wherever it is happy to emphasise the ‘facts of automatic, repetitive and mindless conduct so dear to the social engineering agendas of behavioural economists.

We also need to be alert to the fact that facing loss is anxiety-inducing, and must be approached with the support of others; support that includes the struggle to develop meaningful alternative narratives to identify with collectively. In the context of socially organised denial, we should not be surprised if resistance and alternatives are often provisional, opaque or prefigurative. Engagement with social defences and related narratives, and the attempt to develop alternatives are emerging (e.g. the RSA’s seven dimensions of climate change project; Carbon Conversations, Dark Mountain Project, Mediating Change). My own research and writing is an attempt to document and engage with such attempts.

A suitable collective response to our ongoing ecological crisis is unlikely unless, to quote John Holloway, ‘we can touch people’s hidden revolts, unless we can see and mark out the lines of continuity between the ubiquitous revolts of everyday life and the great uprisings’.[7] Research that engages with how people think, feel and talk about ecological crisis do not provide a ready solution either in trying to make sense of human inaction in the face of ecological crisis, or in the push to construct interventions that will generate more sustainable behaviour. But they remind us of how essential it is that people’s struggles with the collective problems they face are the basis for genuinely progressive social change.

[1] Cited in Rowson, J & Corner, A. (2015) The seven dimensions of climate change: introducing a new way to think and talk and act. London: RSA/COIN. Available here.
[2] I have recently summarised this work in Adams, M. (2014) Inaction and environmental crisis: Narrative, defence mechanisms and the social organisation of denial. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society. 19, 52–71. Available here.
[3] Randall, R. (2009) Loss and climate change: The cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology, 1(3): 118–129. Available here.
[4] See for example Kari Norgaard’s fascinating ethnographic study: Norgaard, K.M. (2011) Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.
[5] p. 37 in Weintrobe, S. (2012) The difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change. In: S. Weintrobe (ed.) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 33–47.
[6] Gupta, V. (2011) Death and the human condition. In: P. Kingsnorth and D. Hine (eds.) Dark Mountain Issue 2. Ulverston: Dark Mountain Project, pp. 76–85. See also here.
[7] John Holloway responding to Guardian review of his book Crack Capitalism (2000), available here.


Matt Adams is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton. His writing and research has considered various aspects of social identity, particularly in terms of inequality, class and consumption.  He is currently researching the social and psychological dimensions of ecological crisis.


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