A few months ago, for a joke, I set up a Facebook group called ‘Climate change denial is a mental disorder’. It’s a satirical campaigning hub for people who think that climate change denial should be recognised as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, and that its sufferers – who probably engage in ‘regular chanting and intensive brainwashing sessions in cult-like surroundings’ – should be offered ‘eco-lobotomies’ to remove ‘the denying part of their brain’. The group now has 42 members. Yes, some have signed up because they get the joke, but others are serious subscribers to the denial-as-insanity idea. ‘Thank God I’ve found this group’, says one new member, who is sick of other Facebook groups being ‘hijacked’ by unhinged eco-sceptics.
The idea that ‘climate change denial’ is a psychological disorder – the product of a spiteful, wilful or simply in-built neural inability to face up to the catastrophe of global warming – is becoming more and more popular amongst green-leaning activists and academics. And nothing better sums up the elitism and authoritarianism of the environmentalist lobby than its psychologisation of dissent. The labelling of any criticism of the politics of global warming, first as ‘denial’, and now as evidence of mass psychological instability, is an attempt to write off all critics and sceptics as deranged, and to lay the ground for inevitable authoritarian solutions to the problem of climate change. Historically, only the most illiberal and misanthropic regimes have treated disagreement and debate as signs of mental ill-health.
This weekend, the University of West England is hosting a major conference on climate change denial. Strikingly, it’s being organised by the university’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies. It will be a gathering of those from the top of society – ‘psychotherapists, social researchers, climate change activists, eco-psychologists’ – who will analyse those at the bottom of society, as if we were so many flitting, irrational amoeba under an eco-microscope. The organisers say the conference will explore how ‘denial’ is a product of both ‘addiction and consumption’ and is the ‘consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency and irresponsibility’ (1). It is a testament to the dumbed-down, debate-phobic nature of the modern academy that a conference is being held not to explore ideas – to interrogate, analyse and fight over them – but to tag them as perverse.
Leading green writers have welcomed the West England get-together to study the denying masses. One eco-columnist says the conference might generate ideas for dealing with those who are ‘pathologically’ opposed to the environmental movement (pathology, according to my OED, is the study of ‘morbid or abnormal mental or moral conditions’) (2). Environmentalists recognise the inherent elitism of saying that, while they brave few can see things clearly, the rest of us are somehow disordered (greens are the ‘watchful ones amongst the slaves’, according to one environmentalist writer); yet they seem unashamed. The eco-columnist says this weekend’s conference will be useful because where ‘mainstream politics now largely “gets” environmentalism’, there is still a sceptical mass, ‘a baying and growing crowd, largely consisting of people resistant to the prospect of ever having to alter their lifestyles’. Apparently this crowd ‘gathers to hurl invective’ at environmentalist ideas, such as recycling and low-energy lightbulbs (3).
In a sense, this vision of elite, brainy environmentalists on one side and a baying, insult-hurling crowd on the other speaks, however accidentally and however crudely, to an underlying truth: environmentalism remains a largely elitist project, beloved of politicians, priests and prudes keen to control people’s behaviour and curb our excessive lifestyles, and it rubs many ‘ordinary people’ up the wrong way. Of course much of the public goes along with the environmentalist ethos, bowing to the central idea that mankind is destructive and observing such rituals as sorting their rubbish, but they do so half-heartedly, recognising that, fundamentally, greens’ anti-consumerist, anti-reproduction, anti-travel arguments run counter to their own personal aspirations. Yet rather than recognise this frequently hidden divide between the green elite and the ‘baying crowd’ as one built on differences of opinion, on clashing aspirations, even on rational assessments by sections of the public that recycling is a waste of time, increasingly environmentalists pathologise it, turning it into evidence of their wisdom in contrast to the public’s mental instability.