Future of Denial: to change the climate, we must first change

‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself’

George Orwell, 1984

I’ve been wanting to write a review of Tad Delay’s new book Future of Denial – out now with Verso – for a while now. I was kindly sent a proof copy which I read over a couple of days, and have been ruminating on since. What with my book being out and so much going on it’s taken me til now… and that’s partly because this book really is so extraordinary that I’ve wanted to attempt to do it justice.

Full transparency: I’ve been a big fan of Tad’s work for a long time. There’s an integrity to his writing that is not easily won. The meticulous way that Tad reads sources properly cannot be faked, and the time and commitment to research produces a gravity to his books that demands that the ideas in them be taken seriously.

This was true right from God Is Unconscious, but what sets Future of Denial apart is the magnitude and seriousness of the problem being confronted. This is not theoretical. This is happening, we are seeing it play out every day. This is a true and genuine existential threat… so why the hell aren’t we doing all we can to save ourselves?

The apotheosis of all his previous books, what Tad does here is sit us all on Freud’s couch – the right, the left, the conspiracy theorists, the oil companies, the politicians – and ask: why are we in denial?

Of course, very few people now ‘deny’ that climate change is happening. But this does not mean that the age of denial is over. Far from it: we know full well what is happening, but still emissions continue to rise and action is kicked further down the road. So what Tad does brilliantly here is propose a new theory of denial that takes us beyond ‘this isn’t happening’ to ‘oh shit, this is happening, but I can’t face it.’

As Tad notes in the introduction:

[Climate] denial is not an incorrect thought to be transcended or an age to be passed. […] I’m interpreting denial as would a psychoanalyst, where blockages, delay tactics, acting out and even budgetary concerns are read as resistance.

Future of Denial – p 10

This is about the ways that we play out behaviours – and fantasies – when long-buried horrors demand to be confronted.

In addition to the pleasure principle that directs life to enjoy, and a reality principle that checks surplus pleasure-seeking, Freud proposed an excessive drive operating beyond the pleasure principle: the death drive. Sadistic or masochistic activity can’t always be read rationally, because we exhibit excessive, libidinal drives and unconsciously encode our social systems and modes of production with the same excessive drives. What we are watching play out are death drives desirous of too many things at once.

This idea of excess is key: at the heart of the issue is a capitalist ideology that – as Tad carefully shows us – is hardwired towards destruction, because it is hardwired to growth.

And this addiction to growth – and the fruits of it – led to the corporate cover-up, covered beautifully in Chapter 5. ‘By 1979, an internal report [from Exxon] affirmed that “the present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”

In the fall of 1980, company scientist Henry Shaw told the National Commission on Air Quality about Exxon’s knowledge. Agriculture, ecosystems and sea-levels would be affected. The changes “can occur within a century, rather than over millennia,” and “increases are expected to persist for hundreds of years.” Governments must shoulder costs, since the changes “will be adverse to the stability of human and natural communities.” The research was buried.

Future of Denial – p. 113

Now, hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels are still in the ground… and somehow we must convince a society nursed from birth on capital that these ‘riches’ should be walked away from.

This is the scale of the problem: not just making the vast changes needed to our energy use and economy, but uncoupling ourselves from a mindset that resists doing so because of the financial cost.

We see it playing out amongst children: it is easier to lash out and hurt someone than face our own need to change. And this is the true power of Tad’s book – grounding it in the demonising of migrants who are are at the sharpest end of a changing climate and a global economy that sees rich nations racing to build walls and ring-fence their wealth for themselves. It is something I have always found odd: if right-wing, nationalist fanatics like Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage are so anti-migration, why aren’t they leading the fight against climate change? What Tad does so grippingly is expose how this mechanism of denial is brutalising people.

How then, to extract ourselves from this strangling web of denial? What would Freud’s analysis be?

Towards the end of my book Mutiny, I quote Salvatore Maddi:

In The Quest for Human Meaning, Salvatore Maddi discusses how healthy development occurs when the impulses towards commitment, control and challenge are in balance. Being committed means feeling that ‘by involving themselves actively in whatever is going on, [people] have the best chance of finding what is interesting and worthwhile to them.’ Being in control means feeling that ‘through struggle [people] can influence the outcomes of events going on around them.’ Feeling challenged means believing that ‘ultimately what is most fulfilling is to continue to grow in wisdom through what [people] learn from experiences, whether positive or negative.’

As Maddi notes: “There are definite signs indicating when the psychotherapeutic process is complete. […] The capstone is when the client assumes responsibility for their own lives, despite all the outside pressures that can easily be blamed for what happens to them”

Mutiny! p. 99

Commitment. Involvement. Struggle. Learning. Responsibility in the face of pressure. Admit the secret, and admit it first to our deepest selves.

This is what we are called to as a species as we face the greatest challenge to our flourishing in all of our history.

This is what we must do, and we must do it together. There is a word for it that Tad calls us to in his devastating conclusion. That word is Socialism.

If the spectral fear that prospect raises in you is greater than the fear of environmental collapse, come back next week and get back on the couch. We’re not done yet.

‘Must read’ is often overdone. In this case, it’s a command to follow, for damned good reason. Grab a copy from Verso here.


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