Pathologising dissent? Now that’s Orwellian

Ahead of a conference on the psychology of climate change denial, Brendan O’Neill says green authoritarians are treating debate as a disorder.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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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.

University departments, serious authors, think-tanks and radical activists are embracing the ‘psychological disorder’ view of climate change scepticism. At Columbia University in New York, the Global Roundtable on Public Attitudes to Climate Change studies the ‘completely baffling’ response of the public to the threat of climate change, exploring why the public has been ‘so slow to act’ despite the ‘extraordinary information’ provided by scientists. Apparently, our slack response is partly a result of our brain’s inability to assess ‘pallid statistical information’ in the face of fear (4). The Ecologist magazine also talks about the ‘psychology of climate change denial’ and says the majority of people (excluding those ‘handfuls of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders’: the green elite again) have responded to warnings of global warming by sinking into ‘self-deception and mass denial’ (5). An online magazine called Climate Change Denial is dedicated to analysing the public’s ‘weird and disturbed’ response to climate change (6).

John Naish, the celebrated author of the anti-consumerism treatise Enough!, says our consumerist behaviour, with its promise of ‘ecological disaster’, ultimately springs from the fact that we’re all using the ‘wrong brain’. Our culture, all those flashy ads and temptations to buy, buy, buy and be fat and happy, is aimed at stimulating our ‘primordial instinct’, our ‘reptilian brain, which is responsible for arousal, basic life functions and sex’, says Naish. It neglects and makes lazy our ‘neocortex, the intelligent brain we evolved in the Pleicestocene era’. In short, we’re behaving like animals rather than intelligent beings; indeed, says Naish, our consumer culture is sending us ‘knuckle-dragging into ecological disaster’ (7). In a less hysterical and monkey-obsessed fashion, Al Gore, the king of climate change activism, says the media are warping people’s minds and actively encouraging thoughtlessness and climate change denial, giving rise to a public response to ecological disaster that is not ‘modulated by logic, reason or reflective thought’ (8).

The labelling of those who question certain scientific ideas or green ways of life as ‘deniers’, ‘addicts’ and ‘reptiles’ with a ‘baffling’ inability to understand The Science and act accordingly has a deeply censorious bent. If ‘climate change denial’ is a form of mass denial and self-deception, a fundamentally psychological disorder, then there is no need to engage in a meaningful public debate; instead people just need to be treated. Thus the Ecologist says ‘denial cannot simply be countered with information’; indeed there is apparently ‘plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify denial’ (9). The respected British think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, goes so far as to insist that ‘the task of climate change agencies is not to persuade by rational argument but in effect to develop and nurture a new “common sense”’ (10). This is the logical conclusion to treating disagreement as ‘denial’ and dissent as a ‘disorder’: no debate, no real information, just an insidious demand to change The Culture in order to relax the wrong side of our brains or to inject us with a new commonsensical outlook.

The psychologisation of climate change denial – even the very use of that term: denial – reveals how utterly aloof and cut off are the environmental elitists from mass society. They cannot comprehend, indeed are ‘baffled’ by, our everyday behaviour, our desire to have families, our resistance to hectoring, our dream of being wealthier, better travelled, our hopes of living life to the full. For them, such behaviour is irresponsible and it runs counter to the ‘extraordinary information’ provided by scientists. They seriously expect people to make life decisions on the basis of pie charts and graphs drawn up in laboratories in Switzerland, rather than on the basis of what they and their families need and, yes, what they want. That the green lobby is so perturbed by our failure to act in accordance with scientific findings shows the extent to which, for them, The Science is a new gospel truth and religious-style guide to life, and anyone who disobeys it is a sinner, heretic or deranged individual, a moral leper of the twenty-first century.

Psychologising dissent, and refusing to recognise, much less engage with, the substance of people’s disagreements – their political objections, their rational criticisms, their desire to do things differently – is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, outspoken critics of the ruling party were frequently tagged as mentally disordered and faced, as one Soviet dissident described it, ‘political exile to mental institutions’ (11). There they would be treated with narcotics, tranquillisers and even electric shock therapy. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure our hero Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged!’ he tells him. Today the word ‘Orwellian’ is massively overused, to describe everything from fingerprint library cards to supermarket loyalty cards, but treating your dissenters as deranged? That really is Orwellian, and we should declare permanent war against it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill discussed Ofcom’s ruling on The Great Global Warming Swindle and discussed Al Gore’s ‘good lies’. Frank Furedi thought that modern demonology and denial were Really Bad Ideas. Ian Murray argued that modern environmentalists are hectoring, intolerant religionists. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech.

(1) Climate change denial conference held at UWE, University of West England, 7 March 2009

(2) Oxford English Dictionary

(3) Welcome to planet earth, Leo Hickman, Guardian, 14 February 2009

(4) Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?, Alternet, 14 November 2008

(5) The psychology of denial, Ecologist, 22 September 2001 m

(6) See Climate Change Denial

(7) Oops, wrong brain, John Naish, Ecologist, 28 January 2009

(8) See Why political thought is imprisoned in the present, by Frank Furedi

(9) The psychology of denial, Ecologist, 22 September 2001

(10) Warm Words, ippr, August 2006

(11) See Dope lobby push Soviet tactics on drug legislation, Brendan O’Neill, First Post, 19 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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