9 None So Blind: The Problem of Ecological Denial

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None so blind as those that will not see.

—Mathew Henry

Willful blindness has reached epidemic proportions in our time.

Nowhere is this more evident than in recent actions by the U.S. Congress

to deny outright the massive and growing body of scientific data

about the deterioration of the earth’s vital signs, while attempting to

dismantle environmental laws and regulations. But the problem of

ecological denial is bigger than recent events in Congress. It is flourishing

in the “wise use” movement and extremist groups in the United

States, among executives of global corporations, media tycoons, and

David Ehrenfeld coauthored this chapter.

on main street. Denial is in the air. Those who believe that humans

are, or ought to be, something better than ecological vandals need to

understand how and why some people choose to shun reality.

Denial, however, must be distinguished from honest disagreement

about matters of fact, logic, data, and evidence that is a normal

part of the ongoing struggle to establish scientific truth. Denial is the

willful dismissal or distortion of fact, logic, and data in the service of

ideology and self-interest. The churchmen of the seventeenth century

who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, for example, engaged

in denial. In that instance, their blind obedience to worn-out

dogma was expedient to protect ecclesiastical authority. And denial is

apparent in every historical epoch as a willing blindness to the events,

trends, and evidence that threaten one established interest or another.

In our time, great effort is being made to deny that there are any

physical limits to our use of the earth or to the legitimacy of human

wants. On the face of it, the case is absurd. Most physical laws define

the limits of what it is possible to do. And all of the authentic moral

teachings of 3,000 years have been consistent about the dangers and

futility of unfettered desire. Rather than confront these things directly,

however, denial is manifested indirectly.

A particularly powerful form of denial in U.S. culture begins with

the insistence on the supremacy over all other considerations of

human economic freedom manifest in the market economy. If one

chooses to believe that economies so dominated by lavishly subsidized

corporations are, in fact, free, then the next assumption is easier:

the religious belief that the market will solve all problems. The power

of competition and the ingenuity of technology to find substitutes for

scarce materials, it is believed, will surmount physical limits. Markets

are powerful institutions that, properly harnessed, can accomplish a

great deal. But they cannot substitute for healthy communities, good

government, and farsighted public policies. Nor can they displace the

laws, both physical and moral, that bound human actions.

A second indirect manifestation of ecological denial occurs when

unreasonable standards of proof are required to establish the existence

of environmental threats. Is the loss of species a problem? Well,

if you think so, just name one species that went extinct today! The

strategy is clear: focus on nits, avoid large issues, and always demand

an unattainable level of proof for the existence of any possible problem

before agreeing to any action to forestall potential catastrophe.

True, no such standards of proof of likely Soviet aggression were required

to commit the United States to a $300 billion defense budget.

But denial always works by establishing double standards for proof.

Third, denial is manifest when unwarranted inferences are drawn

from disconnected pieces of information. For example, prices of raw

materials have declined over the past century. From this, some have

drawn the conclusion that there can be no such thing as resource

scarcity. But the prices of resources are the result of complex interactions

between resource stocks/reserves, government subsidies, unpriced

ecological and social costs of extraction, processing, transportation,

the discount rate, and the level of industrial growth (which

turned down in the 1980s). This is why prices alone do not give us accurate

information about depletion, nor do they tell us that the planetary

sinks, including the atmosphere and oceans, are filling up with

wastes they cannot assimilate.

Moreover, the argument from prices and other economic indicators

does not take into account the sudden discontinuities that often

occur when limits are reached. A typical example from physics is

stated in Hooke’s Law: Stress is proportional to strain, within the elastic

limit. The length of an elastic band is proportional to the stretching

force exerted on it—until the band snaps. In biology, the population

crashes that sometimes occur when carrying capacity is reached provide

another example. There are many more.

Fourth, denial is manifest in ridicule and ad hominem attacks.

People inclined to think that present trends are not entirely positive

are labeled doomsayers, romantics, apocalyptics, Malthusians, dreadmongers,

and wackos. In a book that dominated environmental discussion

on Earth Day 1995, Newsweek writer Gregg Easterbrook, for

example, says that such people (whom he calls “enviros”) “pine for

bad news.” They suffer from a “primal urge to decree a crisis” (1995,

440) and “subconscious motives to be alone with nature” (ibid., 481).

Pessimism, for them, is “stylish.” They are ridiculous people with nonsensical

views, who do not deserve a serious response; this relieves

those doing the name calling and denying from having to think

through complex and long-term issues.

Fifth, denial is manifest in confusion over time scales. Again,

Easterbrook spends the first 157 pages of his 698-page opus explaining

why in the long view things such as climatic change and soil erosion

are minor events. Shifting continents, glaciation, and collision

with asteroids have wreaked far greater havoc than human-caused

degradation. “Nature,” he says, “has for millions of centuries been generating

worse problems than any created by people” (1995, xvii). I do

not for a moment doubt the truth of this assertion. Nor do I doubt

that from, say, Alpha Centauri, a nuclear war on Earth would scarcely

make the midday farm report. Easterbrook enjoins us to place our

ecological woes in the perspective of geologic time, and from a sufficient

distance they do indeed look like a quibble. The earth is a

fortress, he says, capable of withstanding all manner of insult and

technological assault. But we don’t live on Alpha Centauri, and

events that may be trivial in a million years loom very large to us with

our 75-year life spans, our few-hundred-year-old countries, and our

8,000-year-old agricultural civilization.

Denial is manifest, sixth, when large and messy questions about

the partisan politics of environmental issues are ignored. In the fall of

1994, about the same time that Easterbrook would have been working

over the galley pages for his book, agents of the Republican party

were drafting the final version of The Contract with America, a major

goal of which was to dismantle all of the environmental laws and regulations

so painstakingly erected over the past 25 years. Ecological

optimism was blindsided by political reality.

Why is denial happening? It is happening, first, because in the face

of serious problems such as the increasing gap between the rich and

everyone else, and the related problems caused by unrestrained corporate

power, we look for scapegoats rather than confront problems directly.

Historian Richard Hofstadter once called this the “paranoid

style of politics.” Practitioners of paranoid politics use conspiracy theories

to explain why things are not as good as they ought to be. Since

the collapse of the Soviet Union, reliably awful enemies are more difficult

to find. Accordingly, environmentalists, bureaucrats, gays, and

ethnic minorities have replaced communists as the enemies of choice.

Second, and perhaps most obvious, denial is a defense against

anxiety. Many of the environmental changes that are now happening

are deeply disturbing, but they constitute only a part of the assaults

on our well-being that most of us face daily. It is natural to want to

lighten our load of troubles by jettisoning a few. Environmental problems

are rarely as personally pressing as sickness or loss of a job, so out

they go. This kind of denial can provide some immediate relief of anxiety.

However, it merely delays the confrontation with ecological real-

ity until the time when environmental events, breaking through the

screen of denial, force themselves upon us. When that occurs, our

ecological troubles will be far more painful and far less tractable to

deal with than they are now.

Ecological denial is happening, third, because it seems plausible

to the ill-informed. Polls show that only 44 percent of Americans believed

that human beings developed from earlier species, while only

63 percent were aware that human beings negatively affect biodiversity.

This was the lowest response among the citizens of 20 countries

surveyed. People so ignorant are mere fodder for those who would

harness denial for their own purposes.

Fourth, it may be fair to say that ecological denial is happening in

the public because environmental advocates often appear to be elitist

and overly focused on an ideal of pristine nature, to the exclusion of

real people. We have not bridged the gap between environmental

quality and class as imaginatively and aggressively as we ought to have

done. As a result, many people see conservation biologists and environmental

activists as members of yet another special interest group,

not working for the general good. It is clear that we will have to do a

better job explaining to the public why the environment is not an expendable

concern unrelated to real prosperity and community. How

is this to be done?

I would like to recommend the following steps. First, members of

the conservation community must not deny that we live in a society

which desperately needs fixing and in which denial is seductively easy

and cheap, at least for a time.We must acknowledge and seek to understand

the connection between poverty, social injustice, and environmental

degradation. We must acknowledge and seek to understand

the connection between rootlessness and environmental

irresponsibility. We must acknowledge and seek to understand the

connection between the loss of functional human communities and

the inexorable decline in the state of the earth.

Second, we should take our critics seriously enough to read what

they have to way. I recommend a close reading of books such as But Is

It True? by the late Aaron Wildavsky (1995) and Ronald Bailey’s

edited volume called The True State of the Planet (1995).We need to

separate those things on which we may agree from those on which we

cannot agree, the plausible from the implausible, and be utterly clear

about the difference.

Third, we should take words more seriously than we have in the

past. Without much of a fight, we have abandoned words such as

“progress,” “prosperity,” and “patriotism” to those who have cheapened

and distorted their meanings beyond recognition. We need to

take back the linguistic and symbolic high ground from the deniers.

At the same time, however, some of us need to be much more careful

about using apocalyptic words such as “crisis.” “Crisis,” a word taken

from the field of medicine, implies a specific time in an illness when

the patient hovers between life and death. But few environmental

problems conform closely to that model.We do not doubt for a second

that we now face some genuine crises and that we will face others

in the future. But for the most part, ecological deterioration will

be a gradual wasting away of possibilities and potentials, more like the

original medical meaning of the word “consumption.”

Finally, we should all learn to recognize the signs of ecological denial,

so that when we see it in operation we can expose it for what it

is and force an honest discussion of the real issues that deserve our

immediate and full concern.