The Denial of Denial

I am overjoyed and angry at the same time. The Trades Union Congress of the UK agreed unanimously yesterday to support the school student strikes on Friday 20th September and to campaign for a Just Transition to Green Jobs. Oh Joy! And then, they add that the UK should become carbon neutral by 2050 – more than 20 years further on than the IPCC’s conclusion that we have less than 12 years to do so. How bloody stupid!

It’s a step forward but not the strident pace, nay the sprint, that is essential for survival. The denial of the emergency, whilst stating this is an emergency, is mind boggling. My experience of attempting to achieve policy changes in two trades unions over 25 years is one of denial: physical denial of the space requested to discuss the facts, and denial by workers in the carbon industries of the need to change.

The worst case scenario offered by scientists is the extinction of human life within the next 80 years. In Health & Safety planning, reduction of hazards begins with the consideration of worst case scenario and working back from that to determine what has to be done. Trade unions invest a great deal of their collective power into health and safety issues in order to force better working conditions, yet when it comes to the potential of human extinction, they deny this tried and tested process. 

It may be that it’s too painful to face-up to the facts. The System based upon debt also ties workers into the surety of pay today over the surety of a catastrophic collapse tomorrow. Human beings are not good at dealing with a crisis until it is upon us. Cognitive change is not the issue. You’re not going to change unless you’re emotionally engaged! The thought of voluntarily ending your well-paid job working on an oil rig, or in the highly-technical munitions industry, or even if only reasonably paid in a car plant, requires a clear vision of the future that admits the need to change.

The trade unions also defend today’s status quo rather than take risks. When, at a national policy conference, I moved a motion arguing for Unite the Union to not support the replacement programme for Trident nuclear weapons, the entire membership in the nuclear industries threatened the General Secretary that they would move on block to another union (the GMB) if the policy was passed. Needless to say, the unions income and power derived from its membership inside the military industries over-ruled any argument that £200billion could be better spent.

The same occurred inside the climate debates. The competition between different unions panders to the “Now” of workers’ consciousness rather than their future best interests. Collapsing the car industry in favour of wind turbine production isn’t a winner at the moment. This may be because the leadership is not sufficiently engaged with the scientific predictions of the near future, although heaven knows we’ve tried to tell them. They may also have more than a passing personal interest in supporting the bosses and their profits in order to show they are a safe pair of hands in co-managing the workforce. It all adds up to denial of the facts.

And those of us who have faced the catastrophe have to deny the denial.

When asked about the emotional resistance to considering the possibility of climate catastrophe, Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion recognises that “The World isn’t simply materialist, it is also psychological and emotional…”. He speaks of the traditionally defensive protests of the Left in which we seek to hold the political space against attack. The defensive posture has usually failed and is likely to fail. His proposed tactic is to throw ourselves at the space, get battered or arrested in huge numbers, and effectively expose the repression and invalidity of the State’s response to protest. 

The barrier to accepting the science is a social addiction problem. 50 years of fossil fuel-enabled technology has created an emotional as well as material dependency on the stuff we have now. Suffering from dependency requires, firstly, the acknowledgement of the dependency and then a discussion about what to do about it, and finally the liberation from the dependency whilst recognising the danger of slipping-back into it unless we maintain personal vigilance and internal emotional management.

Jem Bendell writes of this as Deep Adaptation. It is necessary to face the addiction head on. The analogy works: a collective withdrawal from dependency; the necessary “cold turkey” of pain of recognition of the loss; and the straight-spined determination to behave in new ways and walk the talk.

We are on the verge of inevitable social collapse and most of us will be living into this era. Accelerated heating, global dimming and feedback loops mean that even if all carbon emissions are stopped today the heating will carry-on up, certainly up-and-over over 2 degrees and probably 3. The environment will suffer the impacts of the poison for decades to come even if humans stop our emissions right now.

The trade union Unite was able to win a policy yesterday with the hopeless target of 2050 because their leadership and the politicians have denied the facts. The locked-in temperature increase is defined yet excluded from the Paris Agreement and IPCC Reports. Is this the most deadly act of denial or the addicts’ condition prior to acceptance? Do we really have to hit rock bottom before accepting our perilous state? The emotional call for action against catastrophe, to stop the apocalypse, can be motivational or disarming. Were it a personal diagnosis of cancer we would have the choice of taking the medicine or letting nature take its course. It’s unlikely that we’d just take an Aspirin and carry on. Given the probability of deterioration towards extinction, why not act now, and act to survive? The longer the wait for treatment, the worse the prognosis. 

Perhaps, yesterday, the unions at least began to accept the need for a change of diet. But the resolution was still a mañana moment. Let’s talk about abstention from fossil fuels some other time. Yes, human beings are not good at dealing with a crisis until it is upon us. And yes, cognitive change is not the issue. We’re not going to change unless we’re emotionally engaged! Mourn now for the conditions we are living through in the 6th Great Extinction. Grieve for the loss of habitats. Accept the advance of the crisis that will most certainly burst through our front doors very soon. And make the change required, now. Above all, Deny the Denial.

Wednesday 11th September 2019

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