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Environment and ecology: Why are we doing nothing? Despite the abundant evidence of climate degradation, public opinion continues to do nothing. How to explain this apathy?, The Ecologist

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Far from being pushed to accept reality, people must on the contrary be torn from it, ”says Stanley Cohen in his remarkable book States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering [Conscious negation in the face of atrocities and suffering]. According to him, the capacity to let things happen and the refusal of awareness are deeply rooted in a society saturated with information.

Its analysis is ideally suited to the current reaction to global warming. “Awareness” of the problem is ingrained at all levels of society: in public opinion (according to polls, 68% of Americans see it as a serious problem); in the scientific community (as evidenced by open letters regularly issued by scientific institutions); in companies (with strong statements from the CEOs of oil companies); among many heads of state (speeches as pious as they are regular on the imminence of the disaster).
But on another level, we pointedly refuse to admit the implications of what we know. As Bill Clinton called for urgent action, his negotiators were busy torpedoing a deal that was only a pale reflection of his own warnings. The newspapers constantly publish grim warnings about the changing climate, while offering articles a few pages down that enthusiastically invite the reader to take a weekend trip to Rio. People, including my friends and family, may express their concerns with seriousness and then forget about them, buy a new car, turn on the air conditioning, or take a plane to go on vacation.

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By relying on the work of Cohen, it is possible to determine the existence of certain psychological processes transposed to climate change. First, general rejection is to be expected when the problem is of such scope and nature that society has no cultural mechanism to accept it. Primo Levi, trying to explain the fact that many Jews in Europe may have refused to admit the threat of extermination, quoted an old German adage: "Things whose existence seems morally impossible cannot exist. . "

In the case of climate change, we are intellectually capable of admitting the obvious, while having the greatest difficulty in accepting our responsibility for a crime of such proportions. In fact, the most obvious proof of our willingness to deny lies in our inability to recognize that this drama has a moral dimension, with identifiable culprits and victims. The very terms “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” constitute a form of negation. These euphemisms imply that climate change originates from irreversible natural forces rather than a direct cause-and-effect relationship with moral implications for the culprit. Then we strive to dilute our accountability. Cohen describes in detail the "passive spectator effect", whereby a violent crime can be committed in the middle of a crowd without anyone intervening. People wait for someone else to take action and take responsibility for the group. The more players there are, the less chance there will be for an individual to feel capable of acting unilaterally. In the case of climate change, we are both spectators and actors, and this internal conflict can only strengthen our desire for negation.
We are therefore witnessing the negation of consciousness ("I did not know"), the negation of action ("I did nothing"), that of the personal capacity to intervene ("I could do nothing" , “Nobody was doing anything”) and blaming others (“they were the ones who had big cars, the Americans, the companies”).

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For activists around the world, it is crucial to understand these mechanisms in order to prepare a campaign strategy.
In short, it is not enough to inform to counter these reflexes. This is a reality that cannot be emphasized enough. Environmental movements act like so many living fossils that emerged from the Enlightenment, with their faith in the power of knowledge: “If only people knew, they would act. That's why they devote most of their resources to reporting or publishing articles and editorials in the media. But this strategy does not work. The polls show a high level of awareness, but hardly any sign of a change in behavior. On the contrary, there is no lack of signs of negative reactions, such as calls for lower fuel prices and more energy.

This lack of public reaction is part of the vicious circle of the passive spectator's self-justification. “If it was really that bad, sure someone would do something,” people tell themselves. Anyone who cares can escape the vicious circle of negation to join the handful of people who have already chosen not to be passive spectators. The last century has been marked by lies and mass denial. An example that the twenty-first century does not have to follow.

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George Marshall
The Ecologist

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