Death through selfishness, lack of imagination, and disavowal

Probably because I’m living everyday with my delightful three year old grandson, I’m thinking about the future–and my thoughts are apocalyptic because the future is apocalyptic.

Two days ago I got an email from a friend in Bangladesh telling me that 300 000 people had been flooded. I’d heard nothing about this from the international media. I shared the email with two friends, both leaders in sustainability who are doing much more than me to counter climate change.

David Pencheon, head of the NHS Sustainability Unit, responded: “I couldn’t agree more about our planet falling apart – in every sense: socially, spiritually, naturally.  One of the enduring mysteries of the human condition (for me) is how we can so creatively disavow what is quite clearly going on around us – but just over the horizon – even if we know that it is ethically unacceptable to ignore.  My guess is that this behaviour is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary biology in terms of survival.  However, we, as a species, have never before faced such an existential set of conditions – they are outside our previous evolutionary experience and thus adaptation.”

Then David introduced me to the psychoanalytic concept of “disavowal.”  We have discussed often the concept of denial whereby our minds simply erase a terrible threat. You see it commonly in people with a cancer that will kill them. But, points out David, few people deny the existence of climate change.

Disavowal, says psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, is “a state where we’re aware of something very important [for example, climate change and its effects,] but ‘find ways to remain undisturbed’ by the implications of it, rather than being stirred into action”  Disavowal, Weintrobe says, is artful and protean. We minimise the risk, put it to the back of our mind, forward it to the future, and convince ourselves there will be a technical solution. We think (and I’ve thought this many times) the plane will go whether or not I’m on it: I realise the fallacy of that argument, and whenever I think the thought I also think of Einstein’s “better to light a candle than live in darkness.” Or we may, says Weintrobe, adopt a “Noah’s Ark mentality,” thinking that we and our family will survive while most will die. Governments too can disavow–by, for example, setting targets and then not meeting them.

Perhaps another mental strategy for avoiding the actions we should be taking is “compartmentalisation,” which allows us to separate one part of our mind completely from another–the process that allowed Bill Clinton to have oral sex in the Oval Office while talking on the phone to foreign presidents. Sometimes we think about the terrible effects climate change is likely to have, but mostly we don’t.

Another factor, I’m sure, is that people know the risk of climate change but fail to understand the size of the risk. This is true for smokers, where the risk is well established. The scale of the risk of climate change is huge, but we cannot be anything like as precise as we can with the risk of smoking, making disavowal easy.

I remember writing years ago in a BMJ editorial that what condemned us was lack of imagination [of the impact climate change will eventually have] and selfishness (“to hell with our grandchildren” I wrote in 2001 when I didn’t have any.) I found that editorial, and it’s below. I’m not sure it’s the right one, but I couldn’t find another. The editorial was written in response to George Bush reneging on a promise to limit carbon emissions.  In the era of Donald Trump, Bush seems benign, and although Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris agreement his move may paradoxically have galvanised the rest of the world to be more active in reducing carbon emissions. (Could this be disavowal, both by me and the commentariat?)

In searching for the editorial (using the word “imagination”) I also found a remarkably long piece I wrote reporting on a 1983 conference of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), where we debated whether nuclear was preventable or inevitable.  There was much talk of “nuclear winter,” the Armageddon of the time. (The thinking that there have been many predictions of the end of the world for thousands of years and that none have come to pass is another form of disavowal.) The piece I wrote wonders about the value of the meeting and of IPPNW, but subsequently the organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in ending the Cold War and reducing the risk of nuclear war.

One sentence in the piece leapt out at me: “In these perilous times, optimism becomes a historic duty,” said Bernard Lown, the American cardiologist who was one of the founders and leaders of IPPNW. Lown is still going strong at 96 and still an inspiration and force for good: I will try to be optimistic (or is that disavowal yet again?)


“In a world afflicted by murder, mayhem, and malnutrition it may seem bizarre to suggest that the worst thing to happen this year is for some words to come out of a man’s mouth—but that may turn out to be so. Last week President Bush reneged on a campaign promise to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from power stations. This is a serious setback in a world that is already failing to respond responsibly to global warming.1 The short term effects of Bush’s decision may be merely political but the long term effects are likely to be catastrophic. As usual, the worst affected will be the world’s poorest, those who have contributed the least to global warming.

There are few scientists left who doubt, firstly, that global warming is occurring and, secondly, that the warming is caused mostly by emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity.2–4 The evidence may not be as strong as that linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer, but it’s strong enough to make inactivity in response to the threat look like recklessness. President Bush’s timing was excruciating in that it coincided with the publication of a study in Nature that included hard data showing the increase since 1970 in the ability of the earth’s atmosphere to trap the sun’s heat.5

The expected effects of global warming are not entirely clear, but interference with systems as complex as weather can have drastic and unpredictable consequences. Most likely are flooding, the drowning and displacement of millions, destruction of arable land causing widespread malnutrition, highly destructive weather episodes, deaths from higher temperatures, and the geographical extension of diseases like malaria.2

The major factor driving us all to find it impossible to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide is our “addiction” to energy. Many of us, including (probably) President Bush, know that our inability to get out of our cars, switch off our air conditioning, and forsake the products of energy hungry industry and agriculture is storing up death and misery for those who come after us, many of whom are already born. Yet we cannot stop. Our failure is born of selfishness (to hell with our grandchildren) and a failure of imagination. And the worst offenders are the Americans, who make up 4% of the world’s population but produce nearly a quarter of its greenhouse gases. They must provide leadership. President Bush has a chance to prove himself a leader who will be remembered long after the average president by doing just that.”

BMJ editorial



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