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The fascinating psychology behind climate denial, and how to sow the seeds of clear-eyed hope

Say what you will about the man, I’m a big fan of Zizek for effortlessly bridging multiple fields of thought to critique (post)modern society in a lucid way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he is encouraging or reassuring, but he brings a clarity that I find refreshing.

In a book entitled “Introduction to Lacan” - referring of course to the one and only Jacques Lacan - he uses plotlines from popular film and literature to illustrate Lacanian thought. In one section of the book, he tangentially refers to the ecological crisis of our time, and why we have been thus far unable to meaningfully engage with it. Specifically, he suggests that this failure can be explained by psychoanalysis. To understand his reasoning, we have to unpack a bit of Lacanian thought.


The 3 registers of human reality

Lacan’s project was to try and describe what it means to be a human subject within the context of language. In other words, how does language - one of humanity’s fundamental inventions - in turn affect our psychology? Why does this matter, you ask? Lacan gives us a language to describe how we think, feel and perceive reality, thus giving us a way to discuss subjectivity.

What does that even mean, anyway? In Lacanian thought, language on its own can be said to be an abstract structure, a formal system of differences. Words exist primarily to describe what something is and what it is not. However, speech is an act, adding a directionality to language. When one speaks, there is an implicit assumption of the existence of a speaker and a listener, which profoundly influences the meaning of what is said beyond the mere words that are used. This becomes important in psychiatric treatment because how a patient speaks about his troubles reveals not just the facts of the actual obstacle but also his attitude in relation to that obstacle. Such speech would also give a place to the listener, a role and a stage she may accept or reject.


This area of thought eventually leads Lacan to state that there are “3 registers of human reality”: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. Essentially he is saying that raw information from the world is processed by our minds into concepts or meanings, or not at all. 

The Imaginary register perceives distinct images (or concepts or ideas) like clearly defined objects, distinct from any other. For example, certain abstractions allow us to differentiate between a rock and grass. These ideas may be useful but they sprout spontaneously from within us, and may not necessarily be true. 

The Symbolic register loads an object with meaning beyond itself - simplistically understood like a book of sentimental value that is worth more to you than the cost of the book. But meaning can also be strongly influenced from the external environment, like the definition of “family” and your role in it. Since meaning is inherently subjective, any perceptions in the Symbolic register become intimately tied to the self and the things it holds dear. Needless to say, there is an element of fiction to what is perceived in the Symbolic register, which may be meaningful but cannot be said to be objectively true.

The Real as Lacan describes it is ironically is that which is never understood, or at best only imperfectly perceived. So reality as we know it is predominantly imaginary or symbolic, and the Real is what escapes us, what remains invisible to us even when the object in question is right in front of our eyes. This gap is what we allude to when we ask incredulously, “really?” 


The answer of the Real

Notably, when elements of the Real are abruptly brought to our attention, we may instinctively read (into) it with the Imaginary or Symbolic registers, thus (mis)interpreting the signs and reacting differently than what would be a rational response. Zizek terms this misinterpretation “the answer of the Real”.


To illustrate how the Imaginary register would misinterpret reality, Zizek brings up a work of fiction by Ruth Rendell, the book “Talking to Strange Men”. The plot explores a misinterpretation of reality that will remain uncorrected due to a series of coincidences that reinforce that story. The story begins with the protagonist, John, realising that his wife is cheating on him. While walking in the park deep in thought, he stumbles upon a series of coded messages hidden on a statue in the park. He deciphers the coded messages, which suggest that there are two spy rings trying to infiltrate the other. He decides to use this knowledge to his advantage, encoding messages of his own instructing the spies to tail his wife’s lover, which eventually lead to the accidental murder of the rival. 

Unbeknownst to John, there were no spy rings at all, but a group of adolescents playing an amusing game among themselves. Since the boys are dealing with double agents in their game, they are quick to assume that unusual requests are tests of loyalty devised by other members to weed out the moles. Derailed by John’s messages, their own activities take a series of turns that coincidentally lead to the unwitting and unintentional death of the rival.

However, as far as John is concerned, he will forever remain under the impression that he brought about the death of his rival through his cunning and guile. The final outcome, the dead body of the Real, is misinterpreted by the Imaginary register as a direct result of his manipulation of an actual spy ring. Meanwhile the adolescents will forever remain ignorant that their messages were ever intercepted by an outsider, convinced that the death was a prank gone awry. 


Now let’s look at how the Symbolic register might misinterpret reality. Here Zizek brings to the fore one of Casanova’s many adventures, as told by Octave Mannoni. Casanova plans to seduce a naive country girl by pretending to be a sorcerer who can control the weather. He dresses up like a mystic and heads to a clearing in the forest in the middle of the night, where he knows the girl might find him. He begins to draw a “magic circle” on the ground, mumbling nonsensical syllables to complete the act. At this very moment, a actual storm breaks out, with violent lightning strikes and ominous thundering sounds. The startled Casanova falls for his own prank, instinctively jumping into the “magic circle” with the erroneous belief that his magical mumbling caused the storm, and that his magic circle would therefore protect him. The storm of the Real was misinterpreted by the Symbolic register as an “answer of the Real” to his blasphemous actions.


This is all mildly interesting, but what does all this have to do with climate change, you might be asking. Please bear with me dear reader, we’ll get to that immediately.


The universe doesn't care about us

Here’s the bottomline. The climate crisis is here, in front of us, is snowballing, will get worse before it gets better even if we do everything right starting this very second, and it is going to be painful. Firstly, it concerns not just the fate of a handful of individuals, not even just our species but the entire biosphere as a whole. Moreover, it requires us to think very differently about our atmosphere, as an unthinking unfeeling thermodynamic system that has absolutely no preference or obligation whatsoever to remain at equilibria that are conducive to life as we know it.

Unfortunately I think we are not psychologically equipped to grasp something so counter-intuitive; the stability of the climate system is an implicit assumption like the pull of gravity. It is a foundational fixture of our understanding of reality; to doubt the life-conduciveness of the atmosphere is essentially meaningless within the norms of reality we act in on a day-to-day basis. Notably, this doubt cannot even be easily articulated by our existing vocabulary and figures of speech as it relates to the atmosphere. 


However, we have to be careful not to misinterpret elements of the Real as “answers of the Real”. In Zizek’s words, “we must learn to accept the real of the ecological crisis in its senseless actuality, without charging it with some message or meaning.” 

Here’s one way to think about this. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a gigantic storm so big it is an identifiable feature of the planet even from our distant vantage point. The storm is so big that its diameter could fit 2-3 Earths, and it has persisted for at least 200 years. Imagine that, a storm bigger than Earth, lasting longer than 3 human lifetimes. This is thermodynamically allowed in the Universe, and there is no reason the equivalent of such violent conditions couldn’t occur on Earth too, given the right series of nudges. If storms like that were to occur though, they would wipe out the biosphere as we know it. But Earth itself wouldn’t even blink. Earth has lived through 5 mass extinctions in the past, it can live through a sixth and still be spinning whether life survives or not.

When it comes to thermodynamics, there is no negotiation, no malice nor mercy. This is the cosmic insignificance that HP Lovecraft was so good at channeling. This is the “senseless actuality” Zizek is referring to. 


The three modes of climate denial

In the recent years that global warming has steadily been gaining more and more media attention, we have already seen what misinterpretations of the Real of climate change look like. Categorically, they fall into the following three varieties.

  1. False pragmatism: a mode of reaction that essentially goes “I understand very well what is happening, but we have more pressing matters to attend to in the short term.” This is the quinitessential Republican response to climate change - dismissal of the very notion as a hoax, and sophisticated arguments about how the effects on economy or international trade do not justify acting on climate change, even if it were true.

    Given what we know about the scale and scope of the crisis, the notion that anything else could be more important is simply absurd! Zizek charges that this response is nothing but existential procrastination, a refusal to confront reality and integrate this issue of survival into one’s sphere of attention in the here-and-now.

  2. Ritualistic obsession: with this mode of reaction, some take up certain causes and activities obsessively almost as if to say, “If I fail to perform act X, something bad will happen,” - be it going vegan or reducing plastic usage. While on the surface, any action sounds better than no action when it comes to climate change, Zizek still argues that this response simplistically matches at-best partial, at-worst feel-good solutions to a truly staggering problem. As long as individuals continue performing their chosen actions, they have effectively squared away their role and mentally disengage from further confrontation with the crisis.

  3. Penitent cynicism: in this final mode of reaction, climate change is perceived as a punishment for humanity’s sinful and indulgent ways. As we have seen, this is a classic “answer of the Real” misinterpretation of emergent behaviour of an unthinking complex system as a sign with an ironically self-flattering morality - that one’s messianic existential misery is somehow cathartic to a planet that has been wronged and demands justice. One response to this realisation is learning the eco-spiritual lesson that we must abandon our wasteful ways and live in harmony with ecological systems. An alternative response I have also observed is a kind of irresponsible nihilism: “if it is already too late, let us die happy.”

    Both these responses are of course illusions. While a romantic concept, Mother Nature is not a real "thing". We know from chaos theory that the complex systems of Nature were never in an Elysian balance that humans have disporportionately corrupted. This perceived sense of punishment and the subsequent lifestyle change (for better or worse), are not decisions based in reality and are thus not part of a valid response. And once such a response is chosen and internalised, true and continued engagement with the complexity and gravity of the climate crisis becomes a distant possibility.


If you’re still with me and got this far, here’s a big big hug. Zizek has not painted a very rosy picture, has he? And yet, as I mentioned earlier, the breakdown of illusions has been quite cathartic. It is time for a clear-eyed rational response to climate change, not merely an enviro-sentimental one. This is really the challenge of our lifetimes, and our response will decide the fate of our species as a whole and the conditions of our biosphere for centuries to come.


Looking to the future

Would you forgive me if I told you I’m optimistic?  What?! Why? How?

Now, I don’t claim to have any solutions or answers. All I have are some principles and convictions. I leave you now with my reasons for boundless optimism.


The tenacity of life

Some months back, I had the pleasure and honour of watching Planet Earth again, this time in a back-to-back marathon. Of course, nature documentary aficionados can appreciate how the sheer visual splendour of this series in particular would be sufficient reason to do so. However, 4 or 5 episodes on, I started noticing a curious pattern. As David Attenborough carefully describes every new and exotic habitat shown on-screen, he almost always prefaces it with the notion that this particular environment may seem inhospitable for various reasons, and yet… there is life. And once you start seeing one species, you find another ten not far off. And the sheer biodiversity of it all is still mind-boggling. 

Now I wish I could say with some measure of certainty that the incredible plants and animals that we know and love will continue to thrive regardless of the climate crisis, but I cannot. However, I have an unbreakable conviction that life in some form, even if merely microbial, will survive the long haul. Perhaps the majestic elephants, the jewel-like tree frogs, or the enigmatic whales may not survive. Who knows, maybe even humanity might not be able to sustain our civilization in the face of repeated and severe natural disasters. More likely, future generations will become planetary refugees, casting off into space in search of other planets to inhabit. Perhaps by then, our bases on the Moon and Mars would be populated and self-sufficient as well.

My point: life in general, life is here to stay. Earth has gone through eons of change, and five mass extinctions and life has survived them all. This comforts me to no end to know this as a near-certainty.


The snowball effects of feedback loops

The carbon bomb in our atmosphere was not a one-time pulse but a series of long-term systemic feedback loops that have snowballed into chaos. And much like elsewhere in the universe, feedback loops are impartial, giving equal opportunities to those that are favourable to us and those that are not. If we act now, and start chipping away at the roots of the crisis in any way that we can, doing it better and better with every day, year and generation, the positive feedback loops can and will cumulatively add up, yielding compound interest.

As Elon Musk once put it, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.” It won’t be a walk in the park, but sooner or later, we can conquer the storms.


The path to a posthuman future

In the astoundingly short time that humanity has been on the galactic scene, we have dared to dream, learn, explore and achieve. I feel heartened knowing even the dire predictions of climate change are essentially weather forecasts ahead of time, only possible thanks to our developments in science and technology. Any earlier civilisation would have been caught entirely unaware, incapable of dealing with what would have been deemed acts of God. What we have been given is a warning. It’s not the best news, but it’s infinitely better than having no warning at all. So what are we going to do about it?

For the sake of rational self-reflection, let's disregard climate change for a moment. We are undoubtedly living in one of the best times in human history. Of course, there are so many areas for improvement, but let’s not ignore the vast strides of progress we have made.

We have taken dirt and stones and built vast cities that glint when seen from space. We have made great works of art and literature that inspire millions despite the decades and centuries that separate the creators and their audience. We have pieced together rudimentary understandings of the smallest building blocks to the grandest cosmic structures of the universe. We have assembled as a swarm intelligence billions-strong, sharing information at the speed of thought with supercomputers in our pockets. A vast majority of us believe in ideas and values that go beyond mere biological survival, touching upon the areas of transcendent human flourishing. We are now on the verge of creating a new race of sentients, mechanical muscles and silicon brains to exponentially multiply our intelligence. Bringing climate change back into the picture… sure the odds are stacked against us, but I still wouldn’t bet for a second against the human race!

So it comes down to collective determination of the future we want. We have been down the road of fragmentation and conflict before, with horrific scars to show for it. What if we tried a different route this time round? What if we worked together to advance the grand opera of the human project, all 7 billion of us? What if... 

Think about it! The future we head to depends on your answer. 

A go-to answer for climate denialism

Thinking about global energy demand