Psychology has a lot more to do with the protection of the environment than we might think.
The denial of the individual
In psychology denial is a defense mechanism, that keeps unpleasant realities: actions, impulses, events away from the conscious mind in order to avoid the anxiety associated with them. Our brain decides to deny information that will cause too much trauma, that seems unsolvable or that its solution will involve too much change. This is a very useful mechanism, that allows us to forget thoughts that would impare the functioning of our conscious mind.
We have evolved to deal with immediate or at least tangible problems. The environmental problems that our behavior on Earth is causing are far reaching and go way beyond the capacity of any human being to completely understand them, let alone to solve them. The situation is really dire and fear is an understandable reaction. We are causing a global mass extinction of species, that threatens the potential for a future for humanity. As individuals we have to accept the truth, as painful as it is, and admit to ourselves that we have our role in this mindless process. It is logical that nobody would consciously decide to be an active part of the ongoing destruction of the environment. A lot of our bad behaviors are the product of cultural immaturity that was fed to us since childhood and don’t represent an inherent willingness to do harm. We can’t afford to keep on denying the existence of the problems, nor should we deny the fact that we do have the power to do something significant to fix them. When we accept the gravity of the problems and the limits of our capacity to fix them, we are going to be able to step on the journey of action and healing. Instead of denial we need to create a space in our daily thoughts and actions where we can think, act, improve and evolve in a direction that leads to solutions.
The denial of our institutions
Denial is studied and talked about on the level of the individual, but this sort of defense mechanisms seem to be operating on the level of society as well. The institutions that are at the base of our global society are failing to recognize the very existence of our problems or propose inadequate and insufficient solutions. On the level of international institutions like the UN there seems to be a consensus at least around the presence of a problem – the destruction of the environment and the ensuing climate are real and something needs to be done. Talks are held and treaties are signed, but on the scale of domestic politics the picture gets different.
In every “developed country” we still have very large political parties that completely deny the link between human activity and the degradation of the ecosystems. Of course, it is not very hard for them to find an audience of people who fear change and will be more than happy to erase the discomfort of their responsibility. The other kind of large political parties are having another strategy for denial – they recognize the existence of most problems, but fail to address their real sources while proposing completely insufficient solutions. In this way the voters are left with the false choice between doing nothing or doing a little more than nothing. We have to admit that our political system and governmental institutions are under the influence of the people who have direct interests in maintaining and managing the status quo. These institutions are completely outdated and fail to react to the reality that they are creating. This is happening mainly because all these systems are based on different types of ideologies. Denial sprouts on ideologies, because everything that doesn’t fit in the paradigm offered by the ideology must be denied in order to maintain the validity of the ideology. This is why capitalist societies have such a big problem recognizing the existence of our environmental problems. Capitalism regards the Earth as a resource and a commodity to be exploited, while the reality is that the Earth is a living organism, and we are an integral part of it.
It’s only when we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of admitting that the situation is bad, that we allow ourselves to really look for solutions and implement them. This works for many aspects of our personal lives, and our environmental awareness is one of them. Ending the denial of our institutions is also a goal that every one of us should take seriously. Our democratic institutions might be flawed, but this is just one more reason to use them.