Updated: Jan 14
When speaking of climate change and other environmental and sustainable issues thoughts connected with doomism, escapism and denialism are never far away: “if this is reality and the way the world is going, why even try to change anything”. “It is too late anyway”. “Wanna get smashed and forget our problems?”.
Doomism is slightly different from the two others. Instead of trying to avoid the uncomfortable issue, knowingly or unknowingly, a doomist will tackle climate change head-on by accepting that the situation is too advanced as it is and that therefore inaction is the best response. A doomist is thereby not avoiding the problem, but does not believe any solution – even if it fixes some part of the problem – can fix the entire problem and save us from our current predicament. Therefore, a doomist is convinced we might as well do nothing. Doomism might be a lazy option, or it might simply be a catatonic response to a situation that seems impossible to conquer – a very sympathetic response when the problem is as comprehensive as climate change.
Even though doomism as a climate response is not desirable, it is also not the worst of the ism’s. A person with doomist tendencies could in principle be brought out of this state by proving that it is not too late to save the planet, that methods and ideas in accordance with sustainable practices are being implemented all over the planet, and that a lot of people are doing a lot. Depending on the severity of the doomism, this condition might turn out to be relatively easily overcome.
The real problem is the denialists and therefore also the escapists, as this state of mind may lead to denialism. Even though escapism is a completely rational response to many situations and emotions – past traumas or self-crippling doubt for instance – in some situations the irrationality of avoiding facts can lead to self-deception and this is less optimal.
Escapism is in itself not problematic. You should avoid unpleasant thoughts as often as you need to – however real the situations you are avoiding might be. No one can deal with the consequences of CO2 released into the atmosphere at the top of their mind all the time. This would probably only lead to a doomist, apathetic response seeing as everything you do (using any streaming service, using electrical appliances, turning on the light, leaving your house, buying basically anything) causes CO2 emissions. Having the ability to forget how messed up a world we live in from time to time is probably the ability that makes it possible for us to live in this world.
However, escapism becomes problematic when it leads to problematic responses to unwanted knowledge. For instance, when escapism leads to self-deception which leads to denialism. Denialism is the real sinner in the case of climate response and has often lead to harmful situations (the many people still denying the Holocaust laying the ground for further anti-Semitism; when the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, denied that HIV caused AIDS, and it prevented HIV positive people from receiving antiretrovirals; when the Turkish state refuted that the 1915 Armenian genocide occurred; when a community in Minnesota experienced a childhood measles outbreak in 2017 due to anti-vaxxers’ campaigns). Because the consequences of denialism are the changing of facts or avoidance of truth.
You might be wondering why we call it denialism and not simply disagreement? Is there not a chance that people who deny the Holocaust truly believe it never happened and that Jewish people (and everyone else) are compulsive liars (David Irving was even confident enough to go to court on this belief). If we were discussing whether capital punishment is effective we would not call the believers of the opposing view liars or denialists, we would merely be in disagreement with them over the evidence assembled. Is denialism simply a term used to describe particularly grave cases of disagreement?
Well, no. The difference between denialism and disagreement is that in a disagreement, you attempt to convince the opposing party of your standpoint by proving how they have misunderstood evidence. Essentially, both parties agree to look at the evidence as a whole and accept basic principles of logic. Therefore, disagreement over facts is quite rare – people who accept both sides of the argument often do not disagree on whether the earth is flat.
Scientific disagreement over evidence scientists take to amount to certain conclusions that they have enough confidence in to use in further studies and calculations as if they were facts are on the other hand quite common – such as the 97 % disagreeing with the 3 % over whether anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is real (by now, I gather most of the stubborn 3 % of scientists have been won over). It is not an undeniable fact that climate change is caused by humans, and that changing our lifestyle now will change the living conditions in the future, but it is something that most people take to be true. Even without undeniable evidence such as a picture of what the future would look like if we do not change anything. And this is where the denialists come in.
If you have taken the step from your escapist coping mechanisms, your love for a good conspiracy theory, or your deeply rooted anarchistic beliefs into the realm of denialism you no longer attempt a disagreement. You do not want to argue over your belief and you do not care for evidence against your belief – in many respects, your belief has become dogmatic.
The only difference is that a dogmatic belief often is not based directly on a piece of evidence. Whereas, you, as a denialist, base your belief on some irrefutable evidence that goes against the often commonly agreed on “truth” that you are denying.
What do you, as a denialist, want if you do not want to disagree? Even though I can see that the situation you have put yourself in is not a situation of disagreement, it seems you want to argue. And I truly want to disagree with you. The urge to disagree with your Trumpism, Qanon-ism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-climate response, flat-earth conviction, chem-trail belief or otherwise irrational idea is almost overpowering. I want to break your argument down and prove to you, and everyone else, that your belief is not a belief but a means to an end (I want to show that you are a bullshitter in the Harry Frankfurt sense of the term, you do not care about the truth, you simply pick the ideas that suit your purpose, you are a post-truth politician).
However, as a highly functioning escapist, I should suppress this desire (= avoid this unwanted desire by keeping it out of my conscience) and instead take on denialism by making sure that everyone who wants to (=the non-denialists) are properly educated, equipped with evidence for and against many common truths, and the ability to critically assess this evidence. Thereby making them more robust against denialism when they stumble upon a potentially harmful belief online. In order to do so, all I need is to become the global minister of education (the slower yet more realistic route would be to push a sustainable global agenda where proper education is valued highly and wrongful beliefs in the education systems around the world are discussed openly).
Diethelm, P., McKee, M., 2009, Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond, European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 19, 1, ,https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/19/1/2/463780
Kahn-Harris, K., 2018, Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth, ,https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/03/denialism-what-drives-people-to-reject-the-truth
Longeway, J., 1990, The Rationality of Escapism and Self-deception, Behaviour and Philosophy, Vol. 18, 2, pp. 1-20, ,https://www.jstor.org/stable/27759220