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Wilful Ignorance Is The Bedrock of Denialism

Albert Bartlett once spoke about Mark Twain’s “silent lie”. It refers to the habit of lying by not revealing the truth. If I know that someone has planted a bomb in the local subway, but I choose not to share that information with the authorities, by Twain’s definition, I am a liar. But when the information that I withhold is of critical importance to our lives or the lives of innocents, then I am more than a liar. I am criminally negligent. Such is the case with many politicians and environmental leaders. They know that we are facing economic collapse from dwindling oil supplies and ecological Armageddon from over-population, soil degradation, overtaxed aquifers and species loss, but they choose to shield the public from the brutal truth.

Several reasons have been advanced to account for their silence. One is ideological. The syncretistic blend of New Left thinking, feminism, cultural relativism, xenophilia and political correctness, sometimes bundled under the rubric of “cultural Marxism” has been a proven reality filter. The stark fact that there is not “enough to go around”, that we are already in overshoot, cannot be acknowledged by ideologues who view the present through the prism of an antique social justice agenda. Their focus is not on stopping growth, but managing and deflecting it. It is not on acknowledging limits, but ‘growing’ them with more efficient use of resources by land use strategies, pie-in-the-sky technologies and Spartan living habits. And it is not about family planning to cap population growth, but granting women reproductive choices even if they those choices result in unsustainable growth. For the growth management syndicate there is never a “longage” of people but a shortage of food. A shortage that can be cured by perpetual foreign aid, political reform or fair and efficient distribution. The notion that modern agriculture will collapse with the demise of fossil fuels or that organic farming or “re-localization” cannot sustain 7 billion people is beyond their comprehension.

There is another more mercenary reason for population myopia and green silence, however. Simply put, political parties and mainstream environmental NGOs, for the most part, are paid “not to understand”. Organizations like the Sierra Club, Conservation International, Nature Conservancy and the David Suzuki Foundation, accept corporate money. Some even permit corporate representatives to hold directorships. This comes at a price. What are corporations, and particularly financial institutions all about? Growth and Debt, which go together like a horse and carriage. An apt simile for the post-carbon future that looms around the corner. So we shall have growth, but it shall be painted green. Voila. “Smart” growth. A first class ticket on a doomed ship.

But most importantly, corporations crave the certification of social responsibility that environmental organizations can give them. In the 1990s big business felt the winds of change. Environmentalism had gone mainstream. It became evident that opposing the public mood was not a wise business strategy. So rather than war with environmental organizations, it proved commercially advantageous to jump on their bandwagon. If they could gain the environmental seal of approval in exchange for acquiescence to growth, they could proceed with business-as-usual. And just as the Pope sold indulgences to the wealthy benefactors of the Middle Ages, the “Pope” of the Sierra Club, among others, sold ecological dispensation to corporate benefactors. As anointed Green Citizens, “progressive” corporations can count the profits and bask in self-righteous glory as the population grows relentlessly.

But this fact raises a more fundamental issue. Proof of this corporate infiltration is available by the mere perusal of their financial reports. So why aren’t the members of environmental NGOs doing their homework? Why do people who would conduct a title search or home inspection when they buy a house, or scrutinize the financial report of their union or strata council, or make the purchase of a car subject to a mechanical inspection not care to apply the same rigor and due diligence to the environmental organizations they support? Why don’t they care to know who is paying the piper? And why do they rely upon the filtered , spoon-fed news that these green organizations dispense rather than do their own research? Why do they delegate their thinking to these kept women of corporate duplicity, their chosen gatekeepers of knowledge?

Are people lax, indolent and ignorant? At times, most are. Despite numerous opportunities, I have chosen to be ignorant about the workings of my car, or how to trouble-shoot my computer problems, or even how to fill in my own income tax form. But like other people, I address many areas of my life with earnest curiosity. Many of us effect great interest in proper nutrition, effective exercise, better gardening, shrewd shopping and a host of hobbies and interests. But we are deliberately oblivious to those societal issues which threaten our collective survival. Many adopt the posture of “positive thinking” ---the wilful ignorance of the blatantly obvious. Like those who persisted in playing cards while the Titanic listed, they whistle past the graveyard of a civilization that edges closer to the cliff. The writing is on the wall, but they choose not to read it.

While the media collaborates with their self-imposed stupefaction, it only panders to their appetite for escape. There is an insatiable market for denial and self-indulgence. Even news must be entertaining. We are transfixed by stock market quotations, economic indices, sporting events and movie star divorces, but bored with the end of the world as we know it. Of those who read, it is murder mysteries, horror stories, romance novels, tales of the supernatural and pop psychology that seem to command interest. We are literally amusing ourselves to death. Even those nations with democratic levers are captive of an ecologically illiterate electorate. Everywhere we are oppressed by the coalition of the uniformed, who consist of, in the words of Tasmania’s Peter Bright, “People who don’t think, and who don’t want to think; people who don’t know—and who don’t want to know; and those who don’t care, and don’t want to care.”

We are fatally flawed. Unfit and undeserving of a better fate than that which awaits us like a black-hooded executioner beside his chopping block, axe in hand. Poetic justice for the architects of the Sixth Extinction, a species that despite its vaunted intelligence, continues to undercut its own life support system like a cannibal feeding off his own limbs. The fossil record is full of failed models like ours. A Greek tragedy in the making.

Tim Murray



What you have highlighted is the dilemma of the immature society that like a typical human two year old selfishly believes that it is the centre of the world and has an unlimited right to have what it wants.

The problem of the two year old is one for the parents, to reshape immature thinking and behaviour so it learns to be part of society rather than falsely thinking it is the centre of society.

Immature societies have a similar problem. Twentieth century societies emerged out of 19th century societies that were spoilt by their governments. Exploitative, selfish habits are cross generational. Emerging third world societies are now aspiring to the excesses of their 'first world' older siblings.

What to do with Societal Two Year Olds in the 21st Century?

Tiger Quoll
Snowy River 3885

Hi Tim, your essay recently appeared on the 'bcenvirowatch' and 'landwatch' discussion lists, where many BC enviro's communicate. I appreciated your piece very much and went to 'candobetter' and read more of your writing. It appears that you are from Canada so I'm hoping that you will please consider joining these listservs. We all need more of your excellent commentary! Cheers, Ingmar

Even though I take the tragic view of things, I don't completely agree with this article.
I think we can say "no" to "products" when we are aware of the threat they truly are.
I think that true leadership is about putting that information in front of us that is whole truthful facts.

I think that the number of people should not even be considered: that whether the planet 'maintains' the current population of humans, increases that number, or depopulates it is irrelevant to the overall net usefulness (purpose) which humans decide to be (if they decide at all).

I think that 7 billion may not be too many, if they are useful. It may be too few if the work to repair the climate requires enough people to replant the entire planet in one go 'round.

The tragedy is not the loss of lives, but the inability for humanity to realize how to be part of the universe. Bacteria have figured it out, my dog has figured it out, the corn plant has figured it out, but humans collectively work to NOT figure out how to be useful instead of consumptive.

5 important things, 2 of which are imaginary
In response to a political question about "test for religion" in political office, I came up with this response, which turned out not to be so much 'political' or 'religious' after all...

We need a new convention. One to determine the purpose of humanity on
this earth, and to decode the successful behaviors of natural systems
that have been on the planet much longer than our measly imaginations
have. Beneath those systems lie some simple rules which should be applied:

1. Belief doesn’t matter: actions do. (As far as we can tell, humans are the only species that lives according to beliefs that are not sensed directly, and we are having negative effects, rather than positive ones, on the ecosystem.)
2. Give back more than you take. (Successful species have a net useful contribution to an ecosystem.)
3. Diversity is as important as quantity. (If an environment changes, it is the fringe rather than the 'normal' which are adapted to thrive in a new niche.)
4. Joining groups is not mandatory. (Leaving the comfort of a niche compensates for the inevitable changes in environments.)
5. Actions taken based on blind belief (in gods, governments or 'gurus') are irresponsible and usually destructive. (This is simply an extension of #1: Belief doesn't matter until actions are taken. If the imaginary (anything not directly sensed/must be believed) is used to justify actions, then a disconnect from reality occurs. Temporary cognitive dissonance is called "unconsciousness.", and one shouldn't be driving when asleep.)

I think that in most of the natural world, #1 and #5 are irrelevant, leaving 2,3,4 in order of importance.