The Psychology of Denial in the Age of Consumerism

Dr James Lovelock is now in his 80s. Many years ago he coined the term Gaia to describe how the air, the ocean and the soil are as much part of life itself as every living thing. He understood that the combination of everything creates a single giant living system that keeps the Earth in the most favourable state for life.

Late last year he gave a talk to the prestigious Royal Society in London where he said, “Few seem to realise that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning, but without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia, but there may be little food for any of them.”

And recently it was reported that the average summer temperature in Sydney, Australia could be close to 50 degrees C. Average?? So we all ‘solve’ that by getting air conditioning. But what runs that but electricity, and in this country that means coal. Being the creatures we are, we arrange to keep cool by using just what is required to make us even hotter.

The fact that we can even consider this idiotic idea to save us in the future, without dealing with our lifestyle now so it does not happen, is the reason for this article.

On the way I am going to explore two other tracks. This is the second: In the past fifty years the rich countries have used more resources than every human who ever lived before. We are the throw-away culture – and that is only because we are producing so much we can afford to throw things away.

I lived in Bali for a while in the 70s. There was no plastic, little metal, and just enough food. Nothing was ever thrown away as everything, no mater how small, could be put to good use. Wrapping was a banana leaf, and when finished was eaten by the pigs.

By comparison our waste (the waste that reflects how much we make and consume) is beyond belief. Though I have only US figures, ours are comparable. One example will do: every year Americans throw away enough aluminum cans to make six thousand DC-10 airplanes.

It makes an interesting quiz question: the total US yearly waste would fill a convoy of ten-ton garbage trucks long enough to:

a. reach half-way to the moon
b. wrap around the Earth six times
c. connect the North and South Poles
d. build a bridge between North America and China

The answer is b. Even though Americans comprise only five percent of the world’s population, they use nearly a third of its resources and produce almost half of its hazardous waste. And in Australia we could not find the gumption to phase out plastic bags.

So, here is the third track: In a recent survey of people who voluntarily cut back their consumption, eighty-six percent said that they were happier as a result. Only nine percent said they were less happy.

Three tracks. They tell us that high consumption is threatening the planet, burying us under unbelievable amounts of waste, and is not making us happier. Something is definitely wrong.

Why are we doing this?

We are in fact quite clever in deceiving ourselves. We have exported the more obvious toxic wastes of the industries that satisfy our consumption to other countries, to China and India where carbon emissions rose by 8 percent last year, and will rise even more this year.

The CSIRO, Australia’s federal research centre, reported the global outcome: “There has been a four-fold increase in the rate of human-generated carbon dioxide emissions since 2000.” Four-fold (!!) and the world is supposed to becoming conscious of global warming, serious about mitigating it and holding endless and apparently futile conferences in Kyoto, Nairobi and Bali to address it.

In spite of all the rhetoric, the situation is getting worse by the day.

This four-fold increase has come because we are consuming more and more. Now why is this? Knowing the state of the planet surely we would rein ourselves in – but do we? There has been enough information shoved in front of us, but what are we doing with that?

Little, and for good reason.

Remember I am a therapist and have worked with clients for twenty years. In my experience most of us take whatever frightens us or makes us uncomfortable and push it out of sight. This puts it into the unconscious. It does not disappear, but just lies in waiting like a faithful hound until let out.

Meanwhile the conscious part can go on living as if nothing had happened. But as Carl Jung pointed out so perspicaciously, the hound keeps howling from the depth and thereby influences all that we do. So we cant go on as before. We may try to carry on as always, but in truth everything we do is influenced by the unseen and suppressed feelings from the hound in the kennel.

There being no escape, we act out this unconscious material, but pretend we are still being normal. This seems to be the reason we have all become so much busier during the past ten years, and why we are buying more and more as if there is no tomorrow. The greedy men on Wall Street invented ways of making money that could not be sustained, especially over the past 6 or 7 years. The hierarchy in China started building coal-fired power stations at the rate of six or seven every month, and India is planning not to be left behind.

Wherever we look there is madness. Fishermen, knowing that 90 percent of the big fish have gone, resort to bottom trawling that eradicates all in its path; loggers destroy the ‘lungs of the planet’ in an unscrupulous grab for profits; the Balinese build over their paddy fields to make room for tourist hotels; etc etc. The whole world is in a mad grab for the last bit before it is all gets burnt up.

This is the influence of the hound in the unconscious. We don’t understand what is really motivating us, but remain caught in the excitement of having shiny new things, and to hell with the consequences.

Why? Isn’t it better to be honest? In fact, no – its more dangerous by a long shot.

In my experience, once we begin to open Pandora’s Box we cannot be sure what will come creeping out. Most of my clients quite quickly recognise that they don’t really love themselves. When they look inside it feels empty. I have only rarely met a client who does not feel there is an vacant hole within that is black and full of grief.

It is an essential aspect of growing up that we suppress who we really are in order to be accepted and loved by mum and dad. This means we actually push our real needs away in order to cope with their demands. It is as if we have sacrificed our original selves to get their love, and it leaves a trail of sorrow.

We call it Existential Grief because its about our very existence. It is about us being ‘socialised’ by the family and school so that we forget who we truly are. This leaves an enormous grief that is too difficult to confront, and we hide it in the kennel of the unconscious, leaving the howls from the kennel to undermine our self-confidence.

In our society we use material goods and social roles to cover up the black hole of grief. By surrounding ourselves with pretty and expensive things we tell everyone else that we are really OK. This is, so I learn from my clients, the major cause of going shopping, going on buying sprees and being consumers. We have come to believe that bright new things will fill the empty spaces inside.

This seems to be why we cannot really confront the devil of global warming that is being fed by every dollar we spend. For our own safety as a species we should all be consuming less and sharing more and striving to make life simple, whereas we are literally hell-bent on getting the most while we still can.

The hound sitting in the kennel of our emptiness makes it too hard for us to look at the truth and change our ways. We cannot alter the terminal path we are on, because to do so would expose our deepest fears that underneath all the tinsel and stuff we really are not worth much at all. Not even the protection we should be giving to our beautiful children is enough to move us to confront this terrifying personal fear.

A four-year analysis of the world’s ecosystems sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute found that over-consumption has pushed 15 out of 24 ecosystems essential to human life “beyond their sustainable limits.” Our insatiable desire for more is moving the planet toward a state of collapse that may be “abrupt and potentially irreversible.”

Since we all know that, can we not go beyond the fear to follow David Attenborough, who said in a recent interview, “How could I look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew and did nothing?

John James is a therapist, architect, philosopher and medieval historian. With his wife Hilary and partner Marg Garvan he founded the Crucible Centre to train therapists in sandplay and in Transpersonal Psychology. Their exploration into soul and energy work has just been published as The Great Field. He can be reached at: Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Dawson said on November 3rd, 2008 at 10:24am #

    This is all fine and well, but what percentage of “our” product-usage is of this psychiatric nature? Not much.

    The real problem is concentrated social power in the form of the capitalist corporation and the overclass it serves. It’s called “marketing,” and it is planned, enforced wastefulness on a massive, ever-expanding scale. It controls TV in the USA, its epicenter, which prevents discussion of it, to say nothing of resistance.

    The problem is political, not therapeutic. People have no choices as things are now arranged.

  2. Don Hawkins said on November 3rd, 2008 at 11:43am #

    Michael you are right on that. Take a look at this administration and when looking you are also talking about big oil big gas big coal and big business so called fat cat’s. Now does this administration have the best information on the planet on any subject, yes. So if we use reason that means they understand how serious not only climate change but energy and the fact that oil is at peak probably in 2005 and yet what did these morons do in the last eight years, nothing well that’s not really true. If you are a scientists at NASA people would be right there telling you what to say and any progress was stopped at the IPCC. Remember most crazy people don’t know there crazy these people do. So why did they do this. To keep information away from Joe public and why? It sure looks like a decision has been made by some that going out in style is the answer. To try is to hard and of course all that money going somewhere other than in there pocket. These people are pathetic. The answers are not easy and pain and hard work and change yes and not for the weak minded. Did I just call the President of the United States weak minded? I sure did along with many more who can’t seem to get there head out of there ass. Very easy to see but not for them. Thank you thank you very much for nothing you idiots.

  3. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 3rd, 2008 at 12:09pm #

    dawson, hawkins, yes
    but europe is not much better. thnx

  4. Don Hawkins said on November 3rd, 2008 at 12:16pm #

    This called an ongoing World Summit lose the suits go to work use your mind ask for help.

  5. danny bloom said on November 3rd, 2008 at 6:48pm #

    Very very good commentary, John. Note, Lovelock is 89 now, almost 90. Might be 90 now. See my *new images here for CLIMATE RETREATS for climate refugees in distant future. In OZ and NZ and USA and Russia.