Fight or Flight – The Deniers


The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. There are several different reactions we can take to impending disaster and I want to use this section to describe them in ‘caricature’, in relation to societal breakdown.

The Deniers

Unfortunately, denial seems to be on the increase. Many people just ignore all information that doesn’t validate their existing ‘filter bubble’ ideology. Any information that challenges the mainstream narratives just gets labelled ‘conspiracy theory’ as in ‘That’s just a conspiracy theory isn’t it?” We seem to be so disconnected from ourselves, our nature and each other that we can simply believe whatever we want and justify its reality via whichever ‘fake news’ stream we choose to consume.

In perceiving the World, it is natural for us to edit, generalise and distort incoming information. We have to do this just to keep up with the 4,000 or so incoming messages inn a modern world. We need to label things just to make sense of the chaos that is happening around us. Many errors of perception occur as the flip side of this judgmental process.

Going by our record so far in trying to correct the errors of our ways, it seems we are happier as a species just monitoring our extinction rather than taking active steps to avoid it! Humans have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose and ignoring that which is painful. Because of this innate reality-editing faculty our society has become its own nemesis.

Errors of our perception may include:

  • assuming other people hold the same views as us
  • assuming people are consistent in their behaviour
  • fixing our opinion of others to first or last impressions
  • valuing some sorts of information above others
  • having pre-formed attitudes

We often need to interpret 4,000 or so messages a day. Confronted with new information – we make judgements to make shortcuts and these ‘errors of perception’ often come into play. We do this in order to make sense of all the ‘stuff’ that just keeps coming. Reading statements like the ones below can be deeply scary:

  • half of all wildlife lost in the last 40 years
  • humans destroyed 10% of remaining wilderness in last 20 years
  • global fisheries are collapsing
  • Canadian wild salmon are radioactive
  • insect populations are collapsing
  • in the US – bees are on the endangered list
  • coral reefs all over the planet are bleaching
  • ice-melt is pouring into the sea
  • a third of arable land has been lost in the last 30 years
  • abrupt climate-change effects are imminent
  • just 8 people own the same amount as wealth as half of the world’s population
  • half a billion people are obese
  • nearly a billion people don’t have enough to eat
  • a billion children (half of the planet’s population of children) live in poverty
  • one in four people are mentally ill
  • Trump got in

How do you deal with all this? The easiest response is just to deny it. There are different forms of denial that people use to prevent themselves from recognising the negative effects of our stories in the Western world, such as the Myth of Economic Growth. Some of these are:

  •        I don’t think that these effects are really dangerous
  •        it just isn’t my business to sort out these problems
  •        I pay my taxes so the government should sort it all out
  •        I don’t want to be seen as a non-conformist
  •        this information is a threat to my interests
  •        this evidence is just being made up, I don’t really believe it
  •        there’s nothing we can do about it so I don’t even want to talk about it
  •        that’s just a conspiracy theory isn’t it?

In this way, people manage to avoid facing our problems at all and they can get on with their lives.

Of course, once they do open Pandora’s Box and face the truth, it all gets pretty horrific and that’s what frightens them. The second layer of denial, which I sometimes call ‘We’re Doomed Captain Mannering’ (from a UK TV programme called Dads’ Army) draws attention to the disasters increasingly created by the Myth of Economic Growth.

It is an evidence based account, ignored by many, about the collapse of ecological and social systems, climate changes, the effect of the depletion of global and local resources such as those described in Transition’s ‘peak oil’ and the sixth global mass extinction of species. This is the news that Greta, amongst others brings – the reality of the IPCC reports. News that many of us do not want to see.

And so we have the standpoint of ‘Woe is me’, finger-wagging greenies who seem to want everyone to stop having fun and look after the planet because ‘just look at what we are doing’ – face of horror. Its for sure that groups such as Extinction Rebellion look towards government for change but one can’t help wondering how many of them go to their meetings in a fossil-fuel driven car.

Psychological barriers and responses that stop people entering into actually looking at the problems include:

  • it’s so upsetting I prefer not to think about it
  • as soon as I start to think about the dangers I freeze up and feel panic. I feel paralysed
  • there’s no point in trying to do anything since it won’t change a thing or make any difference
  • we’re doomed, give up
  • we can fix it with new technology
  • blitz consumerism – buy everything now
  • human beings are a cancer on the earth and deserve to be wiped out anyway
  • I expect Superman or God or aliens or Bill Gates or Richard Branson will save us all at the last minute

Once you can accept that climate change and species extinction are real, that the earth is badly polluted and in for a period of unpredictable change, you might be lucky enough to find ‘Positive Hope’ rather than ‘Despair’.

It is certainly one job of activists to help people overcome denial and accept a different reality. After all, its very hard to change anything when you can’t accept what is happening. Many brave people are overcoming denial and are able to face the coming changes as already underway – as already past ‘the tipping point’. Projects such as ‘Dark Mountain’, ‘The Pachamama Alliance’ or ‘Ubuntu Planet’ are inhabited by such people who are busy finding and making new myths and stories for a sad culture that seems committed to wrecking its own home.

It seems to be a universally recognised position ‘that in order to change something, you first have to accept it’. So the many deniers who would prefer to edit reality than face the problem are certainly part of our problems.

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