Unthinkable Thoughts: Climate Change And The “Desire-Not-To-Know”

“Emotion does not threaten human rationality; it is the only possibility for engaging human rationality.” – Marshall Alcorn

“I’m a nurse!”

“Fuck you!”

I sat amazed, an undergraduate watching adults completely unravel for the first time in my life. My oversized neon HAZMAT suit crinkled in my seat. The event was a public comment period on fracking—a particularly exciting subject in Ithaca, New York, which is smack on top of the rich Marcellus shale; some of the state’s most ecologically-minded hippies can be found within city limits, while surrounding rural areas are a hotbed of farmers looking to make a fortune off leasing their land.

I was attending as a haughty, self-righteous college student who had founded an organization called Frack Off. I started off the evening shouting “Kill the Drill!” outside the theater, and spent the comment period either booing the pro-industry statements or wildly cheering on members of my own camp. When the renowned biologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber took the stage to talk about fracking and women’s health, the other side grew particularly sanctimonious and sought to drown her out. As I sweated inside my suit, in complete awe of the hell that had broken loose, two fully-grown women spewed venom at each other right in front of me. They were barely audible above the fray, but the middle finger that accompanied that “fuck you” was unmistakable.

This scene would become a turning point in my career as an activist. Before the altercation, I would have thought of the fracking defender as someone who simply did not have access to the right information: if that woman had only known about the health impacts of fracking, she would have agreed with the nurse. Countless campaigns for change have focused on education, operating on similar assumptions.

But a great many pieces of the “right information” had been prepared and delivered directly prior to that wondrous middle finger, and I could not write off the woman’s retort as an emblem of her stupidity. What if we need something much more complex than better PR?

We conceive of our own minds as rational arbiters of truth. But a large body of recent research has shown us that instead of consuming and analyzing data like a computer, the process of internalizing new information is related to what we already believe to be true. The mind could be seen like a bookshelf; if there is no conceptual room for a new book to be filed away, the book gets trashed. Similarly, information that cannot be incorporated into our worldview is heard and retained, but not assimilated into the problem-solving centers of our minds. Denial can then be seen as the natural acting-out of past experiences instead of a pre-meditated attempt to block out information.

Psychoanalyst Marshall Alcorn has described this failure to integrate new information as the “desire-not-to-know.” This term is meant to replace the word “denial,” removing the intentionality the concept attributes to the so-called denier. This allows us to consider the process as an unconscious function of the brain, a survival tactic meant to deflect pain—and most importantly, to understand it as fundamentally emotional, rather than rational.

Taking into account the “desire-not-to-know” could change how we communicate with people who resist new information. Alcorn’s research shows that changing how we think about our past experiences is one crucial way to change our ability to conceive of the future. Reflection and reverie are key examples of ways to overcome the desire-not-to-know. In allowing memories to emerge, for example, partially processed emotions can contemplated, and a potentially painful shift of understanding of our surroundings can take place. Imagine if community members on both sides of the fracking debate in Ithaca had come together in a shared space to discuss the issue via their past experiences. Talking circles, a practice in Ithaca usually reserved for conversations around race and racism, could be one approach. A talking circle can only take place if there is an appropriate ratio of people of color to white folks present. The same group meets weekly over a sustained period of time, meditating on preconceived notions of race under the gaze of a wizened facilitator. This time-consuming method offers people the ingredients to fundamentally change their ways of thinking: space, time, and compassionate communication.

Emotion, rationality, and the climate crisis

Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College, does an excellent job of connecting the desire-not-to-know with the broader ecological crisis. His studies show that environmental degradation has more to do with the values held dear by Western civilization than not having access to the right information. In his research, systematic damage to the natural world is closely correlated with a cultural emphasis on achievement and power, concepts entangled in both the conscious and unconscious mind. Something as fundamental as our sense of self—our ability to make meaning in our lives—could be an obstacle to facing climate change, whether you’re an outright denier or a self-proclaimed progressive with a carbon footprint typical of the United States.

I am not suggesting that education isn’t important. Instead, I’m emphasizing that it’s equally important to understand how people make use of credible information. In November, an Associated Press poll found that almost 40% of Americans are “not too worried” about climate change. Two thirds of participants in the poll accepted that climate change was happening, and a vast majority said that humans are the cause—and yet most of them did not view it as an urgent matter. If this is the desire-not-to-know in action, how should we respond?

The methods mentioned earlier, reflection and reverie, are only a few of Alcorn’s suggested answers. Communicating with someone at the level of affect, or emotion, can facilitate the integration of new information. One powerful way to do this is art. As journalist and photographer Alexander Kafka writes, “the arts encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way.”

Ultimately, attributing denial to stupidity or moral failure is unproductive. If movements are serious about incorporating conflicting viewpoints into the struggle for change (which is often times necessary for that change), it is more useful to acknowledge that the conditions for denial are the natural acting-out of past experiences. We can recognize the emotional foundations of rationality instead of demonizing the desirers-not-to-know.

Photograph by Ed Dittenhoefer.

Kaela Bamberger is a writer, researcher, and communications specialist. She has been a member of the team behind This Changes Everything and The Leap since May 2015. Other projects she has been involved in include the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Kaela values a healthy dose of doubt above all else.