Disrupting Denial? Where to start?

Disrupting Denial? Where to start?. Elaine Harger

By Elaine Harger

Sometime in the night, smoke curled through the window screen, the smell of danger jerking me from deep sleep. Registering the now familiar scent of wildfires (safely distant ones), and exhausted from the first full week of the new school year, I immediately fall back to sleep, only to dream of a planet ablaze, flames strangling the life out of everything.

Today's gray Seattle sky is not an indication of expected rain, but again the presence of smoke, forests burning still in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Montana.

The nightmare fires of dying forests, along with the wild winds and waters of Harvey, Irma, and the approaching Maria. Climate change morphed finally into climate breakdown.

And I go about my day, a sense of foreboding and urgency always, deeply present, while my behavior camouflages both, conveying normalcy, engaging in routines of school life as if all is well with the world.

But it isn't.

And I wonder what my behavior teaches the students I encounter daily. I wonder what the imagined and real consequences are of the practice of pretense. If we pretend everything is okay, then surely the problems just won't materialize. The reality is, however, that we simply will not be prepared when they do.

I wonder about the genesis of habits of denial as the primary method of avoiding action on climate change. I'm not talking about the level of denial as expressed by the current Trump administration and its ilk, but the level at play in daily life within people like myself, people who, for instance, fully recognize the legitimacy of climate science and yet act as if we can just go on behaving as if climate scientists have not, over the course of decades, informed us of the absolute necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by certain percentages annually to avoid catastrophic global temperature increases. Denial seems deeply, culturally engrained, and exists along a spectrum.

I’ve decided to explore the phenomena of denial as I begin this year determined to shed all pretense within my school community on climate breakdown.

To what extent does denial manifest itself at school? Where? Under what circumstances? Is society so permeated with its practice, and its attendant diversionary tactics, that these have filtered down into the behavior of students? Might that be why students so frequently use words to deny their behavior? Words not to excuse behavior, but to outright deny it, or to change the subject, or make up stories.

And so, I've begun collecting degrees of denial data. Here is what I collected yesterday:

I'll call him Ari, eleven-years-old, 6th grader. Our acquaintance is eight days old. He is in my advisory group, which meets first thing in the morning at 8:55 a.m. I've cut off his before school access to the computer because for three days running he has refused to log off the computer game he likes to play making him late for the start of advisory. I'd explained to him the consequences attached to refusals to log off the machines. He chose to test the rules and became indignant when the consequences proved real.

Ari: Why did you lock me out?
Me: Why do you think?
Ari: I didn't do anything.
Me: You refused three days in a row to log off when I told you to.
Ari: No I didn't. You never told me to.
Me: Why would I cut off your computer access if you didn't do anything wrong?
Ari: I don't know. I logged off when you told me to.
Me: No, you didn't.
Ari: Pete didn't log off. You didn't lock him out.
Me: This isn't about Pete, we're talking about you.
Ari: Why do you treat me different? Pete is on the computer now. He didn't log off.
Me. I've told Pete to log off before the bell rings, and he has. You didn't.
Ari: You locked me out.
Me: And why did I do that?
Ari: I don't know.
Me: Well, think about it for a moment. Make a guess.
Ari: Ahmed always reads books during advisory and you don't punish him.
Me: We're not talking about Ahmed, we're talking about your computer access.
Ari: Ahmed hit me and you didn't do anything.
Me: I didn't see Ahmed hit you, and if I did I certainly would do something.
Ari: But everybody told you he hit me.
Me: No they didn't.
Ari: But if 51% of them said he did, then you'd have to punish him.
Me: No, I'd have to investigate first.
Ari: If 51% said so?!
Me: Yes. A person is innocent until they are proven guilty.
Ari: If 51% say something is true, then it is.
Me: Oh?
Ari: Yes! And if everybody says it's true, then it really is!
Me: Hmmm, let me tell you a little story about "everybody" saying something.
Ari: [listens]
Me: A long time ago, hundreds of years, in a little town called Salem, Massachusetts...
Ari: I know all about the Salem witch trials!
Me: Oh, okay! Good. Then you know that "everybody" accused some women of being witches, and the women were burned at the stake, and they hadn't done anything wrong.
Ari: [jumps up off the high stool and walks away]
Me: Ari, come back.
Ari: You locked me out of the computer so I can't do any school work at all.
Me: No, I only locked your access between 8 and 9 in the morning [school begins at 8:55].
Ari: So, what you did, I can't do work in tech class.
Me: No. I only locked your access between 8 and 9 in the morning. What does that mean?
Ari: I don't know.
Me: Well, make a guess.
Ari: I told you, I don't know.
Me: Come on Ari, think about it.
Ari: Do you mean a.m. or p.m?
Me: What does "in the morning" mean?
Ari: [shrugs]
Me: Come on. What does it mean for your work during school that you can't use the computer between 8 and 9 in the morning?
Ari: How come you're wasting all this time talking to me? You said you were going to talk to other kids too.
Me: Yes, and I will. But it's important for you and me to come to an understanding about some things, and the computer and playing games on it is one of those things. Let's just clear up this last matter and you can go. What does it mean that I locked your computer access between 8 and 9 in the morning?
Ari: That I can use it after 9? [by this time it is nearly 9:15]
Me: Yes.
Ari: So I can check my grades now?
Me: Yes.

This sort of conversation with students is typical in the degree of denial, diversion, and baloney that I encounter almost daily in my work as a school librarian. An eleven- or twelve- or thirteen-year-old denies his/her/their behavior (behavior which I have seen with my own two eyes), tries to change the subject, accuses others of misbehaving, and me of unfairness. But it is also behavior typical of adults, and this is precisely the kind of behavior that has led to the breakdown of the planet's climate and other ecosystems. "China pollutes more." "Climate change didn't cause Irma, there have always been hurricanes." "Reuse, recycle, repurpose." "I bought a Prius." “My carbon offsets are buying solar cook stoves for Africa.”

All these are varying levels of denial.

The apocryphal story of Nero playing a fiddle while Rome burned seems most apropos today. Like the golfers in the photo, backgrounded by a forest aflame, many of us cling to our entertainments, denying the severity of the situation, determined to maintain unsustainable lifestyles, and pretending as if conversations directly addressing planetary distress can be left in the hands of the elite.

I am heartened to read that ALA has just established a Sustainability Task Force to advise the Association and profession on sustainable practices. Maybe 2017-18 will be the year that all levels of denial regarding climate change bite the dust!

In solidarity and with hope,

Elaine Harger

Elaine Harger is a middle school librarian, union member, school garden enthusiast, racial equity and social justice activist, longstanding PLGer, 30-year ALA member, and author of Whose Side Are You On? Seven Social Responsibility Debates in American Librarianship, 1990-2015 (McFarland, 2016). She served on ALA's governing Council, Committee on Organization, and Committee on Education in the years between 1998 and 2009; the ALA/AFL-CIO Joint Committee on Library Services to Labor Groups from 1990-93; and ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table in various capacities beginning in 1991 until 2009. Currently, she is an active member of her school's Racial Equity Team and an advocate for the elimination of the academic tracking system in Seattle Public Schools, which has long institutionalized racial segregation within the schools.

Image: Kristi McCluer, photographer [link].


  1. Excellent analogy Elaine. I would add though that our personal 'consumer' choices and behaviors are only a small fraction of the cause of global warming and eco-collapse. This in no way gets the individual off the hook, we all MUST become conscious of the climate chaos to come and our local role. But the vast majority of the emissions and devastation resides squarely in the neoliberal corporate capitalist orbit (China included) where a mindset of hubris, greed and mindless 'magic of the market' dogma systematically moves and shakes recklessly destroying the biosphere to maximize profits and expand sales of stuff and services. Top of my head I'd wager 90% of the blame and responsibility for climate change reside precisely there.

  2. Oh my gosh. My blood pressure is going up just reading that dialogue. I have so much more respect for students AND adults (as you mentioned this happens too!!) that admit they are wrong and apologize than those who always point the finger elsewhere. Deep breath needed.

  3. Thanks for the comment Peter! Seems to me, however, that there is a fundamental weakness in the logic here. Yes, agree that neoliberal corporate capitalism is to blame. However, it is ordinary consumers that keep these folks in business. The bigwigs at Exxon, Dole, General Motors, etc. are not the people who've burnt all the oil, eaten all the bananas, purchased all the cars that these corporations produce. Nope, everyone who buys and/or benefits from what those guys sell must be included as part of the formula as to who is to blame for climate change. As long as we continue to buy and consume, the neolib-corp-caps will keep on raping the planet. Seems to me what is needed are consumer boycotts. The only way to put any of the 1% out of business is to quit doing business with them.


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