Is climate change about to become part of the Fake World?

An age of climate complacency may be lurking around the corner

In his iconic 3-hour 2016 documentary, Adam Curtis coined a new term that sent shockwaves through the world of sociopolitical theory and behavioural science: the concept of Hypernormalisation. Decades of clever brainwashing by governments finally had a descriptive term.

“In the past 40 years Politicians, Financiers, and Technological Utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world, in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it. Because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system, the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture, actually became part of the treackery. Because they too, had retreated into the make believe world. Which is why their opposition has no effect, and nothing ever changes”

What is Hypernormalisation?

In short, hypernormalisation is a strategy that governments or others in power have used in order to have people accept messages or situations that would normally be highly uncomfortable. Hypernormalisation is a gradual, yet radical, acceptance of a bad situation so that it becomes “normal” and accepted by the population. Whether it is war, famine, economic collapse or climate change, governments can use their propaganda machines to convert shocking, sometimes unpalatable messages into fake “truths”. Once people are used to these “truths” in their everyday language, they become household items. People become more receptive and resigned to them, and governments can justify their policies and choices.

Examples of Hypernormalisation

In the US, Trump’s racist war on Muslims and Mexicans was a hypernormalisation exercise to shift the racism conversation all the way to the far right, and almost normalise racism in the country as a “matter of personal opinion”.

Also in the US, Trump’s denial of climate change legitimised the issue as “under debate”, when in fact the debate has ended many years ago around the world. The US is one of the last few countries in the world where people still discuss whether climate change is real or not, and this is because of Trump’s hypernormalisation of the issue.

In the UK, campaigning for the Brexit referendum was a hypernormalisation exercise by the far right to legitimise the Leave cause. All of a sudden, leaving Europe was a legitimate option. David Cameron himself became hypernormalised to it, and called the referendum which further legitimised the Leave movement by giving it a vote.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

The way Hypernormalisation works is simply by inserting these uncomfortable fake “truths” into people’s everyday life. Whether you want to call it “brainwashing”, “fake news” or “hype”, the result is that people become desensitised, much as how we are desensitised to images of horror on the news.

The effect is counter-intuitive: although you would expect the result of exposure to horror to be even more concern and anguish, the opposite actually happens: people are less horrified. Horror has been hypernormalised

Has Climate Hypernormalisation already began?

Greta Thunberg, the poster child of climate activism, raised the danger of hypernormalisation of the severity of climate change in her speech before the French Parliament last month:

There is no middle ground when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency. Now political leaders in some countries are starting to talk. They are starting to declare Climate Emergencies and announcing dates for “so called” climate neutrality. And declaring that a Climate Emergency is good.

The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done

So what has happened is that Climate Emergency itself is in danger of being hypernormalised. We are being desensitised to Armageddon. And since no one is having to sacrifice anything, and no one is running scared or running out of amenities, the message is that everything is OK, no measures are necessary. The governments can continue to get away with not pressuring corporations to reduce emissions.

Yet we are told we are in an Emergency

Hypernormalisation of climate change allows governments to have it both ways. One one hand, they get away with inaction . On the other, when the actual emergency of climate impacts arrives, the population will have already had years of hypernormalisation to get prepared for the impact. Governments can turn around and say: “we had told you, we were in an Emergency”.

In fact hypernormalisation is not only something that governments do. We do it to ourselves. In my article about how humans relate to risks, I talk about how the draining of the Aral Sea was hypernormalised over a course of decades, along with other examples where humans used hypernormalisation on themselves.

As Greta says, we need to remain outraged. To “act like the house is on fire”. There is nothing “normal” about climate change.

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Author, podcaster, scientist, documenting our system failure. Photographic Heart, Disposable Earth, Age of Separateness, Becoming Imperfect.