“Hypernormalisation – and why Heathrow plan is proof we exist in a catastrophic fantasyland”
This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Read the original article here.) We’re posting it at Cliscep on the off chance that there are people who would like to comment on the piece but for whatever reason are unable to at The Conversation.
Matthew Adams, University of Brighton
The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof that the UK was “open for business”. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, referred to the decision as “truly momentous” while for the prime minister, Theresa May, the planned expansion is “vital for the economic future of the whole of the UK”.
The decision has already been vociferously opposed by environmental campaigners. Simply stated, flying is a significant source of air pollution, and a carbon-intensive means of moving people around, despite technological developments and modifications. Airport expansions puts, as Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas describes it, “a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate change commitments”.
The decision to approve airport expansion is indeed “truly momentous” – because it shows just how far governments, but also trade unions, businesses and many individuals, are willing to go in denying that climate change and related ecological crises require us to significantly change the way we live. In fact, as a policy move, it arguably epitomises the phenomena of “hypernormalisation”, as described in Adam Curtis’s new documentary of the same name.
HyperNormalisation was commissioned by the BBC and released as an iplayer exclusive on October 16 2016 – you can watch it here. Curtis is a fascinating filmmaker. He weaves archive footage of events over the past half-century into provocative historical narratives. His commentary is informed by sociological theory, political economy and much more besides.
Are we living in the real world?
HyperNormalisation is no exception. It clocks in at just under three hours and takes in numerous people, places and events. Curtis’s overarching claim is that those in power have been increasingly incapable of dealing with a sequence of global issues with any meaningful plan. They are devoid of any vision beyond the maintenance of the status quo. He uses the term hypernormalisation to explain the prevailing response of politicians to this state of affairs, and the effect it has on the wider population.
Alexei Yurchak coined the term in his 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. He uses it to describe Soviet life in the 1970s, when the population was pushed to maintain the façade of a socialist utopia to the point that it was impossible to see beyond this system, despite everyone knowing it was an illusion.
This manically heightened state of fake normality – and collective investment in it – is “hypernormalisation”. Curtis uses the term more loosely. He argues that it can be used to make sense of the maintenance of a simplified, reassuring and fake version of the world in the face of unprecedented global challenges that incumbent governments and power alliances do not have the competence or inclination to address. Climate change and environmental disasters do not loom large in the HyperNormalisation film, but they are, for me, an extension of the phenomenon – precisely the kind of challenge we might expect to be “hypernormalised”.
The decision to approve Heathrow’s third runway is a government policy manifestation of hypernormalisation. Those in power simply do not have the capacity or willingness for leadership on climate change as an issue that demands societal transformation. The alternative, if we apply Curtis’s logic, is to strive to maintain a narrative in which these issues do not appear to really matter. Everything, we are told instead, is going to be fine.
Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand, we will instead be admitted to the fantasy land of accelerated mobility and consumption. In this alternate reality, the “environmental future” must not impinge on May’s “economic future”.
The dangers beyond the fantasy
But of course events are unfolding in the world outside the hypernormal narrative of business as usual: the well-documented forces unleashed by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the ongoing extinction and displacement of countless species, warming and acidifying oceans, deforestation and arctic melting.
These forces are the product of industrial society and capitalism, now exacerbated by the demands of a globalised consumerism. We know that the practices and pastimes that make up these societies, including frequent and long-haul flying, are unsustainable. Every government leader in the world knows this. But the psychological and social processes we engage in to avoid confronting the implications of climate change are now well documented in the social sciences – as individual and collective forms of denial.
It is even claimed that the closer a threatening event, the more manically we defend existing worldviews and associated ways of life. There is no reason to assume that these dynamics are any less prevalent in our leaders and decision-makers in business, government and trade unions.
These dynamics of denial and displacement are precisely those that reflect and maintain a state of hypernormalisation. So airport expansion can be heralded unequivocally as “momentous”, “correct” and “bold” in the same week that global concentrations of CO2 pass 400 parts per million. It is a policy move which simply does not make sense … unless we are operating in an atmosphere of hypernormalisation.
Defending it on behalf of our “economic future” is a grotesquely comic perpetuation of that fakery. If it goes ahead, it is likely that history will judge the expansion of Heathrow as an act of collusive madness, a desperate attempt to add another coat to the painted theatre set of the hypernormal.
Matthew Adams, Principal Lecturer in Psychology, University of Brighton
Ben Pile’s comment:
The article above gets the hypothesis of Hyper-normalisation on its head.
The film in fact presents the phenomenon of hyper-normalisation as one owed to attempts to manage society without politics.
There is no more unique an expression of hypernormalisation – the divorce from reality of political and establishment elites – than the environmentalism the author espouses. The imperatives claimed by environmentalists, for example, demand that normal politics, in which individuals’ interests are contested and represented, is suspended, and decisions taken by technocrats – ‘scientists’ in the green imagination, but more often economists, and the likes of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, as the film explains, under the rubric of ‘Risk Society’. Which, as the film explains, is a further departure from normal politics, as emphasised by the traditional left, in which ordinary people participate as engaged, active subjects.
Environmentalists may want to claim that their favoured scientists have a better grasp on what they conceive of as ‘reality’ than their lay counterparts. But their track record in this regard is not glorious. It is marked by dramatic prognostications… If this was an Adam Curtis script, it would be at this point that he would say,
“But they were wrong”.
… The dire predictions of immanent catastrophe have not materialised. Yet this has caused no reflection on environmentalism’s premises. Everything between mental health, and war – via unemployment and poverty – is now explained by environmentalism as the consequence of a degraded environment. ‘Tackling climate change’, so it is claimed, will create world peace, and abolish poverty and inequality. I doubt it will. And I doubt it without thinking for a minute about the fact of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but merely on the political claims of environmentalism. But for that I will be called a ‘denier’, nonetheless.
The further development of ‘hypernormalisation’ into the discussion of ‘denial’ is fashionable, but it, too, is merely cement for foundations of a form of politics that is characterised by its remoteness from ordinary people and their aspirations. ‘400 parts per million’, for instance, being of no more significance by itself than ‘45 minutes’. It is remarkable that a film which observes “how everyone became possessed by dark foreboding, imagining the worst that might happen” can imagine this is useful to an explanation of the decision to give the go ahead to Heathrow’s third runway; it is a far better explanation of the delay. Post-truth politics, indeed, aided and abetted by post-truth Academe.
Adam Curtis explores political ecology in episode 2 of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. I doubt that it will be so popular with the author, much less with the Ecologist, where the above article is republished, and much less still by the surviving Goldsmith family.
“Everything between mental health, and war – via unemployment and poverty – is now explained by environmentalism as the consequence of a degraded environment”
Explained by who?
I have never heard a climate scientist make these claims.
Sure you can always find someone on the fringe of any political movement who make grandiose claims, but everyone ignores them. Why should wacko environmentalists now be considered as representing the scientific view?
I said – “Everything between mental health, and war – via unemployment and poverty – is now explained by environmentalism as the consequence of a degraded environment”.
David said – “I have never heard a climate scientist make these claims.”
Somehow, ‘environmentalism’ got translated as ‘climate scientist’. Which is interesting in itself, but probably not on topic.
David might want to familiarise himself with the recent claims (and of course, counter-claims) that the war in Syria (and the wider region) can be explained by climate change. These are not fringe views. Some of them emerge from the Pentagon. This is pertinent to the discussion of hypernormalisation, as the hypothesis presented in Adam Curtis’s film finds a very different origin to the Syrian conflict, the development of which he explores without mentioning the climate. Wacko environmentalists? Perhaps. But not wacko environmentalists of no consequence. And not wacko environmentalists that met much resistance from some sensible centre of the political movement – not that it is easy to identify such distinct factions. Moreover, and as I pointed out, if you think the characterisation of environmentalism’s overreaching itself has been stretched, and that you don’t recognise its description as an encompassing framework or ideology, you probably should watch All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, by the same producer. And while we’re on the subject of Heathrow, members of the Goldsmith family also feature prominently in Adam Curtis’s The Mayfair Set, which is a damn good watch.
In respect of a post truth world… ummm… when were we in the one where people told the truth? I must have missed it. The difference between the past and the present is now we know that they’re lying to us and we have a fighting chance of hearing other opinions… who are also probably lying to us. We now have the luxury of chosing which arguments suit us, true or not. En masse, people are rejecting CAGW. They’re settling for a nice life today in favour of dubious rewards in the future. Who knew?
The academics are deluding themselves but the support they want to see is government making the public do whatever the academics demand. They want fossil fuels forcibly removed if it’s not done voluntarily. To which the public and sensible governments say ‘bog off.’
And at the bottom of it all nobody knows what to do to reduce CO2. When academics dream of zero fossil fuels they imagine a society still functioning as normal. More delusion.
‘400 parts per million’, for instance, being of no more significance by itself than ‘45 minutes’
Or indeed “100 months”. It was just 100 months ago that we were told that if we did not mend our ways we would reach a tipping point by about now. Another ridiculous prediction that turned out to be untrue.
But more relevant to this post, the people making that prediction must have known it was not true that we had just 100 months. It wasn’t the public who believed what they knew to be untrue — it was the environmentalists. They were the ones locked in their little prison of dogma, like the poor bastards who lived in 1970s Russia, not the rest of us.
From Paul’s link ” It is our ambition to start a global research programme into the subject.”
Kerching, kerching, kerching!
I could solve the problem in a few sentences –
Climate change is a poorly demonstrated hazard that joins a very long list of threats that haven’t yet materialised.
We are fed up of hysterical elites telling us we’re deluded when time and time again we’re proved right.
Having an excuse for why you were wrong last time isn’t the same as getting it right.
There are no suitable solutions to cut CO2 that don’t result in discomfort and/or penury. We don’t want to give up what we have for your fool’s green. (like fool’s gold but not as shiny)
We’re bored of your antics now – go away.
Ha! What they really want to say is ‘engineers and other practical people who have been involved in the construction of the modern industrial society’ but that sounds like we might know what we’re talking about.
They keep hoping the young will bail them out but a more energy guzzling generation there’s never been. It’s also the first time in history that the young were considered smarter than their elders just because they posponed working as a waiter for up to 10 years by studying advanced alcoholism and the creative arts.
Nah. They’re part of the whip the British because of our imperialistc past brigade. For some snobbish, racist reason we should be ‘better then them’.
Has there ever been a group of anthropologists/psyhologists so scared/incompetant that they daren’t converse with their subject matter?
But if they talk to us they have to admit we have genuine arguments for which they have no answers. One has to wonder if these clowns have ever had anything useful to say on any issue. If they keep moving speciality, nobody will notice.