“Hypernormalisation – and why Heathrow plan is proof we exist in a catastrophic fantasyland”

empty-padding-narrowThis 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.

What a pretty sunrise.

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.The Conversation

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.

David Jenkins

In reply to Ben Pile

“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?

Ben Pile

In reply to David Jenkins

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.


  1. The author Matthew Adams doesn’t reply to Ben’s criticisms, but he does find time to reply to a Professor who comments: Nice article… Our book … outlines this argument in greater depth…” to which Adams replies : “Thanks Christopher – I will get hold of your book.”

    Paul Matthews comments:

    “We are living in an echo-chamber of “provocative narratives” and “sociological theory”. A post-truth world of Guardian-reading academic groupthink obsessed with the prospect of imminent climate catastrophe brought on by the evils of capitalism and ‘neoliberalism’. We comment favourably on each other’s Conversation articles and indulge our confirmation bias by reading each other’s books. Facts and realities are ignored in favour of meaningless slogans and randomly strung-together video clips.”

    [PM: This was in answer to their question “Are we living in the real world?”, which I felt needed an answer.]

    Liked by 2 people

  2. 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?


  3. Paul’s paraphrase is completely right. And perhaps it is not to Curtis’s credit that hypnotic music and visuals and his unimpeachable trendiness have not helped the academics at the Nonversation understand his argument. Or is it just an indictment of academic psychologists and their thick skulls?

    The blurb of Christopher’s book begins:

    Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations : Processes of Creative Self-Destruction
    Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, a definitive manifestation of the well-worn links between progress and devastation. This book explores the complex relationship that the corporate world has with climate change and examines the central role of corporations in shaping political and social responses to the climate crisis.The principal message of the book is that despite the need for dramatic economic and political change, corporate capitalism continues to rely on the maintenance of ‘business as usual’. The authors explore the different processes through which corporations engage with climate change. Key discussion points include climate change as business risk, corporate climate politics, the role of justification and compromise, and managerial identity and emotional reactions to climate change. Written for researchers and graduate students, this book moves beyond descriptive and normative approaches to provide a sociologically and critically informed theory of corporate responses to climate change.”

    We’ve heard all this before. From academics. The problem for these green campaigners-as-academics is not corporate power. That’s a bogeyman. A few years back, I went to have a look at the anti-fracking protest at Westminster organised by CAC in response to the end of the moratorium on exploration following the ‘earthquakes’. There were no more than 300 people in attendance. A Greenpeace march a year or so later was bigger — perhaps 3,000 people. But for attempts to march on the capital, they were pathetic when standing in contrast to the tens, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people they passed. Tourists and shoppers completely outnumbered the ‘national’ protests — inconvenient hippies, who could barely summon up a non integer percentage of the city’s 8 million population, much less explain what their protest was about to them. It must hurt. The academic’s response is to formulate their own false consciousness narrative. The people not at the protest must be under the control of the corporations — they’re all shopping and enjoying themselves, after all… Don’t they know we’re all going to die?!

    Says Adams,

    — Those in power simply do not have the capacity or willingness for leadership on climate change as an issue that demands societal transformation. —

    I must have misunderstood the overwhelming, cross-party and wholly undemocratic consensus of MP’s support for the Climate Change Act. I must have failed to grasp the significance of the EC’s pronouncements on climate change — its directives and targets set with no hint of democratic process behind them. What I had heard from Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne and Ed Davey… I must have imagined. The policies produced in the decade of the Stern report… they can’t have happened. The creation of the Committee on Climate Change, chaired by self-styled ‘climate champions’, establishment ciphers and ‘low carbon finance’ cronies, Adair Turner and John Gummer, and their ‘legally-binding’ carbon budgets though to the 2040s… That was just a dream. It must be so, because Adams says,

    — There is no reason to assume that these dynamics [ individual and collective forms of denial] are any less prevalent in our leaders and decision-makers in business, government and trade unions. —

    It is academics who study ‘denial’ that seem to be its most tragic victims.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. 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.


  5. Added a comment. I moved out of London because Heathrow started flying aircraft directly above my house every 2-3 mins and the noise was unbearable. That was 1997, just before house prices went crazy. My life would have been very different if it wasn’t for Heathrow so I really do feel for the millions of people who will be adversely affected by a third runway.

    “Third runway at Heathrow gets the go-ahead. Government rides rough-shod over the legitimate and very real concerns of millions of people who will be directly affected by the decision. What’s ‘hypernormal’ about that? It’s been happening for many, many years.

    What this article is about really is the post-normal invention of a big word to describe a perceived ‘denial’ of a ‘reality’ invented by activist environmentalists and overenthusiastic climate scientists. What could be more post-normal than, instead of focusing on the concerns of millions of people whose health and quality of life and probably financial security, will be seriously detrimentally affected by a third runway (air pollution, noise pollution, house price devaluation), espousing alternatively on a theoretical future ‘CO2 climate catastrophe’ which is entirely in the minds of the catastrophists?

    That is the scourge of post-normalisation which has now added to our vocabulary another trendy academic term – hypernormalisation (being that activity which, though ‘normal’ in the eyes of most people, becomes ‘hypernormal’ in the eyes of climate change/environmental/Green radicals).”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. According to the author’s university site, one of his current research projects is on: “Shared silence. Facilitating and researching the benefits of experiencing silence in shared social spaces”.

    That would explain why he hasn’t replied to the criticisms of Ben, Paul, or Jaime under his article.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. On the subject of “academics who study ‘denial’ ” (Ben) and “The academics are deluding themselves” (Tiny), there is currently a three-day meeting going on in Sweden,

    the world’s first conference on climate change denial.

    More about it here.

    Top academic giants in the field are there, including Riley Dunlap and Stephy Lewanbowski.

    Pearls of wisdom from the conference can be found on the twitter tag #climateofdenial.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. ‘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.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. 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.


  10. This bit from the conference website is intriguing.

    — We showed that leading climate change deniers are often older men who have been involved in the construction of the modern industrial society. —

    Someone should tell Lord May, Lord Rees, Lord Krebs, Lord Stern, Christopher Tickell, Lord Deben, Jonathan Porritt, David King, Chris Rapley, Brian Hoskins, Paul Nurse, David Attenborough…

    Liked by 3 people

  11. 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.


  12. “Martin Hultman, who works with environmental history and the history of ideas” tells us that “we have the knowledge” and that “denial of scientific evidence” manifests in “a conservative and strongly religious element” among climate change deniers who “deny totally the benefits of science”.

    This . . . this . . . A* grade academic moron . . . . wouldn’t know ‘knowledge’ and ‘scientific evidence’ if it slapped him in the face, bent him right over and rogered him silly, yet somehow he seems to think that he is qualified or entitled (or both) not only to talk about climate change denial and climate change ‘deniers’ but to organise a bloody conference on the subject. Forgive me, all this hypernormalisation is causing me to hyperventilate. Oh, and I’d best get off this damned [in the religious sense] computer because I deny totally the benefits of the science which made its construction and connection to the world wide web possible. Bye.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Anyone who sees ‘climate change as an issue that demands societal transformation’ is hyper-something but that something is not ‘normal’.


  14. For some context on Matthew Adams click on “individual and collective forms of denial” just above the photo of clouds of grey CO2. This brings you to another article by the same author, with references at the end to a number of old friends including George Marshall who gives lectures (to government personnel among others) on how to spot deniers and how not to be infected by them; Paul Kingsnorth of the Dark Mountain project, who even Monbiot considers to be barking mad; and Ruth Randall and Sally Weintrobe, psychoanalysts who try and make their patients even more miserable than they already are by pointing out the doom facing us. And there’s lots of links leading no doubt even further out there.


  15. Nothing at the original article by the author since his “you-look-at-mine-I’ll-look-at-yours” comment three days ago. Then comments from Paul, Jaime and Ian of this parish, then nothing for two days until just now: a comment from Robin Guenier:

    “… the well-documented forces unleashed by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels … the product of industrial society and capitalism … 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, Matthew, that’s almost certainly not true. Do China’s leaders “know this”? Or India’s? Or Russia’s. I doubt it. For example, there’s abundant evidence that China’s leaders are dubious about the impact the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is said to have on the climate and are unconcerned about increased concentrations of CO2: e.g. LINK.

    Britain is responsible for barely 1 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (LINK) – so a new runway at Heathrow will make no discernable global difference; far from judging it to be “an act of collusive madness”, it’s unlikely that history will even notice. Yet China, responsible for 30 percent of global GHG emissions, is planning to build 66 new airports over the next five years (LINK) and India, responsible for 7 percent of global GHG emissions, is planning to build 50 new airports over the next ten years (LINK).

    These developments illustrate the trivial impact of a new runway at Heathrow. But are they another “manifestation of hypenormalisation”? Not it seems if these leaders do not “know” that further GHG emissions are “unsustainable”. And it seems they don’t. So they don’t have to engage in “the psychological and social processes” needed to confront “the implications of climate change” – nor to “manically” defend an existing worldview or engage in “a grotesquely comic perpetuation of fakery”.

    Lucky them.

    I wonder if that’ll wake them up?


  16. 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?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. It’s not much of a conversation is it, when one side practises the art of Zen meditation for 2 days. I imagine they’re om-ing away in some Buddhist temple whilst a profound silence settles upon the thread which they stirred into motion in the public domain, interrupted only by the occasional ripple of a dissenting voice.


  18. 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.


  19. China To Build 66 New Airports Over The Next Five Years

    It makes you wonder what kind of prefix to ‘normalisation’ one would need to describe the political culture that permits 266 airports over the course of 25 years, if building just one extra runway — amidst closures — over the same period signifies ‘hyper’-normalisation.

    But environmentalists never had a sense of proportion. I remember Caroline Lucas saying of the proposed extension that ‘you might as well turn the entire country into a runway’. Which is nuts, in a hyperventilating, hypernormalisation kind of way.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Well, that’s some really crazy shit there!

    Such a pity we no longer have Peter Simple, he would have loved this!


  21. Another superb comment from Robin Guenier, that really sums up the problem with the so-called Conversation:

    “The thread following this article has demonstrated something that’s been troubling me for some time: what seems to be an increasing reluctance of some sections of academia and the Left in general (the latter includes much of the former) to defend expressed positions and to debate with critics.

    Matthew Adams has taken considerable trouble to write and have published here an interesting, strongly worded and presumably intentionally provocative article about the Government’s decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. It’s clearly something about which he feels most strongly – he characterises the decision as “truly momentous”, demonstrating just how far the Government is “willing to go in denying that climate change and related ecological crises require us to significantly change the way we live”. He asserts that it represents government policy manifesting the phenomenon of “hypernormalisation” – by which he appears to mean a “manically heightened state of fake normality”. We are, he says, entering a “catastrophic fantasyland … an alternate reality” – where, by “denial and displacement”, an “act of collusive madness” is ignoring “the ongoing extinction and displacement of countless species, warming and acidifying oceans, deforestation and arctic melting”.

    By any standards, that’s extraordinarily strong stuff – a seriously damning attack on UK government policy. And, given his view about the runway, such expression is surely fair enough and should be respected – even by those who disagree with it.

    But, when the article attracts just a few courteously phrased but challenging comments, he remains silent, responding only to someone who describes his article as “nice”. Yet he published his article on The Conversation, which is supposed to be “a place for intelligent discussion” – a place for “independent fact-based debate”. So, having posted on such a site, a refusal to engage with legitimate criticism is most disappointing. This seems to me to be increasingly typical of the Left – they don’t want to hear opposing argument or criticism, preferring instead to huddle together with a few pals. Hence they have no opportunity to develop and refine their position, staying within their own often sadly limited worldview. No debate, no dispute – no interest.

    Things used not to be like this. When I was a member of the Oxford University Labour Club, we revelled in debate and dispute, actively hunting for it. We won some and we lost some – but it gave us power and confidence. So what’s happened? Why this change? It’s depressing.”

    And now Matthew Adams has replied.


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