Faced squarely, the loss of the natural environment evokes strong and difficult emotions. Such feelings may include: 1) Sadness and mourning for the loss of aspects of the natural environment that may never be returned to their pre-industrial state, 2) anxiety concerning future scenarios that include the dramatic uncertainties of climate change and prospects of a lifestyle lacking in such basic natural resources as clean water and air, 3) anger at those who are perceived as responsible for the degradation of the environment as well as anger at our helplessness to reverse environmental damage, and 4) feelings of apathy, hopelessness, paralysis or denial at how enormous the problem is.
No environmental problem challenges our human tendency to deny environmental impacts more than climate change. This tendency to deny environmental degradation, and, therefore to fail to take collective action to reverse and restore environmental loss is illuminated by Group Relations Theory. Group Relations Theory has pioneered the study of the ways in which social constructions help us to manage difficult emotions (Hirschhorn, 1990). This theoretical frame illuminates the question of how social structures may serve as a defense against anxiety and other feared emotions. Once defensive systems are in place, they may successfully keep troubling emotions at bay for some time, but at a cost. Defensive social structures inhibit constructive creative problem solving and collective action. They create dysfunctional systems that inhibit the best performance of organizational and social actors.
Thus Group Relations Theory is an essential perspective through which to explore the dilemma of our failure to take collective action to halt climate change and the loss of the natural environment. We begin our exploration with a brief description of relevant aspects of Group Relations Theory. We then present evidence of how the defensive mechanisms of splitting and denial are embedded in our social structures and business systems, and serve to defend us against the unpleasant emotions evoked by the loss of the natural environment.
We find evidence of these defense mechanisms in the way wealthier nations export waste to poorer countries, in the way we organize the global economy, and in some of the fundamental constructs of business education. Each of these mechanisms will be described as it serves to defend us against the difficult emotions provoked by the loss of the natural environment.
For example, business has very "successfully" developed practices, traditions; models that support our tendency to deny environmental degradation, and create the illusion that we can clean up our own space by throwing things "away." Denial is enabled by teaching incomplete, misleading business constructs.
We conclude with implications for action based on our analysis and on Group Relations Theory's tradition of practice. Solutions address the human tendency to deny inconvenient truths and to split off knowledge and emotions that make us uncomfortable. Solutions require us to develop our global citizenship, and incorporate into our home base parts of the world that have become repositories for our discarded pollutants – both physical and psychological.
International Treaties, for example, support the development of global citizenship because they focus on the world as a single, whole system. They invite us to face inconvenient truths about the loss of the natural environment. They have the potential to draw us out of denial. In order to engage climate action, we must deal with the underlying human tendencies to deny environmental impacts and loss. We must work on both a psychological level and an international level.
The Group Relations tradition uses experiential learning to raise awareness of discarded parts of ourselves, and allow us to reintegrate inconvenient truths. The paper will conclude with a description of the workshop, One Planet Leadership: Developing Our Inner Global Citizen, which has been designed using Group Relations methods.