Editorial Essay: Climate Change or Cultural Change?
Socially Constructed Silence? Protecting Policymakers from the Unthinkable, by Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall
Art Transforms Plastic Pollution: Washed Ashore, by
A Biopsy on an Economy, by Jeffery J. Smith
Understanding, Tolerance, and Systems of Logic, by Carmine Gorga
Globalization and the American Dream, by Helena Norberg-Hodge and Steven Gorelick
Why the P2P and Commons Movement Must Act Trans-Locally and Trans-Nationally, by Michel Bauwens
Revealing Nature's Vulnerabilities As Our Own, by Lisa Lebofsky
Voluntary Family Planning to Minimize and Mitigate Climate Change, by John Guillebaud
An Expanded Realm of Desire, by Elisabetta Corrà
The SDGs in Latin America and the Caribbean, by Susan Nicolai, Tanvi Bhatkal, Christopher Hoy, and Thomas Aedy
I Assumed It Was Racism—It Was Patriarchy, by
Advances in Sustainable Development
Directory of Sustainable Development Resources
Strategies for Solidarity and Sustainability
Best Practices for Solidarity and Sustainability
Fostering Gender Balance in Society
Fostering Gender Balance in Religion
Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature
Climate Change or Cultural Change?
The term "climate change" has become a surrogate for "ecological crisis." It is worrisome to see billions of dollars being spent in "fighting" climate changes, real or imaginary, that may be due to natural variations, or human activities, or some combination of both. What is undeniable is that the biosphere is being trashed by a growing population and excessive consumption, and these are both the direct consequence of human decisions and actions. In any case, it is also undeniable that significant human adaptation will be required as climate changes and all manner of pollution and toxic substances contaminate the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. A bold cultural revolution is needed to face newly emerging global realities of ecological degradation, resource depletion, and massive migrations of people escaping from poverty and/or violence. Climate change mitigation measures and better weather services are certainly needed, but what is needed the most is human adaptation enabled by cultural change pursuant to integral human development, whereas distractions motivated by ideologies or profiteering have marginal or negative value.
Every global citizen can and must do something to self-adapt and help others adapt. However, it is irrational to expect that people, acting spontaneously, can resolve the ecological crisis, let alone get ready for climate change. Poor people do not have the resources to do much, busy as they are subsisting on a few dollars a day. Middle class people are too busy working, many trying to work and study at the same time, or running around from one job to another as they become seduced by marketing campaigns to spend more and more, to consume more and more, for the economy to "grow" more and more. Rich people do what rich people naturally do, keeping busy in good jobs that pay well to continue enjoying their comfortable lifestyle, and investing in financial instruments that enhance their bank accounts at the expense of poor and middle class people that keep borrowing in their attempt to climb the ladder. So the borrowing and spending spiral keeps going up, environmental quality keeps going down, and human institutions keep "fiddling while Rome burns."
Most institutions in our current human civilization are in desperate need of reform, and this applies to both secular and religious institutions worldwide. The reason is that, since the onset of the agricultural revolution, human relations, and all kinds of human initiatives, have become vitiated by the patriarchal paradigm of male domination and female subordination, also manifested as human domination and nature subordination. The industrial revolution enhanced the human capacity for exploiting nature, and the information revolution is further exacerbating debt-based marketing and the production-consumption growth frenzy. Irresponsible population growth is part of the problem; but irresponsible political and financial institutions are a major part of the problem, and religious institutions that perpetuate the patriarchal mindset via images of an omnipotent male God are an even greater part of the problem. Institutional problems require institutional solutions. Climate change may be real but let it not become a convenient distraction; what we really need is cultural change, from patriarchy to solidarity and sustainability.
Socially Constructed Silence?
Protecting Policymakers from the Unthinkable
Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall
This article was originally published in
Transformation, June 2016
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
The scientific community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is attracting. What’s going on?
Credit: By NASA Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard
Space Flight Center.
Public Domain, Wikimedia.
Some things can’t be
said easily in polite company. They cause offence or stir up intense
anxiety. Where one might expect a conversation, what actually occurs is what
the sociologist Eviator Zerubavel calls a ‘socially
In his book Don’t Even Think
About It, George Marshall argues that after the
fiasco of COP 15 at Copenhagen
certain sections of the press claimed (wrongly as it turned out) that leaked
emails of researchers at the University of East Anglia showed that data had
been manipulated—climate change became a taboo subject among most politicians,
another socially constructed silence with disastrous implications for the
future of climate action.
In 2013-14 we carried
with leading UK climate scientists and communicators to explore how they
managed the ethical and emotional challenges of their work. While the shadow of
Climategate still hung over the scientific community, our analysis drew us to
the conclusion that the silence Marshall spoke about went deeper than a
reaction to these specific events.
Instead, a picture
emerged of a community which still identified strongly with an idealised
picture of scientific rationality, in which the job of scientists is to get on
with their research quietly and dispassionately. As a consequence, this
community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy
that climate research is now attracting.
The scientists we spoke
to were among a minority who had become engaged with policy makers, the media
and the general public about their work. A number of them described how other
colleagues would bury themselves in the excitement and rewards of research,
denying that they had any responsibility beyond developing models or crunching
the numbers. As one researcher put it, “so many scientists just want to do
their research and as soon as it has some relevance, or policy implications, or
a journalist is interested in their research, they are uncomfortable.”
We began to see how for
many researchers, this idealised picture of scientific practice might also offer
protection at an unconscious level from the emotional turbulence aroused by the
of climate change.
In her classic study of
the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture of nursing in the UK in the 1950s, the
psychoanalyst and social researcher Isobel Menzies Lyth developed the idea of ‘social defences
against anxiety,’ and it seems very relevant here. A social defence
is an organised but unconscious way of managing the anxieties that are inherent
in certain occupational roles. For example, the practice of what was then called
the ‘task list’ system fragmented nursing into a number of routines, each one
executed by a different person—hence the ‘bed pan nurse’, the ‘catheter nurse’
and so on.
Ostensibly, this was
done to generate maximum efficiency, but it also protected nurses from the
emotions that were aroused by any real human involvement with patients, including
anxiety, something that was deemed unprofessional by the nursing culture of the
time. Like climate scientists, nurses were meant to be objective and
dispassionate. But this idealised notion of the professional nurse led to the impoverishment
of patient care, and meant that the most emotionally mature nurses were the
least likely to complete their training.
While it’s clear that
social defences such as hyper-rationality and specialisation enable climate
scientists to get on with their work relatively undisturbed by public anxieties,
this approach also generates important problems. There’s a danger that these
defences eventually break down and anxiety re-emerges, leaving individuals not
only defenceless but with the additional burden of shame and personal
inadequacy for not maintaining that stiff upper lip. Stress and burnout may
Although no systematic
research has been undertaken in this area, there is anecdotal evidence of such burnout
in a number of magazine articles like those by Madeleine Thomas and Faith Kearns,
in which climate scientists speak out about the distress that they or others
have experienced, their depression at their findings, and their dismay at the
lack of public and policy response.
Even if social defences
are successful and anxiety is mitigated, this very success can have unintended
consequences. By treating scientific findings as abstracted knowledge without
any personal meaning, climate researchers have been slow to take responsibility
for their own carbon footprints, thus running the risk of being exposed for
hypocrisy by the denialist lobby. One research leader candidly reflected on
this failure: “Oh yeah and the other thing [that’s] very, very important I
think is that we ought to change the way we do research so we’re sustainable in
the research environment, which we’re not now because we fly everywhere for
conferences and things.”
The same defences also
contribute to the resistance of most climate scientists to participation in
public engagement or intervention in the policy arena, leaving these tasks to a
minority who are attacked by the
media and even by their own colleagues. One of our interviewees who has
played a major role in such engagement recalled being criticised by colleagues
for “prostituting science” by exaggerating results in order to make them “look
sexy.”“You know we’re all on the same side,” she continued, “why are we
shooting arrows at each other, it is ridiculous.”
The social defences of
logic, reason and careful debate were of little use to the scientific community
in these cases, and their failure probably contributed to internal conflicts
and disagreements when anxiety could no longer be contained—so they found
expression in bitter arguments instead. This in turn makes those that do engage with the public sphere excessively
cautious, which encourages collusion with policy makers who are reluctant to
embrace the radical changes that are needed.
As one scientist put it
when discussing the goal agreed at the Paris climate conference of limiting
global warming to no more than 2°C: “There is a mentality in [the] group that
speaks to policy makers that there are some taboo topics that you cannot talk
about. For instance the two degree target on climate change...Well the
emissions are going up like this (the scientist points upwards at a 45 degree
angle), so two degrees at the moment seems completely unrealistic. But you’re
not allowed to say this.”
Worse still, the
minority of scientists who are
tempted to break the silence on climate change run the risk of being seen as
whistleblowers by their colleagues. Another research leader suggested that—in private—some
of the most senior figures in the field believe that the world is heading for a
rise in temperature closer to six degrees than two.
“So repeatedly I’ve heard
from researchers, academics, senior policy makers, government chief scientists,
[that] they can’t say these things publicly,” he told us, “I’m sort of
deafened, deafened by the silence of most people who work in the area that we
work in, in that they will not criticise when there are often evidently very
political assumptions that underpin some of the analysis that comes out.”
It seems that the idea
of a ‘socially constructed silence’ may well apply to crucial aspects of the
interface between climate scientists and policy makers. If this is the case
then the implications are very serious. Despite the hope that COP 21 has
generated, many people are still sceptical about whether the rhetoric of Paris
will be translated into effective action.
If climate change work is
stuck at the level of ‘symbolic policy
making’—a set of practices designed to make it look as though
political elites are doing something while actually doing nothing—then it
becomes all the more important for the scientific community to find ways of
abandoning the social defences we’ve described and speak out as a whole, rather
than leaving the task to a beleaguered and much-criticised minority.