Introduction: The Failure to Act, Denial versus Indifference, Apathy, and Ignorance.
Environmental and social scientific communities alike have identified the failure of public response to global warming as a significant quandary. Most existing explanations emphasize lack of information (people don’t know enough information; climate science is too complex to follow; or corporate media and climate skeptic campaigns have misled them) or lack of concern (people are just greedy and self-interested or focused on more immediate problems). Such work emphasizes either explicitly or implicitly the notion that information is the limiting factor in public nonresponse to this issue, an approach that is often called the “informa- tion deficit model” (see, e.g., Bulkeley 2000). There is the sense that “if people only knew,” they would act differently: that is, drive less, “rise up,” and put pressure on the government. For example, psychologists Grame Halford and Peter Sheehan write, “With better mental models and more appropriate analogies for global change issues, it is likely that more people, including more opinion leaders, will make the decision to implement some positive coping action of a precautionary nature” (1991, 606). Researchers have lamented the confusion between global warming and the ozone hole (e.g., Bell 1994; Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994; Read, Bostrom, Morgan, et al. 1994), investigated the role of media framing (Bell 1994; Ungar 1992; Grundmann 2006, 2007), and described how understanding global warming requires a complex grasp of scientific knowledge in many fields. Also in this vein, John Sterman and Linda Sweeney examine public misperceptions of climate models as a cause for inaction. The authors conclude that “low public support for mitigation policies may arise from misconceptions of climate dynamics rather than [from] high discount rates or uncertainty about the impact of climate change” (2007, 606). Furthermore, they link this misunder- standing to the failure of response by U.S. policymakers. Yet as Daniel Read and his colleagues (1994) pointed out more than a decade ago, only two simple facts are essential to understanding climate change. If significant global warming occurs, it will be the result primarily of an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmo- sphere. And the single most important source of carbon dioxide is the combustion of fossil fuels, most notably coal and oil. How can it be that people don’t know these basic facts?
Finally, the information deficit approach cannot explain a para- doxical phenomenon: as evidence for climate change pours in, and as predictions become more and more alarming and scientific consensus increases, interest in the issue in Norway and elsewhere is declining. Biannual national surveys find a significant and steady downward trend in Norwegian interest and concern in the issue, with the percentage of respondents who replied that they were “very much worried” about climate change declining steadily from 40 percent in 1989 to less than 10 percent in 2001 (Hellevik 2002, 13; Barstad and Hellevik 2004).1 Hellevik’s explanation for declining concern is interesting: “A decline from such a high level of anxiety is to be expected. There are limits to how long it is possible for individuals to live with the extremely pessimistic environmental perspectives reflected in the 1989 results. Anxiety reduction mechanisms make people look for brighter aspects of development” (2002, 13). Although the situation is more complicated in the United States, we can see evidence of the same pattern here. For example, Paul Kellstedt, Sammy Zahran, and Arnold Vedlitz have found that increased levels of information about global warming have a negative effect on concern and sense of personal responsibility. In par- ticular, respondents who are better informed about climate change feel less rather than more responsible for it: “in sharp contrast with the knowledge-deficit hypothesis, respondents with higher levels of informa- tion about global warming show less concern” (2008, 120). Similarly, Jon Krosnic and his colleagues (2006) observed that people stopped paying attention to global climate change when they realized that there is no easy solution for it. They note that many people instead judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be taken.
In the United States, there is also the phenomenon of outright climate skepticism, in which 26 percent of the population does not believe there is scientific consensus that climate change is occurring (Krosnic 2009). Is this phenomenon at all linked with the larger majorities of the U.S. public who find global warming alarming, but who fail to take action? If so, how?
Existing studies of how people process information on climate change have focused largely on either the individual level, examining “mental models” and cognitive schemas (e.g., Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994), or the national level, carrying out large-scale cross-national surveys (e.g., Dunlap 1998; Saad 2002, 2007 Nisbet and Meyers 2007; Newport 2008; Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf 2008, 2010). No sociological work to date has taken an open-ended, ethnographic approach to the question of how people experience climate change. Results from the few studies that use interview data do not support the information deficit model. Instead, their results describe a complexity of response, situations of knowing and not knowing, and emotional ambivalence. Perhaps more significant, although information deficit explanations are indispensable, they do not account for the behavior of the large number of people who do know about global warming, believe it is happening, and express concern. Outright climate skepticism is flashy and attention grabbing, but survey data make clear that a much larger percentage of the Norwegian (not to mention U.S. and world) population is not skeptical (Hellevik and Høie 1999). If we look closely, these people’s inaction becomes an interesting, complex, and, I suggest, important barrier to social change.
Double Realities: Climate Change and Everyday Life
It was not long after my arrival in Bygdaby that I began to sense a paradox. Norwegians are among the most highly educated people in the world. Global warming was frequently mentioned during my time in Bygdaby, and community members seemed to be both informed and concerned about it. Yet at the same time it was an uncomfortable issue. People were aware that climate change could radically alter life within the next decades, yet they did not go about their days wondering what life would be like for their children, whether farming practices would change in Bygdaby, or whether their grandchildren would be able to ski on real snow. They spent their days thinking about more local, manageable topics. Ingrid, a local high school student, described how “you have the knowledge, but you live in a completely different world.” Vigdis told me that she was afraid of global warming, but that it didn’t enter her everyday life: “I often get afraid, like—it goes very much up and down, then, with how much I think about it. But if I sit myself down and think about it, it could actually happen; I thought about how if this here continues, we could come to have no difference between winter and spring and summer, like—and lots of stuff about the ice that is melting and that there will be flooding, like, and that is depressing, the way I see it.”
In the words of one person who held his hands in front of his eyes as he spoke, “People want to protect themselves a bit.” These voices are echoed in the United States. One of my female environmental studies students described how “solving global warming seems like such a daunt- ing task, and even I know that it can seem too overwhelming.” Another student observed, “Despite my knowledge of the wider climate issues, I am still living the same life.”
Community members in Bygdaby described this sense of knowing and not knowing, of having information but not thinking about it in their everyday lives. As one young woman told me, “In the everyday I don’t think so much about it, but I know that environmental protection is very important.” As a topic that was troubling, it was an issue that many people preferred to avoid. Or as Ingrid put it, “I think that there are lots of people who think, ‘I don’t have that problem myself; I can’t do any- thing about it anyway.’”
Community members describe climate change as an issue that they have to “sit themselves down and think about,” “don’t think about in the everyday,” “but that in between is discouraging and an emotional weight.” People in Bygdaby did know about global warming, but they did not integrate this knowledge into everyday life.
This state of affairs brings to mind the work of historical psychologist Robert J. Lifton. Lifton’s (1982) research on Hiroshima survivors describes people in states of shock, unable to respond rationally to the world around them. He calls this condition “psychic numbing.” Follow- ing his initial studies in Japan, much of Lifton’s work has been devoted to describing the effect of nuclear weapons on human psychology, par- ticularly for Americans (see, for example, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial ). Out of this project, Lifton describes people today as living in an “age of numbing” (1993, 210) due to their aware- ness of the possibility of extinction (from the presence of both nuclear weapons and the capacity for environmental degradation). In this usage, numbing comes not from a traumatic event, but from a crisis of meaning. Lifton says that all of us who live in the nuclear age experience some degree of psychic numbing. We know that our lives can end at any moment, yet we live as though we do not know this. Lifton calls this condition the “absurdity of the double life.” We live with “the knowl- edge on the one hand that we, each of us, could be consumed in a moment together with everyone and everything we have touched or loved, and on the other our tendency to go about business as usual— continue with our routines as though no such threat existed” (1982, 4–5). According to Lifton, the absurdity of the double life profoundly affects our thinking, feeling, identity, sense of empowerment, political imagination, and morality. He writes, “If at any moment nothing might matter, who is to say that nothing matters now?” (1993, 23).
I adapt Lifton’s phrase “absurdity of the double life” in coining the term double reality to describe the disjuncture I observed that winter in Bygdaby. In one reality was the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life. In the other reality existed the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future weather scenarios. In the words of Kjersti, a teacher in her thirties at the local agricultural school: “We live in one way, and we think in another. We learn to think in parallel. It’s a skill, an art of living.” This disconnect between abstract information and everyday life is also reported by Norwegian sociologist Ketil Skogen, who finds that for young people in a rural Norwegian community, “environmental issues in general and global threats like the greenhouse effect in particular, are seen as abstract and irrelevant, and are generally not something young people think about” (1993, 232).
It can be easy to take such statements at face value, and most people do. But through his work on the sociology of cognition, Eviatar Zerubavel reminds us that society teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We learn “cognitive traditions” through a process of socializa- tion. Deciding whether to pay attention to a given idea or event in a given moment or not is a learned process that Zerubavel calls “optical socialization”: “Separating the relevant from the irrelevant is for the most part a social act performed by members of particular ‘optical’ com- munities who have been specifically socialized to disattend certain things as part of the process of adopting the distinctive ‘outlook’ of their com- munity. In other words, we learn what to ignore, and only then does its irrelevance strike us as natural or ‘logical’” (1997, 47).
Zerubavel tells us that rather than taking thinking as matter of fact, we need to realize that notions of what to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed. We learn what to see and think about from the people around us. Zerubavel’s work tells us that whether people notice information about climate change is related to socially shaped systems of perception and attention, whether they remember what they hear is a function of social systems of memory, whether it is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern; and the relevance of climate change to daily life is a function of socially shaped systems of cognitive organiza- tion (see Zerubavel 1997). “Cognitive traditions” or collective patterns of thinking differ from one “thought community” to another. How we think is part of culture and marks our participation in community. Cog- nitive traditions and thought communities thus shape how and whether groups of people think about climate change and whether they perceive the topic as relevant for everyday life. From the inside, boundaries of thought appear “natural,” and “commonsense” decisions about what to pay attention to or ignore appear strange only when we are outside a given cognitive tradition. Zerubavel (2002, 2006) calls this social shaping of our awareness, memories, and thought patterns the “social organiza- tion of denial.” Most research to date has examined denial on the level of individual psychology. Yet what individuals choose to pay attention to or to ignore must be understood within the context of both social norms shaping interpersonal interaction and the broader political eco- nomic context. Thus, Zerubavel argues, and I agree, that we need both psychology and sociology to study “the mental processes of attending and ignoring” (1997, 11). From the former perspective of individual psychology, people block information on their own as individuals, but from the latter perspective denial occurs through a process of social interaction.
Zerubavel also calls our attention to the normative aspect of how we direct our awareness. Indeed, in every community there are social rules for focusing attention, including rules of etiquette that involve tact- related ethical obligations to “look the other way” and ignore things we most likely would have noticed about others around us. “Not only does our social environment provide us with a general idea of what we can disattend, it very often also tells us what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore. In other words, there is an important (though relatively unexplored) normative dimension to relevance and irrelevance. Indeed, probably the main reason that our own focusing patterns seem so natural or ‘logical’ to us is that they are usually normatively binding” (Zerubavel 1997, 50).
But why would thought communities be normative? And if they are, then how are the boundaries enforced? Questions about whether people pay attention to climate change can suddenly start to look much like theoretical questions about the nature of power. In the midst of whether climate change is defined as near or far, relevant or irrelevant, we find entree into the heart of concepts such as hegemony and ideology and into the role of culture in the reproduction of power.
Ann Swidler’s Cultural Tool Kit and the Production of Culture
One of Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) key contributions to social theory is his emphasis on how social control is enacted through the acceptance of ideas that prevent social change and on the important role of culture in legitimating those ideas. If we entertain for the moment the notion that power may be located in the realm of culture, then we must next ask both how and why particular systems of memory or cognition concern- ing climate change are enforced. How exactly does power operate through culture? Up until the mid-1980s, many social scientists under- stood culture to shape human activity in a fairly static manner, through providing values that direct actions.
Then in 1986 Ann Swidler’s work described an alternative framework for a causal role of culture in social action. In a groundbreaking essay, Swidler describes how “culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a rep- ertoire or ‘tool kit’” (1986, 273). In her view, culture shapes social action not by providing guiding values, but by providing cultural components or “chunks of culture” (283) that can be used as tools by individuals to construct “strategies of action” (273). Such a “tool kit” may contain “symbols, stories, rituals and world-views which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems” (273). For example, “Publicly available meanings facilitate certain patterns of action, making them readily available, while discouraging others” (283). For Swidler, “This revised imagery—culture as a ‘tool kit’ for construct- ing ‘strategies of action,’ rather than a switchman directing an engine propelled by interests—turns our attention toward different causal issues than do traditional perspectives in the sociology of culture” (271). I build on Swidler’s tool kit concept in chapters 4 and 5.