Everywhere yet nowhere.


Interview by John Gibbons

A few minutes into Dr Kari Marie Norgaard’s recent lecture in Trinity College, Dublin, she ran a short animation showing the steady ratcheting up of global surface temperatures over time. The clip began in 1950. By the time it had reached 2014 the globe graphic was heavily pock-marked by pink blotches. From there, it quickly ran through the remaining years using climate model projections until 2100.

An intense silence fell over the lecture hall as the years advanced and the graphic melded into what looked like a global firestorm. Who knows what the end of the world will look like, but this certainly looked like the end of our world being played out in stop-motion before a stunned audience.

Understated and self-effacing, Kari Norgaard is an improbable prophet of the apocalypse. Assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, she is best known for her critically acclaimed 2011 book, ‘Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life’.

A third-generation Norwegian-American, Norgaard chose her ancestral homeland as the ideal place to carry out extensive field work on the phenomenon of how we internalise denial of the dire implications of climate change. Awareness of climate change constitutes what she calls “background noise” in most of our lives – paradoxically, it is both deeply disturbing and almost completely invisible, “it is simultaneously unimaginable and common knowledge”, she explains.

Failure to grasp or address climate change is often blamed on poverty, poor quality of education, political disengagement or strong ideological opposition (as in the US). Norway suffers none of these disadvantages, yet its public has internalised denial as comprehensively as anywhere else.

Knowing and not knowing, understanding and yet ignoring climate change involves us in what has been described as “the absurdity of the double life”. In her book, Norgaard tracks what she describes as socially organised denial through its multiple strands, including emotions, cultural norms and politics. What this means is that, although knowledge and information about climate change is widely available, these insights are completely disconnected from how political, social and even private lives are organised. It is, she argues, everywhere, yet nowhere.

“We humans are now modifying Earth systems; these are accelerating out of control, in terms of ocean acidification, carbon dioxide build-up, sea level rise – all of these associated phenomena that come with the greenhouse effect”, Norgaard told Village in an in-depth interview:

“On my way here, I flew over two very large wildfires in the state of California – the state is in extreme drought right now. While the effects of climate change are becoming ever more manifest, these are occurring unevenly and unpredictably in different parts of the world. Climate change poses a threat to our ideas of modern progress, our ideas of the good life and what’s attainable, of our fossil-fuel-driven economic systems that are organised around growth. Also, our political structures, we haven’t been able to come together and respond, and find agreement on these things. It also poses threats to people’s individual identity as ‘good’ people…when you have a really big threat and there’s no clear sense of what can be done without having huge change – people don’t, either individually or as a collective, say ‘fine, I’ll change my mind’ – it doesn’t work that way. One of the most powerful theories in psychology is of cognitive dissonance, the idea that, with climate change, everything we’ve been doing and holding in our lives is not working any more is completely in contrast not only with what we’ve been taught to believe, but also what we see in the culture around us. This is the kind of denial that is my work”.

The culture in which we all operate has, she adds, “been created by dominant elites – there’s a sense of abundance (created by advertising) and ‘buy, buy, buy’ – this cultural messaging is produced by entities that are invested in the status quo…our whole idea of progress, ever since the Enlightenment, that we could use science to have a better world, that we could come together to resolve our mutual differences, while science guides us to a better future – all our ideas of modernity, that life will get better and better; that has come to an end in terms of the degree of impact that we now have on the Earth’s ecosystem, which is unravelling”.

Norgaard identifies a key flaw in post-Enlightenment reasoning that placed humanity over nature, in a position of dominance rather than dependence and reverence, as was common in many pre-industrial societies. Nature was re-framed from being a powerful but largely benevolent parental figure to an undefended trove of treasures, a bottomless quarry from which we can extract an infinity of goods to satisfy our infinitely expanding needs. Scottish engineer and inventor, James Watt put it presciently when he said: “Nature can be conquered, if we can but find her weak side”.

While the recent WWF ‘Living Planet’ report tracked a chilling decline in biological diversity and abundance, even its utterly shocking headline numbers seem to have failed to put a dent in public consciousness. Why? “Here in Dublin, people who are urban especially, they live in a very mediated environment – they may never have seen those particular species”.

Many New Yorkers were shaken from their urban insulation two years ago when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the city, but this was exceptional. Mostly, says Norgaard, “it’s almost like we live in gated communities, and our media sources could be seen as another level of that gate. Similarly, the kinds of conversations people have around you can form a kind of gate that keeps out (unpleasant ecological) information”.

She believes that, despite the best efforts of the corporatised media, the sheer number and intensity of extreme weather events sweeping the continental US is beginning to really break into standard conversation. “That filter, the one that says no one else really cares about this, it mustn’t be really happening, that is going away”.

She cites the massive climate protest march in New York in September attended by some 400,000 people as indicative that we may be approaching a cultural or societal tipping point in terms of responding to the climate crisis. “If people feel they can do something about a problem, they’re more likely to care about it; on climate change, as people have had more information, they’ve actually felt less empowered to do things about it. What we can do, and whether we can do anything, is on the table, there’s not a guarantee here”.

Demoralising failures such as the UN COP process and Obama’s inability or failure to truly engage US politics with climate change, can lead people to feed a sense of hopelessness, leading to disengagement. “The work that I’ve done looked at how the emotions of fear, guilt and helplessness motivated people to not think about climate change….if you believe that people are stupid, if you believe that people are inherently greedy, that’s not going to make you believe this problem can be solved”.

While much climate denial may be internal, there are powerful external factors at play too. “I have no doubt there’s going to come a moment when people aren’t going to buy overt denial any more”. While her work does not focus on climate deniers, this doesn’t mean she is impervious from the vicious smear attacks that are hallmark of the well funded and media savvy denialist movement.

Demagogue Rush Limbaugh lit into Norgaard as an “environmentalist wacko’ in a defamatory 2011 tirade, and this led to a slimy avalanche of ad hominem assaults (“meet the new poster child of climate change commies”; swastikas, horrifically misogynistic graphics, etc. etc.). Norgaard is at pains to state that she makes a point of not looking up the nasty things posted online about her.

There is much to be discouraged about, but given how high the stakes are, “we just don’t get to give up, it’s not an option. What are the ethics you live by in times of uncertainty? I have a responsibility to keep trying to figure it out, and to keep putting pressure on and identifying those who are really interfering with progress”, Norgaard concludes.

John Gibbons is an environmental commentator @think_or_swim