Graham Leicester: Knowing but not owning up

THE technical term is “uncomfortable knowledge” – that we know but would rather we didn’t. Like the fact that a lake has just formed from ice melting at the North Pole, even as we enjoy our own unusually hot summer.
Ordinary people's feelings of responsibility and protests against oil exploration and other potentially damaging activities and their effect on the environment seem to have become less important. Picture: GettyOrdinary people's feelings of responsibility and protests against oil exploration and other potentially damaging activities and their effect on the environment seem to have become less important. Picture: Getty
Ordinary people's feelings of responsibility and protests against oil exploration and other potentially damaging activities and their effect on the environment seem to have become less important. Picture: Getty

Any feeling of discomfort need not last long. Our defences rapidly kick in to make things alright (this situation is quite normal, it was worse last year, and so on). The natural thing to do with uncomfortable knowledge is to suppress it.

But there can be unfortunate consequences when that natural human response starts to guide policy. This is what sociologist Kari Norgaard in a fascinating recent book on climate change (Living in Denial) calls “the social organisation of denial”.

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A classic recent example is the financial crisis. When the Queen asked in November 2008 why nobody had seen it coming, the British Academy told her that the dangers were indeed foreseen. But nobody wanted to hear about them.

Instead we put our faith in the financial wizards running the system, while the regulators did not feel able to “take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing”. All in all, the Academy concluded, “it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris”.

Norgaard’s case study is about Norway, a country regularly held up as a model for what Scotland might have been had oil money been invested differently, and could yet aspire to become.

She writes about a rural community she calls Bygdaby (not its real name). It is a village with a strong snow culture: annual rituals and festivals to mark its arrival, a shift in the way of life towards cross-country skiing, ice fishing and many other winter customs.

One winter the snow does not arrive as it should do in November. It is delayed until late in January. The temperatures are unseasonably warm. There is much talk of climate change – but not to the extent that anybody suggests doing anything about it.

There is an unstated assumption that this is an anomaly, a one-off. In the meantime, the winter festivals and rituals go ahead regardless. The local ski resort decides to make its own snow. It invests $2 million (£1.32m)in equipment, electricity and labour, installs seven kilometres of water lines and then in mid-December, when it is finally cold enough for the snow to settle, deploys a team of people working snow cannons round the clock for 14 days to provide a 1,200 metre long ski run. The resort finally opens on Boxing Day.

“Aside from the artificial snow on the slope itself, the mountain was bare”. This striking cover photo provides a powerful image of the lengths to which we will go to maintain business as usual.

Norgaard is based in the US and her study is partly motivated by wanting to understand why so many US politicians and voters still seem so unwilling to accept the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change.

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The mainstream explanation relies on the idea of “information deficit”: people are just not well enough informed. Yet public opinion data show that “as predictions become more and more alarming and scientific consensus increases, interest in the issue in Norway and elsewhere is declining”.

In other words, it is not that people do not know about climate change, they just find the knowledge uncomfortable.

Hence Norgaard’s interest in denial. As she points out, denial is always partial. In order to deny something we must first at some level accept its validity.

Denial is a paradoxical condition of “knowing and not knowing”. It works at a collective level “precisely because it becomes natural, like everyday life, and thus invisible”.

Silence on the subject of climate change should not be interpreted as disinterest. Norgaard reminds us the root meaning of the word apathy is the avoidance of pain (a-pathos).

So in this case the locals at some level find it too painful to acknowledge their own role in what is happening around them and their apparent powerlessness to do anything meaningful about it.

“Denial should be understood as testament to our human capacity for empathy, compassion, and an underlying sense of moral imperative to respond, even as we fail to do so.”

Norgaard discovers a strong cultural dimension to the processes of denial in Norway – a small country with an established sense of itself as humanitarian, egalitarian and environmentally aware. It has a large part of its national identity invested in nature – “the wellspring of Norwegian psyche and spiritual and emotional life”.

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The people are proud of Norway’s early environmental leadership – for example former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s pioneering work in the 1980s on sustainable development.

Yet at the same time, and over the same period, Norway has grown to become the largest oil exporter in Europe with its much praised Oil Fund the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Most oil and gas production is for export (Norway has a highly developed domestic hydro and renewables sector).

Yet the industry also contributes 25 per cent of Norway’s carbon emissions and the country is still struggling to meet its Kyoto targets to reduce them. Norgaard points out that expansion of oil production in the 1990s coincided with the percentage of Norwegians claiming to be “very worried” about climate change dropping from 40 per cent to 10 per cent.

Clearly it is psychologically painful for Norway to marry her commitment to nature and to justice with her position as a major contributor to the global fossil fuel economy. Norgaard identifies a number of defensive strategies to manage the pain – no longer at the level of the individual but in the culture itself. She points to “tools of order” that allow Norway to maintain its traditional image of itself (“Mythic Norway”). And “tools of innocence” which create a distance from responsibility and stake a claim to simplicity and goodness.

Amongst the tools of innocence is the oft-heard phrase “Norge Er et Lite Land” (“Norway is a Little Land”). The Norwegians are a simple and a humble people and there are only five million of them. What influence can they possibly have? The “little land” evokes both a sense of tight-knit community and a lack of culpability for the ills of the world.

These are fascinating insights about the cultural processes of denial, and about the specific circumstances of Norway. I am not suggesting any direct read across to Scotland. Even so, Norgaard does encourage us to seek out uncomfortable knowledge and to become reflective about our own processes of denial.

It is noteworthy, for example, that recent arguments about Scotland’s oil and gas have been about the size of the exploitable reserves and their likely monetary value, not about how their future extraction squares with our desire to be an international leader in cutting carbon emissions.

The root cause of denial is a worry that, however bold our policy statements, we do not really know how to address these big problems so intimately tied into global systems and seemingly beyond our control. As we too fail to square that circle, I wonder what tools of order we will draw on from our own culture to reassure us, and what tools of innocence?

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• Graham Leicester is director of International Futures Forum