BY Todd Nicholas Fuist
If you’re anything like me, you spent a not-insignificant chunk of 2020 marveling in dismayed awe at the cavalier ability of so many people – everyone from folks in your community to celebrities to government officials – to engage in various forms of denial about the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, some of the most visible deniers were those who adamantly refused to believe that the pandemic was happening at all. Yet, an equally prominent strain of Covid denialism came in the form of people who acknowledged the crisis yet seemed not to care. You almost certainly heard comments from people you know like “I’m not going to live in fear” or “it’s no worse than a regular flu” or “what are we supposed to do, destroy our whole economy to save a few lives?” Even as doctors and scientists proposed actionable solutions for individuals and societies to take that could mitigate the harmful effects of the pandemic, the inertia of people’s lives and the underlying logic of our systems were, it seemed, too powerful to be moved by even the gravest of threats.
I suspect Kari Norgaard wasn’t surprised that this was how 2020 played out.
In her book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, Norgaard examines what she calls “socially organized denial.” Based on research conducted in both Norway and the U.S., she argues that widespread denial of something like climate change¾something where both the lived reality and the scientific consensus are staring us right in the face¾doesn’t happen because thousands upon thousands of individuals each independently choose to deny what scientific authorities are shouting from the rooftops. Rather, denial on a massive scale happens for patterned structural and cultural reasons that we can sociologically examine to identify and understand its root causes.
Norgaard is particularly interested in what she calls “implicatory denial.” Of course, she notes, there are people who claim climate change isn’t happening at all, but there are just as many who accept the reality of climate change yet do nothing about it. This kind of denial accepts the underlying premise of the threat while ignoring its implications¾that we may have to change our behavior, our lifestyles, our culture, and our economies¾if we want to fight the looming existential crisis of climate change. In her research, Norgaard spoke with people who understood and accepted the science of climate change, even those whose livelihoods had been directly affected by the slow rise of average global temperatures, but who told her they were uncomfortable talking about the topic, or that it was someone else’s problem to deal with, not theirs. In Norway, for example, people told her that climate change didn’t seem like a polite thing to discuss in casual conversation, leading to an ongoing silence on the issue. Besides, they said, the real problem wasn’t the notoriously eco-friendly Norwegians but those Americans with their gas guzzling SUVs and big corporations. What’s more, Norgaard’s interviewees admitted that when they thought through the economic changes that dealing with climate change would require, it often made them uncomfortable. When you know someone who works in the oil industry or you have a job that requires you to fly regularly, the realities of any changes that may need to be made to combat the climate crisis hit close to your pocketbook or lifestyle.
As such, Norgaard argues, even those who know the science, even those who express a deep concern about the issue, often do very little besides shake their head and throw up their hands, asking, “what are we supposed to do, destroy our whole economy to save a few lives?”
This past semester, I (virtually) taught Environmental Sociology. That course is often full of earnest students who are deeply concerned about the issue of climate change. They tend to enter the course assuming that the roots of denialism are that people simply don’t know enough about the issue and if only there was a way to communicate the science on what a dire threat climate change is to them, surely they would all see the light. Then we read and discuss Norgaard’s research, along with similar work like Justin Farrell’s The Battle for Yellowstone and Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science and the students come to the realization, for better or worse, that all the “good” information in the world won’t change people’s minds because there are underlying moral logics to how we interpret science that emerge from our identities and interests. Put simply, you are more likely to believe something if it’s the kind of thing that someone like you is supposed to believe, regardless of the empirical evidence.
Norgaard’s work, though, points to a fruitful research agenda for sociologists of social movements. If, given the realities of climate change and the ongoing pandemic, we are interested in how important ideas are successfully communicated to diverse publics, we may ask: when does information break through all the noise and find its way to people? How are people moved from denial to belief or, just as importantly, from implicatory denial to action? Or, to put it in the language of social movement sociology, what frames and narratives would most resonate with audiences whose identities make them disinclined to believe what a movement is saying to them or unmotivated to act on that information? While my Environmental Sociology students were dispirited reading Norgaard’s work and realizing denialism couldn’t simply be solved by providing the best information to people, they also saw a glimmer of hope in her work that learning how to speak to diverse publics in resonant ways, as opposed to using a one-size-fits-all approach to disseminating information, could help them move the needle on the issues they cared about.
Link to the book: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/living-denial