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Stop Ignoring the Large Mammal in the Room: Climate Denial

Using symbolic interaction theory as a basis, Jesse Weiss examines declining environmental sentiment in the United States and explains that personal and cultural denial of global warming are having an impact.

As the 47th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, questions of the effectiveness of nearly fifty years of environmentalism must be raised. While Americans know more about their relationship with the physical environment than any other generation, their support for sustainability seems to be waning. On March 25, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order overturning federal regulations limiting the coal power industry. This move came as no surprise to any casual observer of the previous presidential election, as rhetoric of the like was common from the then Republican candidate. For this, the candidate was wildly cheered and was subsequently elected president of the United States. This support is not particularly surprising considering the significant changes that American environmental sentiments have undergone in recent years.

According to research published in 2006, as many as 80 percent of Americans espoused pro-environmental values. A decade later, according to Gallup, the number of Americans who identified as environmentalist dipped to 42 percent. While opposition to environmentalism has existed since the 1980s, recent support for policies that are overtly anti-environment represent public sentiments that have evolved from backlash to outright denial. So, in a time when there is more information available about the harmful impact that human society has on the bio-physical world, why are people choosing to ignore it?

Denial, Not Just a River in Africa

Part of the explanation to this phenomenon can be found in what Stanley Cohen (2011) calls implicatory denial. According to Cohen, atrocities like global warming can elicit negative emotions such as fear, guilt, and helplessness. Rather than dealing with these feelings, many individuals choose to ignore and even deny that which is psychologically damaging. The impact of this individual denial is the creation of a larger culture of denial that exists in the United States. This has allowed many Americans to keep climate change at a distance. Lack of knowledge is no longer the issue, as access to scientific information about climate change is literally a click away. The standard of living in democratic societies like the United States has allowed many the luxury of simply choosing not to pay attention to the reality of the state of the physical environment. It seems as though many simply do not want to know.

Naturework Has Nothing to Do With Mowing

While this certainly has manifested itself in the recent political behavior of many voters and elected representatives, there are far more concerning implications of this cultural denial. As symbolic interaction explains, humans behave toward things on the basis of the meanings that those things have for them. This includes the physical environment.

Gary Allen Fine describes this process of the social construction of nature as “naturework.” Fine explains that the natural world is experienced through “cultural eyes.” This means that larger social values shape definitions and definitions influence behaviors. The implication of denying global warming on a cultural level is that the social construction of the environment will be grossly different than the reality of its condition. An entire nation consisting of millions of people behaving as if they are exempt from ecological laws will have disastrous consequences for future generations. Implicatory denial of global warming is comparable to the band continuing to play as the Titanic sank into the Atlantic.

Hopeless but Not Helpless

Cohen explains that one of the negative emotions that global warming elicits is hopelessness. There is, however, hope. This generation knows more about their relationship with the physical environment than any other that has come before. Climate science offers more certainty about the impact of human behavior on global climate change. As G.I. Joe taught us in the 1980s, “knowing is half the battle.” The other half of the battle is to not just combat denial with acknowledgement but also with behavioral changes. Citizens can utilize their democratic power. Voting for leaders who acknowledge global warming is incredibly important, but perhaps, even more important is for community members to actively seek to make global warming visible in their neighborhoods, their churches, and their places of employment.

Mother Teresa offered valuable advice for those seeking to make a difference when she instructed her followers to “stay where you are, find your own Calcutta.” For environmentalist, this is ours!

Dig Deeper:

  1. Explain how individual denial can have societal impacts.
  2. Do you consider yourself to be an environmentalist? Explain why or why not?
  3. Describe a situation where you or someone you know exhibited implicatory denial about global warming.
  4. Watch this video. Then explain the role that politics plays in the social construction of arguments about global warming.

References:

  • Cohen, S. (2011). States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge, MA. Polity Press.
  • Fine, G. A. (1997). “Naturework and the taming of the wild: The problem of ‘overpick’ in the culture of mushroomers.” Social Problems, 44(1), 68–88.

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