How do we live with what we know? - November 2011
by Nancy Myers
The question Rebecca Gasior Altman asks in her thoughtful essay, How do we live with what we know, strikes at the very heart of environmental activism. We do not want to live with the way things are. And yet, we must both live with our knowledge of how things are and urgently work to change them, against seemingly insurmountable odds. Those who work for change will recognize the panic and despair she describes, especially in the presence of the big elephant in the room—climate change.
In a brief response that follows Rebecca's essay, Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, describes how that question has played out on a somewhat different set of environmental issues, around toxic chemicals. What she sees, looking back over several decades, offers hope and encouragement for the growing movement to face down climate change. We know what must be done and we know how to do it. We've done it before and we must keep doing it again and again.
SEHN is proud to claim Rebecca as one of our board members. She writes and teaches about human health and the environment at Tufts University in Boston and writes a blog about parenthood and the environment in a changing world.
by Rebecca Gasior Altman
Mounting disaffection has fueled a resurgence of peaceful protest, from the Kentucky governor's mansion to financial districts of cities across the globe. Yet, I've also noticed a flagging commitment to effect environmental change at home and in my community.
I wonder if both responses stem partly from the fact that the available range of actions aren't commensurate with the scope of the tangled problems we face?
"Look around you," a friend advised me, her finger sweeping the parking lot where I waited for my weekly pickup of regional milk and meat. "Do you see enough people doing what needs to be done? And even if they were, would it really matter? Read the headlines."
This, from a friend whose fervor had inspired significant shifts in my life. Three years ago we were teammates on the Energy Smackdown—a multi-town competition to see which team of households could decrease their carbon footprints the most. She was the equivalent of team captain and I, after a promising start, was—politely, mind you—kicked off the team because I plateaued early. I, an environmental sociologist, was dragging down the team.
"I slashed our carbon footprint," she continued, leaning toward me, "Every. Way. I. Could. I froze my family, keeping the house at 48 degrees. I lost friends. For what? So oil and gas companies can wipe out my paltry contributions in a single minute of routine operations?"
She sighed: "I am so over climate change."
The encounter lasted less than a minute, but it stuck with me for days. What really upset me is that I didn't know what to say or how to respond.
For my part, stung by the Energy Smackdown experience, I had retreated. I didn't abandon my environmental goals; I just compartmentalized them, keeping what I did in my private, family life separate from what I did in my public, professional life. I, too, had succumbed to what some call "well-informed futility." I hardly knew how to talk with people in my day-to-day dealings about issues that suffused everyday life yet seemed beyond my influence, and I felt embarrassed, even shameful, confessing to colleagues my trivial tribulations in trying to live lightly on the earth.
Then a few weeks ago, buried in the middle of Jim Harrison's novel Returning to Earth (2007), was a gift in the form of a question that led me to challenge a series of assumptions:
How do we live with what we know?
I recognized that what had felt like a private dilemma was not private at all but both public and political. How do we live with what we know is the question of our time for those living in privileged societies organized around the extraction of fossil fuels.
Until recently, the central assumption driving my work was that if people only knew about the destruction of our bodies and our planet they would feel compelled to act.
Those in the fields of risk communication and science studies refer to this as the "information deficit model," and its underlying tenets are everywhere visible in publications from government agencies, environmental health scientists, environmental advocacy organizations, and my own work.
Collectively, we have been succeeding in supplying the information. There is increasing knowledge about the swill of environmental and related health problems around us—and increasing public concern, too. Polling data show growing public awareness that our lives happen against a backdrop of significant environmental change. A groundswell of new research investigates the implications of goods and practices from beginning to end, from cradle to grave, on human health and the environment. This growing field of research shrinks the distance between our lives and the lives to which our stuff and lifestyles link us. All of this brings into sharper relief the cumulative legacy that follows from how we live.
And yet, though we know more, we seem to be doing less.
In fact, social science suggests that the relationship between information and action, at the individual level, is not straightforward. Paradoxically, more information can lead to less action.
Two social scientists, sociologist Kari Norgaard (Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, MIT Press, 2011) and environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman, have helped me explore that paradox, which becomes the question: how do we live with what we know?
Lertzman suggests that many of us live uncomfortably with what we know.
Among the US middle and upper classes, the social position in which I am situated, many well-informed, well-intentioned people live with a complex "tangle" of competing goals and desires, further complicated by their friends' and families' goals and desires. Jobs, relationships, and lifestyles are "emotionally embedded in the very practices, desires, goods, textures, and sensations that contribute to our ecological ills" (Lertzman 2011). The tension heightens as our awareness expands, as we act but feel opposing pressures, or as we feel the gross mismatch between the scale of the problem and the responses we see as within reach—most of which have to do with modifying our consumption, behavior, and technology.
This suggests that a broad segment of the American populace is not indifferent but may feel overwhelmed, perhaps by competing emotions. Lertzman wonders, "What if the issue is not about caring too little, but about caring too much?" Perhaps the polling data point to an untapped reserve of abiding yet sometimes crippling concern, further "complicated by a whole variety of pushes and pulls on our attention, identities and investments" (Lertzman 2011).
Psychologists like Lertzman argue that cracking open and laying bare these tensions and our collective strategies for managing them—at all levels, from the personal to the public and political—is part of the path forward, at least as an adjunct to existing campaigns, frames, and messages. This does not mean lying on a clinician's couch and baring our souls, but using these insights to craft "communication strategies that can acknowledge the truly terrifying and overwhelming nature of the myriad ecological threats we face, while at the same time steering us towards practical actions. People heal and make changes when they feel supported, understood and challenged."
Lertzman (2008; 2011) moves us from seeing a knowledge gap to seeing the tension between awareness and action, reflecting larger tensions in society. Shifting the metaphor from "gap" to "tangle" suggests a shift in our dominant ways of inciting change. In some cases, to overcome cultural inertia we may not need a jolt of information, but an infusion of empathetic connection, unraveling what is already present.
In a recent post on her blog, Lertzman writes: "We knock people over the head about energy efficiency, threats, disappearing creatures, devastation, etc., but until we can appreciate the confusion, overwhelm, potential sadness, grief and mourning that may be unresolved or even unconscious, we are going to keep circling around" (see: www.reneelertzman.com).
Frances Moore Lappé offers the same sentiment in her latest book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want (2011). We can, as she says, continue telling our truths, sharing our stories, passing on new information, but without the scare tactics. We can call for the world we want but also acknowledge the emotional, interpersonal, social, and cultural realities –in addition to the political-economic conditions— that have been holding us back.
Many in the environmental community are more comfortable talking about power than about emotions. But Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial (2011), points out that emotions are intimately bound into the political economy and to social change.
Sociologists recognize that rage, guilt, hopelessness, fear, futility, apathy, and denial do not exist solely within our hearts and heads. They are enacted, managed, expressed, or repressed based on whom we are with and the expectations we sense. Our emotions influence our social reality every day, in every interaction.
In this way, we can collectively create a social world in which we remain largely inactive about climate change--or we can move society in a new direction by airing hidden assumptions, rules, and norms that guide when, how, or if we talk (and express emotions) about environmental problems, our responsibilities, and responses. Emotional dynamics play a key role in social movements, for example, in which messages, soundbytes, and frames resonate with mass audiences, and which do not; in building alliances; and in fostering resiliency.
To the question, how do we live with what we know, Norgaard seems to answer that many living in relatively privileged societies like the US live silently and alone.
Norgaard says, "A big piece of what is so paralyzing for people is the sense that they are alone in actually taking climate change seriously, which in turn makes them further convinced that there is nothing really that can be done." The extent of environmental damage “is both deeply disturbing and almost completely submerged, simultaneously unimaginable and common knowledge” (Norgaard 2011, p. xix).
Where do we convene such conversations? What are the everyday places were we encounter one another, and where norms of interaction and emotion allow for us to root out that which is both submerged and disturbing?
It is worth reimagining our shared cultural and social spaces to create more forums for such conversations and connections.
To a certain extent this is happening at gatherings like Bioneers, and also on the Internet, in countless blogs, which at least offer a forum for individuals to express the gifts and insights they bring to the cause. These can also be spaces to work through the struggles and tensions that often coincide with this work. One of my favorites is the visual essayist Franke James and her provocative climate change art, workshops, and lecture series, Bothered By My Green Conscience (see www.frankejames.com).
Many places of worship, classrooms, and even workplaces offer such forums for those who are part of these institutions. How else might we adapt current gatherings to include space for these important dialogues, and what new forums can be created? Norgaard (2011) suggests that it is critical for communities to convene planning committees to address environmental impacts from community services and also to plan for necessary adaptations in critical community services and infrastructure. These could, in turn, foster a space for important dialogues and relationship-building.
One place to explore this further might be through the Transition Initiative (see resources available through http://transitionculture.org/ and http://www.transitionnetwork.org ). I first learned about the Transition Initiative through Jay Griffiths' (2009) piece in Orion Magazine. As he wrote, the Transition Initiative is "changing the scale of change," while also acknowledging the underlying emotions that these issues expose. I'm curious, too, about what ecologist Amy Seidl has written on communities as a space for concern, conversation and change-making in her new book, Finding Higher Ground (2011). Through SEHN, I would welcome hearing about other ongoing projects, and how else these ideas might be translating into the worlds we inhabit.
As a sociologist, I also can't help but wonder what might grow from the Occupy Movement, whether and how productive conversations sparked through these efforts might affect the underlying norms and meaning-making processes that shape how people connect what they know with how they live.
Meanwhile, these conversations take place on street corners, in playgrounds and even parking lots. And these matter, too.
Norgaard also helped me to explore how my individual resistance to reach out is bound up in broader currents of cultural and social resistance that manifest through norms surrounding where and how we converse and communicate. And, alternatively, how I can use shared cultural experiences as a way to convene and connect, or reconnect, as the case may be.
I wrote to my friend the other day.
I know that reaching out to others, fostering connections and relationships to overcome my own silence and isolation, to air my own truths, is not enough. It's not commensurate with the scale or urgency of the problem. But it's one way we can begin to shift the norms. This is social change on the micro level, how the personal connects to the political.
"Thought you could use a beacon," I wrote, and I sent her a link to Sandra Steingraber's new book, Raising Elijah, in which she endeavored to "march her readers" right out of their frustrating sense of futility.
Then I tossed in: "I want you to know you made a big difference in my life. Come back to the fold. The world needs you. The kids yet to be here need you, too."
I'll give some time to answer and then I will knock on her door.
For Further Reading:
Jay Griffiths. 2009. "The Transition Initiative: Changing the Scale of Change." July/August 2009. Orion Magazine. (Last accessed November 1, 2011).
Franke James. 2009. Bothered By My Green Conscience. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.*See: newer visual essays and more about her workshops at www.frankejames.com
Frances Moore Lappé. 2011. EcoMinds: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want. Philadelphia, PA: Nation Books.
Renee Lertzman. 2008. The Myth of Apathy. The Ecologist. (Last accessed October 26, 2011).
Renee Lertzman. 2011. The Myth of Apathy. Sustainable Life Media. (Last accessed October 26, 2011)
A Dialogue Between Renee Lertzman and Kari Norgaard. 2011. Ecopyschology 3 (Last accessed October 26, 2011).
Kari Norgaard. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Amy Seidl. 2011. Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming. Boston: MA: Beacon Press.
Sandra Steingraber. 2011. Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children In an Age of Environmental Crisis. Philadelphia, PA: De Capo Press.
by Carolyn Raffensperger
I once observed to Ted Schettler, SEHN's science director, that nobody should want to eat with the two of us because we would tell them about all the problems with their food—the mercury in the fish, the methyl bromide on the strawberries, the E coli in the beef, how few nutrients there were in the broccoli because it had traveled so far. One time we actually did this. We told people who were in the buffet line with us the hazards of each menu item, food by food.
The irony was that each problem we named was something we had studied in depth and were working to change as a matter of policy. But in that moment, knowing everything we did, we still had to eat.
When SEHN was founded in the mid-1990s many of us believed, as Rebecca Altman writes, that if the public only understood the science behind environmental health problems, everything would change. If the public knew the problems with the strawberries, the fish, and the broccoli then we would have a shift in both the market and public policy. The issue we were grappling with at the time was the disconnect between the media and the science on dioxin, a particularly toxic chemical. I really thought that if people knew that scientists agreed that certain chemicals caused harm, we would ban the harmful chemicals, find alternatives, and stop polluting.
I immersed myself in public policy forums and discovered that my innocent belief was just plain wrong. The science was always uncertain. Even if a chemical was proven toxic, it would be kept on the market for economic reasons. As far as I could tell, money always trumped science. On top of that, we were dealing with one chemical after another, one at a time. There was always another toxic bogeyman around the next corner. Being an environmentalist was depressing because we just kept saying no to bad things.
I no longer feel angry or helpless. In fact, I see light ahead. Over the past years we've seen our efforts at SEHN and with our environmental colleagues actually change public policy and public awareness. It is true that baby cups and toys are safer and methyl bromide is off the market. But we've seen much larger changes than the increased safety of single products or the banning of single chemicals. Big policy and market changes are under way. Green chemistry, sustainable agriculture, green energy, and ecological medicine are fulfilling the broad promise of a precautionary-principled approach. These new fields are changing the structure of the market and reforming public policy.
The change in the market and public policy can be startling and dramatic. I am currently marveling at Nike's and Adidas's adoption of the precautionary principle to guide a zero discharge of hazardous waste. California has enacted green chemistry as policy. Kaiser Permanente and other medical care facilities are choosing sustainably produced foods to serve and safer products to use in their hospitals.
Changes in entire sectors like healthcare and athletic gear mean that the changes we make at home to help the environment do not stand alone. The marketplace itself is changing, policy is changing, and individuals are making wise choices. All three are necessary to bring about a healthy future for generations to come.
We have only begun to change how we live and do business. We don't know if this is all going to turn out all right. The stakes are high. But our hope is grounded in what we do together. None of us can change the market by ourselves. None of us can change public policy by ourselves. None of our individual efforts matter all by themselves. But all together they add up. They really do.
Print Friendly Page