Intellectual Knowledge, Denial, Climate Change

Back in December, at a friend’s very casual colloquium (aka party) called “There Will Be Nachos,” I was asked by someone I’d just met to convince them people cause climate change and it is not just the natural warming/cooling cycle of the earth.  It was the second time in 2 weeks I’d been asked to defend the human causes of climate change; the first time was after presenting to a group of AP/IB students on environmentalism for Liberalism Day at a local high school.  When the grade 12 girl asked it was clear she’d done a little bit of reading on the subject and was confused by the contradictory claims she’d found.  When the 20-something guy asked it was evident he was a skeptic and I had my work cut out for me in convincing him even a little bit that people play a part in climate change.

Both conversations were interesting.  However, it was the second that caused me to think long after  about how we’ve come to depend on science to understand the environments around us, but are quick to discredit years of research based on one reported anomaly or a conclusion based on partial data taken out of context.  Our willingness to accept sketchy science and consumerist propaganda attempting discrediting years of solid research speaks to the greatest challenge to the environmental movements work towards gaining the cultural currency necessary to effect change.  We know on an intellectual level that human activities negatively impact the environment but embracing that knowledge means completely changing the structure of our society and how we go about our daily lives.   This is something humans are never willing to do unless the threat is immediate – bringing it back to science, we wired to respond to problems occurring in the moment,  fight-or-flight situations, not potential catastrophe many-years-down-the-road situations.  For such an intelligent species the inability to adequately prepare for the further is our Achilles heel – well that and denial, humans have perfected the use of  denial to create the temporary state of ignorant bliss necessary to continue engaging in activities that are detrimental to the future survival of the species.

The disconnect between what we know intellectually and how we behave is not restricted to acceptance of environmental issues like climate change, pollution, deforestation, or the general over harvesting of the earth’s resources.  It goes much further than the issue of the day and touches how we are acculturated to know the environments around us.  Knowledge of the natural world has been institutionalized and organized in such a way that the average citizen of an industrialized western country like Canada is not expected to be able to distinguish between a spruce and a pine tree, or a juniper and wild rose, or even the difference between elk, deer, moose and caribou.  Whereas the average person living in the developing world, somewhere like Indonesia, where knowledge had not been institutionalized to the same extent can easily name 10 different species of tree by the age of 10.  Why ? It comes down to how we live and how we ‘know’ the world around us.   This partly due to the distance urban living puts between people and the environment, and partly due to the hierarchical institutionalization of knowledge that began in the late 19th century.

Consider for a moment the weekend warrior or their less extreme counterpart the occasional wilderness pilgrim.   The anti-modern impulse of the middle class spurs large numbers of urbanites to prove themselves through weekend trips to the wilderness and pursue the accumulation of knowledge about the specific wilderness they go to.  A process that emerged in with the crisis of modernity at the turn of the last century.  The knowledge produced by this type of interaction is often superficial, maybe the weekend warrior knows spruce have short needles while pines have long needles, but would they know which species to expect when they are hiking a north facing slope in a valley where a wildfire took place in 1976?  Probably not.  That knowledge is only for the academics, the professional scientists in our western society.  Yet, only 200 years ago the average person would have be able to explain why there are more lodgepole pine than white spruce where a wildfire went through as well as identify the practical uses for a number of the post-fire species of shrubs in the area.  All that knowledge, once common and as visceral as how to surf the web, was slowly institutionalized.  It was taken from the hands of everyone and placed in the protected intellectual towers of universities, consulting firms, and Royal Societies.  In our efforts to achieve progress, to master nature, and get the earth to produce more, we lost our visceral knowledge of the environment and forced it into the realm of the intellectual.  This shift is what allows us to exploit the environment to a degree our previous closer relationship did not.   We knowingly poisoning it for ourselves and future generations because we are so removed from observing the immediate and gradual changes resulting from our intense exploitation of the planet.  There are people who maintain a practical and visceral knowledge of the environment and speak out against its exploitation based on first hand experience, but they are in the minority politically and demographically (often economically too) which strips them of the ability to exert sufficient resistive power to cause the institutions holding political and economic power to make drastic changes or put sustained effort into developing new technologies and approaches.  The majority live with the knowledge we are part of a system that has done irreparable damage to the only home we have.  Intellectually we know this, but we are in denial because that is want allows us to continue going about day-to-day life – environmentalists included.

I will never convince anyone that climate change is caused by humans – I doubt the guy at the party reconsidered his skepticism after talking to me.  This is because as passionately as I can go on about so many other environmental issues, my perspective is more longue duree than presententist or futurist, the perspectives so much of the climate debate hinge on.  The science and the historical studies conducted to this point says, yes people are contributing to climate change, and yes the CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels is a leading cause of ozone deletion which is overall warming the planet.  But 250 years ago we were emerging from the Little Ice Age  and that is when we started keeping and accurately tracking climate information on a global scale.  We have no concrete way of knowing how hot or cold the planet was when it entered the Little Ice Age, just how cold it was at the end and what happened since.   And as scientists look further into the past, acknowledging the necessity of a historical view to understanding climate and ecosystems, they are learning climate change is not as simple as humans and CO2 because the earth does not follow the strict rules of science.  As long as a but remains, it allows for even the most well informed people to hesitate in their willingness to believe climate change is entirely our fault and take the drastic steps to curb our collective addiction to fossil fuels.  Intellectually, we know we play an important part in the climatic shift taking place but viscerally we will not accept it and no amount of doom and gloom from Greenpeace or Al Gore or David Suzuki or a hardcore environmentalist friend is going to change that.  Maybe if science could prove beyond reasonable doubt it was all our fault things would change – but science will never be able to prove that just like science will never be able to create a variety of wheat that can withstand the next dust bowl or convince creationists we evolved from a single-celled organism just like cockroaches did.

Now, back to the environmental history of agriculture.  Wohoo!


* One of the best ways to evaluate the accuracy of any scientific report cited in the media is to do a quick google scholar search for the author or study.  Google scholar returns results based on how cited they are and often allows you to view the peer-review information as well as other studies connected to the data set.  For more about this, Jim Prall out of the University of Toronto has a website that is a great resource.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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