Current debates regarding human-induced climate change are marked by a central paradox. On the one hand the scientific consensus - that human action has irrevocably hastened the pace of climate change and that this will have potentially irreversible effects - has been powerfully established to the extent to which the issue is now firmly and irrevocably on the political stage. With documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth and fictional works such as The Road, climate change has in addition entered the popular lexicon as an indicator of a range of pressing social, political and cultural vulnerabilities. We know now that we live in vulnerable times, in the midst of an uncertain and potentially unknowable future. On the other hand, this consensus has proved an insufficient basis for coordinated political action to either reduce the emission of greenhouse gases or develop adaptive strategies in preparation for a changing climate. Debates about human induced climate change are now characterised by a familiar cycle of hope and disappointment invested in international diplomatic initiatives designed to set binding targets for the reduction of C02.
In this research conversation we aim to explore this paradox from a novel perspective. The central question that we aim to address is whether new cultural resources - what we call new storylines - are required for living with a changing climate, and if so, from where are they going to emerge? This proposition is informed by two diagnoses. Firstly, we suggest that the paradox surrounding human-induced climate change is partly a function of how current policy debates have been framed by science, and in particular by claim and counter-claim regarding the veracity of climate change science. Recent controversies regarding the release of emails between climate scientists at UEA have, if nothing else, revealed the high-stakes between climate change scientists and their sceptics. This framing of the debate as a contest between science-fact and science-fiction has led to a second implication - a de facto silencing of political debate regarding how to respond to climate change, including how the issue itself should be framed, in favour of clarifying, achieving and delivering a 'scientific consensus'. In this sense debates about climate change have been framed by an invocation of the linear model, which presumes that getting the science right is a necessary basis for determining what action needs to be done, including the determination of competing policy options1.
The effect of these two interlocking logics is to privilege climate scientists (and economists) in the policy debate surrounding human induced climate-change at the expense of other actors (notably social scientists and humanities scholars). Given the twin logics of scientism and technocracy the vision of change embedded in this discourse is of the individual and autonomous rational agent, impelled to behave in new ways through reasoned judgement. Dan Sarewitz2 has recently suggested that the now caricatured debates between climate change scientists and their sceptics have had the perverse effect of hollowing out the politics of climate change, hiding fundamental ideological questions of how questions of vulnerability, security and wealth creation are to be negotiated within climate-policy frameworks. Anthony Giddens3 concurs, suggesting at present we have no effective politics of climate change. That is to say, 'there is no developed analysis of the political changes we have to make if the aspirations we have to limit climate change are to become real' (2009: 4). John Urry4 makes a parallel case for society, highlighting the need for more a sociological understanding of the systems, processes and practices that sustain high carbon lives within society, and that will need to be changed and adjusted as we move towards a low carbon future.
A Narrative Turn
While Giddens turns to the state (and particularly to planning), and while Urry turns to the social, as the vehicles with which to generate the possibility of a post-carbon society, we adopt an alternative approach in responding to this central problematic. We are interested in the role that culture - and particularly cultural narratives and storylines - plays in mediating, ameliorating and understanding environmental change. In particular, we are interested in the ways that cultural narratives and storylines might be put to more innovative use, as providing the basis and capacity for reimagining life in the context of an uncertain and changing climate, and hence for stimulating new passions for how humans (and non-humans) can enter into environmental politics in an energising way.
Of course climate change has its own stock of narrative resources and storylines. These have tended to invoke cautionary tales that play on visual images of impending doom - the view of the Earth from outer space, the harpooning of Whales, toxic waste dumps, the Amazon in flames, polar bears on melting ice, glaciers in retreat - that require deep sacrifice to ensure survival. In the face of hard and indisputable facts provided by climate science, citizens are left with a gloomy aestheticism, with a future of self-restraint and mere survival. Nordhaus and Shellenberger5 locate this 'tragic' narrative in the emergence of an environmental consciousness, associated particularly with Carson's Silent Spring. They suggest that this narrative has been commonplace ever since:
"Silent Spring set the template for nearly half a century of environmental writing: wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for nature while prophesying ever worse disasters to come, unless human societies repent of their sins for nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world". (Nordhaus and Shellenger 2007: 130).
The power of this narrative is that it has become a commonplace6, and as such does not require social or cultural qualification. Much like other contemporary cultural commonplaces there is a fatalistic quality to this storyline. It functions as a way of attributing meaning, blame and agency to what is a dynamic and uncertain future. Indeed, this analysis is shared in social research7, which have demonstrated that appeals to the storyline of a global nature under threat has tended to produce apathy, paralysis and a sense of powerlessness rather than empowerment, hope and the rational embrace of collective action.
If we need new storylines for living with environmental change the question remains as to where they are to come from, how they are to be revealed, and perhaps most importantly, how they are to be energised and sustained such that they can compete with the grand narratives of an Enlightenment model of modernity. Latour provides the context. He suggests that the energising zeal of modernism has been sustained not simply by a belief in science (i.e. that through science nature will be revealed) but also through the ways in which this has been coupled with a dazzling array of psycho-social emotions (that includes juvenile enthusiasm, indifference to the past, risk taking, frontier spirit, optimism). In his review of Break Through, Latour situates the argument within the philosophical imperative of 'break[ing] through the limits of the notion of limits' as a precondition for 'unleash[ing] the same type of courage, energy and moral enthusiasm that is necessary to overcome the new threats to democratic society' (2008: 2).
Latour's alternative narrative derives from the recognition that whereas science has promised emancipation (from subjectivity, subjection, emotion, the past, contingency and so on) through an increasing mastery of nature, the effects of science has been 'a continuous movement towards a greater and greater level of attachments of things and people at an ever expanding scale and at an ever increasing degree of intimacy' (2008: 4). Latour's dream of emancipation is not a conversion from hubris to asceticism (this is the environmentalist's fallacy) but an ethic that follows through the unexpected consequences of action, all the way through, into the attachments and imbroglios. The question is not to stop innovating, inventing, creating, intervening but to do in accordance with what might be called ancient or Christian virtues (e.g. with love, care, patience, kindness and humility). The sin, according to Latour, and using explicitly theological language, is not that of using technology to master nature but that of presupposing that through mastery science and scientists can absolve themselves entirely from worry or care of future unexpected consequences.
"the Christian God at least is not a master that masters anything (in the first modernist sense of the world) but who, on the contrary, gets folded into, involved with, implicated with and incarnated into His Creation; and who is so much attached and dependent on His Creation that he is continuously forced (convinced? willing?) to save it again and again. So once again the sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature but to believe that this dominion means emancipation and not attachment." (Latour 2008: 9).
Recent developments in political theory have made a similar argument, arguing that in place of narratives of alienation and disenchantment an ethic of engagement serves to build new political constituencies around a notion of the contingency of natural systems and our entanglements with them8. Our own research9 has found that one way to cultivate new storylines for living with technological (and environmental) change was through a programme of public engagement, in this case surrounding the ethical and social implications of emerging nanotechnology. We found that public responses to nanotechnology were structured by five cultural narratives, each of which represent archetypal stories deeply embedded in European culture, each of which represent a form of critique to the narrative of modernity as emancipation set out above. The five narratives were: 'Be careful what you wish for'; Opening Pandora's box'; 'Messing with nature'; 'Kept in the dark'; and 'The rich get richer and the poor get poorer'. In an important sense nanotechnology - the understanding and control of matter at molecular levels - represents a barely-imaginable amplification of connections between the humans and nonhuman world, aimed at an unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of matter. Subjecting such imaginaries to public deliberation in our research generated a collective public response that was deeply ambivalent as to whether such innovation would produce the emancipation it desired. Rather, while nanotechnology was seen as inevitably producing new attachments and entanglements (involving ethics, the law, markets, new social relations, new geopolitics, unforeseen environmental consequences and so on), the lack of imagined plausible attentiveness and care to the unexpected consequences of action from institutions with apparent oversight for such developments, was seen as precisely why the technology would under real-world conditions lead to controversy, failure and probable disaster.
1 Pielke, R. 2007: The Honest Broker. Cambridge: Polity.
2 Sarewitz, D. 2010: 'Curing climate backlash, Nature, 464 (4) March 2010: 28; see also Pielke, R. The Climate Fix. Basic Books: New York; Prins, G. et al. 2010. The Hartwell Paper: a new drection for climate policy after the crash of 2009 www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/centres/insis/Documents/Hartwell.pdf.
3 Giddens, A. 2009: The Politics of Climate Change. Cambridge: Polity.
4 Urry, J. 2011: Climate Change and Society. Cambridge: Polity.
5 Nordhaus, T. & Shellenberger, M. 2007: Break Through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
6 Thevenot, L. 2002: Which road to follow? The moral complexity of an 'equiped humanity', in J. Law and A. Mol (eds.) Complexities: Social studies of knowledge practices. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; Billig, M. 1987: Arguing and Thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Myers, G. & Macnaghten, P. 1998: 'Rhetorics of environmental sustainability: places and commonplaces', Environment and Planning A, 30: 333-353.
7 Macnaghten, P. 2003: 'Embodying the environment in everyday life practices', Sociological Review, 51(1): 63-84.
8 Bennett, J. 2010: Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; Bennett, J. 2001: The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Connolly, W. 2011: A World of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
9 Davies, S., Macnaghten, P. and Kearnes, M. (eds.) 2009: Reconfiguring Responsibility: Deepening debate on nanotechnology. Durham: Durham University; Macnaghten, P. and Davies, S. 2010: 'Narrative and Public Engagement: Some findings from the DEEPEN project', in R. Von Schonberg (ed.) Understanding Public Debate on Nanotechnologies: Options for framing public policy. Brussels: European Commission.
Questions for the Event
The above two examples highlight some common themes: that old storylines of the environment and of environmentalism are limited and limiting; that new storylines are required that need to have the same zeal as the modernist grand narrative of progress; that new storylines cannot be expected to derive from expert discourses but rather through other sources - including through innovative forms of engagement and critique aimed at opening up alternative technological futures; that new storylines are produced out of existing narratives (some very old); that modernity provides a key reference point (as a site of resistance, critique, transcendence); that technology has equal potential to destroy as to create; and that a Christian (and other religious?) ethic of care / love / humility for technology and its unwanted consequences may provide new resources for imagining the rightful place of science in environmental futures.
Returning to the theme of the event, we aim to stimulate discussion, imagination and reflection on the theme ‘new storylines for living with environmental change’. To aid this process we have four external speakers, each a leading social thinker on environmental thought, who will be reflecting on the following questions:
- Why do we need new storylines for living with environmental change?
- Where will these come from?
- How will they be sustained?
- How will they be energised?
- How can innovative public engagement inform this process?
- How can social thought inform this process?
- How should this inform scientific and policy deliberation, including the setting of research agendas?