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Sociologist Asks Why we Ignore Climate Chaos

Americans tend to have our heads in the sand when it comes to climate change, but we are not alone in the world. Even in Norway, where snows are coming two months later, and where there is no organized and well-funded disinformation campaign, most Norwegians just shrug and go about their business. What’s going on?

“Why are people so apathetic?” asks Kari Norgaard, an associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. “It’s a paradox. There is all kinds of information from the scientific community about climate change, but very little public discussion.” 

Norgaard spoke July 26 to a packed room of about 180 people at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene. Her talk on her 2011 book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life followed the June 24 lecture by professor Guy McPherson in the same room. But Norgaard did not focus on McPherson’s dire predictions of near-term human extinction (see our cover story July 16). Rather, she examined the sociological patterns and significance of doing nothing in the face of catastrophe. 

Norgaard chose her ancestral home of Norway for research for her critically acclaimed book. Norwegians are affluent and educated, and climate change in Norway is evident and dramatic. Is there an international recipe for denial?

Whether we are Americans or Norwegians, we are burdened and paralyzed, she says, by guilt for our materialistic lifestyles, fear of the future and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. “These troubling emotions,” she says, “lead to cognitive dissonance.”

Denial is both individual and collective, she says. We try to normalize our lives in the face of danger by controlling our exposure to information, thinking it’s better to not know everything, avoiding thinking too far ahead (live for today) and “having knowledge but living in a completely different world.”

So what can we do as individuals and as a society? Norgaard calls for us to get busy and “try to change the conversation.” She advocates for a “real discussion” of the issues on every level from city to global. “We need to understand how society works and how we can mobilize action,” and we need to tap into our imaginations to create alternatives, and find our place in a new and rapidly changing world.

“There are many things we can do and we can do them together,” she says. “That allows us to feel less alone and it’s not so terrifying.”

A follow-up interfaith panel discussion on this topic will be Thursday, July 30. See Activist Alert.