Social Inertia in the face of Climate Change

November 18, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Why is it that human civilization has been unable to take the steps required to forestall the devastating consequences of climate change, which may even include societal collapse, when faced with a scientific consensus that it is a very real phenomenon and requires urgent action? Instead of taking such actions, human societies have continued on a suicidal path with no meaningful actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Quite the opposite, such emissions have continued to increase.

One of the implicit assumptions made by scientists, and activists, has been that human decision making is fundamentally rational when in fact it is highly mediated by emotional and other non-rational factors. Simply putting the facts about climate change forward will not automatically produce the required decisions and behavioral changes. Instead, an individual may become overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of the problem, leading to feelings of helplessness and psychological paralysis. To escape such feelings a person may simply deny or ignore the issue. Schumacher has even proposed that the ability to escape psychological discomfort and pain was a critical evolutionary strategy as human beings developed higher levels of intelligence and self-awareness1. He also posits that the ability to strategically manipulate reality is what has allowed humanity to continue to degrade the very environment upon which it depends for its survival.

Individuals and groups construct a mental map of reality to be able to both understand and functionally operate within the world around them. As human society has become more complex the required complexity of this worldview has greatly increased, and the length of time to acquire it has expanded. A large number of social institutions, including the family, church, school, work-place and media channels are involved to differing degrees in providing worldviews which allow individuals to function adequately within modern complex societies. This socialization2 is critical to the ongoing functioning and cohesiveness of any human group, from small hunter-gatherer bands to a modern country with possibly hundreds of millions of citizens. Hound and Hou capture the scale of such efforts, “Indoctrination is, of course, present in every society. The permanence of the values which insure social stability could hardly be maintained unless schools, religious institutions, military organizations, and scores of other associations — both compulsory and voluntary — worked to implant in the minds the ethical norms and behaviour patterns of a social and political culture. The rigidity of such norms may vary from place to place, and there may be more or less uniformity in the messages issuing from agencies and organizations. Still, in any society, the area of consensus fostered by popular indoctrination needs to be substantial — particularly in times of internal and external crisis <author’s emphasis added>”3.

From a positivist viewpoint such socialization, resulting in shared worldviews, norms and values, can be seen as being required for society’s ongoing success. From a critical viewpoint it can also be seen as a tool of inertia and power. Worldviews which no longer match reality may create a great deal of inertia and resistance to required changes, placing the society at risk. Such resistance can stem from both individual psychological processes such as cognitive dissonance4, as well as from group and societal level processes. Also, as Foucault identified, the manipulation of the shared worldview, or hegemonic discourses, is a core source of modern power5. By controlling the conceptual framework within which society makes decisions the desired outcome can be pre-selected to some degree, and some issues removed from the public consciousness all together. The manipulation of the hegemonic discourses can be used to change and shape reality, as detailed by Fairclough with respect to ruling elites drive to implement a very specific type of globalization beneficial to themselves6. An important insight is that the process of socialization and the communication of ruling discourses is mediated by the individual in a two-way process, with the individual and sub-groups, actively manipulating and altering the messaging they receive to fit their own surroundings and experiences. The same message may be taken very differently by a group of wealthy prep-school children and a group of children from a poor working class background.

Psychological and Socio-Psychological Factors

There are a number of theories put forward for individuals, or small groups, being unable to accept new facts which undermine strongly held beliefs. Possibly the most influential theory in socio-psychology is that of Cognitive Dissonance put forward by Leon Festinger et al.4 in the 1950′s. This proposed that people will actively reject, or re-interpret, information that threatens deeply held beliefs. The greater invested the individual or group is in a given set of beliefs, and the more tightly integrated those beliefs are with their self-image, the more intense will be the process of rejection or reinterpretation. Later work has shed more light on the non-logical processes by which an individual subconsciously comes to believe, and continues to believe, that something is true, even in the face of contradictory facts. Burton7 notes some telling examples, such as a scientist rejecting scientific facts in favour of religious beliefs that he just “knows” to be true in the absence of any supporting facts, or spiritual feelings being triggered by electrical stimulation of specific brain areas. “Knowing what you know” becomes a process mediated by emotional and unconscious processes rather than one of conscious logical fact-driven analysis, as assumed in the rational decision making processes that underlie the scientific method. The concept of rationalism, and thus also the concepts of rational choice and rational actor, which see conscious logical reasoning as the basis of valid knowledge, are seriously undermined by these findings. Even within the scientific realm it has been noted by some that acceptance of a new theory, especially if it undermines current theories, may have more to do with emotions and institutional politics, power, and prestige than reasoned argument8.

Political Psychology provides much criticism of the rational actor concept with Monroe9 providing a host of limitations, such as individual self-interest not always leading to collective political welfare; humans having a bounded capacity to perceive, recall, interpret, and calculate; different types of information carrying different weights for non-logical and time constraint reasons (e.g. masses of statistics on crime levels going down versus the coverage of a few horrific crimes); the existence of “analgesic cultures driven by frustration-instigated fixated behaviour”, rather than goal-oriented behaviour; widespread examples of altruistic behaviour rather than selfish rationalist behaviour, as with families that put their own lives at risk to hide Jewish families during the Second World War. Political Ecology also argues against a purely rationalist viewpoint of truth generation by identifying the value-laden assumptions, power relations, and intellectual arrogance underlying much scientific research. Examples are the assumption that such a thing as “un-touched (by humans) wilderness” exists or that the curtailing of natural forest fires is optimal10.

Out of Date Worldviews

The Sociological theory of socialization11 through family, school, work, and media posits that the individual internalizes the dominant belief systems of society to the point where norms and beliefs are taken to be truisms. If the world view that underlies such belief systems is no longer aligned closely enough with reality it will become a serious impediment to effective actions by individuals and society as whole given how effectively individuals and groups can defend strongly held beliefs against invalidating facts. With the spread of nation states, globalization, and global media companies pushing a standardized set of beliefs it has become easier and easier for one global narrative to overwhelm all others, especially among the decision making and cultural elite. The fields of Political Ecology and Ethno-biology support such a view of a dominant western world-view ignoring, and in many cases destroying, alternative world-views which may hold highly beneficial insights and knowledge. Such a view of a single belief-system overwhelming all others is also proposed by Michaels12, as he sees it “The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story – one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture”

The first stage in the development of this monoculture was the ascendancy of agricultural and animal husbandry societies over traditional hunter-gatherer ones. From studying the surviving indigenous hunter-gatherer groups, anthropologists and ethno-biologists have noted fundamentally different assumptions about the relation of humanity to the surrounding natural environment between them and agriculturalists and herders. Traditional societies tend to have a worldview which treats them as being within nature, co-habiting with other animals that they consider to be fully sentient non-human persons, and surrounded by sacred places. The relationship between humans, and animals and plants, seems to be substantially affected by the ways in which they interact. As humans gain more control of their environment through herding and agriculture their worldview does seem to change towards a separation with nature. The latter becomes more and more a resource to utilize, rather than a nurturing body to be respected and held sacred. The movement from a hunter-gatherer existence to one of domesticating animals can be seen as a great watershed in human-animal relations, “Wild species that might earlier have been considered ancestors or embodiments of sacredness were increasingly classified as predators (on humans and their domestic livestock), quarry for human hunts, competitors for space and resources, vermin, or spectacles for observation as captives or in staged fights. The more sophisticated categories and conceptions and the expert knowledge of nature that went with them lived on in the groups that refused, sometimes down to the present day, to make use of the domestic species they had access to. But people living in domesticity generally looked down upon people living in pre-domesticity”13. These very different attitudes to animals can be seen in the traditional livestock raising communities of the Nuer14 and Sebei15 where the herd animals are treated as property. For agriculturalists, the land itself becomes a subordinate as a resource to be used for the benefit of humanity.

Agriculturalists and herders still lived in an organic relationship with nature though, with only a small subset of elites and specialist artisans not directly involved with the land, fauna, and flora to feed the population. Through to the sixteenth century the predominant images of nature were still as a nurturing mother, with the passage of the seasons and recurrent famines as a reminder of the overwhelming power of the natural world16. Hebrew and Western Christian teaching can be construed to support a position of dominance for humanity over nature17, but can also be seen to treat nature as a sacred entity provided by god, under the stewardship of humanity. “Nature is envisaged as one of the spheres in which God meets man personally and in which he is called upon to exercise responsibility”, and this relationship is echoed in other religions18. This is a very different view than hunter-gatherers have, but is still one that treats nature as sacred and requiring responsible guardianship.

Image RemovedThe next major changes in the perceived relationship between humanity and nature came with the Enlightenment, and the resulting scientific and industrial revolutions. This replaced the previous organic view of nature, which had ethical constraints on the way in which nature could be treated, with a mechanical and instrumental view that treated nature as simply a resource to be utilized for the benefit of humanity. Locke was a major proponent of this anthropocentric and instrumental view of nature. Non-human animals that lack rationality, or are simply automatons as seen by Descartes19, are inferior to humans and live outside the realm of natural law20. Bacon took this view of animals as “the guiding principle of his new vision of science and practical knowledge”20. Locke also saw land not utilized by humans as waste, and the product of that land as predominantly coming from human labour rather than from nature itself, “land that is left wholly to nature and hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage or planting, is called, as it is, waste: and we shall find the benefit amount to little more than nothing”, and nine tenths of the products of the earth is, “on the account of labour” with only the remainder, “purely owing to nature”17. These beliefs were reinforced by advances in scientific knowledge “which drove the twin forces of industrialization and urbanization to further split humans from their environments”20, resulting in nature being perceived as “independent from human contact and interference” 21. This view of nature is repeated in one of the core parts of the modern ruling discourse, classical economics, where the economy is seen as being completely separate to a natural world which is treated as simply another input to the production process.

In the advanced industrial countries only a few per cent of the population is engaged directly with nature in the production of food, and such engagement is heavily mediated by machinery and science through the industrialization of agriculture. As more and more countries industrialize and urbanize a greater and greater percentage of mankind lives each day with little or no direct contact with unmodified nature, instead they live in artificially constructed environments. For example the percentage of China’s population living in urban environments rose from 13% to 40% between 1950 and 2005, and this is forecast to increase to 60% by 2030.22 Overall 52% of the world’s population is urban, forecast to increase to two thirds by 203023. Worthy sees such living arrangements as producing people that are ‘disassociated’, through time, distance, and disinformation, from the impacts of their actions upon the environment24. The modern consumer does not see the impacts of their discarded waste, the suffering of the animals that they eat, and the environmental destruction required to produce the products they consume.

In the post-World War 2 period the efficacy and inevitability of continued exponential economic growth has also became part of the ruling discourse, with the near absolute belief that this stems from human ingenuity and technology which can overcome any obstacles. Catton has likened the belief in technology to a “Cargo Cult” 25, and it has been embedded within neo-classical economics. The latter believes that due to technology resources are to all intents and purposes infinite, as human ingenuity will open up new resources and replace natural resources with human-created unnatural ones. Such beliefs underlie the views of some scientists and policy makers that earth’s climate can be geo-engineered to save humanity from climate change and allow it to continue with “business as usual”.

As long as the impact of human society upon the earth was limited such views could be held without endangering humanity as a whole, as the resulting despoilment and degradation produced only local impacts which did not degrade the environment on a global scale. Unfortunately, through the combination of scientific knowledge, industrialization and cheap energy from fossil fuels humanity has now grown to a size and capability which directly threatens the ability of the environment to sustain it. If the ruling discourses of society do not include an understanding of the dependency of mankind upon nature and the need to treat it with care and respect then society will stay on a path of self-destruction.

Interested Parties

Philosophy does not happen within a vacuum but rather reflects the socio-political environment within which it is developed and the position of those producing it. The ancient Greek philosophers were members of the small male aristocracy which excluded the vast majority of the population, such as women, serfs and slaves. Aristotle’s view of slavery as being part of the natural order of things, “the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life”26, can be seen as simply rationalizing a current reality. Locke’s views of un-worked land as available to acquisition by those that would develop it through their labour justified the taking of “wild” lands from indigenous peoples who were not seen as adding their labour to it, notwithstanding the fact that such lands has been actively managed by their inhabitants for many years27.

In modern industrial societies the manipulation and creation of ruling discourses has become the prevalent mode of social control. Foucault5 identified these “biophysical” control mechanisms as being necessary in predominantly democratic societies to allow the elites to control the conceptual structures and agendas used by citizens in the democratic process. In this way the population can be steered towards the answers that the elites want, and away from questions they do not wanted asked. The increased and more efficient control of the ruling discourse, especially through media channels dependent upon advertising revenues and the ongoing support of the state, by the powerful, is supported by many political and media theorists, such as Herman & Chomsky28, Cohen & Kent29, and Anderson & Strate30. The heavy dependence of politicians in many countries upon extensive private funding also places the state at the risk of manipulation by groups which have grown rich and powerful through the ongoing exploitation and degradation of nature, such as large corporations.

Such entities utilize their power to manipulate the ruling discourse in their favour, and not necessarily to the benefit of society as a whole. For instance, creating the impression of scientific disagreement about the causes of lung cancer and climate change31. Fairclough shows how language has been manipulated by elites to create a specific type of globalization beneficial to them6, with the underlying assumptions being that the neo-liberal model of globalization is the most beneficial and inevitably driven by “market forces” outside the control of any political actors. In the case of Romania he shows how manipulation of the ruling discourse was used to facilitate fundamental economic and social changes, but also that such messages are not passively received by their targets. Rather, they are filtered through the in place belief systems and social realities of individuals and groups. In addition, such discourses must have some linkage to external reality to remain believable. Such factors provide some insights into the way in which the current hegemonic worldviews, which are inconsistent with the survival of modern human civilization, can be overcome.

Overcoming Societal Inertia

Events which invalidate the hegemonic discourse can cause rapid changes in beliefs and actions. The invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 shredded the belief that war with Germany was not inevitable and galvanized the British population in support of the war effort. Pearl Harbour provided the same galvanizing event which overwhelmed the isolationist tendencies in the United States. Within months consumer goods factories had been converted to produce the weapons and munitions of war, and millions of citizens had become part of the armed forces. Unfortunately climate change has not provided any such clear and unambiguous events, even worse natural climate fluctuations have tended to obfuscate the overall warming trend. For example, the flooding of New Orleans by a hurricane could be seen as a normal historical event, rather than a product of climate change.

The 1930’s depression can be taken as another model, where it took a period of time for the depth of the crisis to create an opening for new models of the world, resulting in the compromise of a more mixed economy with significant government support for the welfare of the average citizen. The 1970’s were a period where elites successfully shredded this consensus, and turned back the “crisis of democracy”32, through extensive investments in neo-liberal think tanks and other means of changing societal beliefs. With the inability of the resulting neo-liberal model to produce the shared prosperity that was promised for it, the increasing gap between reality and the neo-liberal discourse has greatly degraded its effectiveness.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, with its message of the 1% against the other 99% of society brought this mismatch to the fore, and for a while forced its discussion into the mainstream. The strength of the resulting threat to the ruling elites can be seen in the eventual aggressive moves to suppress the movement, once the possibility of co-option had been seen as non-viable. A joining of such forces as the Occupy movement with ecological groups could prove to be very powerful combination, with a joint message that the way in which society works has to be changed to provide both equitable economic and social outcomes and a viable future for modern societies. A number of organizations have also been set up by ecological groups and scientists to help change the ruling discourse, such as 350.org33 and the Arctic Methane Emergency Group34. The acceptance of the need for action on climate change also seems to be slowly entering the consciousness of the elites, with more and more examples of new stories and other commentary on the urgency of the situation. A good example is that of a paper covering the effect of a large atmospheric methane release from the arctic in the journal Nature35. Although covered in a critical fashion by much of the media coverage, it was at least covered by them when previously it may have been simply ignored.

The climate itself does seem to be providing some less ambiguous messages, in the shape of an increasing number of abnormal climate events, such as the late season massive hurricane which took a sudden left turn to hit New York and the surrounding areas, the “weird” unseasonal weather in 2013 across the northern hemisphere creating a cold European spring and heat waves in Alaska, and ongoing droughts and wildfires. In the case of arctic warming changing northern hemisphere weather patterns the public seems to have intuitively grasped and accepted the idea, even as scientists still debate it36. An interesting finding though, is that the level of acceptance was affected by the amount of abnormality in the current weather experienced by the individual. The more extreme the weather experienced, either hot or cold, the more acceptance of the arctic warming premise.

The ruling discourse is a culturally created artefact and is thus open to change from within society and to invalidation by external reality. Both of these factors are becoming stronger in the push to steer society towards systems of belief more aligned with the needs of humanity’s long term survival. A race is taking place between the required changes to society’s ruling discourse and the movement of the earth’s climate to a point of abrupt non-linear changes and self-sustaining warming driven by natural positive feedbacks.


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2. Grusek, Joan E. & Hastings, Paul D. (2006), Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, The Guilford Press

3. Houn, Franklin & Hou Fu-Wu (1961), To Change A Nation: Propaganda and Indoctrination in Communist China, Free Press of Glencoe

4. Festinger, Leon et al. (1956), When Prophecy Fails, Harper-Torchbooks

5. Foucault, Michel (1984), The Foucault Reader, Pantheon

6. Fairclough, Norman (2006), Language and Globalization, Routledge

7. Burtin, Robert (2008), On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, St. Martin’s Press

8. Kuhn, Thomas (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press

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10. Peet, Richard et al. (2011), Global Political Ecology, Routledge

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14. Evans-Prichard, E. E. (1940), The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press

15. Goldschmidt, Walter (1976), Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A Sudy of Continuity and Adaptation, University of California Press

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17. Kay, Jeanne (1989), Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 79, No. 2 (Jun., 1989), pp. 214-232

18. Tucker, Mary Ellen & Grim, John A. (1994), Worldviews & Ecology, Orbis

19. Cottingham, John (1978), ‘A Brute to the Brutes?’: Descartes’ Treatment of Animals, Philosophy 53 1978 pp. 551-559.

20. Montuschi, E. (2010). Order of man, order of nature: Francis Bacon’s idea of a ‘dominion’ over nature, The Governance of Nature Conference London School of Economics October 2010

21. Vinning, Joanne et. Al. (2008), The Distinction between Humans and Nature: Human Perceptions of Connectedness to Nature and Elements of the Natural and Unnatural, Human Ecology review, Vol. 15, No 1, 2008

22. n/a (2009), Percentage of global population living in cities, by continent, The Guardian. Accessed at

23. n/a (2013), Urban Development: Sector Results Profile, The World Bank. Accessed at

24. Worthy, Kenneth (2013), Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide Between People and the Environment, Prometheus

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30. Andersen, Robin & Strate, Lance (2000), Critical Studies in Media Commercialism, Oxford University Press

31. Hogan, James & Littlemore, Richard (2009), Climate Cover Up: The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, Greystone Books

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33. web site, Accessed at

34. A.M.E.G. web site. Accessed at

35. Whiteman, Gail, Hope, Chris & Wadhams, Peter (2013), Vast cost of Arctic change, Nature Vol 499, 25th July 2013, pp. 401-403.

36. Mooney, Chris (2013), Huge Majority Thinks Arctic Warming Will Mess With the Weather, Mother Jones. Accessed at


Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: climate change, Cognitive dissonance, Discourse, Power, Worldview