The Roots of Resistance 1: Battling Agents

Actor-network theory graphic from WikipediaIf you look at climate change through the lens of Actor-network theory, we seem to be in the middle of the problematisation phase of organizing. Understanding the actors and the network might make it easier to understand and avoid climate-change denial.

In some versions of the Actor-network theory of sociology, there are four phases to taking on an issue: problematisation (defining the problem and interested parties), interessement (getting people involved), enrolment (actors accepting their roles) and mobilization (people act and also adopt designated roles willingly). Granted the timetable that the climate crisis is forcing on us, we should be finishing enrolment and moving on to mobilization. Within certain constituencies, we are; people have largely accepted the logic of recycling, for instance, and are widely coming over to the notion of saving energy by buying compact fluorescent lamps. But other, major actors are not yet "enrolled in" the problem.

In fact, some of the most powerful actors (whole industries like coal and petroleum, for instance, plus the communities that depend on them) are not on board. It's easy to dismiss them with the dictum that "it's difficult for a man to believe something when his salary requires him not to" but it's more complicated than that. Much of society is stuck in the problematisation phase: they can't even agree on what the problem is, much less how to fix it.

In Actor-network theory, this first phase is characterized by one or more primary actors trying to "own" the problem. These primary actors try to define the terms of the issue, and, more importantly, they struggle to become gatekeepers for everybody else's actions with respect to the issue. The gatekeeper is able to assign roles to other actors and enroll them (often simply by labeling and branding people, things and actions in an uncontested way).

In other words, the problematisation phase is a power struggle.

A lot of people are suspicious of the whole climate change issue because they correctly perceive that what's happening right now is that one particular group is trying to own the debate. That group that they are suspicious of is us: those who believe in the objective reality and danger of human-caused climate change. And here's the rub: we're not suspect because of who we are, we're suspect because we're trying to become the gatekeeper. Anybody who tries to own the debate (become the gatekeeper) is going to be suspect. Because problematisation is a play for power.

The logical strategy for climate change during this phase is to defer to one particular actor: the climate science itself. Not all the interested parties in an actor-network need to be human, and in this case the environment itself is arguably the biggest player. So logically, the problematisation phase should have ended long ago because we should all have just let the environment (as represented by the science) assign us our roles.

stratosphere.jpgI am going to argue that one of the reasons this hasn't happened is that a very large portion of the human race does not believe that there are non-human social actors. For them, the environment literally cannot exist as an actor, and therefore what the science represents cannot be the environment: it must represent some group of humans. Ever heard the argument that there's some sort of conspiracy among climate scientists to convince us that there's a crisis? (Often it's described as a conspiracy to get more funding for more studies; if that were true, I'd expect every other area of science to be sprouting its own conspiracy now because it's clearly worked so well for the climate scientists.) This conspiracy theory is a direct effect of the struggle to define the gatekeeper for the problem, and it's perfectly logical when you realize that many people don't believe any human group can disinterestedly represent a nonhuman actor.

And maybe they're right to be suspicious. Can anybody really act as mouthpiece for the facts of the matter, without importing their own agenda? Is it really true that nobody advocating action on climate change is coupling it to other agendas (globalization or anti-globalization, for instance)? And if we're stuck in a phase where multiple groups are trying to use the debate to drive their own agendas (however well-meaning they may be), how do we move on? How do we get to the vital step of enlisting the entire human race in an endeavor that's only going to work if people accept their roles?

Next time you meet a climate skeptic, you might want to consider that what they're skeptical about may not be the facts of the matter, but rather the agenda of the messenger. The louder you yell, the more you try to explain, the more suspicious they'll become.

One answer to this problem may be to accept it and use it. By declaring that his agenda behind pushing green energy is to make America independent of Middle East oil, for instance, Barack Obama provides a credible motivation for skeptics to hang on to. They might never believe that he's pushing green energy in order to save the environment, because for them, the environment can't be an actor. But oil companies and foreign powers can.

This is a great strategy, which seems to be working to motivate a lot of people who couldn't be enrolled by an appeal to environmental protection. Small communities across the U.S. and Canada are waking up to the fact that wind power means local jobs, for instance. But while the actor we call energy-independence can help enroll people, it can not be allowed to become the ultimate gatekeeper for the issue. The environment really is an actor, and we have to be willing to put its agenda ahead of our own.

That means that we all have to think long and hard about where our own agenda differs from its; and we must be willing to step back from what we want to let the real gatekeeper of the issue do its job. Climate change is not about globalization; it's not about consumerism run wild; it's not about the rich 5% of countries pushing the other 95% down; it's not about money; it's not about oil. It's about a number—parts-per-million of CO2—and the agenda of any real gatekeeper for this issue cannot be about anything but reducing that number.

Front photo: From Wikipedia — Screenshot of free software taken by User:DarwinPeacock
Inside photo: From Morguefile.com — Photo courtesy of Kenn W. Kiser


If I correctly catch what the author is saying, deferring to the non-human interested party is, in this case, deferring to reality. Such a course would be a wise one because reality always gets the last punch. So far, so good.

But why then try to trick deniers into following the dictates of reality? The energy independence strategy may seem to satisfy the problem of climate change, but what happens when there is a push to switch to tar sands and coal and we get the same emissions rate together with a worsening of acid rain and other problems? It is very hard to reach a goal when everyone has a different idea of what the goal is. Using the trickery approach, no one would have the right to act surprised if the results they wanted did not materialise in the end.

I think it better to follow the dictates of reality and work to meet the material needs of the species. On the most basic level, there are physical needs for clean air, clean water and clean food. If you find someone who says otherwise, they are being dishonest. If we agree on those needs as a common goal, then we will have to change. We cannot continue to have premature deaths topping 10,000 a year in Canada because of air pollution (or over 500,000 a year conservatively in China, if you prefer). We cannot continue to wipe out keystone species in the ocean via acidifying it through excess carbon emissions. We cannot continue to destroy our waterways and contaminate out food through acid rain and industrial fallout. And we cannot gamble a stable climate on the pursuit of a lifestyle that we know, and no one disputes, contributes to declining happiness and health, not the reverse. We would be farther ahead to become involved by clearly stating what we do want and why we want it. From this, a goal can be crafted; and our activities can be weighed against our goals to see whether those actions should be continued or not. The alternative is to continue to bumble along, destroying our home as we go.

Another problem I see is that the Actor Network Theory, at least as presented here, does not account for the fact that the opinions of deniers did not come cheap. Companies like Burson-Marsteller worked long and hard on groups like the Global Climate Coalition; and the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Coal Association, and others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create the opinions of deniers. These are groups that know that dealing with carbon emissions will interfere with their bottom line. They also know that the way to keep people apathetic is to argue that a problem doesn't exist, argue that the problem is actually a good thing, and argue that even if it is a problem, nothing can be done to remedy it (as pointed out by political theorist Göran Therborn).

Posted by: Douglas Barnes on June 30, 2009 9:46 AM

I am a climate change denier.

Yes, you heard me right. I defy anyone who individually or collectively asserts their vision of a present-day climate crisis to explain the social grassroots as anything more than a play for someone elses money.

Certainly, The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group which claims 13 per cent of the world's population (occupants of North America) produce 25 per cent of the world's air pollution in those various economic sectors are wrong.

That little hole in the ozone is similarly suspect as to its actual existance, and if you believe it exists, its contribution to any real problem

It's like then president George Bush said a week after New Orleans sank under the deluge of Hurricane Katrina while speaking at a news conference also attended by former president Bill Clinton, "We need more pipelines."

He was right. While fallen wires were sparking in the middle of suburban streets and unfortunate people and their abandoned family pets had no food, water or shelter, the appropriate response was to mention a lack of access to oil.

Climate change denial is the best option for everyone. The production of bitumen is an essential cornerstone of the Canadian economy. Ethane is essential to human health and the vigor of every ecological niche you care to mention.

I'm a denialist for a good reason. It doesn't really matter if an individual actor thinks globally about a problem and makes it a matter of human survival. Being human and part of a single bipedal animal race (albiet with a divine spark) is only an idea. In reality we are a group of races completely unrelated to one another. Each individual who might feel bound to their corporeal being and to a so called humanity disqualifies themselves. These people are race deniers, and by extension they can not aggregate a collective wisdom or be responsible for qualifying their consumption of any earthly material as a contributor to anything more than the system of economy which institutionally supports their lives. It is they who deny the need for oil, coal, gas and other forms of energy requiring infrastructure as the real force of divine will which binds a disparate 'humanity' together harmony.

No individual, for instance, can say other than for himself, water is essential and a person in the future will need it. Nor shall any individual know that resource depletion of any life-sustaining substance or material is their concern unless a collective agent or authority first identifies it as being so.

Hockey sticks and the air some people breathe make for interesting debates, but then so do subjects related to poolside barbeques, small appliance repair, vacation schedules and air-fare.

The only way I will not deny climate change is if the money I already have in my pocket stays there, any capital expense for changing my infrastructure, and payment for the science and financial art for making these changes are borne by someone else.

Otherwise, if you keep talking about this, I am going to make systems that spew steam into the atmosphere, sell them all over the world and when you ask why it's getting hot in here, I can say, "Turn on the air conditioning and quite bellyaching."

Of course, if my children could go on vacation anywhere in the world where they could escape rising temperatures, foul air and drink clean water when they get there, I would have been remiss in my duties having told you off.

Get with the program, people.

Posted by: Tim Pozza on June 30, 2009 3:02 PM

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