The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.

Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

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2 thoughts on “The more things change…

  1. I think it is difficult for “exogenous shocks” to change culturally grounded views (pace Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky in CT). The reason is that the *meaning* of the shocking events is usually just as much in need of interpretation as anything else. The financial meltdown was pretty shocking, don’t you think? But whose confidence should it shake? Egalitarians think it is obvious that the crisis proves how silly it is to think the “market is rational”; individualists think the crisis shows how interference with the market — including regulatory systems that dulled investor perceptions of risk and also expectations of bailout that deterred internalization of them– did it. Right now we have fires in Moscow; last winter we had 3 weeks of blizzard in Wash DC. My point isn’t that this evidence is equally consistent with climate change & no climate change, too much intervention, not enough in finanical mkts etc. It is that there is more than enough ambiguity even in climactic climatic & other events for culturally motivated reasoning to see confirmation of one’s cultural priors. Change doesn’t happen from shocking events. It happens b/c cultural meaning of accepting evidence of risk and the like changes–usually as the result of some combination of random and orchestrated political activity aimed at changing such meanings.

    • Yes. The shocks seem to do the opposite of changing people’s beliefs – they often re-inforce them. In this instance the alleged melting of the permafrost is a wonderful opportunity to reconfirm the belief that permafrost is, by definition, permanent. My point here was that all theories of change point implicitly to what in the holder’s worldview is not allowed to change. This is understood descriptively rather than normativley. It’s not that the permafrost shouldn’t be melting. It’s that as a matter of fact it doesn’t melt. I like your comment that there is ambiguity in these kinds of factual observation. I’ve written previously about the ‘unambiguous’ flooding of a valley, when cultural biases can come into play even in the face of zero ambiguity. Compare the sinking of the Titanic – women and children first because they had 2 hours and 20 minutes to organise themselves – with the Lusitania – every one for themselves with only 18 minutes to think about it. [Frey BS, Savage DA, & Torgler B (2010). Interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms exploring the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (11), 4862-5]
      I am interested in what philosopher Alain Badiou has called a ‘truth event’ – a moment prior to emotional or intellectual assimilation, an interpretative vacuum as yet unready to be filled with meaning or ideology. Do you think such a moment can exist, or does the vacuum get filled immediately? Observing the extreme bush fires in Australia last year my conclusion was that it took about three or four days. Doesn’t your research suggest that the only time people don’t have a cultural bias about something (I’m thinking of nanotechnology now, for instance) is when they don’t know anything about it?

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