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We are in a state of ‘info-deficit’ model of climate change denial

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

We are in a state of ‘info-deficit’ model of climate change denial

Psychologists studying climate change denial point out that the increased perception of death risk that ‘risk society’ allows may actually activate ‘distal defenses’ that keep death thoughts unconscious...

We are in a state of ‘info-deficit’ model of climate change denial

Selfless Souls

J Devika is a researcher and teacher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. She is a historian who brings to bear that training to engage with contemporary issues, particularly environmental degradation. She writes in both Malayalam and English and translates between the two languages.

Q: Kerala has 100% literacy yet you still witness major environmental breaches? Is activism not community-led?

Well, neither literacy nor communism guarantees good sense about the human future, especially our ecological future. The activist community is under threat in Kerala. Ecological activism is increasingly dubbed anti-people, Maoist, a foreign conspiracy, and so on, like elsewhere in India. Only a much larger public sphere – and one with many folds – assures that these threats are not always successful. The government however simply ignores activist voices – and encourages terrible disaster – for instance, Adani’s ongoing ecological misadventure at Vizhinjam which is wiping out Thiruvananthapuram’s beaches and threatening several coastal hamlets. The government was forewarned of this disaster many times by activists and scientists, but it all fell on deaf ears.

Q: The Silent Valley was one of the early high-profile projects that drew major ire of environmentalists. To what extent did they succeed?

The Silent Valley struggle was perhaps the major success story as far as environmental struggles in Kerala are concerned. This success was the result of the fact that what began as a technical discourse was expanded into a much larger discourse that posed fundamental questions about human beings’ ethical relationship with the non-human. This was done by the poets and writers who joined the movement. So, on the one hand, ecologists and popular science activists advanced different sorts of scientific and technical arguments, and on the other hand, poets and writers created new metaphors that ignited people’s imagination and gave them the power to ask fundamental ethical questions.

Q: Is the increasing frequency of wild elephant deaths a manifestation of human-animal conflict?

Yes indeed. Such conflict has been discussed since the 1920s at least when plantations expanded in Kerala. Now, however, the problem is far more than wild elephant intrusion. The human-animal interface has narrowed alarmingly, and so we see wild animals far away from forests, seeking food in waste dumps and preying on crops. Wild boars, for example, are roaming around towns; wild otters are now all over in thickly populated riversides far away from forests, and so we see wild animals far away from forests, seeking food in waste dumps and preying on crops. Diseases like monkey fever once localised in the Karnataka Western Ghats, now appear in Wayanad. This affects not just human beings, but also animals. People turn hostile (especially when mechanisms for compensation are sluggish and inadequate) and plant traps or poison animals. But poisoning also occurs when wild boar and gaur forage waste dumps near human habitations; such cases have also been reported.

Q: Does the discourse on climate change continue to be deeply Eurocentric? Understanding the likes of Swatantryavaadini provided Kerala with a strong tradition and spread.

Yes, I tend to agree – climate change and the Anthropocene are indeed grand narratives and tend to be Eurocentric. But that does not mean that they are either all-pervasive or impervious to local interpretation. The effects of chaotic climate are felt everywhere in the world for sure, and we draw upon resources from all over to make sense of it. The climate change discourse is only one such. A great strength of environmental activism in India has been that it has refused to take its eyes away from the local and regional context, even as it engages with global discourses, and all this it does with considerable critical acumen. Swatantryavaadini is a collection of the writings of early twentieth-century feminists – or women whose writings qualify to be called feministic. Again, feminism is a global discourse, and its Eurocentrism has been challenged repeatedly from the margins. If you look at this work, you will notice the complexity of transnational exchanges which do not fit into a simple coloniser/colonised binary.

Q: Have the recent devastating floods led to increased activism?

In Kerala, I cannot say that it has. It should have led to a wholesale rethinking of our recent development trajectory from an ecological perspective. The truth is that very little is left about the Left, and the new economic rightwing orientation of the government can hardly see the importance of ecological stability in capitalist growth. It has been the other way round: for example, rock quarrying, which was identified by scientists of the Kerala Forest Research Institute as contributing heavily to the destruction of the Western Ghats and exacerbating the damages done by the floods, has only been further encouraged in the state. And people protesting rock quarrying – local people, that is – have been handled quite roughly. There is growing fear, however, among more and more sections of people, about the rampant destruction of the environment, but there is little commitment among them to heal the damage through changing lifestyles. There is even a denial of ecological destruction.

Q: What drives the affected people into a self-denial mode? Does this aspect of climate psychology or sociology mellow down activism?

From our research on the local self-government’s response to heavy, persistent industrial pollution on the island of Eloor in Kochi, it appeared to me that the insights of environmental psychology about denial of environmental destruction are very valuable indeed, especially for those of us who desire to change mindsets. The response of residents to environmental pollution at Eloor closely resembles that which has been called ‘socially organised denial’ in the literature on climate change denial. It is now widely agreed that the ‘information-deficit’ model of climate change denial which claims that better and more accessible, scientifically grounded, reliable information will convince people is not adequate to make sense of denial – that is, knowledge is necessary, but may not be sufficient. For instance, some sociologists and psychologists now argue that the apparent indifference of people in the face of a veritable flood of information and knowledge of climate change may be a form of grieving. Psychologists studying climate change denial point out that the increased perception of death risk that ‘risk society’ allows may actually activate ‘distal defenses’ that keep death thoughts unconscious – and one form they take is of bolstering the existing world-view even when it is not sustainable in plain view. In our interviews at Eloor, we were struck by the fact that elected members almost never volunteered to broach the topic of pollution until we suggested it explicitly to them; there was much diffidence about speaking of it. From our data, it appears that both the ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’ defenses that Dickinson talks about seem to be at work at Eloor. I am talking about just one site in Kerala, but this may be at work on a much larger scale.

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