In a previous post I pondered the question ‘why we get so emotional about climate change?‘
I suggested a key reason was because the implications of climate change affect us in so many fundamental ways:
- our personal identities and roles (mother, father, journalist, politician);
- the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are (where I’ve come from, where I am, who I want to be);
- our world views and ideologies (e.g. social democrat, small ‘l’ liberal, conservative, free-market libertarian).
A recent article that Daniel Nyberg and I wrote in Human Relations entitled ‘Working with passion: Emotionology, corporate environmentalism and climate change‘, sought to tease these issues out in respect to the work of sustainability professionals working in major Australian corporations.
In exploring the emotional work of these managers and advisers, we focused on the concept of ’emotionologies’, that is ‘the attitudes or standards that a society, or a definable group within a society, maintains toward basic emotions and their appropriate expression’ and the ‘ways that institutions reflect and encourage these attitudes in human conduct’ (Stearns and Stearns, 1985: 813). As Fineman (2010: 27) notes emotionologies as ‘politico-ideological constructs’ are often ‘shaped by prevailing currents of nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism or homophobia, as well as governmental, religious and party-political dogmas’. In defining norms of ‘appropriate’ emotional expression for specific issues, subjects or identities, emotionologies are particularly relevant in organizational and work settings.
However, emotionologies are not static and often undergo rapid change due to economic, demographic, technological, and other changes. So for example, the emotionology surrounding terrorism (at least within the United States) changed significantly after the events of 9/11 (Loseke, 2009). In relation to an issue such as climate change, we can see how emotional norms have radically changed over the last ten years through the influence of opinion setters such as the media, business groups, think-tanks and political parties (McCright and Dunlap, 2011). What used to be a field of sombre science has turned into a minefield of emotions, with scientists publicly attacked by a growing ‘climate change denial industry’ for producing ‘junk’ science and even branded public enemies (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).
In responding to climate change, organizations navigate in an increasingly volatile emotional milieu in which feelings of fear, anxiety, hostility and anger shape public debate. We argued that a range of broader emotionologies existed around climate change including:
- ‘climate change as threat‘ – which reflects the fear and anxiety of many over the future of our society given scientific projections of potentially catastrophic changes in temperature levels, sea-levels, extreme weather events and ocean acidification
- ‘climate change as ideological battleground‘ – reflecting the passion, anger and hostility that has increasingly arisen as climate change policy has become polarised ideologically as a partisan political issue.
In the paper, we explored how sustainability specialists in major corporations sought to interpret, internalise and adapt these broader social emotionologies into the local emotional arenas of their companies.
For instance, the work of these sustainability specialists often focused on reinterpreting fear or hostility about climate change into a local emotionology of ‘climate change as challenge and opportunity‘ (e.g. harnessing concern on this issue towards new ‘green’ products, services and markets, or building employee enthusiasm for a ‘green’ workplace culture and greater productivity). However, in doing this these individuals also had to manage their own emotions, given the tensions between their personal attitudes and the local demands of their organizations.
So, while there are continued calls for a more ‘rational’ and ‘less emotional’ debate about climate change and appropriate policy responses, it is important to realise that emotional discourses and ’emotionologies’ are embedded in this issue , just as there are with most subjects of social and political debate. The more realistic proposal is to recognise this fact and seek to identify and harness the emotional levers that will affect desirable social and political change.
BTW as a postscript, here’s a neat preview for the documentary film Cape Spin, which charts the battle in Cape Cod over plans to build wind turbines in Nantucket Sound – plenty of emotionologies at work in this example!