Renee Lertzman: the difficulty of knowledge

By Renee Lertzman / December 16, 2012

The notion that one can feel deeply, passionately about a particular issue – and not do anything in practically about it – seems to have flummoxed the broader environmental community.

Why else would we continue to design surveys and polls gauging public opinions about climate change (or other serious ecological threats)? Such surveys – even high profile, well funded mass surveys – continue to reproduce pernicious myths regarding both human subjectivity and the so-called gaps between values and actions.

It is no surprise that data surfacing in a survey or poll will stand in stark contrast to the ‘down and dirty’ world of actions. We all know that surveys invoke all sorts of complicated things like wanting to sound smart/good/moral, one’s own self-concept vs. actual feelings or thoughts, and being corralled into highly simplistic renderings of what are hugely complex topics or issues (“do you worry about climate change/support carbon tax/drive to work each day etc?”). So there is the obvious limitation right now. However, more important is this idea that the thoughts or ideas people hold will translate into their daily life. Reflect for a moment on an issue you care very deeply about. Now consider how much in alignment your practices are, in relation with this issue. It takes seconds to see that in fact, we can have multiple and competing desires and commitments, quite easily.

So why is it so hard for us to carry this over into how we research environmental values, perceptions or beliefs?

If we accept from the get-go that we are complicated beings living in hugely complicated contexts, woven into networks extending far beyond our immediate grasp, it makes a lot of sense that I can care deeply for my children’s future quality of life (and climatic conditions), and still carry on business as usual. I may experience deep conflict, guilt, shame and pain, which I can shove to the edges of consciousness. I may manage to not even think about these issues, or create nifty rationalizations for my consumptive behaviors.

However, this does not mean I don’t care, have deep concern, and even profound anxieties.

Until we realize this basic fact – that we are multiple selves in social contexts, and dynamic and fluid – our communications work will be limited. Why? Because we continue to speak with audiences, design messaging, and carry out research with the mythical unitary self in mind. We try to trick, cajole, seduce people into caring about our ecological treasures. This is simply the wrong track. Rather than trick, why not invite? Rather than overcome ‘barriers,’ why not presume dilemmas, and set out to understand them?

There is also the fact that some knowledge is just too difficult to bear.

The concept of “difficult knowledge” relates to the fact that when we learn, we also let go of cherished beliefs or concepts, and this can be often quite painful. How we handle knowledge, in other words, can and should be done with this recognition. How can we best support one another to bear difficult knowledge?

One of the tricks of the trade for gifted psychotherapists is the ability to listen and converse. The therapist listens; not only for the meaning, but where there may be resistance. The places that make us squirm or laugh nervously or change the topic. This is regarded as where the riches lie – where we may find ourselves stuck despite our best intentions. If we were to practice a bit of this in our own work in environmental communications, my guess is we’d see less rah-rah cheerleading engagement styles, and more ‘let’s be real and get down to business’ sort of work.

And this is what we need, desperately.