Late Modernity

The search for ontological security.

Photo by Kristian Skylstad - Deathification, 2007

A renowned sociologist and former adviser to the Blair government, Anthony Giddens believes we have reached “late modernity,” a period in which the search for ontological security is central to the trajectory of our de-traditionalized and self-narrated lives. His latest book, The Politics of Climate Change, begins with a description of “Giddens’s paradox,” which states that “since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, however awesome they appear, many will sit on their hands and do nothing concrete about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late.” While the paradox indeed speaks to a real phenomenon, it also illustrates a fundamental problem with conservative attitudes toward climate change: They’re mired in realpolitik and refuse to imagine anything outside the political orthodoxy. History, however, is full of examples of humans arming themselves against unseen, ambiguous or even patently false threats. Consider the nuclear arms build up after WWII to “contain communism” or the so-called “war on terror.”

In research conducted between 2005 and 2008 we spoke with young people in Australia and discovered a great deal of frustration and confusion about environmental issues, specifically regarding the problems of realpolitik and inaction. In contrast with the prevailing stereotype of irresponsible, apolitical and apathetic youth, the young people we spoke with care passionately about the environment and climate change, largely regardless of social class or gender. Virtually all the focus group participants had quite positive views about their own individual future in terms of ambitions and lifestyle but held quite apocalyptic views of the future in terms of climate change, peak oil, politics, terrorism and war. They rarely made a connection between the two.

interviewer: So let’s talk about the environment specifically. What is going to happen with it?

laura: [makes an explosion sound] It’s going to go downhill and we are going to be living in little bubble biospheres!

andy: The annoying thing is that we have the technology and ability to make everything green; it’s just not economically [sarcastically] “efficient.” It will “cost” too much.

allan: It will ruin too many fixed industries. Like, cars pollute, get rid of cars … but that is a huge industry to try to conquer.

Within this general view there were some subtle differences: For the disadvantaged there was environmental concern, but it was not as intense as for those who are better off – because their primary concerns were about dealing with more material problems relating to their educational and economic hardships. The well-educated middle-class students were particularly angry, passionate and frustrated by the situation, especially the inaction of governments and business. The most privileged and wealthy shared similar views but seemed to have a more cynical, even fatalistic attitude – a knowing nudge and wink that says, “What am I meant to do?”

When asked specifically about the future of the planet, the research participants from a very expensive private school noted:

allan: It can stay like this for a few more generations, then sometime into the future it is all gonna fall apart and we are going to turn into slumlords and gangs in cities … I can really see it.

interviewer: Why will that happen?

allan: Because human nature is like a big cycle. It goes caveman then medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, industrial, modern and then we will go back to caveman.

andy: It will be like The Day of the Triffids.

The young people we spoke with were genuinely concerned about environmental issues and willing to do something about it, but their eagerness was tempered by feelings of frustration. They were cognizant of the perils of consumer culture – breaking down the stereotype of youth as mindless consumer – and many were already doing things to minimize their footprint. But as a whole they felt largely powerless:

interviewer: You guys seem to have fairly positive outlooks of the future in terms of your own ambitions, but are a lot more negative about the whole world …

[Mel cuts interviewer off quickly.]

mel: Yeah, the whole world is going to self-destruct. I just hope we’re not part of it when it happens [laughter.]

interviewer: So you kind of feel helpless in affecting the wider world?

[The following responses finish each other’s sentences.]

nell: I do. If I could do something I would, but I have no money to contribute …
mel: And we’re 17-year-old school students …
nell: No one’s going to listen to us …
mel: And if we protest it’s like, “Oh, those crazy teenagers.” [Laughs.]
nell: Protesting doesn’t work; it doesn’t do anything…
mel: Like, everyone’s all like, “You can do anything you want, just aim for it,” but they’re living off in fairyland, that’s not reality.

Another focus group discussed similar themes. Echoing Giddens’s paradox, there is worry about what is happening now and doubt that there will be a solution:

nat: I don’t like the way the world is going at the moment. I think we’re going downhill pretty quickly. With the environment it’s kinda crap, we do a lot of shit to it, and we’ve messed it up pretty bad.

interviewer: Do you think that something will be done about it before it’s too late?

nat: I don’t think the world will go “there’s a problem” before the problem actually hits them, then they’ll put the strategies in that they should have put in years ago to stop it.

tom: Asian countries are just industrializing and the African countries are yet to industrialize, and I think that people are too concerned with “the now” to worry about something like the environment in the long term. I think what they are gonna try and do is give huge sums of money at the very last minute to try to save the Earth. But I think that it is going to be too late. It is human nature not to be interested in something that long term.

interviewer: How far away do you think that point is?

tony: Hopefully after my lifetime! [Everyone laughs.]

Considering the denial and obfuscation that has surrounded these issues in recent Australian politics – referred to by Guy Pearse as “quarry vision” – these reactions are not surprising and are genuine responses to feelings of powerlessness. This sense of disenfranchisement seems likely to continue while young people’s rights are continually abused. They are treated as scapegoats; moral panics in the omnipresent media blame them for all manner of things they have no control over, and they are constantly talked about rather than to or with. The attitudes that this situation seems to produce is best summed up by this quote: “I reckon my life will be easy, but my kids will be buggered.”

You might think this expectation of disaster is something new. Our research carried out with adults in Australia between 1997 and 2003, however, found that most people had a strong view that environmental apocalypse was just round the corner, but it was combined with an unwillingness to do anything to change that scenario by political action. This, for instance, is a typical statement from a middle-aged market rep when asked about the future of the environment:

Very grim! Very grim! Oh yeah. Complete disaster. Yeah I mean because in my lifetime, you think about it, there has never been one positive, overall macro improvement in the environment. You name me one. All the factories, all the pollution in Sydney, it’s 10 times worse than it was 20 years ago … I mean, it’s all downhill. We haven’t seen a change in government policy or attitude to keep up.

In our survey of 300 Australians, 83% agreed with the statement “urgent environmental action is needed or the Earth would no longer support human life.” But people did not imagine for a minute that government or big business would do anything to forestall these catastrophes. They were very cynical about the mainstream politics represented by Giddens’s approach.

So while there was realization that something had to be done, the adults tended not to favor voting for the Greens or to engage in any kind of activism or lifestyle change. One disengaged interviewee explained that she sees environmentalists as extremists, prefers to sit on the sidelines and basically does not want to know:

I’m basically saying that it’s human nature for people, when they get fanatical about something, to lose their sense of – what’s the word – judgment, you know … They’re involved, they’re not standing back, but I don’t know. Hey, this is sitting on the fence, talking about this. I don’t actually know any greenies … and I hide from the news … Sometimes I hear things because my husband watches it, and my husband listens to the radio and the evening news. You hear certain things but I don’t go out of my way to keep informed about what’s going on in the world … It’s the ostrich syndrome … I don’t like to know about wars. I don’t like to know about wars that have been going on for years, haven’t they? Over there. Most things I don’t think that you’ve really got much power to change, being one person on your own. Umm. So it’s no good getting hotted up about it.

Another interviewee saw his lack of involvement or interest in environmental issues as a lifestyle choice. He is just not that kind of person:

I’ve never ever had much to do with that sort of thing, it never ever interested me, I mean people do everything because that’s what they want to do. Greenpeace, or demonstrating about something, you know. I’m not that sort of … I’m never ever interested in anything like that …

We found widespread knowledge of the problems with varying degrees of concerns: Some don’t care and some feel powerless. Some have become increasingly frustrated and cynical to the point that they are fatalistic about environmental disaster in reaction to the ostrich-like behavior of business and governments. This is particularly the case for young people who seem to display much more interest and care toward this topic than older generations and a greater willingness to do something about it – but whose idealism dwindles as they observe the contemptuous political games that postpone real action.

Sociology really can offer much when it comes to informing our future. But the realpolitik of Giddens’s climate change politics creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which action on climate change will be “realistic” in terms of economic needs but all too late and all too feeble to actually make any difference to the ecological needs. The fact is that whatever current buzzword politicians are currently using to describe people – “ordinary Australians,” “middle Australia” or “working families” – people are very aware that there is a crisis and very much aware that politics-as-usual cannot solve our problems. The younger generation is particularly engaged but feel cheated and ignored. That’s because they are.

Steve Threadgold and Terry Leahy are sociologists at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Steve is a youth sociologist whose recently completed PhD thesis is entitled Youth and Habitus at Three Australian Schools: Perceptions of Ambitions, Risks and the Future in Reflexive Modernity. Terry is a Senior Lecturer who focuses on environmental issues. His recent book is Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages.