"Normalizing Catastrophe" by Prof Bob Jickling

Rhodes>ELRC>Latest News

Many Canadians have become increasingly uncomfortable with their government’s movement towards a right-wing corporatist agenda. Those of us with environmental concerns were particularly embarrassed when our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, travelled to the Copenhagen climate conference (COP 15) for the purpose of blocking progress towards a meaningful international agreement. A frequently used excuse is that our economy is a priority; we cannot afford to take action; or, it would cost too many jobs.  Yet, somehow there isn’t a sufficiently strong rejection of this narrative in our country to overturn his actions.  We know that the outlook for future generations on a severely degraded earth is bleak, perhaps even catastrophic. Yet, when confronted with radically opposing views, we cannot seem to connect all of the dots and make a break from the economic narratives and cultural metaphors that dominate contemporary discourse in our country, and elsewhere.  They are, in short, thoroughly normalized. 


The process of normalization of attitudes, values, practices and habits has been a subject of study for some time, and framed in a variety of ways.  For example, Hebert Marcuse’s (1964) theorizing suggests that when opposing views are repeatedly placed side-by-side the antagonisms between them are flattened out and the oppositional elements, between these views, are eventually obliterated. This is how, for example, the dominant culture of consumerism and instrumentalism, on one hand, can neutralize the widespread concern about climate on the other hand. It is the prospect of decarbonising the atmosphere at the expense of consumer practices that is alien to our dominant culture. It is the challenge posed by these socio-environmental concerns, held by so many citizens, that is so threatening to the status quo, and sets up the “antagonisms” that Marcuse talks about.


The flattening out of conflicting points of view, or antagonisms, or controversy, or differing social assumptions—it can be framed in many ways—doesn’t come about, according to Marcuse (1964), through direct challenges.  Rather, it comes about “through their wholesale incorporation into the established order, through their reproduction and display on a massive scale” (p. 57).  Today we call it co-option. The major casualty in the flattening of contrasting points of view is our desire and ability to engage in meaningful discussions about issues of social importance—discussions about what constitutes a good life, how we ought to live, and right relationships amongst people, and between people and the more-than-human world, in short, discussions about ethics.


Ingolfur Blöhdorn (2010) argues, compellingly, that the Copenhagen climate summit (UN COP 15) was a resounding failure. From his analysis, it appears that, thanks in part to our Prime Minister, it is business as usual. The world is carbonizing at an unprecedented rate and promising strategies for reversing this trend are nowhere in sight. Much as Marcuse described, the contradictions in discourse between economic imperatives the perils of climate change are smoothed over, reabsorbed into the status quo. In a similar way, as Blöhdorn points out, scenarios of 4-7 C of warming by the end of the century, that have been thought to be harbingers of catastrophe and disaster, are “now widely regarded as much more realistic” (p. 2) than the tougher goals for decarbonization. This shift, he argues, marks a drift towards the politics of unsustainability—or the normalizing of catastrophe.  This shift is often represented in the politics and rhetoric of adaptation.


This brief analysis creates a series of critical questions for environmental educators to consider:

  • Why is there a body of people who believe in anthropogenic climate change, but are not inclined to act on these beliefs?
  • Why are they disempowered?
  • What would be an appropriate educational response?




Blühdorn, I. (2010). Political sociology and the cultural framing of environmental discourse: Depoliticisation, repoliticisation and the governance of unsustainability. Unoublished paper presented to AHRC network. The Cultural Framing of Environmental Discourse, Workshop I, 2 – 3 December 2010, Bath, U.K.

Marcuse, H. (1964). One-dimensional man. Boston: Beacon Press.



Note about this text

This post was the subject of Bob’s talk on Friday , May 4th at Rhodes University and is an adapted excerpt from his paper: “Normalizing Catastrophe: And educational Response.”  The paper was published earlier in the week and is now available on the Environmental Education Research journal’s website. The full citation is:

Normalizing catastrophe: An educational response. Environmental Education Research. 19(2), 161-176.