Where’s the why?

08-11-2009 23:48
Chris Nash reminded us in his plenary lecture of the one question that journalists – always keen on ‘finding the facts’ – miss. We ask ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’, but in our rush to get the story out we don’t always have time for ‘why?’. 

‘Why’, Chris pointed out, is the most important question. 

In the conference presentations I’ve heard, a lot of questions have been posed. I suppose from an academic perspective this is the ideal, if we’re trying to find new and potentially useful ways of approaching, examining and framing the issue of climate change. These presentations have opened up research to us, research which has collected important and useful data. 

Still, are we asking ‘Why?’ enough?

Why does Rupert Murdoch profess to believe in climate change but allow his flagship paper in Australia to conduct a policy of slash and burn on the views of environmentalists? Why is American public concern over climate issues actually falling? Why do Norwegian newspapers still report from a nationalistic perspective?

It almost goes without saying that this is what we’re all, ultimately, interested in, is the implications of our results – almost. A lot of this discussion surely goes on in the informal conversations which have been taking place, but perhaps we could pull it more often into the formal debate.

The academic culture is such that what we can conclude is delimited by what we can prove, and this of course ensures its rigour. Just as journalists are being challenged by the ‘meta’ issue of climate change, to nail their colours to the mast; so maybe in this field academics should feel emboldened to give an opinion as to what it all means. 

Here’s a suggested programme for another conference on climate issues, with papers grouped under the relevant headings or – perhaps – speakers returning each day to compare the relevant parts: 

Wednesday:  What? and Who?
Thursday: When? and Where?
Friday:  Why? 

There are times, you might argue, when why? doesn’t matter, so much as the practical questions ‘how?’ and ‘what now?’. We all want practical solutions; but a few days at an academic conference is unlikely to produce them.

What it can do is excavate the motivations behind actions and attitudes, turn them inside out, and interrogate them with the ‘militant craftsmanship’ to which Nash (quoting Pierre Bourdieu) exhorted us.

by Cassie Werber

Category: Reflections


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