Cognitive dissonance and archaeological practice

I think a lot of us archaeologists like to think of ourselves as grown-ups when it comes to climate change.

This is especially the case for people who, like me, work on the Palaeolithic. We know just how dramatically the climate has changed in the past. We know about the Greenland Ice Core Chronology, about Heinrich events, Milankovitch cycles, marine cores, loess-paleosol sequences, past sea level change. Nobody needs to convince us that the earth’s climate system is complex and contains many surprising feedback mechanisms, and that if you inject a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere there will indeed be repercussions.


From NOAA NCEI Paleoclimatology Program
based on EPICA Dome C data (Lüthi et al., 2008).


And yet. And yet. We’re stuck with a bad case of cognitive dissonance. We are stuck between two ways of seeing the world, and we’re not doing a very good job of thinking clearly about them.

The first way of seeing the world is, essentially, a scientific way. Lots of us are really good at this. This way of seeing the world understands that modern-day climate change is serious and real and that there is abundant data to support this. As archaeologists, many of us have a good background for understanding the significance of what is going on and we take our colleagues in climate science seriously. When they publicly conclude, as they did recently, that if we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2050, we support them entirely.

The second way of seeing the world is the way we’re taught to see the world as working archaeologists. This is the worldview that is shaped by the fact that we love archaeology and think it’s important and we want to do good work. (It’s also shaped by wider political forces). It’s the worldview that tells us to work long hours and put large amounts of pressure on ourselves and go away on fieldwork, to conferences, perhaps more than we really want to. In this worldview it’s good to get funding to do exciting work in faraway places. It’s good if we travel a lot. Our employers tell us it’s good. Our funders tell us it’s good. Our colleagues praise us for these things and our students, perhaps, look up to us for them.

I did not spend eight years in higher education to learn not to notice that those two ways of seeing the world are fundamentally incompatible.

We live in the time of neoliberalism. That affects every aspect of our lives and work, including as archaeologists. We compete for funding with each other and with our colleagues in other disciplines; many of us work on short-term contracts; if we have a permanent job we might be stuck with idiotic targets to meet. We worry about journal impact factors. That is the context in which we are flying all over the place and giving papers and doing more research trips and feeling, all the time, like this is all necessary and we don’t have a choice. At the same time, we are not stupid. We hear what climate scientists are telling us and we take them seriously. We want to be able to find a way to deal with all these different needs coherently, the need to fly less and the need to get funding, the need to prioritise the environment and the need to go to conferences. But we can’t, because there isn’t one.

Cognitive dissonance is a bad space to be in. It’s what happens when we hold two sets of contradictory beliefs and it causes mental discomfort and clouds thinking. As a discipline, right now, we are suffering from cognitive dissonance. We know, as humans, as researchers, that global warming is a grave problem that demands changes in every aspect of our lives. But as humans, as researchers, our jobs demand that we do things that are entirely at odds with those necessary changes. We reduce this cognitive dissonance by telling ourselves that we have to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. Because we’re archaeologists, this is what archaeologists do. Because archaeology is really important. Because everyone else is doing it. But the cognitive dissonance caused by the contradictions between our two sets of beliefs stops us from thinking straight and it stops us from talking honestly to each other.

There are numerous possible responses to cognitive dissonance. We can do our best to ignore it, and keep rationalising our behaviour, forever, and get uneasy and change the subject whenever the topic of our dissonance comes up. That’s not good for our mental health and it also doesn’t do anything to solve the root causes. We can deny the truth of reality, which leads to all sorts of lousy behaviour. Or, of course, we can try and find a way through it by thinking as clearly as we can and figuring out which things are true and which things are not. This is not always easy. But if we manage it in this case, we might come to realise that of the two ways of seeing the world that are set out above, it is the first one that is real and non-negotiable and the second one that needs to be rethought.


* * *


I’ll cut to the chase: we cannot keep doing archaeology the way that we have been doing it if we are serious about climate change. We cannot.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I can’t find any other conclusion.

This doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly decided that archaeology isn’t important. I think it is, and actually I think that the perspective of archaeologists is badly needed in the world right now.

But if we take climate change seriously – if we really acknowledge the gravity of the situation where we find ourselves – then we have to face up to the impossibility of continuing as we are. We have to change the way we live our lives, and that includes changing the way we do research.

This is a real-world, practical problem. So let’s talk about it like one.

The IPCC told us, in October 2018, that we need to cut CO2 emissions by 45% in the next twelve years, by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. Do that, and although things will stay risky, we have a decent chance of the climate stabilising at around 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. A world with a stable climate is a world I want to live in. It’s a world I want the next generation to live in. And the one after that.

(It’s weird for me, as a researcher, to find myself quoting things that I don’t understand well. Citing figures straight out of an online press release is not the kind of thing I normally do. I don’t understand all the data and models and uncertainties that go into establishing these figures. I am taking it on trust, because I respect climate scientists and the IPCC, that this report is a useful guide for what we need to do. I think that’s worth saying because I’m probably not the only one who feels a bit strange about it. I’m sure these figures are a bit off, because that’s how science goes. But as a guide for action, they’ll do.)

Ok, so since we need to do this – since we need to cut emissions by 45% by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century, how are we going to do it? There are plenty of things that we can do in our personal lives, obvious things to do with food and transport and energy-efficiency. I’m not going to rehearse them here. But we also have to change the way we work. And that includes us archaeologists.

I’m going to take the IPCC’s numbers as a target for action within archaeology. Let’s consider the global warming contributions of our discipline, of all the things that we consider as work, and let’s see how we can start cutting them immediately, cut them by 45% by 2030, and get as close to zero as possible by the middle of the century. That seems like a fair target. No more and no less than what the entire world has to do. We can argue over it but if anything, I would suggest that it should be a minimum target for us.

I want to suggest some concrete ways to get us towards this target. They need refining. They need input from a lot more people. They’re very much shaped by my experience as a full-time postdoctoral researcher based in continental Europe. But they’re a start. They’re mainly to do with travel because I’m pretty sure that travel is where we, as archaeologists, are contributing to global warming the most. We fly around the continent, around the world, for conferences and fieldwork and meetings. Many of us fly far more than the average citizen. So we need, as a matter of urgency, to cut our travel.

I’m no more qualified than any other archaeologist to start saying things like this (which is another way of saying that you’re all as qualified as I am to start saying these things too). But in the absence of leadership from my superiors, in the absence of institutions and funding bodies taking all of this as seriously as I think they should, well, I’m not going to apologise for making an attempt at this problem. So here goes.

First – what if we, starting from now, cancelled every second conference? Some of our annual conferences attract thousands of people – that’s thousands of return flights. What if we had half the number of conferences but planned them to be longer and slower, so that we could take full advantage of these opportunities to have meaningful interactions with our colleagues? What if, on top of that, we chose conference venues based on their accessibility by train?

Second – what would happen if we decided, as a discipline, to publicly declare a moratorium on starting new research projects until we’ve cleared our backlogs? What if we just sat down and caught up on all our work, learned some new skills to deal with the data we have, finished writing the books we have half-written? What if funding bodies supported ECRs not only in starting new research projects, but in working on data they’ve already got? Would archaeology, as a whole, suffer for that?

Finally – what if funders and universities started using environmental impact as a criterion for funding decisions? What if they asked, upfront, for justification of how many flights would be necessary to complete a research project and refused to pay for more than those? What if they required researchers to take the train rather than fly wherever feasible? What if we, as a discipline, asked them to do this?

These are all things that I think we can do. I am aware that there are a thousand possible objections. I am aware that if we tried to implement them they would face enormous opposition, from many people within our discipline, including senior and well-regarded people, and from our universities and research institutes and funders. I am aware of all of that.

But I am also completely serious about these ideas. Because these are the kind of things that we need to do. And ultimately we will need to go much further than this.

If, at this point, you’re recoiling and saying hang on, archaeologists aren’t really the problem, we shouldn’t have to change our research strategies, let’s not be too hasty about doing drastic things like systematically reducing our travel, then I suggest you think hard about why this is your immediate response. If you are coming up with a hundred rationalisations as to why archaeologists have to travel as much as we do now, have to fly around the world, have to see each other at conferences – well, then ask yourself how that squares with the fact that we have to stop burning fossil fuel, and ask yourself whether you’re suffering from cognitive dissonance. The travelling we do can be important for our research, it can be fun, it can be good for our careers and our egos, but I struggle to find a rationalisation as to why we archaeologists should be exceptions to the human imperative to decarbonise. If we’re going carbon neutral in the next three decades that has to include archaeology as well, so we’d better start adjusting, and quickly.

I have other practical ideas too, which are smaller-scale and lighter-impact. I am leaving them out because we need to think big right now. There are also other, more abstract contributions we can make towards the necessary culture shifts. These include telling the world what we know about the flexibility of human culture, about our capacities for large-scale co-operation, about big picture perspectives. These sorts of communications have the potential to be vital contributions. But to me it seems foolish to try and convince the world in general of the possibility of changing our fossil fuel habits when we ourselves haven’t done it yet. Changing our work practices, putting decarbonisation at the top of our priority list, will send a stronger signal to the world at large than anything else we can do right now.

Solving this problem of decarbonisation is difficult. If we take it on, it is going to involve learning a lot of new skills and talking to a lot of new people and getting our heads round a lot of new knowledge. It’s intellectually exciting and it’s important and funnily enough it requires the exact same broadness of approach that makes archaeology so wonderful, with its combination of hard science and social science. It is daunting, of course. But who cares? We’re archaeologists. We love big problems.

I don’t know if there is anyone else in archaeology who is already saying these kind of things (and I would love to know if there is). I do know that what I’m saying is a long way from the typical conversations that we have, if we have any at all, about climate change. But all I’ve done here is start from the last IPCC report and think about its repercussions for us. It’s not rocket science, and although my suggestions might seem superficially radical, I actually think they’re quite moderate and only the start of what we need to do. Whether ideas like this can be implemented doesn’t depend on me or on any of us as individuals. It depends on us as a discipline. It depends on our taking a deep breath and thinking about our priorities. We need to deal with our cognitive dissonance about this topic and we need to talk to each other, honestly and openly. We need to set goals and we need to strategise. Who’s with me?


Also published at Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community, 2 November 2018