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Extending the Concept of Moral Panic: Elias, Climate Change and

Amanda Rohloff
Sociology 2011 45: 634
DOI: 10.1177/0038038511406597
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Extending the Concept of

Moral Panic: Elias, Climate
Change and Civilization

45(4) 634649
The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/0038038511406597

Amanda Rohloff
Brunel University, UK

Combining the theories and concepts of Norbert Elias with the empirical example of climate
change, this article aims to extend and develop the concept of moral panic. The focus of the
analysis is on the documentary An Inconvenient Truth an exemplar of a more general trend in
popular culture regarding the moralization and individual regulation of climate change. In the
final sections of the article, Al Gores short-term campaign is related to more long-term social

Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, climate change, moral panic, Norbert Elias, risk

This article aims to extend and develop the concept of moral panic. Within the moral
panic literature, there has been a great deal of debate over the adequacy of the concept,
and its relevance to contemporary issues. This article aims to address some of these
debates, by examining the moral panic concept in relation to an example that does not
perfectly fit with many of the classic criteria, as developed by Cohen (2002[1972]),
Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994), and others.
Several authors have argued that the concept is imbued with the assumption that
moral panics particular types of reactions to perceived social problems are irrational,
inappropriate overreactions (Hier, 2002a; Hunt, 1999; Moore and Valverde, 2000;
Rohloff and Wright, 2010). In one of the early critiques of moral panic, Waddington
argues that to describe an expression of public and official anxiety as a moral panic
suggests that the scale of this response is disproportionately greater than the scale of the
Corresponding author:
Amanda Rohloff, Department of Sociology and Communications, School of Social Sciences, Brunel
University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK.
Email: amanda.rohloff@brunel.ac.uk

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problem (1986: 246). He further criticizes moral panic researchers for focusing on the
scale of the reaction to the problem, while neglecting the scale of the problem itself,
arguing that:
Without some clear criteria of proportionality, the description of publicly expressed concern,
anxiety or alarm as a moral panic is not more than a value judgment. It simply says that the
person using the term does not believe that the particular problem is sufficiently serious to
warrant these expressions of concern or actions designed to remedy the problem. (1986: 257)

This issue of proportionality (and the related issue of value judgment) has led some
researchers to come up with alternative ways to conceptualize moral panic. Rather than
assessing proportionality, some authors (such as Hier, 2002a, 2008; Rohloff, 2008, 2011;
see also Rohloff and Wright, 2010) argue that we should instead explore moral panic as a
process of change in the moralizing discourse; a heightened sense of concern and a change
in the expression of moralizing discourse at a time of perceived crisis. In addition, rather
than assessing proportionality per se, we could instead assess how effective proposed measures will be, or have been, in addressing the problem (of course, there may still be some
examples, such as the Satanism Scare, that facilitate assessments of proportionality).
Nevertheless, despite revisions of the concept of moral panic, Waddingtons and others interpretations of moral panic have led some authors to reject the concept of moral
panic, arguing that it is too tainted with these normative, debunking connotations (as is
evident with the usage of moral panic in popular culture). To move beyond these inherent, normative presuppositions, and extend the concept of moral panic, it is important to
explore empirical cases that do not obviously fit the model of a bad irrational, exaggerated and distorted, panic. Indeed, Waddington himself perhaps implicitly suggests
this, in the conclusion to his article:
the validity or otherwise of [Hall et al.s] wider analysis does not depend upon the view that
mugging is not serious or does not merit official concern. It is, of course, perfectly possible to
panic about the most genuine problem. People may panic in a fire, but this does not imply that
the building is not burning nor that there is no threat.
However, the way in which the term moral panic is used to describe official and media concern
about specific crime problems suggests that it is a polemical rather than an analytical concept.
It seems virtually inconceivable that concern about racial attacks, rape, or police misconduct
would be described as a moral panic. This is because the term has derogatory connotations: it
implies that official media concern is merely a moral panic without substance or justification.
If official reaction to crime and deviance is to be analysed adequately perhaps it is time to
abandon such value-laden terminology. (1986: 258, emphasis in original)

Instead of abandoning the so-called value-laden terminology of moral panic, I am

instead attempting to revise the moral panic concept to address these and other critiques,
via novel theoretical and empirical analyses; that is, to develop a more analytical rather
than polemical conceptualization of moral panic. Therefore, this article looks at the
example of climate change, as it is a contemporary issue (albeit with historical antecedents), and it challenges many of the assumptions and problems with moral panic.
However, while moral panic may be used in popular culture to dismiss reactions to
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Sociology 45(4)

climate change as just a moral panic, I do not intend to use moral panic in this dismissive,
debunking way; moral panic needs to be reconceptualized so that it does not imply truth
claims at the outset (Rohloff, 2011; Rohloff and Wright, 2010). Instead, I wish to reconceptualize moral panic as a heightened campaign or sense of concern about a particular
issue (or set of issues), where there is a perceived crisis in the civilizing of the self and
the other; where the regulation of ones own, or anothers, behaviour is seen to be failing
or out of control, or where it is believed that we need a drastic change in the regulation
of the self and/or the other in order to avoid a potential crisis (Rohloff, 2008: 73; see also
Rohloff, 2011; Rohloff and Wright, 2010).
An additional way that this article aims to extend the concept of moral panic is by
exploring how a particular short-term campaign about climate change relates to other
social processes, including long-term changes. Moral panics are, by definition, temporary events. Consequently, moral panic research has tended to focus on the episode of the
panic, to the relative neglect of other social processes, including more gradual long-term
processes, and how they affect and are affected by a moral panic (Rohloff, 2011; Rohloff
and Wright, 2010).
To assist with extending the concept of moral panic, I draw upon the research of
Norbert Elias; in particular, his theory of civilizing (and decivilizing) processes.1 To
empirically test and develop this synthesis of Elias and moral panic, I analyse Al Gores
campaign on climate change. As an illustrative example, the documentary presented by
Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, represents a more general trend in popular culture
regarding the moralization of climate change, and the associated call upon the self to
control and regulate ones own behaviour in order to manage climate change. The documentary contains common themes that are present in other sources, such as popular books
and guides about climate change, how to live green guides, and eco-documentaries and
eco-lifestyle/makeover reality TV shows that individualize and moralize the issue of
climate change.
By Gores own account, he has been interested in climate change since the 1960s,
when he was first exposed to the topic by his professor, Roger Revelle (Gore, 2006: 40).
Since then, Gore has been involved in climate change campaigning, both in politics and
in popular culture (with the publication, in 1992, of Earth in the Balance). However, it
was not until 2006, when the award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth: A
Global Warning was released, that Gore established himself as a climate change celebrity. Presented by Gore, the documentary sought to both educate the public about
anthropogenic climate change and affect changes in behaviour that might potentially
alleviate the problem. Following its release, An Inconvenient Truth was distributed and
shown in schools throughout the UK and the USA (although the viewing of the film in
classrooms was contested by those who disagreed with the films messages; McClure
and Stiffler, 2007; Mellor, 2009). A companion website was created (http://www.climatecrisis.net/), which includes links to a downloadable free companion education
guide, as well as a downloadable teaching curriculum (http://participate.net/aninconvenienttruth). Volunteers throughout the United States have since been trained by Gore and
his staff to introduce Gores climate change presentation to others and spread his message on global warming (Haag, 2007). A companion book (Gore, 2006), and a childrens
version of the book (Gore, 2007), have also since been published.

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In the year following the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore, along with the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was jointly awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about manmade climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change (Nobel Prize, 2007). Despite the apparent significance of Gores
global warming campaign, there has been little in the way of sociological analysis of it.
Drawing from the concept of moral panic and Norbert Eliass theory of civilizing (and
decivilizing) processes, this article conceptualizes An Inconvenient Truth as part of a civilizing offensive as part of a wider moral panic that seeks to improve upon the behaviours, manners and morals of all of us who contribute to the perceived social crisis of
anthropogenic climate change. Carrying out an Eliasian moral panic analysis of the documentary, the article further develops an Eliasian approach to moral panic (Rohloff, 2008).
Drawing from existing literature on the development of environmentalism and on civilizing processes, Gores short-term campaign is then related to long-term social processes.

Moral Panics and Civilizing Processes

Chas Critcher has argued that, for its continual development, the moral panic concept
needs to be connected to sociological theory (2003, 2008, 2009). Some authors have
already contributed to this development. Sheldon Ungar has examined the relationship
between moral panic and risk in his analysis of the rise and (relative) decline of global
warming as a social problem (1992), where he argues that panics may develop following
real-world events, such as the heat wave of the summer of 1988. These events are then
used by claims-makers to piggyback on; employed as warning signs of what will happen if something is not done now. Similarly, drawing from the sociologies of risk and
governance, Sean Hier conceptualizes panics as short-term volatile episodes of moral
regulation, where past grievances interplay with perceived future risks to affect the
development of the regulation of the other and of the self (Hier, 2002a, 2002b, 2003,
2008). For Hier, moral panics are volatile moments of moralizing discourse, where regulation comes to be temporarily displaced from the self onto the dangerous other. This,
he argues, is in contrast to the more routine, everyday practices of self-regulation via
self-avoidance of risk. In this way, Hier goes some way to theoretically situate moral
panic within more long-term projects of moral regulation, within wider social process.
However, this aspect of his research has been empirically underdeveloped. Accordingly,
this article, informed by the theories of Norbert Elias, aims to contribute to developing a
long-term approach to panic analyses, one which takes greater account of the relationship between short-term campaigns (panics) and long-term social process. I argue that
such an approach can afford greater insight into moral panic research and answer calls
for its theoretical-conceptual development.
In The Civilizing Process (2000[1939]), Elias examined how the historical development of manners (in Western Europe) was related to the formation of states, proposing a
long-term developmental theory of how changes at the individual level affect and are
affected by changes at the structural level. This theory of civilizing processes explains an
overall gradual shift from social constraint towards self-constraint (whereby controls
become increasingly internalized in the form of self-regulation), increasing foresight,
and widening circles of mutual identification.
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Sociology 45(4)

Elias did note that civilizing processes are not unilinear: several types of change, even
in opposite directions, can be observed simultaneously in the same society (2000[1939]:
450). Others have since built on his work by proposing different symptoms (Mennell,
1990) and criteria (Fletcher, 1997) of decivilizing. While decivilizing symptoms may be
described as the reversal of civilizing symptoms, they may not all occur together in any
given episode of decivilization (Mennell, 1990: 219). Where there is only a partial, shortterm breakdown (or perceived breakdown) of civilization, moral panics may occur.
During moral panics, a social problem comes to be (re)defined as something that needs
to be dealt with before it is too late; a perceived crisis. Concern about the problem
(Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994: 33) reflects the perception that the state and/or citizens
are weak and failing to adequately regulate the problem. The extent of the problem may
come to be exaggerated and distorted (Cohen, 2002[1972]: 1922) or even invented,
making it appear that danger is increasing (importantly, this criterion of disproportionality is not strictly essential; even the mere increased media attention on a social problem
may contribute to heightened concern, or make it appear that the problem is increasing).
It is here that the civilizing process contributes to the development of moral panics:
increased division of labour and increasing expertization of knowledge lead to increasing
reliance on others for information about the reality of social problems. This potentially
enables (but does not necessitate) the distortion of claims, as non-experts do not always
have the knowledge to assess claims, thereby resulting in danger becoming increasingly
incalculable when the information we receive about social problems may be unreliable
(Rohloff, 2008). This works both ways, where both the presentation of the social problem
and counter-claims trying to dismiss the problem as a non-problem may employ tactics
to make their claims seem more believable (for example, with the case of climate change,
the interchange between climate change campaigners and climate change sceptics). In
this way, civilizing processes can contribute to the development of decivilizing trends.
During a moral panic, the stereotyping of the problem and the search for a scapegoat
can in some cases result in the development of folk devils (the other), which can lead
to a decrease in mutual identification and an increase in cruelty; where calls for extreme
measures to counter the problem may become justifiable on the grounds that these are
extreme times and that these wrongdoers do not deserve the same rights as the rest of us.
It is during such times that we may witness an increase in involvement and a decrease in
detachment, where emotional involvement may become prominent in the rhetoric of
politicians, experts, and other interested parties, and there may occur an increased susceptibility to wish fantasies about the means to resolve the problem (Rohloff, 2008).
Mennell and Goudsblom write of decivilizing processes:
During the times of social crisis military defeats, political revolutions, rampant inflation,
soaring unemployment, separately or, as happened in Germany after the First World War, in
rapid sequence fears rise because control of social events has declined. Rising fears make it
still more difficult to control events. That renders people still more susceptible to wish fantasies
about means of alleviating the situation. (Mennell and Goudsblom, 1998: 212)

During panics, the perception that control of social events has declined, with the rise in
fears that would accompany this perception, allows for the possibility of moral panics to
be conceptualized as (at least partial) decivilizing processes.2

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To conceptually locate moral panics as the outcome of deliberate campaigns within

more long-term processes, we can then examine the interplay of the aforementioned
processes (civilizing and decivilizing) with the Eliasian concept of civilizing offensive.
The latter is defined as deliberate (but not necessarily successful) attempts by people
who considered themselves to be civilized to improve the manners and morals of
people whom they considered to be less civilized or barbaric (Dunning and Sheard,
2005[1979]: 280). Civilizing offensives, while they may be attempts to bring about
increased civilizing, may contain decivilizing symptoms (e.g. Van Krieken, 1999). And
so it follows that moral panics, even though they can in some instances be comparable
with civilizing offensives, can also contain decivilizing symptoms. Consequently, this
creates space for us to explore the interplay between a possible ecological civilizing
process (Quilley, 2004, 2009; Schmidt, 1993; see also Aarts et al., 1995) and short-term
moral panics, as represented in An Inconvenient Truth. I begin the analysis by first examining the moral content of the documentary.

The Moralization of Risk

While risk talk and risk analysis have influenced the domain of deviance, crime and
social control (Cohen, 2002[1979]: xxv), some moral panic theorists have contended
that, while risk discourse may be invoked during panics, risk society anxieties and those
anxieties that give rise to moral panics are fundamentally different:
Moral panics are short-lived campaigns about public issues requiring management by
authorities. Risk anxiety is constant, private and has to be managed by individuals. The case for
seeing moral panics as particular forms and expressions of risk consciousness has yet to be
made. (Critcher, 2003: 167; see also Critcher, 2009)

However, this dichotomous separation between risk and moral between individual
management and management by authorities is an artificial separation, and ignores the
continuum through which social- and self-control operate together. An Inconvenient
Truth is an illustrative example of this, since the documentary is representative of general
trends whereby a risk (climate change) has become increasingly moralized in the form of
a moral panic. Indeed, as is suggested later when examining Gores proposed solutions
to the problem of global warming, this divide between moral panic and risk anxiety is not
always so clear-cut. For, when moral panics emerge over risk society anxieties, we may
witness short-lived campaigns where there is a call for both management by authorities and risk management by individuals. For example, with the ozone hole, management by individuals occurred, and still occurs, through protecting oneself and ones
children from the sun; and management by authorities occurred through the phasing out
of CFC products (Ungar, 1998, 2000).
While Ungar (2001) argues that a shift is occurring from those anxieties associated
with moral panics towards those associated with the risk society, and, therefore, one
would likely witness a decrease in moral panics, Hier (2003) argues that it is precisely
this growth in uncertainty, associated with uncertain future risk, that will contribute to an
increase in moral panics. We can see how the example of Gores global warming campaign supports Hiers argument about the moralization of risk. In contrast with risk

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Sociology 45(4)

enabling increased calculability of danger, the example of global warming entails the
possibility of inherent uncertainty (at least in popular media) incalculability of danger.
In the documentary, global warming has gone through a process of moralization perhaps
in an attempt to overcome this uncertainty. While notions of risk are still present in the
documentary, these risks have been reframed as moral certainties: Politicians hold this
at arms length; because if they acknowledge and recognize it, the moral imperative to
make big changes is inescapable (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006). Such a reframing of
global warming may assist in overcoming public uncertainty about the danger posed by
global warming, by asserting that it is a certain moral issue, thus providing an absolute
yes answer to questions of the (moral) danger of this problem. As Hunt argues: The
particular significance of posing risks as moral questions is that it acts as a mechanism
of closure The assertion that the issue is a moral question excludes considerations
other than moral judgments (2003: 1812). And so global warming becomes not an
uncertain risk, but a moral certainty. This is also reflected in the word truth in the title
of the documentary.
Cohen argues that panics over risks only become moral panics if risk analysis
becomes perceived as primarily moral rather than technical (the moral irresponsibility
for taking this risk) (2002[1972]: xxvi, emphasis in original). The moralization of risk
theme reported here points towards at least a partial convergence of risk and moral:
Ultimately, this is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow [the
projected CO2 concentration after 50 more years of unrestricted fossil fuel burning] to
happen, it is deeply unethical (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006).
The moral irresponsibility of taking this risk becomes more apparent when Gore
compares the development of the science of global warming and the lack of action with
initial responses to the scientific literature linking tobacco with lung cancer in the case
of tobacco, Gore argues that the slow response resulted in the deaths of many, implying
that a slow or inadequate response to climate change could have devastating consequences. The comparison between climate change and tobacco also reflects a sense of
urgency; that something must be done before it is too late we cannot afford to wait and
see. This urgency is also evident when Gore implies that, if Greenland were to melt, a
sudden jump to an ice age could occur, as it occurred in the past when Europe suddenly went into an ice age for 900 to 1000 years. Thus, it is inferred that we could suffer
from a similar sudden jump to a new ice age; that is, the gradual future-orientation of
the problem of global warming is, instead, suggested as being sudden and soon.

Past and Future Events

As suggested above, the future-oriented problem of global warming is related to the
here and now by framing it as a highly topical moral issue. This is also addressed by
relating the problem to recent events (catastrophes):
We have already seen some of the heat waves that are similar to what scientists are saying are
going to be a lot more common. A couple of years ago [2003] in Europe they had that massive
heat wave that killed 35,000 people. India didnt get as much attention but the same year the
temperature there went to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006)

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Although Ungar argues that, since computer models only predict tendencies, particular extreme events cannot be directly attributed to climate change (2001: 2867) and,
when they are, those claims are often discounted (by the media, at least), it would seem
that in times of crises this scepticism may be overridden. Ungar also allows for the possibility of claims being accelerated when they piggyback on dramatic real-world events
(1992: 483). So, just as during times of social crisis, where fears rise because control of
social events has declined [rendering] people still more susceptible to wish fantasies
about means of alleviating the situation (Mennell and Goudsblom, 1998: 212), during
times of natural crises (disasters), which may then lead to social crises, rising fears
about the apparent limitations to control natural events may be conducive for more
involved and less detached thinking, which may then assist in increased receptivity
towards piggybacking on extreme weather events.
Hurricane Katrina plays a prominent role as the central event with which global
warming is connected. Throughout the documentary there are references to Katrina,
including satellite images of the hurricane and images of the survivors and the dead, both
during and in the aftermath of the hurricane. Indeed, the image for the DVD cover, advertising posters, and website (http://www.climatecrisis.net/) of the documentary is that of
an industrial building or factory emitting smoke that then morphs into a hurricane the
implication being that carbon emissions lead directly to global warming, which then
leads directly to hurricanes like Katrina, implying that Katrina is a direct result of global
warming. Katrina, along with other recent disasters, is used as a warning of what will
happen. Here we see an element of prediction (Cohen, 2002[1979]: 267) where what
has happened (Katrina and other disasters) is certain to happen again. There is also the
prophecy of doom (2002[1979]: 38) that these events are not normal and, not only will
they reoccur, they will also get worse. For example, Gore draws parallels with the rise of
Nazi Germany (a storm brewing in the 1930s) and climate change (the storm of Hurricane
Katrina), arguing that in both cases there were warning signs, but in the latter they were
ignored, thereby highlighting the dangers of the wait and see approach and of not heeding warnings an argument to adopt a precautionary principle.
Throughout the documentary, there exists the implication that current events droughts,
heat waves, and hurricanes are fundamentally different to events of the past; they are not
normal, they are a warning sign of things to come. It is here we also see an element of
symbolization (Cohen, 2002[1979]: 27), where the words and the associated images of
Katrina come to be associated with the dangers of global warming. And so, grievances
over past events come to be associated with potential future risks (Hier, 2002a, 2008).
This is not to say that these predictions may not be accurate, nor does it mean that this
emotional involvement is somehow wrong or inappropriate. Indeed, such emotional
engagement with the audience may be necessary to accelerate the development of social
problems. Emotional involvement does not necessarily imply irrational emotions; one
could argue that it is indeed quite rational to use examples, such as Katrina, as warnings
of what could happen, if we are not to act soon. Through highlighting these tools that
Gore employs, I am trying to understand how his actions relate to other processes, including potential obstacles to the development of climate change as a perceived social problem. However, with some examples of moral panic it may indeed be the case that reactions
are not as appropriate as they could be (which, in some instances, may further contribute

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Sociology 45(4)

to the problem). It is unclear, at this stage, how appropriate current reactions to climate
change are; there is not space within this article to explore this issue of adequacy.

A Threat to Children and Civilization

Moral panics characteristically are presented as a threat, where: A condition, episode,
person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and
interests (Cohen, 2002[1979]: 1). Critcher notes that some of the dominant discourses
in moral panics are about dangers to children and childhood (2003: 155). The threat to
children is also a prevalent theme in An Inconvenient Truth; for example, when Gore
talks about when his son nearly died and relating this to global warming. This event
nearly losing his son changed everything for him, leading him towards his mission to
find out more about global warming. He then goes on to relate the prospect of losing
ones son to the possibility of losing the earth. Thus, global warming comes to be framed
as a threat to children, the earth and, by extension, civilization:
and that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet earth, to have a future as a civilization.
I believe this is a moral issue. It is your time to seize this issue. It is our time to rise again to
secure our future. (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006)

Causation and Blame: Searching for a Folk Devil

Just as civilization is seen as being threatened, it is also seen as a threat:
Over the years Ive come to think of the climate crisis as really a symptom of an underlying,
deeper crisis that has to do with the relationship between us and planet earth. And that relationship
has changed. And in the context of human history, the change has come pretty recently and fairly
suddenly. The relationship between our civilization and the ecological system of the planet has
been disrupted by a combination of factors the technology and science revolution our way
of thinking the population explosion. (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006)

Thus, climate change and the associated disasters (Cohen, 2002[1979]: 39) that have
been linked in the documentary are seen as merely a sign of the times, where the
behaviour [or the phenomenon] was seen not as the sickness itself but as a symptom of
something much deeper (2002[1979]: 46, emphasis in original).
Who or what is to blame? Civilization as a problem is a theme throughout the documentary, but how does one direct social control against civilization? Ungar argues
that, with potential risk society accidents (such as global warming), folk devils are
often not easily identifiable: the violators are more institutionally-based and somewhat invisible. It is often their routine rather than deviant actions that underlie the
problem (2001: 284). Here we witness a departure from classic moral panics,
where anxieties and fears were (often) directed at a deviant folk devil. In contrast with
moral panics enabling the materialization of grievance in an identifiable other (Hier,
2008), with the example of global warming blame is directed at everyone: Each one of
us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that
(Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006).

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At the same time, we can witness more general trends towards the emergence of ecofriendly and non-eco-friendly standards of behaviour (as exemplified in guides on how to
live green). The morality and condemnation associated with these changes in standards
of behaviour may eventually contribute towards the establishment of eco-deviance and
eco-deviants, and the growing field of environmental crime.

Something Must Be Done

One prominent theme throughout the documentary is that something is terribly wrong and
the state is not doing enough about the problem; Gore draws attention to the USA and
Australia, the only 2 advanced nations in the world that have not ratified Kyoto
(Guggenheim, 2006). The failure of the state is reflected in Gores descriptions of his
(failed) attempts to get the United States government to make changes.
As the state is not acting, throughout the documentary the emphasis is, instead, on
what we, you, us can do to change: We can make changes to bring our individual
carbon emissions to zero; It is your time to seize this issue. It is our time to rise again
to secure our future (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006, emphasis added). The state is not acting, so there is a call for grassroots level action, led by the moral crusader Al Gore.
A change is required, but this change does not appear to be occurring yet: I look
around for meaningful signs that were about to change. I dont see it right now (Gore,
in Guggenheim, 2006). And so one of the reasons Gore is carrying out his campaign is to
try and bring about this change, something which he believes he has failed at so far.
Thus, Gores campaign is an attempt to try to bring about behavioural changes at the
individual level, while still calling for changes at the level of the state.
As there is no obvious folk devil and it is believed that the state is not doing enough
about the problem, Gore calls for an increase in self-restraint with regard to behaviour
that is believed to contribute to the problem. It is not that there is an identified group that
we need protecting from it is about everyones behaviour so control is directed towards
the self instead (although Gore still calls for more state-imposed constraint as well).
This call for changes in behaviour towards increased self-restraint, however, is dependent on a degree of foresight: the forms of behaviour we call rationality are produced
within a social figuration in which short-term impulses are subordinated to longer-term
projects (Mennell and Goudsblom, 1998: 19). For global warming to be acknowledged, and behaviour to be changed accordingly, short-term impulses (for example, the
increased consumption of fuels that emit carbon emissions) must be subordinated to
longer-term projects of decreasing carbon emissions (where the results of such long-term
projects may be gradual, not immediate). However, with global warming the long-term
observable reality may not be readily observable it is very long-term.
Throughout the documentary, then, Gore calls for increased foresight, often relating
global warming as a threat to children: Future generations may well have occasion to
ask themselves what were our parents thinking, why didnt they wake up when they had
the chance? We have to hear that question from them now (Guggenheim, 2006). An
additional tool Gore employs to address this barrier that global warming is a gradual
future-oriented problem is of visually illustrating the predicted sea level rise if
Greenland or west Antarctica were to melt. While the immediate effects may not be

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Sociology 45(4)

readily observable, such a dramatic visual display of what might happen in the future
may be an attempt to address this barrier by increasing awareness of the potential consequences of global warming the idea that this is what might happen if we dont act now.
A related theme to foresight is the interdependencies between humans, technology and
Making mistakes in generations and centuries past would have consequences that we could
overcome. We dont have that luxury any more. Making mistakes in our dealings with nature
can have bigger consequences now because our technologies are even bigger than the human
scale. (Gore, in Guggenheim, 2006)

Here, technology is seen as having a (potentially) greater impact, requiring increased

foresight to think about those potential consequences. This points towards the realization
that technization requires increased control (Elias, 1995), where changes at the level of
the individual, as well as structural (social) changes, are deemed necessary in order to
ensure the continuance of civilization. And so, control over natural forces (the climate)
requires the control of social forces and the control of the self as well they are all interconnected (e.g. Elias, 1978: 1567; Sutton, 2004: 17682, on the triad of basic controls; also De Vries and Goudsblom, 2002).

Unintended Outcomes
The aforementioned calls for changes in behaviour increased self-restraint, increased
foresight, and increased recognition of interdependencies appear to be intentional calls
for change. However, there might also be the potential for unintended consequences of
climate change campaigns. One possible unintended outcome of this civilizing offensive
could be decivilizing in its consequences. Potentially, wider campaigns surrounding climate change could contribute to a decrease in mutual identification if not all the population comes to believe global warming to be a certain problem that needs to be dealt with
now; if standards of behaviour changed to such a degree, but not everyone changed their
behaviour in accordance with the problem and proposed solutions. And so, those who still
deviate may come to be regarded as different in kind from the rest of us, where behaviour that fails to incorporate risk-avoidance comes to be viewed as irresponsible; not only
is such conduct unwise, it is increasingly viewed as wrong (Hunt, 2003: 181). Indeed,
if changes in standards of behaviour are continually occurring, it would follow that not all
people would necessarily change at the same rate and, therefore, there may continually
occur the potential for the creation of deviant behaviour, deviant persons, and, consequently, the emergence of moral panics as a reaction to the newly created deviance.

The Interplay of Civilizing Offensives and Long-term

Ecological-sociological-psychological Processes
The question remains to what extent Gores campaign a civilizing offensive intervention to bring about changes in behaviour is merely reflective of long-term unplanned
processes. How do these calls for changes in behaviour compare with processes which
already seem to be developing?
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How does the call for increased self-restraint with regard to consumption of goods that
are believed to contribute to the problem (for example, by contributing to carbon emissions) fit in with long-term trends towards increased self-restraint with regard to consumption in general? For example, Schmidt argues that, with eating, smoking and drinking, a
growing number of consumers show more self-control, either in consuming less (or even
nothing at all) or in consuming in a more sensible or considered way (1993: 40). Gores
campaign is indicative of a perception that this gradual shift in self-constraint re consumption is not occurring at a fast enough rate, is not widespread enough, or has gone into
reverse with increasing overconsumption, hence the call for increasing vigilance.
The attempt to create concern about how the actions of people today might affect the
environment for generations to come reflects the already long-term trends of increasing
foresight and increasing recognition of the interdependencies between humans and the
environment, as reflected in an already growing concern over the consequences of human
actions on the environment, in the long-term development of environmentalism.
Goudsblom and De Vries suggest that the industrial regime (what they term the third
ecological regime) has contributed to a greater reliance on fossil fuel, thereby contributing to global warming and other environmental issues (what one might regard as unintended outcomes of the processes of technization and civilization), but it has also brought
about what they propose as a fourth ecological regime, which includes the continuous
monitoring of its own impacts (2002: 413). This fourth ecological regime is expressed in
the growth of self-reflexive documents (what Goudsblom and De Vries term moralecological discourse) such as the discourse found in Rachel Carsons Silent Spring,
through to the recent proliferation of books on climate change and other environmental
issues, eco-documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, eco-makeover lifestyle reality TV shows, guides on how to live green, save the planet and stop global warming,
and manners podcasts dedicated to green living (for example, Make it green girl: Quick
and dirty tips for an earth friendly life). As Goudsblom and De Vries describe them:
The message in this genre is an appeal to peoples responsibility as citizens of the earth. They
should be aware of ecological chains and cycles and think of the long-term effects of present
actions. Both personal behaviour and political decision-making must be guided by foresight. The
best strategies on both levels are no regret strategies, inspired even in the context of uncertainty
by a willingness to subordinate short-term gains to longer term interests. (2002: 413)

In this way, An Inconvenient Truth and other examples of moral-ecological discourse

represent heightened attempts to accelerate the development of ecological civilizing processes in the face of the eco-socio-psychological crisis of anthropogenic climate change.
Environmentalism, and Gores campaign about climate change, may reflect long-term
processes of increasing mutual identification. Initially, this may have been primarily at
the level of small in-groups (kin, tribes) extending outwards, as chains of interdependency lengthened, towards increasing mutual identification with other humans, then with
other animals, and now possibly with the environment in general. For example, the
development of considerations about not being cruel to, and of not harming, nature;
of protecting and saving the environment (see Sutton, 2007: 446, on ecological identification). In this way, An Inconvenient Truth may be representative of a wider ecological civilizing process (Quilley, 2004, 2009; Schmidt, 1993).

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Sociology 45(4)

In contrast with the above, Gores civilizing offensive may also be an attempt to counter
different processes. The long-term process of the monopolization of knowledge within scientific establishments the expertization of knowledge has resulted in a relative knowledge-ignorance paradox (Ungar, 2000). While we may live in what some call a knowledge
society, where expert knowledge may potentially be available to everyone (thus not
monopolized), the specialization of knowledge has meant that one has to learn the knowledge and the language of the specialty in order to have full access to it. And so this creates a
relative illiteracy, making it difficult to communicate expert knowledge to non-experts.
Therefore, non-experts may turn to popular, simplified, mediated versions of this knowledge, where those social controls that might exist within scientific establishments are absent,
and where this mediated knowledge might not be an accurate translation of the specialized
expert knowledge. This monopolization of knowledge may then coincide with a demonopolization of knowledge, where scientific establishments do not have monopolization over the
knowledge that non-experts have access to, including how their knowledge is mediated.
In addition, increases in technology the advent of multi-mediated social worlds
(McRobbie and Thornton, 1995) have enabled counter-claims to be voiced and heard;
a plurality of claims to knowledge in a variety of mediums. Thus, technization has contributed to a democratization of knowledge, where a persons or a groups ability to
monopolize knowledge has decreased and, therefore, power ratios have become more
even. With the example of global warming, this contributes to uncertainty over the reality
of the problem and, thereby, the incalculability of danger.
These processes (democratization of knowledge; expertization; technization) all contribute to make danger increasingly incalculable. To counter these processes and to address
rival claims-making, Gore calls upon increased trust in scientists. Throughout the documentary Gore also refers to the scientists to add legitimacy to his claims. He confronts
the balancing of claims by addressing (what some claim to be) the lack of scientific consensus over the reality of global warming: The misconception that theres disagreement
about the science [of global warming] has been deliberately created by a relatively small
number of people (Guggenheim, 2006). This statement implies that there is a consensus
about global warming. Gore then goes on to quote Oreskess (2004) study, which analysed
peer-reviewed journal articles on global climate change, finding no study which disagreed with the apparent scientific consensus. Gores statement also suggests that global
warming skeptics are an evil, conspiratorial, elite group that has manufactured these
counter-claims. Thus, Gore is seeking to discredit counter claims-makers by implying that
their claims are invented and that those who disagree are lying (or have been fooled by
lies), therefore we should discount what they are saying. In so doing, Gore may be attempting to establish a re-monopolization over claims to knowledge about global warming.

This article began with the aim of extending the concept of moral panic. Through combining the empirical example of climate change campaigns (specifically, Al Gores campaign, as exemplified in An Inconvenient Truth), with some of Norbert Eliass theories
and concepts, I have begun to address several limitations with the moral panic concept
and moral panic research (for further discussions of this, see Rohloff, 2008, 2011; Rohloff
and Wright, 2010).
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While the original examples explored from the classic moral panic framework, as
developed by Stan Cohen, Jock Young, and others, tended to emphasize the innately
misguided nature of the reaction to these perceived social problems, recent research has
aimed to move beyond this inherent normative presupposition. By extending the concept
of moral panics to examples, such as climate change, that do not neatly fit with the original, classic model, we are rigorously testing the concept and continuing its development. In shifting the focus of moral panic research to such examples that are not
necessarily indicative of inappropriate reactions, and do not necessarily have all the
indicators of classic moral panic models, we are further contributing to an analysis of
the concept of moral panic, thereby developing a programme for research that takes
account of the variant types of moral panics and the complex processes that occur
before, during and after different panics. This shift in focus, coupled with the insertion of
developments in social theory, can then potentially attend to the many debates and controversies that are ever present in the moral panic literature.
This call for a shift in focus, for extending the concept of moral panic, will no doubt
provoke responses to limit the focus. As was evident in two recent publications that discussed thinking beyond moral panic (Hier, 2008) and widening the focus of moral
panic (Critcher, 2009), there is a tension between extending the concept for its development on the one hand, and limiting its applicability in order to retain its political project
on the other. There exists a concern that, if we apply moral panic to examples like climate
change, we will lose the concepts ability to prove that a reaction was inappropriate and
thus liberate the folk devils. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Rohloff and
Wright, 2010), there is no reason why moral panic research cannot still have this as an
aim, provided that, following the research, it is found that the reaction was inappropriate.
The difference here is that such a judgment about the adequacy of the reaction should
come after the research, rather than be essentially imbued into the moral panic concept
as a presupposition.
I acknowledge the support of a Peter Caws Studentship, an ORSAS Award and an LB Wood
Travelling Scholarship.

As well as the reviewers and editors, I would also like to thank David Pearson and Chris Rojek for
their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. Thanks also to Jason Hughes for his helpful

1 See Rohloff, 2008, 2011, and Rohloff and Wright, 2010, for more in-depth discussions of how
to undertake a figurational approach to moral panic research; see also Rohloff, 2011, for a
more critical comparison of figurational research and moral panic research.
2 See Rohloff, 2011, for a more critical, in depth discussion of Elias, moral panic, decivilizing
processes, and civilizing offensives.

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Amanda Rohloff is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Communications,

Brunel University, and holds a BA (Hons) in sociology from Victoria University of
Wellington. Her PhD research is exploring the long-term development of climate change
as a perceived social problem, drawing primarily from moral panic and Norbert Eliass
theory of civilizing processes. She has two related articles, on moral panic and Elias, published in Current Sociology and New Zealand Sociology, as well as a forthcoming chapter
in the edited book Moral Panic Studies: Problems, Politics and Possibilities. Amanda is
currently working on several additional publications, and is also co-editing a moral panics
special issue of Crime, Media, Culture, as well as an edited book on moral panics.
Date submitted March 2010
Date accepted December 2010