Dr Caroline McCalman – PhD Researcher 2013-2019

Dr Caroline McCalman: Nuclear Societies PhD Researcher 2013-2019 (University of Sheffield).

Caroline’s doctoral thesis, funded by the ESRC, was undertaken as part of the Nuclear Societies programme, ‘Nuclear Heresy: Environmentalism as Implicit Religion’ (2019), and is a discourse study of environmentalism in the UK. The research indicates how reframing environmental issues using religious concepts and language can deepen our understanding of people’s relationship to the environment and environmentalism. The thesis suggests that this process of reframing may be important for the social sciences, by illuminating new ways to engage with and understand the controversies and debates at hand. The data supporting this reframing analysis was obtained through in-depth, semi-structured one-on-one interviews with individuals identified as being ‘environmentally concerned’ and was analysed first thematically, and then using the researcher’s ‘discourse toolkit’.

Nuclear power is treated as an emblematic issue to provide a concrete focus for a topic prone to abstraction; viewing environmentalism as a form of religion encouraged interdisciplinary working. By developing ideas from Bailey’s implicit religion (Bailey, 1997) I provide a language for environmentalism-as-religion, wherein pro-nuclear heretics challenge an anti-nuclear orthodoxy.

Linking environmental discourses to enduring cosmologies shows that ‘superficial’ conflict over climate change mitigation is acrimonious precisely because it deals with manifestations of deeper convictions on the human-nature relationship.  Updated versions of existing ‘nuclear discourses’ are analysed in combination with environmental-religious discourses, showing that ideas about public understanding and acceptance of nuclear power, even when rebranded as ‘sustainable’, are still best understood in terms of ancient cosmological ideas about the ‘natural’ or ‘proper’ way for humanity to approach and interact with the environment. Key environmental discourses were overtly religious and or even direct reformulations of Christian mythoi, with important implications for the movement’s stagnation and inherent contradictions. This thesis argues for the social sciences to take religion seriously, as the religious impulse – both implicit and explicit – is an important social phenomenon which shows no sign of fading and remains an important factor in modern society.

The full thesis is available to read here.