As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:
The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.
Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:
“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.
“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”
Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:
But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.
It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.
The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.
The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.
Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:
The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.
Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.
Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.
The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.
Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:
“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”
She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.
“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.
“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.
“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”
It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.
Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:
we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.
But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:
Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.
She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:
But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.
‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.
As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.
Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.
There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.
Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:
If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us
No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:
In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:
But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.
We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]
MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.
BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.
MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?
BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.
MK: And you…
BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.
MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.
BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.
MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
So here’s what we understand from the interview.
In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.
In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.
Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?
Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.
Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?
It turns out we’ve missed a trick in our articles about the fashion for what we have called ‘pastiche politics‘, the phenomenon by which environmentalists attempt to muster non-existent public support by comparing themselves to world-changing political movements of the past – the Suffragettes, JFK, the New Deal, anti-apartheid, that sort of thing. Because, writing at Comment Is Free about Franny ‘The Age of Stupid’ Armstrong’s 10:10 Campaign, which seeks to get us all to reduce our emissions by 10% over 2010, Brendan O’Neill has provided a handy quote from Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst:
Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance … We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.
(Which is also a rather nice counter to the watermelon theory, which holds that environmentalism is the reincarnation of socialism – red on the inside. But that’s another story.)
O’Neill’s piece is a ripple of dissent in a sea of sycophantic Guardian coverage of 10:10. Which is not entirely surprising, given that the Guardian is backing the campaign. It presents so much material from the green great and good on the subject that it’s hard to know where to start. Happily, many of its flaws are encapsulated in this wee video of Franny Armstrong confessing all to Guardian journalists:
The good news is that the first 10% cut is actually very easy. It’s the low-hanging fruit, it’s the changing your light bulbs, turning down your heating, driving a bit less, flying a bit less, changing your eating habits a little bit – it’s that kind of thing. Unless you’re one of those people who have already started, in which case it’s a lot harder. But it only gets really hard around 30 or 40%.
But we don’t have to worry our pretty heads about that, because the good people at 10:10 will make sure the government will make us do it. And we already know that the government would like us to make them make us do it. As UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband said about the Heathrow protests:
When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.
Unfortunately for Franny, governments are far easier to persuade than the electorate.
I’m of that generation that grew up being told that the point of our existence was to watch TV and go shopping and play computer games and then die. And I’m actually extremely excited and happy to realise that actually that’s not true. Actually, we have this immense responsibility – our generation has this immense responsibility. Because everybody who came before us didn’t know, and everyone who follows us, it’ll be too late for them to do anything. So it is down to us. And I actually find that extremely exciting and extremely inspiring, that we have got something important to do and that we’re not just passive consumers […] I find it much more scary the idea that our lives are just not worth anything, and if we just bought more Nike trainers, for example, then we would all be happier […] And I find that whole individualistic get in your little car and sit in a traffic jam for two hours and then go to a pointless job, that’s what I find really terrifying.
Don’t we all, dear. The difference is that Franny is happy to escape the treadmill by insisting that everybody else keeps on pedaling – literally. Meanwhile, Franny gets to go in big shiny helicopters:
At the end [of The Age of Stupid], there’s this great shot of this old guy mountain-climbing that was clearly shot from a helicopter. It was shot from a helicopter, because I shot it. And that kind of decision we had to make, like, you know, if we increase the production values of the film, we make it that much more mainstream by doing things like helicopter shots.
What was that she was just saying about passive consumerism?
It is de rigeur for environmentalists demanding that the rest of us change our greedy, consumerist ways to ritually, and with faux embarrassment, confess the size of their own carbon footprint. But it is only so big, they say, shifting uncomfortably yet sincerely in their seats, because they have a planet to save. Over to Franny again:
The thing about my carbon footprint is that it was really, really good. Because I’ve been vegetarian since I was eleven, I’ve never had a car, I live in a very cold house, I’ve got solar panels, I’ve got amazing insulation, I hate shopping, so I never buy anything. So I was doing really, really well until I made this climate blockbuster movie, and I’m now flying quite a lot to promote it. Like we’ve just been in Australia last week and we’re going to America next week. So my carbon footprint has dramatically gone up since I’ve become such a successful climate campaigner, paradoxically.
Not paradoxically at all. What Armstrong has succeeded in demonstrating is that, if you want to actually get anything done around here, you have to make an impact.
Her argument will no doubt cut ice with the converted, however – the converted being those with nothing better to do than read the Guardian and work out how to reduce their emissions. For everyone else, which is almost everybody, there is stuff to do. As we’ve said before, saving the planet is just a way to pass the time.
Anyway, good luck to ’em. They’ll need it. And congratulations in advance should their campaign actually manage to turn the heads of anything approaching a sizable chunk of the population. But we don’t believe for one minute that the public will go for this, like the public haven’t voted for green parties in the polls, like electoral turn-out has declined as all the mainstream parties have adopted mainstream environmental policies, like opinion polls repeatedly show that most people have little time for environmentalism, like ‘popular’ protests at energy plants and airports are anything but popular.
At the risk of indulging in a bit of pastiche politics ourselves, we would suggest that the real popular movement, the one that really is running counter to the mainstream and trying to change the world for the better, is the one that staunchly resists the political elites’ undemocratic push for a more sustainable, less aspirational world in which our only goal is to keep everything just how it used to be – forever. Because most of us, as (ahem) Martin Luther King once said, have a dream.
John Beddington is the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor and Professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London. On Monday, the soothsayer’s foresight was the subject of a BBC feature.
As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.
That’s the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030.
Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 “a whole series of events come together”:
The world’s population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%)
Demand for food will increase by 50%
Demand for water will increase by 30%
Demand for energy will increase by 50%
The ‘coming together’ of all these trends, amounts to a ‘perfect storm’, set to arrive in 2031.
On an interview on BBC TV (also featured on the linked page) Beddington warns:
So these are all coming together. Indeed I was at a scientific meeting at the Royal Society only yesterday in which a prediction was that the Arctic might be free of ice in the summer of 2030.
The professor links climate change, resource abundance, agricultural productivity, and water management with a cataclysmic event situated 20 years in the future.
It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that more people will create more demand for water, energy, food, and planning. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that if you fail to make plans for the future, you will likely face some sort of problem. So far, so not rocket science, and not applied population biology.
But what sort of planning is needed to cope with life in 2030? Why, at this point in humanity’s history is the provision of water, energy, and food so difficult and dangerous? We’re better at creating all of these things than at any point in the past. Just a few generations ago, mechanised water, and instant light in homes were an impossibility, never mind an inconceivable luxury. It wasn’t much before that that people were just getting used to the idea of using steam to propel machines, never mind splitting the atom to power computers, satellite links, and heart and lung machines.
In our advanced economies, subsistence is not a day-to-day concern for the vast majority of people, and this is rapidly becoming true for an increasing number of the world’s population living in developing economies. Western standards of living are on the horizon for people in all continents, who had been deprived of it. Just as in the West, there is no reason why, in just a few generations, water, electricity and cheap, good quality food can all be taken for granted.
Except, that is, for the opinion of the scientist John Beddington and his ilk. For them, human progress of this kind is ‘unsustainable’. He is concerned that 8 billion people will be unable to produce the water, energy and food they need. But might it not be possible that 8 billion people are better at meeting their needs than 6 billion? After all, the industrial revolution was not a response to the needs of a growing population, but was made possible by it. Have you ever tried building your own iPod, powered by your own handmade generator, in a house you built yourself, whilst growing your own food, fed with water from a well that you sunk yourself?
There is an attempt being made to ground politics in the ethics not merely of ‘sustainability’, but the harsh reality of mere subsistence. Accordingly, this diminishes the potential of politics, and our expectations of it. We are being asked to be thankful for every moment of heat, light, food, and warmth, rather than demanding of more, better, faster, higher. This is because politicians cannot conceive of any other notion of progress than mere survival. Their horizons are so low, and imaginations so limited, that they cannot conceive of attempting to organise public life around the possibility of a better future.
It is this pessimistic outlook within the political establishment that has misconceived human progress and how it is achieved. Paradoxically, it is scientists such as Beddington who are engaged to give their politics the appearance of legitimacy. But this is because Beddington’s science is expedient to their political aims, not because Beddington’s science can produce a robust analysis of the future, such that he can tell you what the year 2030 will look like if you haven’t listened to him. ‘Applied population biology’ is the science of the day because it is the most convenient to the politics of the day, just as Kennedy’s lunar project made heroes out of rocket scientists. But at least rocket scientists looked upwards, and their project broke boundaries. Beddington’s science is expedient because it allows politicians to set boundaries.
What this says to us is that politics is prior to the science. Beddington’s appointment is political. Beddington’s science has developed in an era which demands it. It is predicated on an understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world as being ultimately limited by what nature provides, rather than what humanity develops (or is capable of developing) in order to overcome such limits. That makes an ethic out of limiting progress and development to that which nature provides. But this ethic is, again, prior to the science.
The Chicken Little comes well before the perfect storm.
Reading it is enough to make you want to stop breathing…
On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.
So writes writer, environmentalist and poet, former editor of The Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth to his friend, ally, and comrade in misery, George Mon-and-on-and-on-biot. The two are discussing the question ‘Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?’ Their exchange is printed in the Guardian.
The subtitle sets the terms of the debate between these two apocalyptic nutcases.
The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot – we can’t let billions perish
Kingsnorth, who curiously shares his name with the site of the site of recent Climate Camp protests, recites a familiar litany – we are going to hell in a fossil-fuel-and-capitalism-powered handcart, and the human race is just to stupid to notice or care, and it will be a good thing when billions of us are dead, because those who remain will have learned a lesson. Like the Rapture, but for Gaia-worshippers.
What the graphs show, says Kingsnorth, is that ‘a rapacious human economy [is] bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos’. ‘…all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse… there is a serious crash on the way… the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it…’ There is no way out of this, Kingsnorth believes.
[we are] wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.
This is an illusion, he says, it is ‘denial’. It’s curious to see the word ‘denial’ being applied to our greenest greens: those who embrace wholeheartedly both the sustainability agenda, and the apocalyptic prophecies that underpin it.
The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.
It is also a surprise to find out that those who have so far embraced environmentalism are labouring under the ‘myth of human exceptionalism’. And if this naked catastrophism wasn’t so utterly dispiriting, it would be funny that Kingsnorth complains about a ‘deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”’. After all, what is it that Kingsnorth expresses, if it’s not a ‘deeply embedded attitude to nature’ of his own, and of the culture that environmentalism has created for itself? Indeed, the culture that he and Monbiot both want to create is precisely a culture in which nature is central to everything.
Here at Climate Resistance, we are fans of human exceptionalism. And we don’t think it’s a myth. Our ability even to consider the concept of human exceptionalism makes us distinct from all other things. Kingsnorth sees the world very, very differently:
… what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the western material culture, which we cannot imagine living without.
The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
Human exceptionalism, in this view, is a notion which has been debunked. Debunked, that is, by the looming apocalypse. The inevitable apocalypse. The one that hasn’t happened yet, but it will, according to Kingsnorth. Soon. Ish. He hopes. And there’s no point hankering after it, because we’re doomed.
But abandoning a human-centric view of the world creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we reduce humanity to the moral equivalent of any bug, slug, mouse or microbe, we prevent ourselves from planning according to our own interests. We therefore submit to the whims of nature that have always killed humans through famine, drought, and disease, etc, etc. What makes Kingsnorth’s fantasy different to a UFO cultist’s is that he expects the whole world to join his suicide pact, not just a small band of ‘us’, the chosen ones, against the ‘them’.
Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.
Here’s some news… George Monbiot thinks he has been ‘professionally optimistic’! When?! When has Monbiot been optimistic? Ever? As we have pointed out in many posts, George is incapable of optimism, because what he is responding to is not the external world, or rather anything that occurs in the real world, but his own confusion about his place in it. It fails to obey his will, and he doesn’t really understand why, and like a small child, cannot make a distinction between his failure to assert his will, and the end of the world. Environmentalism projects its own crises into the atmosphere. When, recently, supermarket giant, Tescos began the process of setting up in the town of Monbiot’s home, Machynlleth in Wales, he imagined himself in ‘the last small corner of Gaul still holding out against the Romans’. This was, in his view, a ‘struggle for democracy’. Nevermind that, in fact, it seems that more people are in favour of the supermarket, than against.
It get’s funnier, because Monbiot then scolds Kingsnorth for his apparent desire for apocalypse.
I detect in your writings, and in the conversations we have had, an attraction towards – almost a yearning for – this apocalypse, a sense that you see it as a cleansing fire that will rid the world of a diseased society. If this is your view, I do not share it.
But without the apocalypse, Monbiot’s entire view of the world crumbles. This he shares with Kingsnorth absolutely. Indeed, last year he gave the title ‘Bring on the Apocalypse’ to a collection of his writings. The message is the same as any other eco-poseur’s: if you don’t do what I say, the world will end, and your children will die. If there is no looming apocalypse, what would Monbiot write about? He says he wants to avoid the apocalypse, but anyone who says it might not be inevitable he calls a ‘denier’, or otherwise hypnotised by deniers. He says he wants to save people, but without the prospect of an imminent global catastrophe, how would he illustrate his unpleasant narrative? The difference between the roles that apocalypse plays in Monbiot’s and Kingsnorth’s account of the future is paper-thin, and academic. They are expressions of the same symptom. For all that their ‘debate’ matters, they might as well be arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Seemingly in an attempt to distance himself from Kingsnorth’s style of apocalyptic propheising, but failing comprehensively, Monbiot continues…
However hard we fall, we will recover sufficiently to land another hammer blow on the biosphere. We will continue to do so until there is so little left that even Homo sapiens can no longer survive. This is the ecological destiny of a species possessed of outstanding intelligence, opposable thumbs and an ability to interpret and exploit almost every possible resource – in the absence of political restraint.
And there’s the rub. Monbiot claims that it is objective fact, issued by an unchallengeable scientific consensus that demands ‘political restraint’, but in reality, it is the desire for some kind of political restraint which is prior to the search for any evidence that may putatively support it.
That is to say that the desire is to limit the expression of humanity, because it is an evil thing that will inevitably cause the destruction of the world. Here, again, Monbiot confuses his own disorientation with the entire human race’s. While it may be sensibly argued that politics throughout the world is suffering from a lack of direction (it is what we argue, after all), Monbiot only recognises this as a ‘lack of restraint’, rather than having some other cause. The purposelessness of today’s politics aims for nothing in particular, except for some kind of security: the War on Terror, pandemics, obesity and demographic time-bombs, climate change, and a raft of disasters await us, and become the issues around which our future is organised simply because today’s politicians cannot really conceive of any other basis for their functions. There is no better future. Monbiot sees environmentalism as a remedy to, rather than a symptom of this problem.
Contemplating the politics of the post-apocalyptic world, Monbiot foresees that
survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory.
Rather than preparing for the apocalypse, we ought to be trying to stop it
However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.
If Monbiot recognises that the conditions of the post-apocalyptic world give rise to certain politics, why is it that he’s unable to recognise that creating a politics that anticipates the apocalypse equally gives rise to politics of the same order? Does Monbiot really believe that ‘downsizing the global economy’ won’t create brutal monopolies? Does he really believe that you can take just the excesses of contemporary life away from people, and that you can do so without force, violence, and oppression? Does he really think that people will embrace feudal modes of existence willingly? And as for political accountability, how does he think protests and the civil disobedience he is so fond of will be organised, and met by the authorities, in a world in which transport is denied, and political authority is legitimised on the basis that “the planet needs saving”? You wouldn’t be able to get to the protest. A green tyranny doesn’t need to oppress the population through violence. It just deprives them of the means to organise themselves. Things like petrol. But if it came to it, once you were there, protesters could be dealt with as any dangerous ‘denier’ – a heretic, no less – has been in history. There can be no ‘ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy’. It is not a machine.
Recognising that Monbiot’s vision of ordered retrogression is unlikely, but failing to recognise that Monbiot is talking about de-industrialisation, Kingsnorth says:
You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available to humanity. One we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a “steady state economy”.
The other we might call McCarthy world, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – which is set in an impossibly hideous post-apocalyptic world, where everything is dead but humans, who are reduced to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future could await us if we didn’t continue “the fight”.
We wrote about Monbiot’s reading of McCarthy’s novel back at the end of 2007. This story, said Monbiot, ‘shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy’. Again, it was humanity’s shortcomings that created the necessity of controlling human impulses. He’d been at a road protest because apathetic humans were building a road. And it was all Jeremy Clarkson’s fault. The presenter of flagship BBC program Top Gear wasn’t taking his environmental responsibilities seriously. ‘Who will persuade us to act?’, he wondered. Not him. And not Kingsnorth, who seems to relish the coming end-of-days.
We face what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a “long descent”: a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure “some good will come” from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction. […] But what comes next doesn’t have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.
That’s right, folks, the deaths of billions of people is nothing to be feared, it is just a necessary step to a better future. In a rare moment of sanity (only by contrast) Monbiot is outraged that Kingsnorth is suggesting that we might ‘do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation’. The ‘macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth’, he says. It’s a curious argument. Who could possibly be afraid of endless growth? It implies a distinctly non-terminal world. What he means by ‘endless growth’, however, is nothing of the kind, but anything which doesn’t resonate with the ‘downsizing of the global economy’ that he wishes for. This is, as we have observed in the past, based on the principle that any growth must ultimately be unsustainable, because the earth is finite, and at some point, growth will outgrow its environs. It’s a spurious argument that rests on many bogus claims, but principally states that because a problem may exist in the future, we ought not to continue. Best stay in the caves. Best remain as peasants. Best to not see what happens if we convert the production of steam into movement.
For a moment, it looks like Monbiot might say something sensible. But this is a competition to see who can hate humanity the most…
Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
Gosh. So what’s worth saving? At the same time as holding us to be equivalent to toxic weaponry, we are, paradoxically worth saving. And there’s only one way to do it.
[A] de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse.
Only by neutering ourselves, and by enforcing restraint and environmental obedience can our species be locked into a sustainable pattern of behaviour, and saved.
The debate rages on. Kingsnorth replies, complaining that ‘my lack of fighting spirit sees me accused of complicity in mass death’, and that Monbiot’s argument is ‘designed to make me look like a heartless fascist’. Surely not…
Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called “nature”, which is a “resource” for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. […]
I think our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, while creating new myths that put humanity in its proper place. Recently I co-founded a new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which aims to help do that. It won’t save the world, but it might help us think about how to live through a hard century. You’d be welcome to join us.
Where Monbiot wanted a human race tamed and forced into obedience by the prospect of Gaia’s waiting wrath, Kingsnorth wants to create a culture from the myths upwards, that puts it in its place while Mother Nature’s anger is visited upon us with poetry, art, singing and clapping. Seriously. Check out his site. It intends to create ‘a new literary movement for an age of global disruption’ as the project’s co-founder, Dougald Hine explains in this video.
So, Hine thinks his project is about ‘finding a new optimism’. The starting point for this ‘new optimism’ are their ‘eight principles of uncivilisation‘. Several of these ‘principles’ (they really ought to be ‘unprinciples’) stick out.
3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our ﬁngernails.
This is grandiose posturing. This is given away by the final (un)principle: ‘Together, we will ﬁnd the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’ This ought to be seen as a rather frank statement of aimlessness; they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know how to get there, other than by making up stories that ‘weave’ the ‘reality’ that they experience. They refuse to ‘lose ourselves in the elaboration of our theories’. Well, that’s convenient, because they are incoherent and inconsistent. They don’t even seem able to wash their hands. And why would you, if you didn’t believe in the centrality of humanity and progress?
What kind of optimism is this going to achieve? We don’t think it can find any. And, indeed, this search for optimism looks more like utter nihilism, these principles being so many self-indulgent whines about their authors’ sense of disorientation. Environmentalism projects its own anxieties onto the world.
Monbiot’s closing comments to their discussion are barely worth looking at, so underwhelming is his reply. There is no defence of progress. There is no defence of humanity. There is not even any defence of conventional optimism. Because, as ever, George’s vision is trapped between apocalypse and survival that means he can only make an argument that is premised on a belittling of humanity. This is the logic of miserable nihilism in search of meaning. It is just as incoherent as Kingsnorth’s. In both arguments, the catastrophes that the writers say we face are not simply the result of unforeseen consequences of our using our abilities, for instance, that industrial society has created a problem – climate change – that need to be addressed one way or another. Instead, climate change is held as conclusive proof of our lust, greed, and stupidity and that they need to be contained, either through legislation, or through mythology. The difference is steep. While on the one hand, Monbiot claims to have virtually the entire climate science community behind him and his argument (that is the basis on which he has agreed to debate climate sceptic, Prof. Ian Plimer) this ‘science’ isn’t being used by Monbiot to make a scientific argument about the necessity of changing our industrial practices – a view with which many scientists no doubt agree – but instead is being used to make arguments about human nature itself. This is the perspective which is prior to the science that is used to support it. It is the ethics and politics of environmentalism.
The very graphs on which Kingsnorth premised his arguments – the ones which spelled out the inevitability of the apocalypse to him – are the story which narrates his myths about human unexceptionalism and uncentrality, and his desire for uncivilisation. Yet if humans aren’t exceptional, these graphs cannot stand for anything. The science which produced them, right or wrong, produced the machines which caused the problem they have seemingly identified. Likewise, the same science which Monbiot claims has identified the inevitable catastrophe that looms over us was produced by the desire for better lives that Monbiot says we simply can’t have. Kingsnorth and Monbiot only want so much science. Science as the expression of human exceptionality is used to demonstrate the non-exceptionality of humans. Science as the means by which we made our lives better is used to demonstrate the dangerous folly of living better lives. The ethics, politics and science of Monbiot and the literature movement that Kingsnorth hopes to create, if they ever flourish, (as much as anything so negative can ‘flourish’) will create an era in human history that will be called ‘the redarkenment’, and the ‘unnaissance’.
The English language is just not equipped with the verb tenses required to report environmental news stories easily. Where’s the tense that would allow environment reporters to write stories about predictions about the future as if they are occurring in the present, for example? As it is, such ‘scientists predict that climate change is happening now’ stories have to be carefully constructed so that the switches between future and present tenses don’t spoil the flow of the piece and get in the way of the all important message about the ravages of climate change. We’ve written about them before. Another popped up on the BBC at the weekend.
First, it identifies the ravage:
It is almost halfway through the rainy season, and the monsoon in many parts of South Asia continues to remain unreliable.
In some places it has been crippling weak, while in others it has been devastatingly intense.
There are places reeling from drought, yet at the same time there are areas that have been hit by torrential rains, triggering floods and landslides in a very short span of time.
This has made the lives of millions of people difficult and has left them increasingly worried for the future.
Very little of the arable land is irrigated, and local populations depend on monsoon rainfall for agriculture.
The monsoon clouds have weakened in several parts of the region and the variable and erratic rains have left weather forecasters scratching their heads
Then it pops the big question:
This failure of the monsoons to behave as expected has led to the question of whether climate change is to blame.
Experts differ on whether these changes are directly linked to climate.
Then it gets stuck into the debate. Some experts say climate change is not the culprit (or that there is not even anything out of the ordinary going on that needs explaining):
“This year’s monsoon behaviour cannot yet be attributed to climate change as it is still within the observed natural variability of the monsoon,” said Krishna Kumar Kanikicharla, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.
“Our assessment of climate model simulations for the current and the next century indicate no significant deviation until the middle of the 21st Century. Thereafter, the monsoon rainfall will continue to increase by 8-10% from current levels.”
Aregional research centre in Bangladesh found what it called “cyclic changes”, but has identified no effects so far that can be attributed to climate change.
Some researchers suggest that this is a natural “shift” in the pattern of rainfall.
“We studied three 30-year window periods from 1951 to 2000 and found that there was a slow shift in the rainfall scenarios,” said Sujit Kumar Deb Sarma, a researcher with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Meteorological Research Centre in Bangladesh.
“Places that got more rain are receiving lower rainfall and vice versa.
“But we also found that after some time the rainfall patterns go back to what they were before and slowly start changing again. It’s a cyclic change that has been happening [for] years.”
While others are not so sure:
But authorities in Pakistan believe the falling monsoon rainfall may have been the result of climate change.
“There may have been some impacts of climate change,” said Mr Chaudhry of the Pakistan Met Office.
“We know that the El Nino events have been affecting our rainfall all these years, but climate change could be aggravating the situation even more.”
Meteorologists in Nepal too think global warming may have some role in the changing monsoon pattern the country has been experiencing.
“There are so many factors including the El Nino effect that have been affecting the monsoon but we cannot say that these changes are not because of global warming,” said Mani Ratna Shakya, head of the weather forecasting division.
International studies have also pointed at the relationship between the monsoon and climate change.
Not looking good for the climate change hypothesis, then. Against: studies that find no influence of AGW but do identify various other factors. For: Well, you can’t rule it out entirely. The BBC doesn’t give up that easily though. Time to get jiggy with those tenses:
A study by researchers at Purdue University, US, found that the South Asian monsoon could be weakened and delayed as a result of rising temperatures in the future.
“Climate change could influence monsoon dynamics and cause lower summer precipitation, a delay to the start of the monsoon season and longer breaks between the rainy periods.”
Another report recently prepared for the Australian government has shown that potentially greater threats could be abrupt changes to the oceans and atmosphere that lead to irreversible switches in weather or ocean patterns – so-called tipping points.
“An example is the Indian monsoon. According to some models that could switch into a drier mode in a matter of years,” the report’s author Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, told Reuters.
The fourth assessment report of the IPCC had this to say about the monsoon: “It is likely that warming associated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause an increase of Asian summer monsoon precipitation variability.
“Changes in the monsoon mean duration and strength depend on the details of the (greenhouse gases) emission scenario.”
Do the changes mean weather forecasters will have a tough time ahead predicting the monsoon as they have had this year?
Indian Meteorological Department chief BP Yadav admitted that could be the case: “There are already some indications of increase in the variability of weather parameters, so when you have a high variability in any events like rainfall or temperature, definitely the work of predicting them becomes more difficult,” he said.
It would all be so much easier for everyone concerned if we could just linguistically lump the present in with the conditional future from the word go. Something like ‘Climate change is will being responsible for [insert climatological ravage here]’ should cover it.
Regardless of whether there’s a detectable impact of climate change on monsoon patterns, there are, according to the story itself, detectable impacts of a host of other factors. But as it is reported, that all gets lost in the hand-wringing about whether climate change might possibly have something – anything – to do with it. The chances are that were it not for the sniff of a climate scare angle, the fact that rainfall patterns this year are causing some big problems for Asian agriculture wouldn’t have made it onto the BBC at all.
It’s embarrassing. Why should it matter a jot whether climate change has anything to do with variations in rainfall if, as the article mentions, you don’t have the irrigation systems to cope with those variations? We often say that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is usually in the context that it tends to disapprove of the very development that make people less vulnerable to the environment. But, as the BBC piece demonstrates, it is also true in the sense that environmentalism obscures the truth that lots of people are vulnerable in ways that have nothing to do with climate change whatsoever. That’s true now like it was in the past. It’s just a shame that there’s so little interest in changing it for the future.
The dragonfly family has more species than any other mammal
has got to be worth a closer look. And this one, from Saturday’s Guardian, doesn’t disappoint.
Dragonflies in danger of extinction seek sanctuary at new rescue centre Pollution, pesticides and habitat loss bring dragonflies close to the brink after 325m years
Dragonflies may have hovered and hunted across the planet for the last 325m years, but their modern relatives are staring extinction in the face.
Don’t fear: dragonflies are no more ‘staring extinction in the face’ than they are warm-blooded, hirsuit creatures that bear live young and lactate. They don’t need rescuing. Indeed, there is no ‘rescue centre’.
All that has actually happened in the world to prompt the Guardian’s latest episode of extinction-porn is that the National Trust, the British Dragonfly Society and the Dragonfly Project have got together to open a visitor centre – a place for people to visit to learn about dragonflies – at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. They have issued a press release about it, and have got a TV personality to perform the opening ceremony.
Naturally, the press release contains a few facts and figures to tempt the press. And how better to tempt the press than with a few bleak-looking statistics about how three species of dragonfly have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s and how a third of the regularly-occurring UK species are under threat? (The one about dragonflies being mammals comes straight from the Guardian’s own imagination.) Also naturally, the Guardian has taken these facts and figures and distorted them beyond recognition to spin a tale about the imminent extinction of all dragonflies everywhere in the whole world.
It follows, by definition, that all the species occurring in Britain must be declining, too. Yep, says the Guardian, it’s just that some are declining more spectacularly than others:
the new centre hopes to reverse the decline of the 42 species found regularly in the UK. Conservationists blame the decline on the loss of wetlands, and pesticides and insecticides drifting from farmland […] Some British species are faring worse than others. White-faced darters have seen a signifcant loss and drying out of the bog pools where they live, while the Norfolk hawker’s limited distribution – mostly in the Norfolk Broads – has left it vulnerable to sea level rises and salt water infiltration.
A perusal of the website of the British Dragonfly Society (BDS), however, reveals that many species are increasing in range and/or numbers in the UK. For example:
The data provided in the press release come from a report published last year that assessed the conservation status of UK dragonfly species according to criteria set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The last time this was done was in 1987, when six species met the criteria for being classed as rare, vulnerable or endangered. The new report makes it twelve (see Appendix 2). This does not mean, however, that things are twice as bad as they were in 1987, because the two data sets are not directly comparable. That’s because, as the introduction makes clear:
The IUCN Red List categories and criteria have undergone extensive review over the last 20 years. The current Version 3.1 was adopted by the IUCN Council in February 2000 (IUCN, 2001). This revised document has been accompanied by continually improved guidelines on the application of the IUCN criteria (IUCN, 2003; IUCN, 2005: IUCN Standards and Petitions Working Group 2006).
Moreover, despite the Guardian’s determination to extrapolate from the local to the global, endangerment in the UK has little bearing on a species’ vulnerability to extinction. All of the species supposedly ‘under threat’ are also present in mainland Europe – and some extend as far as Africa, Siberia, and even Japan. Only one (Coenagrion mercuriale) is endangered globally.
Likewise, none of the three species that have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s (Coenagrion scitulum, Coenagrion armatum, Oxygastra curtisii) are endangered globally.
And something else that doesn’t get mentioned, by the Guardian or in the presser, is that there have been two additions to the British dragonfly fauna over the same period that three have been lost:
Which adds up to a net loss from Britain of a single species. The colonisations are not, by the way, the result of introductions by humans, but of vagrant populations establishing breeding populations under their own steam. Additionally, there’s a bunch of other species that look poised to colonise our ponds in the near future:
Dragonflies are strong fliers and, therefore, highly mobile species. They come and they go. As the authors of the 2008 report summarise:
The distribution of a number of Odonata species has changed significantly over the past 20 years. A number of species have increased their range northwards, additional species have been found to regularly breed within Britain and others have lost populations at the edge of their range.
But local extinctions and waves of immigration present a challenge for environmentalism. Because environmentalism is deeply conservative. Environmentalism doesn’t like change. It doesn’t like it when species go extinct, or when they get ideas above their station. Environmentalism, as the Guardian makes clear, would prefer everything to be how it was 325m years ago.
The UK government recently gave its ‘low carbon transition plan’ an airing. At the launch of the plan, the unelected Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills who has been forced, twice, to resign from previous roles within the government for his involvement in scandals, Lord Peter Mandelson said:
I am really proud of a government that has been in office for what… twelve… just over twelve or so years, that can still generate the interest, the energy, the ingenuity, and if you don’t mind me saying so, the wisdom to produce a low-carbon transition plan, a low carbon industrial strategy, that can set very very ambitious targets. But not satisfied with the targets, put in place too, the realisable plans and actions and decisions that we have to take as a country in order to realise those very ambitious targets. And I must say, it’s certainly an enormous credit to Ed [Miliband] in particular who has shown great leadership in bringing us to this point.
But Ed could not have done this without the pressure, the ideas, and the fire power of all the stake-holders, each and every individual represented in this museum tonight. So thank you very much indeed for helping bring the government, collectively, to this point. But your work is not yet done. You have to take us and help us and stand with us and take our views and our proposals and our policies out and around the country in order to generate real popular understanding for and support for what we are going to do in implementing this low-carbon transition plan. Because we are not going, in this country, to enjoy a high-carbon future. Certainly not one we can depend on, and certainly not one we can afford with finite supplies of fossil fuels, with their volatile prices being driven up by ever growing demand from fast-expanding emerging economies around the world. We need a much more dependable, safer, greener, affordable future than that…
In this very same month, the Vestas factory in the Isle of Wight, which makes blades for wind turbines, will cease production, with the loss of 600 jobs.
A press release from the government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced two days previously: ‘UK at forefront of a low carbon economic revolution‘. By 2020, it said, ‘more than 1.2 million people will be in green jobs’. It quotes Mandelson again:
The UK is already the sixth largest economy for low carbon goods and services, globally worth £3 trillion and growing, and today the government is outlining how its support for the economy will ensure our businesses and our workforce continue to lead the way. We must combine the dynamism of the private sector with a strategic role for government to deliver the benefits of innovation, growth and job creation in the UK.
The UK government, it seems, pats itself and its cronies on the back for setting ‘ambitious’ targets, and promising hundreds of thousands of new jobs, while the reality is that over a quarter of a million people lost their jobs in the spring months. The 600 workers at the Vestas factory will be joining more than 2.8 million (and rising) unemployed people at the dole queue. Who does Mandelson think he’s kidding?
But is this, as Mandelson claims, an industrial revolution? A genuine industrial revolution should make it possible to produce things more efficiently, creating greater dynamism within the economy. But this green “industrial revolution” yields no net benefit. What are called opportunities are generated at a net cost, absorbing money and labour that might be better spent on producing real industrial development, or public services such as schools and hospitals. Stagnation is spun as progress. For example, it is China’s industrial dynamism, not the UK’s, which has created markets for reclaimable materials. It is only by intervention and legislation that the UK is even able to collect plastic bottles, never mind reprocess them.
Britain’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, outlined yesterday by Lord Mandelson, claimed that the economy already supported 880,000 “low-carbon jobs” — a figure that he said was poised to grow by up to 400,000 by 2015 to more than 1.28 million. But a detailed breakdown of the figures obtained by The Times shows that they include an extraordinarily loose definition of the term.
[…] Figures supplied by Innovas showed that the total included 207 jobs in the supply and manufacture of animal bedding, 90 providing equestrian surfaces and 164 in the recycling of footwear, “slippers and other carpet wear”.
Mr Sharp acknowledged that there were some “weird and wonderful” categories. “We try to capture as much of the supply chain as possible,” he said.
Or, as Ben put it in the Register, back in April:
Citing Innovas’s report, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband said that the global green sector is already a three-trillion-dollar industry set to grow by fifty per cent. Agriculture accounts for 4 per cent of the World’s GDP of around $70tn. Is it plausible that the world’s ‘green’ economy is larger than the agricultural economy? These big numbers raise questions about the meaning of ‘green’?
“We try to create as wide a definition as possible”, says John Sharp, MD of Innovas Solutions, “because that way we can capture the supply chain. We don’t count things like toilet roll and stationery.”
But it includes the manufacture, installation, supply, and distribution of battery testing equipment, and nearly the entire chain from development to decommissioning and decontamination of nuclear power stations.
(Did Innovas’s report count journalists as working within the recycling industry, we wonder.)
Back to Mandelson’s speech and his claim that ‘we are not going, in this country, to enjoy a high-carbon future’. Mandelson claims that this is because of necessity and of material reality: fossil fuels are just too expensive and in too short supply to power the UK’s growth. The truth of the matter is that what is far more scarce than the (in fact, plentifully abundant) planet’s supply of fossil fuels is the political establishment’s supply of imagination. We’re not being offered a ‘high carbon future’ because none of the political parties have any idea about how to deliver optimistic plans. None of them have any idea about how to reinvigorate British industry. None of them even know how to make an argument for conventional energy generation. None of them can make arguments for courses of action that will create jobs as a worthwhile end without dressing it up in green, as a response to a ‘planetary emergency’ – they can’t even think of things that the huge number of people who are unemployed could be doing instead of claiming benefits. Their fecklessness and lack of credibility will manifest as the continued decline of British industry, the continued rise of unemployment, and the deepening of the mutual cynicism between the public and themselves.
The problem here is the future, and how it is defined. It is the Labour Party’s intellectual exhaustion that drives its progress from crisis to crisis. Its inability to determine a direction for itself means it looks for external crises, partly as a means to shift focus from its own incoherence, but also as an attempt to orient itself towards something… Anything. In short, because it doesn’t know where it’s going (i.e. the future), it has no idea how to get there (i.e. development and growth). Because it can’t make a positive argument for the future – it can’t raise the capital for projects; it can’t encourage development; it can’t negotiate the conflicts development will cause. It turns itself on development and growth itself and redefines ‘ambition’ as (at best) remaining in the present: ‘sustainability’, ‘precaution’, ‘security’. The present is, after all, always safer than the future. But don’t count on the opposition parties, because, as we have argued here on Climate Resistance, they suffer from exactly the same thing – none of them have any positive ideas about the future at all.
Enter climate change and the environmental ‘movement’. A general sense of anxiety about the future is given a scientific narrative – a projection, if you like, from our disoriented politics, out into the atmosphere. Mandelson asks the Green Great and the Good assembled at the launch of the Low Carbon Transition Plan to go forth and multiply the green message: ‘you have to take us and help us and stand with us and take our views and our proposals and our policies out and around the country in order to generate real popular understanding for and support for what we are going to do’. As we pointed out in our last post, the Government are only too aware that their environmental policies don’t really enjoy the public’s sympathy, and that the ideas underpinning them have not been tested democratically, and they know this is a problem. So Mandelson creates the policies, he then asks activists and journalists to generate credibility for them. This is politics backwards. Instead of creating ideas which achieve resonance among the public, thereby taking politicians and their ideas to power, Mandelson attempts to spin credibility from thin air, hoping that by making his policies appeal to the assembled movers and shakers he will reconnect his Government with the masses to resupply it with credibility and legitimacy. Obediently, messianic hacks and self-serving NGOs release missives that talk of the measures that aim to save the planet from certain destruction, but, in order to secure their undemocratic and unaccountable influence over the public agenda (much as with Mandelson), they say that the government’s policies do not go far enough.
The legacy of doing politics in this way will be a hugely inefficient Britain. If the ‘low carbon energy revolution’ will be at all successful in its aims, it will have created jobs by reducing their productivity: more people for less output. The jobs will be ‘made’ by generating scarcity, not by creating dynamism. Failure is being spun (by the Lord Spinmaster himself) as success, because Britain’s downward industrial trajectory is already a given.
This form of spin is not unique to the UK. For instance, in the US, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming published this on its website:
The nation that leads the race for clean energy technology will have a global economic advantage for the next century. With millions of manufacturing and high-tech jobs on the line, the United States cannot afford to fall behind.
Though we invented solar technology, the United States now lags behind Germany in solar power and manufacturing. The Germans control 47% of the global photovoltaic market, and Europe deployed 13 times more solar photovoltaic power than the United States last year.
The race for green energy? The intention here is to imply that at the end of the ‘race’ is some huge payoff. But there is no ‘race’ for ‘clean’ energy because ‘clean’ energy grants no advantage in itself – it’s only an advantage if there is a regulatory framework in place which creates a market for it. You can’t do more with ‘clean’ energy. In all likelihood, you can only do less. It’s not even comparable to some symbolic race, for instance to put people on the moon, because it doesn’t represent any ‘giant leap’ for mankind that can be identified as the fruitful expression of a nation’s commitment to its positive ideas. Instead, what’s driving the race is the fantasy, exploited by vapid politicians, that we stand on the edge of doom. If it’s a giant anything, the ‘renewable energy revolution’, by increasing our dependence on natural processes such as wind is a giant step backwards to feudal modes of production.
The article continues:
Denmark leads the world in wind power, even though our shores stretch thousands of miles longer.
Denmark made a commitment to wind power long before it became fashionable and invested heavily. This investment created a boom for wind turbine giants, Vestas – the company closing its Isle of Wight factory. Yet despite Denmark’s investment, its effect on the country’s CO2 emissions its unremarkable, and is only able to use 20% of it. The remainder is sold to Norway and Sweden, where it is used to ease the pressure on hydro-power – wind power only makes electricity when the wind blows, but water can be stored behind dams.
The article continues:
50 percent of all new jobs created in Ireland last year were clean energy jobs.
The Irish economy is currently deflating at an unprecedented rate – faster than any other. As this bleak article says, it shrank a whopping 8.5% in just the first quarter of this year. Unemployment in Ireland rose to 11.9% last month, and is expected (by the Prime Minister) to hit an eye-watering 15.5% by the end of this year, and continue its rise into the next. That 50% of all new jobs created in Ireland last year were in ‘clean energy’ means almost nothing – it could have been as few as 100 – and it certainly doesn’t represent the emergence of a golden new age of industrial dynamism and creativity. On the contrary, it is the failure of Western economies that is driving a version of the ‘Green New Deal’ in each of them. Each promising jobs, and each promising huge investments.
China is spending $12.6 million PER HOUR on clean energy development.
China is preparing to invest $440 to $660 billion this year in clean energy development.
China brought the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid car to market, ahead of the Chevy Volt, and has plans to develop a network of electric vehicle charging stations. Korea and Japan are leapfrogging America in battery and electric vehicle technology that will power the vehicles of the future.
There is no surprise that China is investing in green technologies. Its dynamism and ability to actually deliver development – in contrast to the flailing Western economies – means that it will be able to take advantage of the market for green products that is being opened up by regulations, laws, taxes and subsidies here. Meanwhile, British, European and American firms are likely to be crippled by environmental legislation. Rather than attempting to create optimistic ideas about how to transform our economies and industries into something resembling China’s, we hear instead that we have to aspire to less energy consumption, with higher energy prices, and less efficient and less productive jobs… Meanwhile, the 600 jobs at the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight have moved to the East. This is the ‘race’ that the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming thinks the USA – formerly the powerhouse of Western capitalism – thinks it can win. It has already lost. ‘Green New Deals’, can only make it lose further; they do not address the political problems – the intellectual poverty of Western political elites – that make our economies duller and duller.
The Waxman-Markey legislation will launch a renewable revolution, one that draws on our manufacturing might and technological advantage and positions us to lead the world in wind, solar, efficiency, and carbon capture and sequestration technology.
It’s time to put America back in the driver’s seat in the global race for clean energy jobs and technology.
This is not a race to create a dynamic economy. It is not a race to create a new liberating politics. It is not an attempt to improve people’s lives. There is only a race, across the Green West, to stifle development, to prevent progressive change, and to remove entirely any form of aspiration from politics. That is the ‘revolution’ it wants to create. It is being advanced by people who are simply unable to make a case for any positive form of development, because they lack any sense of what that development might consist of, and lack any form of connection with the public. They are held over a barrel by unaccountable, unelected, self-serving and self-appointed Non-Governmental Organisations that increasingly oppose the very principle of economic growth and of technological development, and are increasingly hostile to the idea that people are able to and should be allowed to make decisions for themselves. This ‘revolution’ is being blindly constructed by people who, even if they did have a good argument for development on its own terms would not be able to frame it on such terms, because they have entirely lost faith in the idea that life can be improved. Instead, capital for political ideas is generated on the premise that material reality dictates that life simply cannot be improved. Politics is accordingly limited to a choice between different self-serving dysphorias and dystopian visions.
The cost of this move is a massive debt of credibility of the present to the future. The result will be hostility to politics and to science, and generally to trust in public institutions. Just as with the intense borrowing and spending that going on – rather than reflecting on what’s caused our current circumstances – this debt will grow and grow until the political reality really gets called in. Meanwhile, mere deferment of political crisis is being spun as progress. No wonder politicians are so terrified of the future. There may well be environmental problems, but as we often say: the crisis is in politics, not in the skies.
We’ve flagged up Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband’s relationship with climate activists before. When he’s not snuggling up to Franny ‘Age of Stupid’ Armstrong, he’s egging on airport protesters and comparing them to past popular movements:
When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.
He continued in this vein at the weekend when speaking to demonstrators at a Climate Justice event organised by Catholic aid agency CAFOD and Christian Aid:
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband urged people to continue to fight for climate justice at a rally in Doncaster at the weekend, emphasising the public’s ability to influence international green policies […]
“I think it’s incredibly important that we show governments around the world that people really care about these issues and days like today are incredibly important” Miliband told the campaigners.
“I think we are winning the battle” Miliband added. “It is an uphill struggle, but I think it’s a battle we can win and you are contributing to it by what you do today and what you are doing in your daily lives.”
“I genuinely believe that people will make the difference to whether this challenge is tackled or not and I urge you to not succumb to the defeatism that says, ‘oh well, people can’t make a difference in this, it’s really about whether governments do their bit or not’.
“I think we need to keep up the good work between now and December if we are going to get the kind of ambitious deal on climate change that we need,” he added.
But it’s not ‘the people’ influencing climate policies. Miliband is desperate, desperate, desperate to make it look like we’re all green now, and that we’re all marching in the streets. But this image does not compare to reality. Just 400 people turned up to the rally, held in Doncaster, which has a population just shy of 300,000, and lies just 20 miles from Sheffield (population 1.8 million). Even in his own constituency, with his own party activists, and with the support of a number of church groups and environmental campaigning organisations, Miliband cannot raise more than a handful of supporters. There are, regularly, and throughout the country, village and school fêtes with a bigger turn-out. More people were in supermarkets in Doncaster that day, than were at the rally. More people were in their cars, or enjoying the warm weather in their gardens.
Yet Miliband continues to play Noah. Why? Speaking at the end of the rally, he said:
“I want to congratulate Cafod on its Climate Justice campaign. We need to keep up the good work between now and December if we are going to get the kind of ambitious deal on climate change that we need,” Mr Miliband said.
The electorate didn’t ever vote for what the Government are doing to ‘save the planet’ – the UK public have been denied the opportunity to have their interest in environmentalism tested at the ballot box – Miliband knows that. His public appearances are intended to maintain the illusion that he is responding to a popular movement, and has to whip up as much support as he can muster from anyone prepared to pose alongside him.
Miliband’s courting of the radical environmental movement has had the result of attracting their attention. The latest climate protest at the site of the planned Kingsnorth power station aimed to form a ‘giant human chain’, or Mili-Band (geddit?) around the existing plant. But although this protest numbered a slightly bigger 1,000 activists (they reckon), this is hardly the demonstration of popular uprising that Miliband wants it to be, and the ‘giant human chain’ only extended a small way around the site.
1,000 protesters turned up at Kingsnorth demanding that no new power plants should be built, and that they pledged to use direct action to prevent it. Meanwhile, the remaining 60,942,912 people of the UK weren’t at the protest, and probably all of them used electricity.
Oxfam activists were also in attendance at the Mili-Band. The ‘development’ charity encourages people to take direct action against… erm… development.
So few in numbers are these protesters, that the only way they can get their message across is by pulling stunts rather than actual ‘demonstration’ – the only thing such small number really demonstrate is impotence. Impotence manifests as rage, however, and so conceited are these individuals that in spite of their failure to reproduce their message, that they threaten sabotage if they aren’t heeded.
So what is all this in aid of?
This has all happened as New Labour starts making announcements about its Carbon Transition Plan, which outlines how it likes to think the UK will meet its target of a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020:
The protesters fancy themselves as revolutionary thinkers that stand against the government, and ‘the system’. But look, here they are, doing the government’s PR work for them: organising events and speaking opportunities, and creating the illusion of grass-roots support. Behind this facade, the Labour Party are suffering perhaps their worst domestic crisis of legitimacy ever. The UK government has lost any moral authority in the international arena that it ever had. A paltry opposition fails to challenge any of its ideas. A supine media fails to hold it to account. And the activists come out ten-by-ten to save the whole undignified lot. This ark is a ship of fools. It’s not designed to save people from the climate; it’s designed to save themselves from the near-total collapse of their credibility.
After a 20-year-long role at the BBC, Peter Sissons has attacked the anti-journalistic culture at the BBC. Writing in the Mail on Sunday (the article has been taken off-line for some reason), Sissons outlines some key reasons for his decision to leave.
This bit caught our eye – look out for a familiar name.
Two other events disturbed me during the last few years.
Before I left News At Ten, I had to read out on air the BBC’s longest apology. It lasted nearly two minutes, and in it the BBC apologised to a diamond-mining firm called Oryx Natural Resources.
A report had falsely linked the firm with Al Qaeda, accusing one of its major shareholders of being a convicted terrorist. The two men had the same surname.
This humiliation for the BBC could have been avoided if one of journalism’s basic rules had been followed: if you think that you’ve got someone bang to rights, ring them up and ask them what they’ve got to say about it. But the story was, as they say, too good to check, and it greatly dented the BBC’s journalistic reputation, as well as its libel fund.
The other episode happened more recently. On a wintry Saturday last December, there was what was billed as a major climate change rally in London.
The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, went into the Westminster studio to be interviewed by me on the BBC News channel. She clearly expected what I call a ‘free hit’; to be allowed to voice her views without being challenged on them.
I pointed out to her that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment. We were having a particularly cold winter, even though carbon emissions were increasing. Indeed, there had been no warming for ten years, contradicting all the alarming computer predictions.
Well, she was outraged. I don’t have the actual transcript, but Miss Lucas told me angrily that it was disgraceful that the BBC — the BBC! — should be giving any kind of publicity to those sort of views. I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change.
The Corporation’s most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that ‘the science is settled’, when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn’t.
But it is effectively BBC policy, enthusiastically carried out by the BBC environment correspondents, that those views should not be heard — witness the BBC statement last year that ‘BBC News currently takes the view that their reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made’.
Politically the argument may be settled, but any inquisitive journalist can find ample evidence that scientifically it is not.
I was not proud to be working for an organisation with a corporate mind so closed on such an important issue. Disquiet over my interview with Miss Lucas, incidentally, went right to the top at the BBC although, naturally, they never sought to discuss it with me. For me, this is not an issue about the climate, it is an issue about the duty of the journalist.
The truth of the matter is that for all the above reasons, I was no longer comfortable at BBC News. It remains an iconic organisation, but it stands at the crossroads.
The BBC is not able to challenge politicians in its mainstream output. Sure, there are occasionally sceptic opinions permitted onto the airwaves, but for a high-profile journalist to ask a challenging question is to speak out of turn. As Sissons implies, the BBC sees its responsibility principally to reproduce environmental ideology, not to hold politicians to account.
But let’s not single out the BBC. The culture that exists at the BBC is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of which the BBC is just another victim. Lucas’s reaction demonstrates that she is simply not used to being challenged. Rather than seeking to explain Sissons’s challenge – perhaps using the very science she claims gives her political ideas legitimacy – she merely gets angry. It’s not even as if Sissons’s questions were particularly probing. She could easily have replied along the lines that a single bout of cold weather does not detract from an upward trend, for example. It is the fact that she does not that makes the question so revealing.
As we have argued here on Climate Resistance, climate change has become the means by which journalists and politicians alike have sought to reorientate their moral compasses. Accordingly, the world is increasingly seen through the prism of climate change. But by grounding themselves in ‘facts’, rather than in more philosophical commitments to principles, values, or even political ideas, politicians and journalists make themselves vulnerable. It means that if the ‘facts’ are challenged, their entire perspective on the world crumbles, and their value as journalists/politicians disintegrates. This is why we find journalists and politicians reacting so angrily to even the merest hint or whiff of ‘denial’.
Environmentalism is a symptom of being unable to explain the world, particularly on behalf of the establishment. It seeks to ground itself on facts, but cannot tolerate criticism. As we are fond of saying, the crisis is in politics, not in the sky.