Ed Miliband — the previous government’s Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change — has been elected leader of the Labour Party. Hmm.
This is unusual. Not only is Miliband relatively young for someone hoping to convince the voting public that he’s the best man for the job of running the country, before 2005, nobody had heard of him. It was in that year’s general election that Ed first stood as an MP. Just one election cycle later, he has the party’s top job, and in another, he could in theory be the UK’s number 1. He’d have to turn the party’s fortunes around, however, and that would be harder to achieve than his apparently meteoric rise from obscurity. After all, the reality is not so much that Ed has risen through the Labour Party than it is that the party has sunk to his level. This dynamic reflects what we’ve been saying for most of his career as an MP: environmentalism’s ascendancy is not explained by its own force, but has instead been driven by a vacuum at the heart of UK politics. And Ed is every bit the environmentalist.
There is a lot to say about the phenomenon of Ed. For instance, it is interesting that it was the vote of the unions that gave him a narrow edge over his brother, David, who also stood in the race. What did Ed have that the Unions wanted? In what sense does Ed Miliband best represent the unions? And for that matter, in what sense do the unions, in 2010, represent the interests of their membership? The conservative press have made — and no doubt will continue to make — much of this, calling him ‘Red Ed’, but in doing so, they make far too much of it. Politics, the unions, and the public are not what they were in the 1970s, ‘60s, ‘50s… It’s hard to imagine the masses — or put more strongly: the industrial working class — being moved by Ed Miliband’s desire for a low-carbon economy, for wind farms, for strong international legally-binding treaties on climate change, and for the substantial changes to lifestyles, opportunities, living standards and to society that these things necessarily entail. As we have argued here, environmentalism and climate change politics simply are not popular, but are elitist. Indeed, we have argued that the elitist character of environmentalism is no accident, but represents the political establishment’s clumsy attempt to find a source of legitimacy in lieu of something — anything — with which to achieve a democratic mandate. That is to say that climate change is convenient to indistinct, hollow, shallow, and narrow political parties — saving the planet is a stand in for vision and ideas about how to argue for and achieve positive change.
To be fair — ish — to Ed, he recognised the unpopular character of environmentalism. We are fond of quoting Ed on this, because it is perhaps the most revealing comment about climate change politics ever made by a UK politician:
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.
As we pointed out at the time, many were claiming that ‘climate change is the defining issue of our era’. But it coincided with the another defining issue of our time: a dearth of historically-defining political movements and ideas. This is why, we have argued here, politicians accordingly cast themselves as the Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy of climate change, offering ‘green new deals’, and demanded we got ourselves on a ‘(world) war (II) footing’ if we wanted to save ourselves from Thermageddon. Solving the climate crisis would be our ‘moon landing’.
But this was all ‘pastiche politics’, we argued: lacking a popular movement, environmentalism is unable to make its own history, and so recycles heroes and pivotal moments from the past to elevate its players. Ed’s reflection on environmentalism’s failure was not all that deep after all. He was sharp enough to realise that environmentalism was unpopular, but not bright enough to remember that it was not the political establishment who were demanding the vote for women. It was not those in power who were demanding civil rights and sexual equality. Ed had gotten the whole point of radical politics upside down. It was pressure from below which forced a change above in each of those instances. What Ed was asking for, then, was not unlike asking the rioting serfs of 18th centruy France to demand ‘less cake’. It should be no surprise, then, that those to whom he turned to create the popular environmental movement were really quite posh. It was Tamsin Osmond, grand-daughter of Baronet Sir Thomas Lees, who styled herself and her chums as ‘climate suffragettes’, just as Ed Miliband had asked. Osmond’s group, Climate Rush, descended on Parliament, demanding as their namesakes had a century prior: “deeds not words”. The ladies in fancy dress found themselves arrested. Already, the protesters who had done the bidding of the government minister found themselves on the wrong side of the law. In today’s political world, it is hard to tell the establishment from the revolutionaries.
The Climate Rush movement, so easily parodied, soon lost its momentum. Miliband’s desire for a credible One to organise the masses turned him towards Franny Armstrong, who, although being nearly as posh as Osmond, had dropped the plummy, public school accent for an estuarine whinge. Armstrong, you will remember, was the director of the abysmal film, Age of Stupid, an angry shout at the world, released last year. Off the back of the publicity generated by the film, Armstrong established the 10:10 campaign, intended to get us all to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010. In other words, Armstrong had created what might pass as a movement that could help Ed Miliband realise his government’s carbon emissions-reduction targets. Ed took the initiative, and made appearances alongside Armstrong at the launch of her films and campaigns.
Ed, for all his faults, was a politician with a mandate, seeking a greater basis from which to support the policies he was seeking to create. Franny, however, was frequently rude, scolding him for not creating sufficiently far-reaching climate policies, and urging him to ‘stop being a politician’. The self appointed zealot would reproach the democratically-elected politician for heeding public will. She was pure… She wanted to save the planet… But all politicians — especially those who are sensitive to the public mood — are bent. Miliband would take the flak, hoping that such martyrdom and sycophancy would demonstrate his commitment to the cause, and get the climate protesters behind him. Here is one such exchange.
So what’s this all about? You will no doubt be aware that Armstrong has also been in the news recently. An advert for her 10:10 campaign called ‘No Pressure’ has caused controversy by depicting the summary executions of children and others who refuse to be moved by their teacher’s and boss’s instructions. The intensely patronising teacher and the equally intensely patronising boss, upon sensing their underlings’ recalcitrance, casually press buttons which cause the climate delinquents’ bodies to explode all over their obedient class and work mates. The teacher and boss press on with business as though nothing, let alone the murder of their subordinates, had happened. “No pressure”, they had said. But afterwards, no regret in their voice either.
This has been nothing less than a spectacular own goal for the campaign. As has been widely pointed out, It epitomises in dramatic form the overbearing and self-important character of environmentalists. They will brook no dissent. There is no debate. There can be no negotiation. And anyone who feels differently can go hang.
It would be hard to parody the green movement as efficiently as the writer of this film, Richard Curtis — who also wrote the nauseatingly insipid ‘rom-coms’, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral — has. There must be many people asking him, ‘whose side are you on, Richard?’
However, Deputy Environment Editor of the Guardian, Adam Vaughan, rather than seeing the film as one which betrays the greens’ true colours, believes that the film was ‘intended as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of hectoring greens’. The self-mocking intention was simply poorly expressed, he says. In order to explain this, Vaughan quotes environmental psychologist, Adam Corner,
At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?
It takes an ‘expert’ in ‘communicating climate change’ to point this out, apparently. What Corner and Vaughan can’t explain, however, is why the 10:10 campaign produce such a confused message in the first place. Just as Miliband was sensitive to the fact that his policies lacked popular support, not even Franny is so stupid that she has failed to recognise that people regard her organisation as so many shrill, hectoring, and self-important zealots. But just as Miliband cannot find a movement to share his ambitions, those to whom he turns to for it, can do little but alienate their would-be supporters. Corner, the climate psychologist can only do so much in the aftermath of the film. He turns up to the post-mortem to pronounce the film dead, and offers only ways to avoid the death of such campaigns:
1. Move Beyond Social Marketing.
2. Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
3. Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
3a. Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
3b. Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
3c. Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
4. Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
5. Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks.
6. Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone.
7. Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action.
So many buzz-words, and such little meaning. Corner forgets of course, that each of these recommendations are beyond the means of the 10:10 campaign. For instance, it cannot move ‘beyond social marketing’, because, as has been discussed, it is not a popular campaign and its members — even those with advanced degrees in psychology — have no idea to communicate with those outside of the movement. As such, then, climate campaigners are limited to ‘attempts to provoke fear or guilt’ (#2), and have to overstate the likely outcomes of climate change and the benefits that any political solution to it might offer (#3), and overstate the ease at which these solutions may be implemented (#3a, b & c).
It gets worse. Corner’s advice is from the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group — a ‘a diverse range of individuals from academia and the third sector, with expertise in climate change communication and engagement — which he organises. The group produced a report, where the principles above are given more detail. Point 4 is expanded,
We should expect people to be sad or angry, to feel guilt or shame, to yearn for that which is lost or to search for more comforting answers (Randall, 2009). Providing support and empathy in working through the painful emotions of ‘grief’ for a society that must undergo changes is a prerequisite for subsequent adaptation to new circumstances.
Denial and scepticism are simply ‘maladaptive’ emotional strategies — coping mechanisms to deal with the horror of climate change, says Corner. Yet might we turn this around, and wonder if climate change anxiety may well be a much more a clear expression of an emotional problem of those who have failed to adapt to changes in society? After all, it is Miliband, for instance, who is anxious that he is struggling to connect with a base, and it is the 10:10 campaign whose advert looks for all the world like an infantile tantrum after the group failed to get its way, as the campaign’s director, Eugenie Harvey reveals in her apology for the film:
With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh.
Furthermore, as we’ve argued on this blog many, many times, it is those with the most limited view of humanity — not simply those who would like to blow them up — who make the most out of climate change. For instance, Armstrong, who co-wrote the film with Curtis, argued in its defence that,
We ‘killed’ five people to make No Pressure – a mere blip compared to the 300,000 real people who now die each year from climate change.
The 300,000 people she refers to are those counted by a report from the now defunct Global Humanitarian Forum as having been killed by climate change. But as we pointed out, these deaths from malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition, even if they are Nth-order effects of climate change, are far lower-order effects of poverty. The only way that the claim that these are deaths caused by climate change can be sustained, therefore, is by arguing that it would not be possible to address the problem of poverty. If we abolished poverty, in fact, there would many more millions of lives saved — and what is more, much improved — but that fact is inconvenient to Armstrong, Corner, and their ilk, who make so much capital out of the idea of looming catastrophe. 300,000 theoretical deaths count more to her and her ambitions than the ambitions of millions who die for the want of clean water, civil infrastructure, industrial agriculture, medicine, and so on. The promise that Armstrong makes to these people is that she will make the weather better for them, and in doing so, she displaces from the pages of the Guardian and the academic departments at Cardiff University the idea that development is fundamental to transforming the conditions experienced by people throughout the world.
The 10:10 campaign really is a tantrum, and not by some stretched metaphor or analogy. Franny and her chums really don’t understand the world and the people who inhabit it, and really are not very pleasant people when they find their will obstructed.
Back to Corner’s guide, and point 5 — ‘Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks’ — which, just 4 points later, has contradicted point 1, ‘Move Beyond Social Marketing’. This contradiction is inevitable, because Corner’s expert psychological advice does not explain to the environmental movement how to move beyond it, limited, as it is by a half-baked pathological understanding of how social movements develop. Corner, like Franny — both seemingly experts in communicating the climate change message — has trouble reaching beyond his own mates. Says Corner in the 7 Principles,
One way of bridging the gap between private-sphere behaviour changes and collective action is the promotion of pro-environmental social norms. Pictures and videos of ordinary people (‘like me’) engaging in significant proenvironmental actions are a simple and effective way of generating a sense of social normality around pro-environmental behaviour.
Can you imagine… ‘Here’s me sorting my rubbish for the recycling’… ‘Here’s me not using my car’… ‘Here I am buying over-priced sustainably-sourced millet’… Any ordinary people ‘like me’, exchanging holiday and family snaps for pictures of the most mundane of day-to-day chores in an effort to get them to ‘think like me’ are likely to find themselves lonely and sad. Corner fails to recognise what Franny and the others at 10:10 have realised: they simply aren’t able to put things nicely, or to cultivate ‘social norms’ deliberately in a way that is useful to their campaign. As high-profile as they are, the climate change movement is tiny, and their success in cultivating social norms has been limited to this movement. Accordingly, the creation of eco-social-norms has done nothing more than alienate those who hold with them further, so out-of-kilter with wider social norms are they, as this silly film is surely testament to. And hence, skipping past the almost meaningless point #6, point number 7 — to encourage ‘public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action’ — only serves, at every turn, as a visible reminder of just how little public support there is for climate politics.
This must be something for Miliband to reflect on. Those to whom he has turned have failed to provide the base he needs to drive his politics forward. This spectacular joke at their own expense leaves gore on not just 10:10’s face, but all over Miliband too. He and they have been hoist by their own petard. However, the point is not simply about environmentalism and climate policies. The point is that environmentalism is more a symptom than a cause. See how far the crisis Miliband’s suffers from extends. Conscious of the dearth of public support for his climate politics, he attempted to circumvent the democratic processes that could not satisfy his ambitions, and sought new ways to connect with an uninterested public. So desperate to connect with people are the members of the establishment, there has even been a recruitment of special climate change psychologists, who invent ways to explain the failure of the message makers. Now the exploding children only echo the sound of the collapse of the hope that climate politics could generate a new social movement. That sound is in turn an echo of the noises that the likes of Miliband generate, as he tries desperately to turn his own political ambitions into reality, but fails. This failure, five years in the making, spans Ed Miliband’s career as an elected politician. This failure is what sold Ed Miliband to the Labour Party. He didn’t do anything else. The words of Ed’s father, Ralph, seem appropriate here.
The Labour Party does not now stand at the crossroads. It made a choice, or rather it accepted the choice that was made for it. Electoral defeat has now forced it, as a Party, to pause and ask itself whether the road leads anywhere. It does—to the political graveyard. And it is by no means certain that, as a Party, it will not continue to travel along that road.” – Ralph Miliband. The Sickness of Labourism. The New Left Review, 1961.
As an after thought. I don’t find the No Pressure video to be the worst produce by climate alarmism. The following videos are far more chilling.
It does not surprise me that politicians who struggle to share their political ambitions with the public use ideas such as these:
… to produce messages such as this: