Silent Spring? Or Noisy Winter?

by | Oct 1, 2012

The 50th anniversary of Rachel Carsen’s book, Silent Spring has produced a lot of discussion on the internet. Much of this has been rehearsed, ad nauseum.

But 50 years is an opportunity to reflect on the failure of environmentalists past and present to successfully predict the future. Instead, it would seem to me, they project their miserable view of the world and of people onto both. Half a century of failed predictions has not caused any reflection within environmentalism. The non-manifestation of their prophecies has only caused them to defer the date of Armageddon; their excuse codified in just four words: Not if, but when….

But it is not just the failure to predict the future that causes environmentalism bad PR; explaining the present is a problem for them too. Over the last 50 years, economic crises notwithstanding, life has continued to improve in absolute and relative terms. As I have been discussing on Twitter following claims that hundreds of thousands of deaths can be attributed to climate change each year, for instance, there are far fewer deaths from seemingly ‘natural’ causes now than previously. In the case of infant mortality, there were 10,000 fewer deaths of under-fives in 2008 than in 1990. And there are 20% fewer deaths from Malaria now than ten years ago. Not even the certainty of climate change has produce the moral capital — body bags — that environmentalists claim.

The character of life — not just the avoidance of death — has improved, year on year. People lifting themselves out of poverty means determining for themselves the life they want, free from the necessities of subsistence lifestyles.

In short, we were promised a Silent Spring, but now we have noisy winters — human life thriving where once it would have been virtually impossible, or at least characterised by hardship. The chemical, thermal, and biological Apocalypses have simply not materialised. In spite of these historical clues, however, environmental mythology persists.

When Silent Spring was just 30 years old — way back in 1992 — my favourite film maker, Adam Curtis produced a series of films for the BBC: Pandora’s Box — A fable from the age of science, which explored the complexities of humanity’s relationship with science. One episode deals with the change in attitude towards chemists, and the rise of political ecology. Curtis notes that the chemist is at first celebrated as a hero, as the use of pesticides transforms agriculture. Of particular interest is the narrative that emerges during this era, that puts a Darwinian slant on technological developments. But even more interesting is the transformation of this story in the wake of Carson. As ecologism emerges, so the environmentalists claim to champion Darwin.

The conclusion of the film is extraordinarily prescient. And it speaks to the argument I have made here often, which is that the debate about the environment in general, and climate in particular descends to science. But science is fickle. We imagine it to unmoved by the chaos of the social world, and that scientists can channel pure objectivity to otherwise irrational beings, to be instructive to matters of public policy. Curtis doesn’t take sides in the eco wars, but shows how in many cases, this can be a dangerous misconception of science. The environmental movement was given birth to by lawyers exploiting public anxiety, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Mythology developed around the seemingly scientific and objective claims of early environmentalists. The story of Carson told by environmentalists is one in which scientific observation led to sensible policies and the formation of an objective perspective on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. But Carson’s legacy is instead a far more complex story, in which her ideas and their consequences are owed much more to social, political, economic and cultural changes than her defenders will admit. This turbulence besets even our best attempts to understand ‘what science says’.


  1. Luis Dias

    I always loved that episode as well. I’m a huge Adam Curtis fan.

  2. Vinny Burgoo

    OT: Ben, don’t you live in Oxford? If so, COIN is looking for a new executive director. 4 days a week.

  3. Jack Hughes

    Another great analysis, Ben.

    Environmentalism only ever works if you keep it as an emotional enterprise: an incoherent collection of feelings. You can feel awe over a sunset, feel warm and cuddly while watching a film about polar bear cubs, feel guilty when you see a polluted rubbish dump, feel excited at the prospect of a high-tech future with windmills and titanium bikes – and at the same time yearn for a simpler middle-England lifestyle of organic home-spun food.

    If you try to turn it into a rational plan for what to do next it falls apart. An example of this is greenies nagging us to “turn the thermostat down”. Notice how they never explain what the correct setting is – just “less then what it is now”.

  4. Mike Jackson

    Jack Hughes
    You hit the nail squarely on the head. It’s all warm and fuzzy and “nice”. Try to pin it down and it’s like catching bubbles.
    I’ve said before that if I’d done what I was told every time the government launched one of its campaigns to turn the thermostat down “just 1degree” I would have died of hypothermia years ago.

  5. Alex Cull

    Google’s newspaper archive is a treasure trove, and it’s possible to read articles that were written about “Silent Spring” around the time it was published. Here’s one from November 1962, which is supportive of the book:

    It concludes:

    It is the stability of nature, created by whatever hand touches you as an inspirational fount of faith, that is being wrenched and dislocated. Man often has tried to dislocate nature’s ways and he always and constantly has paid the price for it.

    If you have not read “Silent Spring”, you should read it.

    So even then, the theme of man upsetting the fragile balance of nature, to the detriment of both, was being articulated. But there are other views expressed – here’s an article, again from November 1962, which quotes a review of “Silent Spring” published in Science magazine, by a Professor IL Baldwin:

    In his words: “No attempt is made by the author to portray the many positive benefits that society derives from the use of pesticides. No estimates are made of the countless lives that have been saved because of the destruction of insect vectors of disease. No mention is made of the fact that the average length of human life has steadily increased over the last several years. No consideration is given to the important role played by modern pesticides in the production of food and fiber.”

    Half a century on, the miserablists are still warning about man’s dislocating of nature’s ways, and the rational optimists are still being rational and optimistic. It really is looking like a war without end.

  6. Lewis Deane

    Ben, you say:

    “We imagine it to [be] unmoved by the chaos of the social world, and that scientists can channel pure objectivity to otherwise irrational beings, to be instructive to matters of public policy.” By ‘irrational beings’ I take it you a reflecting a point of view described rather than your own view. Just, as surely, when Jack Hughes says, that ‘environmentalism’ is an “incoherent collection of feelings” that makes the ‘environmentalist’ ” feel warm and cuddly” he is, also, surely wrong. An ideology cannot be so charactised, indeed, historically, it is often far closer to a cold collection of unfelt dogmas. In fact, it is ahistorical, to see ‘environmentalism’ as a ‘neurosis’ or a sign of a particular emotionalism and, hence, ‘psychology’. Even it’s reification of atavistic concepts such as the ‘balance of nature’, as old as, or even older than, the Stoics, or, indeed, the ‘sacredness of nature’ (not alien even to the Doctors of the Church, in so far as nature was Gods ‘work’ – and not the Devils, of which man is almost entirely!) are strategically acquired concepts there for an aim. Couldn’t ideology be defined, partially, as a collection of strategies and tactics concentrated on an aim? The question, therefore, must be, what is there aim? Assuming it is not purely nihilistic, the wish for ‘nothing’?

  7. Lewis Deane

    And, God forbid (!), Ben, you could be misunderstood as expressing a perspective akin to the so called ‘Strong Program’, where Science and objectivity are only social constructs. There is some merit (our civilization depends upon it) in the investment we human beings have made into rational, objective Truth, even if it is merely a ‘belief’, a ‘necessary fiction’? Though, on much deeper reflection, it is much more. And only by such rationality are we able to defend ourselves against those who, in every age, would drive us back into barbarism! Perhaps, ‘environmentalism’ is driven by a powerful urge to avoid the responsibility of being ‘adult’, assuming being ‘adult’ is synonymous with being ‘civilized’?

  8. Ben Pile

    Lewis – By ‘irrational beings’ I take it you a reflecting a point of view described rather than your own view.

    Yes, I was speaking to the broader scepticism of politics, which I think much of the (over) emphasis on science is owed to.

    An ideology cannot be so charactised, indeed, historically, it is often far closer to a cold collection of unfelt dogmas.

    I take a different view of ideology, contra a ‘collection of unfelt dogmas’, though it may overlap with yours. I’ve contrasted it with what is typically meant by ‘ideology’, which I think is better expressed as ‘doctrine’, or some political theory which has some concreteness to it — i.e. it is written down and reflected on, etc. Presuppositions, prejudices and things which are held a priori, are ‘ideological’ — my favourite being ‘common sense’, but nobody puts them in a manifesto.

    The danger of reading intentions into ideology — my version — is that it reads coherence into incoherent perspectives.

    There have been a number of debates on this site about whether psychological/psycho-analytical approaches can shed any light on environmentalism, with Geoff Chambers occasionally, and Peter S more often telling me that it does. Peter made some interesting comments recently, though we disagreed a lot in the past.

    There is an extent to which environmentalists have internalised the debate, however. And that is interesting. So much environmentalism is clearly self-regarding waffle. But this shouldn’t preclude a historical view. In the past, official dogmas were simply better-conceived. My pet theory at the moment is the idea that ‘ideologies’ tend towards naturalism as they lose coherence; naturalism is a kind of ‘default’, off-the-shelf doctrine. It appeals as ‘common sense’, because it’s where we get our food and water.

    And, God forbid (!), Ben, you could be misunderstood as expressing a perspective akin to the so called ‘Strong Program’, where Science and objectivity are only social constructs.

    I’m not sure what you’re responding to here. But this is what I’ve said previously about social construction…

    At the same time, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, sceptics should be aware, too, that the debate around climate change does not rest on science. Looking for smoking guns to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make: expecting science to resolve the political debate.

    Myself and Stuart Blackman have made this argument several times on our blog, Climate Resistance, and we have found that, to our counterparts, it appears as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. Instead, we are suggesting that the politics is prior to formal reality in greens’ argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the ‘warmists’ that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, so that taking issue with it is to deny the causal universe itself.

    In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific, about this. But afterwards the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from the projections, it seems, come arguments that are in fact tempered by the political and social presumptions underlying the initial investigation. This then gets passed off as ‘science’.

  9. Lewis Deane

    Ben, thanks for the reply,

    I know you are not ‘sociologistic’ in it’s pure sense and merely, for the dunces, wanted that made clear. The question is, therefore, is that ‘ability’ to test ideas,to hold back and ‘entertain’ a hypothesis, test it out, keep it (while it works) or discard it (when it seems not to), presupposed by a strength (or weakness) of a prior ‘ideology’ itself? I mean could one be so ‘considerate’ of ideas if one had, so to speak, no ideas oneself? Assuming, that is, there is no God-like, ‘objective’ quality that would allow us to be off a thing and yet above, outside it?
    Of course, you are right about politics and therefore ideology. I merely wished to characterize ideology in an almost physiological light. Ie, if physiology also included teleology. To put it another way, what seems purely ‘immediate’ for some ‘environmentalists’ is what they feel ‘should be’. As such, it seems, they suffer a kind of rage which, as an historian, I’m all to familiar with – to straighten crooked paths, to impose a perfect circularity. Truth, then must become secondary, for what is ‘truth’ but that which is of the ‘false’ world, the ‘bad’ world, the ‘world’ we wish to dispense of. Hence, the cavalier attitude towards evidence. It is almost theological.
    Thus, for me, it is a kind of side show, though I appreciate it, when Geoff Chambers and Peter S debate the finer points of the ‘Green Subject’ (excuse the joke!), since these perspectives are far deeper, far more, perhaps, if I can use the word, ‘existential’, far more historical, than these descriptions, however true, seem to attempt to reach. It is not, as Hegel might have it, we reach the ‘Truth’ or Geist, by re-rehearsising history, by going through it, in our selves or others, but, rather, by rationally distinguishing between that which can be tested (which we keep, disproven or not) and that which cannot be (which we discard!) You see, I’m an infamous ‘Positivist’! I think what you are really saying, and what we both maddening feel, is the laziness of thought, which seems to have felt certain ‘premises’ as ‘right’ and forgotten why? Worse, the bad conscience who ‘seem’ to ‘lie’ out of a pure viciousness? (More about that another time – but, remember, how ‘denouncing’ became historically indistinguishable from Marxism?) And the fact that such a type of thinking holds such power over not the ‘ordinary’ person but the elite? Because it is convenient, these ideas are strategies and tactics in the service of an ‘aim’. Ideology!

  10. Lewis Deane

    Ben, sorry to post again,

    But you say:

    “‘ideological’ — my favourite being ‘common sense’”.

    I think that damn profound, if you meant it. ‘Familiarity’ is what always we are smothered by, suffocated by ‘common sense’! It’s interesting, now a days, that the ‘right’ appeals to the latter and the ‘left’ to what they please themselves to feel a very ‘un’-common, elitist sense (but how common!)!

  11. Geoff Chambers

    Lewis Deane
    A minor point: I don’t think I ever “debated the finer points of the ‘Green Subject’” with Peter S. I simply pointed out that I found his tantalising psychoanalytic analysis enlightening, but useless in the discussion of environmentalism, since you can’t get anywhere by personalising the debate – an error I often made and Ben criticised me for in the past.
    Psychoanalysts are rarely found putting forward their ideas as doctrine, but like PeterS, tend to insinuate little perceptions. It’s a sneaky technique in rational debate, but it’s to do with the way the unconscious works, so the rest of us should probably learn to put up with it.
    Much of the rest of your analysis goes over my head. When you talk of ideology as physiology, I think I understand you as wanting to establish an explanatory hierarchy, which is fine, but when you bring teleology into it, you lose me. I think we all get confused by Ben’s loose use of “prior to” when he says the politics is prior to the science. Sometimes he seems to be making a statement about the way the world is – a sociological insight into the place of science in society; sometimes he seems to be making a recommendation as to how to correct the errors due to a current political fashion.
    To get back to PeterS and psychoanalysis: the great insight of Freud, independent of any particular psychoanalytic doctrine, is that you can learn a lot about the world by looking at it through the eyes of a three-year-old meditating the great subjects of mum and dad, sex and death. You can apply the resulting insights to anyone of course – politicians, rock stars, yourself or your lover(s). I’d guess (and I may just be repeating something I got unconsciously from PeterS) that what makes environmentalists different from the rest of us is their relationship to the future, which means, of course, their own mortality.

  12. Jack Hughes

    Is LD a human or a sokal-bot ?

  13. Ben Pile

    Jack – Is LD a human or a sokal-bot ?

    I think he was asking for clarity on what could have been read as the kind of thing Sokal was concerned about. Lewis is very human!

    Geoff – … but when you bring teleology into it, you lose me. I think we all get confused by Ben’s loose use of “prior to” when he says the politics is prior to the science. Sometimes he seems to be making a statement about the way the world is – a sociological insight into the place of science in society; sometimes he seems to be making a recommendation as to how to correct the errors due to a current political fashion.

    I think Lewis was possibly alluding to an Aristotelian view — the is-ought problem in the natural perspective. But I’m still parsing his comment.

    Sorry I haven’t been able to shed more light on the prior-ness thing. The main point is probably more simple than I am letting on — environmentalists seem incapable of testing what they claim to be able to see at face-value (for whatever reason, which is a different discussion). They’re seeing the ‘science’ through ‘ideology’, to see what are categorically social phenomena as material phenomena. This problem of making social things the object of scientific study is compounded as it develops, which is the more subtle, second point about the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution. This is the ‘social’ part of science. But rather than testing the objects of what has become known as ‘climate change science’, scientific organisations seem instead to take them for granted, and in fact often use their scientific authority to resist challenges to their research and its putative implications. Institutional science seems to actually beset the scientific method. (NB, I’m talking much more about things like the Royal Society and the array of multi-disciplinary departments at and between universities and strange quangos than I am talking about climate/environmental science departments per se).

    Another point is that the confusion about what is a social and what is a material phenomenon is broader than environmentalism. And as a caveat, the point is not that one can’t treat social phenomena ‘objectively’, so to speak. The two most vexing things about environmentalism, however, are the way it understands poverty and development as nature’s revenge and beneficence respectively.

  14. Geoff Chambers

    I’ve just had a look at the Curtis film. it’s very good, as is another in the same series about the use made of economics and economists by governments in the 60s and 70s.
    As Ben says, he doesn’t take sides, but the collage technique tends to reveal things that you feel wouldn’t be revealed by a more traditional form of discourse. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about it if it was conveying a message I radically disagreed with, hoping I’d still feel it was excellent, thought-provoking television.
    As it is, Paul Ehrlich being interviewed stepping off a plane like a film star came over as suitably weird, and a historian of science called Winner standing in the rain seemed the epitome of normality.
    It would be nice to apply the two opposing interpretations of Darwin (roughly – struggle for survival, and intricate interwoven mutually supporting system) to books and ideas. Hundreds of books make the NYT bestseller lists and get discussed and absorbed into our culture, and then, by some mysterious process, certain ideas become common knowledge, without ever having been seriously discussed or challenged and, as I pointed out in my discussions with Adam Corner, you’ve got surveys showing that the majority of the population, who’ve never heard of Ehrlich or Carson, think we live on a spaceship earth, that the balance of nature is easily upset, etc. These are intellectual fashions, masquerading as scientific theories, as weird and (one hopes) as ephemeral as eugenics or racial theories. Challenging them head on, as we climate sceptics often do, makes us seem as weird as those we are criticising. The Curtis method of stepping back and telling a story may well be a better strategy.

  15. Peter S

    Lewis – “Perhaps, ‘environmentalism’ is driven by a powerful urge to avoid the responsibility of being ‘adult’, assuming being ‘adult’ is synonymous with being ‘civilized’?”

    A good assumption. The world has an abundance of the most uncivilised people you’d ever care to meet. Usually, we give them a benign smile, a tickle on the tummy and, correctly, identify them as babies. Nevertheless, those who have to live with them do so by agreeing to be in total submission to the tyranny of their every pressing demand. It’s only later in life (if all goes well enough) that these people abdicate their omnipotent position in the world as they know it, by degrees, take on a semblance of civility. Some, willingly enough – and others, reluctantly and with much protest. (It’s often wondered why we bother to keep a royal family in this day and age… I’d like to think we do so as a reminder – a sort-of exhibition piece – of what adult life would be like had we never been presented with any external pressures to surrender those earliest ideas of the world and our place in it. As pointless and needless lives go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example… although, I suppose, the perks are good.)

    No human is, or has ever been, excluded from living through and owning this subjective history. Although it cannot be recalled in visual memory, it exists as a feeling-memory. That is to say, it’s not at all unfamiliar for a person’s contemporary surroundings and the events taking place within them to bring up felt associations with something once-lived – though intangible. Such experiences are often accompanied by feelings of loss and yearning – with no conscious or material object available to locate those feelings in. These moments could be thought of (and described) as the ‘Paradise Lost’ and play a significant role in human culture.

    Understanding humans in this way (ie, according to this hypothesis), provides us with a compelling story by which ‘environmentalism’ might be better understood. The ambivalence some people feel towards that factual process in their history of surrendering into a civilised world – the earliest steps of the journey being as unconscious as the life (of Riley) that was being given up by making it – could leave a lingering, ineffable wish to ‘un-make’ it again. A wish(ing) awakened with the coming-together and collusion of like-minded others – where it is disguised (ie, kept unconscious) behind some impenetrably complexed claim about the outside world and turned into… a pressing demand.

    We might wonder what ‘green nature’ has to do with all of this – why the raw wilderness appears to be so intrinsic to fantasies of an ‘un-made’ (and un-admitted-to) existence? Such territory, of course, is largely devoid of humans – it is also (curiously enough) one of the most likely places to have the feeling-memories mentioned above. If we consider humans to be those ‘other adults’ with whom we must negotiate and exchange with in order to get our (and their) needs met – an ongoing process we define as ‘civility’ – the privileged ‘green environment’ and the privileged environment experienced in our very early life are identical.

    I very much enjoyed the programme Ben linked to. It’s a timely reminder of the quality and intelligence of broadcasting the BBC were once capable of, once placed a value in, and built their once-deserved reputation upon. The Michel de Montaigne brand of sceptical inquiry it employs (to my mind anyway) in presenting and evaluating its subject matter – without any intention of arriving at a conclusion – was a pleasure to watch and reconfirms a time when the BBC’s most treasured resource was its audience.

  16. Lewis Deane

    Peter S,

    I didn’t mean, in any way, to dismiss your, often, very illuminating ‘analysis’, if you will forgive the quotes.

    “the raw wilderness”…”largely devoid of humans” is very much apt and to the point. The infantile auto de fe, the child (Caligula or some other moron) on the throne! And just as the ‘irrational’ child rages, endlessly, about the imperfections of his world, so, we might also say, does the ‘rational adult’ fall into the trap of raging about the aforesaid ‘irrationality’. Father and Mother and son or daughter As you must know, and we should know, ‘irrationality’ is, sadly, and, more than often, irrudicable. So how to address, to ‘analyse’ it, not ‘analyse’, to engage it, without, at the same time, provoking it? Adam Curtis, perhaps, seems to know a way – the immediacy of his way of ‘telling a story’ is a strategy I cannot help but admire. More than admire. But the BBC has always seemed to wish to obscure him, in its very un – Riethian latter end.

    [Perhaps, I might put it this way – the ‘subject’ is, also, an historical ‘object’. If Freudian analysis didn’t assume this it would not be able to say anything objective about the subject. But not historical merely in the sense in which the subject might be said to be thrown into history but rather the subject of history, and, therefore, it must, necessarily be continually transformed by history, ‘his’ history. Freudian analyses is therefore itself overcome by history (but not thereby proved false, since it is of history).]

    Geoff, ‘teleogy’ is merely a shorthand for that towards which anything – a system of thought or the cosmos itself – tends. It isn’t, in itself, very profound. The question, in philosophy, which once engaged people, is whether this ‘end’ towards which something ‘tended’ was itself part of its causation. The question could sometimes boil down to this – could some end, some ‘goal, if you will, and therefore a necessarily future possibility (indeed something less, often, than, a probability, a fantasy) be causative of that which is now.. We humans think in terms of ‘will’, ‘purpose’ and the action ‘towards’. Many think (including ‘strong’ Freudians – the ‘wish’ being merely a ‘present’ fantasy) this is an illusion. But could it not often be said to be the only best description we have.

    Therefore, taking all that tortuous prose as read (!), could it not be said that what defines an ideology, as apposed to a well thought out set of hypothesis, is that, in furtherance of an ‘aim’, a ‘towards which’, ideas, Scientific or otherwise, are merely fortuitous, ‘acquired’? It has often seemed, 50 years ago or so, that ‘Science’ itself was the enemy, the Scientific Beast stomping over nature. Now, it is not merely a ‘friend’, it speak ‘environmentalism’ itself. How strange! The ‘Green Self’ has acquired the citadel! How has that happened? What, historically, has happened here? One explanation might be that that ‘institution’ long ago lost faith in itself, became moribund, needed this exteria re-animation. But what I was, just as an aside, trying to address, was what is this ‘animus’ for? Towards what is it ‘aiming’? Assuming, as I also said, it is not aiming for the ‘nihil’, ‘nothingness’? Of course all this is still abstracting from the real historical forces that constructed this moment and, therefore, is perhaps, more obscure than it is illuminating?

    Jack Hughes, I like the idea of being a ‘Sokal-bot’, suggested I suppose, by my mention of the ‘Strong Program’, which is now historical and Sokal was superficial but made a very good point. Nice idea, which flatters me.

  17. Lewis Deane

    “The danger of reading intentions into ideology — my version — is that it reads coherence into incoherent perspectives.”

    By ‘incoherent’ I take it you mean not rationally feasible, incoherent contra the sense in which a rational sentence or proposition might be coherent. Therefore the ‘incoherence’ of which you speak is not the ‘incoherence’ of which Peter S speaks, since the former might be perfectly ‘coherent’ for the ‘subject’! That which is ‘unthought out’ being that which is very much ‘thought’, assumed. And, yes, there is certainly nothing very ‘coherent’ about most of what can be called, for the sake of convenience, ‘Environmentalism’.

    Yes, to read ‘intentions’ into anything is very dangerous ( as an aside, it has corrupted our Judicial processes). Hence, my mild ‘skepticism’ about ‘internalizing’ this debate. But ‘aims’, ‘desires’ are different from ‘intentions’. What do we want is, after all, the real question of politics and of being human.

    I think, sometimes, you have an endearingly Anaxagorean perspective, if you will not take that in the wrong way, that your rather illuminating ‘nous’ will stair order into this chaotic darkness. I like it but I, sometimes, despair of it. [Has ‘rationality’ ever done anything in history?]

  18. Geoff Chambers

    I don’t follow current philosophy, but I bet teleology is making a comeback, what with the science pages being full of the musings of the physicists about time going backwards and such. In questioning what teleology was doing in your argument I just wanted to give a Johnsonian kick in the Berkeleys to anything so foolish.
    If you’re saying that ideology differs from systematic rational thought in being based on teleological reasoning – I think that’s brilliant. (And even if that’s not what you mean, I still think it’s brilliant).
    You say: “The ‘Green Self’ has acquired the citadel! How has that happened? What, historically, has happened here?” The historical approach is essential, I think, since it allows for all other potential sources of insight (psychoanalytic, sociological etc) without letting them destroy the debate. The stronger the insights of PeterS into the green psyche, the greater the temptation to say “they’re just a bunch of nutters” to which their very logical reply will be “same to you with knobs on”. Similarly with a sociological approach, which tends to end in a feeling of resignation before the fundamental irrationality of the crowd.
    Your reference to Caligula is very apt, especially coming on the heels of PeterS’s comments about the royal family. (Harry in Las Vegas cuts a poor figure in comparison to the more inspired Roman Emperors) and your point that “just as the ‘irrational’ child rages, endlessly, about the imperfections of his world, so, we might also say, does the ‘rational adult’ fall into the trap of raging about the aforesaid ‘irrationality’” gets to the heart of our own motivation.
    I’ve often felt there’s something basically unhealthy about my obsession with tackling the warmist argument. There’s a satisfaction which comes from feeling intellectually superior to someone as elevated as the President of the Royal Society or even – dare one say it – a Guardian journalist. But this satisfaction is spoiled when they refuse to admit defeat, and can easily turn to rage.
    When – to take an example at random – Sir Martin Rees says that there’s a 50:50 chance of mankind surviving the 21st century, we all know that this has no more intellectual content than Captain Blackadder saying “Wibble”. But we feel the need to challenge him, possibly because we sense that his motivation is the same as Blackadder’s – to evade his responsibilities.

  19. Geoff Chambers

    I’m busy transcribing the Greenpeace / Frontline club debate on climate change and the media
    By coincidence, Rachel Carson and Stephen Emmott, the subjet of the last but one post here, both turn up in the first 20 minutes of discussion in comments which are entirely contentless. Guardian editor Rusbridger tells us about his emotional reaction to the Emmott play, and Alice Bell, lecturer in science communication, tells us about her emotional reaction to Leo Hickman’s anniversary article on Carson. The content of Carson’s and Emmott’s thought is entirely absent.
    There was a discussion of this debate at
    notable for some very rude and entirely appropriate comments from Ben. Few will listen to the debate (or read my transcript). Its very badness I find fascinating. I’ll give it to Alex to put up on his Mytranscriptbox.

  20. michael hart

    If, as you say Ben [and I agree], environmentalists have failed to predict the future, I think it is because they don’t want to. They are afraid of the future. They wish to recreate the past. A Cider-with-Rosie past that never really existed, where it was always pleasantly warm and dry in the summer. A past where the Christmas snow lay deep and crisp and even, and an inexhaustible supply of logs meant the fire never went out and nobody ever needed to take hot baths or wonder if they would be able to eat in few days time.

    In reality the “environment” is something to endure or conquer, for it will surely kill us all as individuals if we cannot master it. It killed, and still does kill, millions of humans by cold, by hunger, by pestilence.

    On a brighter note, it is also the 50th anniversary of the light-emitting diode (LED), one of many technological tools invented by scientists and engineers that allows the present to be better than the mythical past. [My father, a Chemist, worked on some the earliest industrial applications in the 1960s]. Such people, not the Rachel Carsons of this world, will be the people who will build the better future. Conceited chastisement, and drafting of laws based on ignorance and technology-angst, to restrict the actions and choices of others simply in the name of the “environment” is not much to be proud of.

  21. Peter S

    Geoff – “I don’t think I ever “debated the finer points of the ‘Green Subject’” with Peter S. I simply pointed out that I found his tantalising psychoanalytic analysis enlightening, but useless in the discussion of environmentalism, since you can’t get anywhere by personalising the debate”

    I’m not personalising the debate – I’m humanising it. If the central claim in this discussion boils down to “humans are destroying the planet for the future”, then it seems to me that it is the causative element belonging to this statement which is of most interest.

    That is to say: What might cause a human (or a group of them) to make such a claim? …or: What future do this group of new humans have in mind to be in… which other humans (by being human) are ‘destroying’ for them? – and: Can the desired content of any human’s imagined future be modelled on anything other than an actual, experienced past? If not – What is absent from both a lived past and a wished-for future which we might identify as an obstacle in this claimant’s real present? (why are some humans content to see what the future’s like when they get there – while others demand it be pre-arranged, according to their preferences, if the journey towards it is to be anything less than terrorising for them?)

    By humanising the debate, we might wonder if humans have made similar extraordinary claims about their environment before – if groups of people have a habit of insisting their surroundings are not good enough for them… and blaming the presence of an obstacle for it being so? For example, is ‘humans are destroying the planet for the future’ – as a claim – any different to ‘Jews are destroying Germany for the future’? If a similarity can be found… what is it?… what do both ‘objects’ do (and, presumably, do so well they can be caricatured for it) which the two groups of claimants identify as sabotaging the futures they want to travel to and was absent from the pasts they have arrived from?

    A clue might be found in recognising that both the old group and new group – having rejected and excluded this ‘destructive’ activity from their own repertoire of what it is the be human – are hopelessly (and noticeably) disabled when called upon to make use of it as the means to getting their specific need met (that is, the felt-need to pre-empt a future and replace it with the past).

    If humanising humans is to include negotiation and exchange (in the meeting of needs) as the single attribute which separates us not only from other animals but from each other (and, crucially, which separates adulthood from babyhood) then we might begin to flesh-out what image of themselves some humans wish to hold onto which the external(ised) obstacle of negotiation and exchange threatens to falsify and destroy. Being disillusioned into the real world can be a very painful process.

  22. Ben Pile

    Peter – I’m not personalising the debate – I’m humanising it.

    At issue here is a tension between an idea of ‘humans’ as historical subjects (eg in Lewis’s comments), as distinct to a view of them as objects that obey some other, innate ‘nature’. We’ve discussed this previously.

    Here is an example of the mistake I believe the second perspective makes:

    ” is ‘humans are destroying the planet for the future’ – as a claim – any different to ‘Jews are destroying Germany for the future’? If a similarity can be found… what is it?”

    WWII and its horrors are never a good benchmark, for many reasons. It is simply too loaded to make sense of in that way — ‘reductio ad Hitleram’, Godwin’s law, etc. Hence the tendency to shout ‘fascist’ at anything.

    This blog argues that the best account for environmentalism isn’t really found in the minds of people as such, but that it has been largely driven out of political need. Lewis says I’m ‘Anaxagorean’, but in fact, I’ve been critical of over-stating the ideo-centric nature of environmentalism’s ascendency. The ideas in the ‘ethics’ of environmentalism are interesting from an ideas-perspective, however, because they say something about the politics of environmentalism.

    Ultimately, though, the over-emphasis on what’s happening in people’s heads misses the point because most people simply aren’t interested — the environmental movement isn’t a movement, and doesn’t really have any ideas that people could get behind. The affliction can be explained more easily in other ways… The environmental movement seems to be more at home on the left, which is much more easily explained by the ossification of the left than by psychoanalysis. And it finds a home in establishment thinking because of the the atrophy of democratic institutions and public organisations and so on. And moreover, there’s nothing particular to environmentalism — it’s a symptom of broader phenomenona, albeit an epitome of them. So I would be concerned that the object of a study on the minds of environmentalists might well be too narrow.

  23. Peter S

    Ben – “WWII and its horrors are never a good benchmark, for many reasons. It is simply too loaded to make sense of in that way — ‘reductio ad Hitleram’, Godwin’s law, etc. Hence the tendency to shout ‘fascist’ at anything.”

    I was very mindful of Godwin’s law when wondering if a comparison might be made between the two claims I mentioned. But, as the second (Germany) claim is separate from WWII – the event being subsequent to the claim (ie, a future) – the claim itself does not have to be loaded with anything other than its self-stated content. Therefore, a similarity (if one exists) can be looked for in the two claims unencumbered by anything that might turn out to be an eventual consequence of their being made.

    On a more general note, I don’t recall ever using the word ‘psychoanalysis’ on this blog. I’m pretty sure I’ve not used ‘psychotherapy’ either (although I may have made the odd reference to it). I’ve mentioned ‘psychology’ a good few times – but usually in response to its appearance in a blog piece – and, I’ve wondered out aloud if the psychology of humans is prior to their politics? (ie, if needing is prior to, and forms, the social spaces in which it can best be met).

    So, I’m not sure why my bits get associated with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. I don’t mind at all, it’s just that there may be a danger of pigeon-holing an idea as a means of dismissing it. The risk here being that something already said – or that might otherwise have come to be said – could get lost in the process. As far as I’m aware, I’m just talking about humans and what they get up to (including, of course, pigeon-holing).

  24. Peter S

    Ben – I always find your posts thought provoking… which is to acknowledge, I suppose, that they succeed in placing an “emphasis on what’s happening in people’s heads”. The second-thoughts people often add to these threads (either provoked, or unprovoked) perhaps emphasises an activity which may wish to arrive at a conclusion – but which is glad that it doesn’t. On reflection, keeping one’s options open may be as much of a prerequisite to thinking as it is to living (if either are to be felt as worthwhile).

    Revisiting the ‘claims’ I outlined in my response to Geoff, the most glaring difference between them is that the historically-earlier one is inherently racist in identifying its obstacle (to a preferred future) while the latter one is notably careful to avoid doing so. For the modern Miserablist (the person whose very happiness is felt to depend upon getting rid of obstacles – rather than negotiating them), it is as if unconscious lessons have been learned from the recent past and that the same project – when re-presented in a revised ‘claim’ – has more likelihood of success if it avoids (or keeps out of consciousness) any cultural or racial ‘markers’ as identifiers of its ‘obstacle’.

    If so, it is an activity – one the older group were caricatured as being preoccupied with, and particularly good at – which may be common to both claims as the obstacle-to (and the destroyer-of) the kind of life which the claimants believe they will no longer be miserable in. Of course, we can also name each version of this claim, through history, according to how it was dressed up (disguised from itself) and expressed within the social surroundings of its time (whether its reference points were political, religious or a chaotic merger of the two).

    But, it seems to me, the key to dismantling and disempowering the claim contained within ‘environmentalism’ – before any of the action it demands is taken upon whatever it deems to embody its obstacle – is to unpack and disregard its wrappings and identify its core, and recurrent, human theme. Perhaps if that had been done with the earlier claim, the eventual horrors which were enacted in its service could have been avoided.

  25. lewis.deane


    Your ‘bits’ get ‘associated’ with ‘psychoanalysis’ (though, you might be flattered to know, not ‘psychotherapy’) because you, sometimes, remind us of the best of that old school – that it securely places what seemed most abstract, most rational, in the bosom, between the knees of our ‘immediate progenitors’ (yes, I have a Freudian inability to characterless them more precisely!). The problem I have with this approach is that its ‘precision’ tends to ‘illumine’ rather than make clear. That is to say, it lacks context. Its a rhetoric of precision rather than precision itself. It only seems viable, but the next moment one is in the world and, like a dream, it escapes one. That is to say, it has no explanatory power. What ‘explains’ the miasma of assumptions that the present moment seems to hold? It cannot be explained by any subjective model of the ‘human’ since such a model ‘explains’ everything and, therefore, nothing. Of course, there are certain ‘knots’, ‘intangibles’ of which, to a certain extant, psychology (and philosophy), addresses – the point being, that historically speaking, that is to say, within our present purview, there is, so to speak, something ‘human’ in us. But, as you alluded to it (disappointing), what can explain this or that particular violence? Everything. Details. And in the end what is apparent – documents, evidence. It is the grey, written documents and photo-video desiderata (today) that is and has always been the tightrope of rationality we bridge between ourselves and a rational thought and judgement. Poetry will last longer than such ‘judgement’, as, almost as long, will imaginative, rational empathy (my phrase for ‘psychology’) I have no doubt, but it is certainly not as cogent – or, indeed, cogent at all!

  26. lewis.deane

    Geoff Chambers,

    The ‘Johnsonian kick’ to my Berkeleys’ is truly felt! (Incidently, everyone dismisses Johnson’s jest at Berkeley as being crude, an ‘obtuse’ reply to the latter’s Idealism – I think it the best reply, a profound reply!). But I think the ‘brilliance’ is on your part in making explicit a thought I’m not sure I even thought – to distinguish between rational thought and ‘ideology’ as that between a way thinking that takes what is (including history) and a way of thinking that thinks of what ought to be. It interests me, teleology, in so much as there is a question of, first, how much a present moment’s desire is causative (and not causative) and how much that ‘desire’ is constructed by it’s context, it’s history? Or are there still those that imagine that the putative dreams of some will actually realize themselves? History is never like that (even if such dreams had any cogent sense). Questions.

  27. Lewis Deane


    Sorry, could you replace my email address in the last two posts with ‘Lewis Deane’. I clicked the wrong thing, as usual. Thanks.


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