Monthly Archives: January 2013
BBC Radio 4 show, Thinking Allowed had a feature on the psychoanalysts perspective on climate change this week. Bishop Hill picked up the story. Thinking Allowed is one of my favourite programmes, so I was a tad disappointed to hear that thinking isn’t allowed if it’s thinking that contradicts climate orthodoxy. Here’s my letter to the programme.
I refer to your section on climate change and psychoanalysis in your most recent programme.
Your feature frames the problem as a failure to recognise what one of your guests called ‘the reality of climate change’, which moved on to a discussion about ‘types of denial’. However, if psychoanalysis has anything to say in the climate debate, it must speak to climate sceptics as much as their counterparts.
Sally Weintrobe lets the cat out of the bag when she claims that we are ‘increasingly aware’ of ‘weird weather’, citing hurricane Sandy and the UK’s recent wet weather. Yet there was nothing remarkable about the weather last year. The IPCC’s recent special report on extreme weather found that there is no evidence of increased frequency or intensity of storms, floods or droughts, or losses caused by them attributable to anthropogenic climate change.
So psychoanalysis must have something to say about Sally Weintrobe’s misconception of the ‘reality’ of climate change represented by the IPCC. Her views on climate seem to be as far out of kilter with the scientific consensus as any “denier’s”.
Further to her misconception of the reality of climate change is Weintrobe’s misconception of climate sceptics’ arguments. There are many forms of climate scepticism. Some sceptics object to environmental ethical or political philosophy. Some object to environmental economics. Some object to the attempt to mobilise political action through the use of fear. And of course, some sceptics object to some of the claims that seem to emerge from climate science. Your guests would have us believe that sceptics contest the claim that ‘global warming is happening’, whereas the question that most sceptics of climate science ask is about the role of feedback mechanisms that are believed to amplify the global warming effect — a subject on which there is far less consensus that your guests will admit.
For a programme with the title, ‘thinking allowed’, this is a problem. Rather than doing justice to the debate, a psychopathology of climate scepticism is proposed. Thus thinking is not allowed: to think differently about climate change is to have a broken mind, requiring the intervention of psychoanalysts.
There is a dark history of psychoanalysts and psychiatrists being recruited by the state to elicit the obedience of the public. Your guests seem to want to continue that tradition. That desire for control is what this climate sceptic objects to.
The recruitment of headshrinkers to a political campaign is a far more concerning phenomenon than people living in ‘denial’ of ‘the reality of climate change’. Your guests would rather construct elaborate theories about the pathology of climate sceptics than speak to them. Thus, their theories stand as a demonstration of only what is happening inside their own heads, rather than in society at large. This in turn speaks about the nature of environmental politics and the anti-democratic tendency of environmentalism.
The Telegraph’s resident Gaia-botherer, Louise Gray has a short piece on neoMalthusian anti-baby campaigner, David Attenborough.
The television presenter said that humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources.
He said the only way to save the planet from famine and species extinction is to limit human population growth.
“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he told the Radio Times.
Sir David, who is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, has spoken out before about the “frightening explosion in human numbers” and the need for investment in sex education and other voluntary means of limiting population in developing countries.
“We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Let’s leave aside Attenborough’s silly claim that humanity is a plague. What is of interest here are the ideas that Ethiopia suffers from having too many people, and that ‘we keep putting on programmes about famines in Africa’.
Alex Cull deals with the first claim in a comment posted at The Telegraph and on another post here.
Taking a charitable view here, Sir David is being a little naive.
In terms of population density Ethiopia ranks 121st, well behind the United Kingdom, France and Germany. It also has vast areas of fertile arable land.
Drought and war undoubtedly played a part in Ethiopia’s problems during the 20th century but there’s a strong argument that the famine in 1983-85, for instance, was caused mainly by bad governance, including inflexible Soviet-style central planning (Kenya, by contrast, had worse drought in that period but avoided famine altogether.)
This has nothing to do with “too many people”.
Attenborough would have it that Ethiopia’s problems are the result of its relationship with the natural world, not the result of relationships between Ethiopians, and between other countries. It is the privilege of elderly natural history broadcasters from wealthy backgrounds to pronounce on what people with dark skin are doing wrong: existing in such numbers that offend him. He ignores the history of people in that part of the world. It’s much easier to say that a fecund, stupid people don’t ‘get’ nature than is understand what drives conflict and besets development to produce famine. It’s immeasurably patronising; nobody, if they came across someone living in poverty or without a home in the West, would say ‘what you need is sustainability’. Why then, is the ‘natural order’ the way social problems are understood when they happen thousands of miles away?
So is it true that ‘we keep putting on programmes about famine in Africa’?
The BBC put almost all of their programmes online for a week following broadcast. These are all listed in categories. Here is screen capture of the ‘science and nature’ category:
So in the past week, the BBC has broadcast no less than 14 programmes about nature and wildlife. Notice also that this is the extent of the BBC’s ‘science and nature’ category — i.e. it’s all nature and no science. Furthermore, this includes two programmes that feature Attenborough himself: one on the animals of the Congo, the other a repeat of his 1961 ‘Zoo Quest to Madagascar’. Also noteworthy is the episode of ‘The Polar Bear Family and Me’ series. ‘The team returns in September and finds the polar bears are having a tough time’, says the blurb.
So where are the BBC’s programmes about Ethiopia, that Attenborough is concerned ‘we keep putting on’?
There aren’t any. The BBC is very keen on how animals live or are endangered, but the lives of millions of people, who, according to Attenborough, are not surviving, is not of interest. We care more for programmes about polar bear families than for films about people living in rural Ethopia. There are two series of films featuring Attenborough meeting animals in Africa, but not its people. The BBC’s schedule is full of Africa’s natural history, but rarely does it reflect on the continent’s social, political and cultural history. An entire collection of Attenborough films from the 1950s to the present is online (possibly not available to people outside the UK). Where people are mentioned, it seems they are typically tribal societies, living in ‘Paradise’.
No wonder, then, that Attenborough has such a limited view of humanity in general, and of Ethiopians in particular. When you are concerned with the flora and fauna of a region, rather than with its people, it’s no wonder that you can write people off as the problem afflicting ‘paradise’ once they develop beyond a way of life capable of producing more than subsistence. Humans become an invasive species… a plague… on what should rightfully be in their place.
I don’t want to sound harsh here on fans of natural history. That’s not the point. The problem comes when natural historians use their knowledge to try to explain the human, social world and its problems. Not only is it invariably wrong, it’s almost always dangerously wrong. It is presented as a ‘scientific’, empirical approach, but is deeply ideological. The natural historian’s perspective on the human world — albeit more straightforward than contested ideas about humans relate to each other and to the natural world — turns us all into monkeys. The only exception being the natural historians, of course. Only they possess the sight necessary to oversee the zoo, to pronounce on who or what should be where.
Typically, cold weather such as the UK is experiencing — an inch or so of snow that brings the country to a grinding halt — is used as the background to stories which challenge climate change orthodoxy. The tale needs barely any retelling: the milder winters and warmer summers we were promised simply haven’t materialised. As incautious as such arguments (like Boris Jonson’s) are, they are nothing compared to the absurdities of the argument they are countering. It was the extravagation in the first place which gives the ground to people who then ask, ‘where is this climate change, then?’ After all, the weather seems much as it was decades ago.
But today, it wasn’t as much the ‘deniers’ taking advantage of the cold weather, as the ‘Energy Bill Revolution‘ campaign. They got themselves an article on the front page of the Times, in the Daily Mail, and on Sky News. According to The Times,
More than 100 energy companies, charities and businesses have joined forces to warn David Cameron that Britain is heading for a fuel poverty crisis owing to a failure of government policy.
The group of 100 companies’ demands are simple enough:
An unprecedented alliance, including Npower, the Co-operative, Age UK and Barnardo’s, urges Mr Cameron to use money raised from the “carbon tax” to be levied from April to tackle the “national disgrace” of cold homes. A programme to fit houses with proper insulation would, they say, protect the vulnerable, help the environment and boost the economy.
But this is opportunism. The research in question was produced back in November. As this blog reported back then, the plan is to spend the £60 billion revenue from carbon taxes over the next 15 years on fitting the poorest 9 million homes in the UK with ‘energy efficiency’ measures.
But £60 billion is a lot of money. And I didn’t think that such a vast sum of money was worth it. Indeed, it would be enough money to buy 16GW of nuclear power plant. This would make it possible to reduce bills for all domestic energy consumers, and/or, if it was necessary or desirable, subsidise energy bills for the poor:
So how will this benefit people living in fuel poverty? Well, the ongoing plant costs under my scheme cost £1,099,180,017 — roughly a £ billion per year for the entire domestic sector. Between 25 million homes, that is about £43 per home per year, not including the cost of develiery. We’ve met the upfront capital cost of £55 billion through carbon taxes over 13 years. Now we can sit back and enjoy the cheap energy. According to OFGEM, 54% of a £470 electricity bill is ‘wholesale cost’. So that’s £253. And since we’re no longer producing any nasty CO2, we can remove the £47 charge for ‘environmental costs’ the government add to bills. The average bill now looks like this: £43 wholesale electricity cost, £84.6 for distribution, £23.5 transmission charges, £9.2 VAT, and £32.9 ‘other costs’, coming to a total of £193.2 per year. We’ve reduced the average electricity bill by £276.8 for everyone, not just the fuel poor. That’s taken many people out of fuel poverty — especially if they use electricity rather than gas to heat their homes. But if we’re still feeling generous, perhaps we could give some extra relief to the remaining fuel poor.
The problem is one created by making ‘efficiency’ an end of energy policy — a good, in and of itself. But efficiency is not necessarily a virtue. It might be (indeed, it clearly is) the case that energy inefficient homes could be better cared for by reducing the cost of energy, than by plugging up the gaps. If it costs 10 times as much to fill the gaps than it does to double the amount of energy used to heat the home, then clearly the greater virtue is in lowering the cost of energy.
But that’s not how the Energy Bill Revolution see it. Their call today is intended to put pressure on the government to use the Carbon Tax on their preferred measures, no matter what a cost-benefit calculation shows. So, then, it is not a surprise to see that the Energy Bill Revolution campaign counts a number of organisations and companies with an interest in energy efficiency. They include:
Anglian Home Improvements
Association for the Conservation of Energy
Climate Bonds Initiative
HIS Energy group
Home Heating Solutions Ltd.
The Mark Group
The Mears Group
The Mineral Wool Manufacturers Association
Nationwide Energy Services
National Insulation Association
Places for People
Red Roof Energy
SIG Energy Management
Willmott Dixon Group
So a full 36 of the 100 organisations behind the campaign are in fact companies, with a direct interest in the government diverting £60 billion towards energy efficiency measures. What company wouldn’t get behind a campaign that would unlock such a vast sum of cash?
Then there are the NGOs. I won’t list the usual suspects — the Greenpeaces and FoEs. What is surprising is the number of organisations who claim to be protecting the interests of the elderly, the young, the homeless and the poor. The category of ‘fuel poverty’ that will include 9 million households in just a year’s time would be reduced substantially, were energy bills more affordable. But rather than campaigning for ways to make energy cheaper, leaving more money in the pockets of those people, these organisations have put their names to a campaign that will put money in the bank accounts of energy, construction materials and services companies. And we’re not talking small money here — we’re talkign about £6,666 for each of those 9 million households. In 2004, there were only 1.2 million households in ‘fuel poverty’. Sharing £60 billion between them would amount to £50,000 each — not inconceivably the value of an entire house, never mind a refitting of an old house. Why weren’t these organisations calling for that, in 2004? Why is it only energy that warrants the attention of this coalitions of companies and NGOs? Why not food poverty, clothing poverty, if there’s a category called ‘fuel poverty’? And if 9 million people really are living in inadequate accommodation, why campaign only on the basis of their homes ‘energy efficiency’ ratings? And why now?
Well, the Energy Bill Revolution website informs that
The Energy Bill Revolution is an alliance campaign coordinated by Transform UK, a programme of the sustainable development organisation E3G. Transform UK works to build alliances to accelerate investment into the low carbon economy in the most socially just way.
Transform UK, turns out to be ‘The alliance that campaigns to accelerate investment into the low carbon economy.’ It’s about page explains further:
Transform UK was set up in January 2009 to identify and deliver transformational solutions for accelerating investment into the low carbon economy to help build climate, energy and economic security.
A steering group was set up which included a broad range of stakeholders representing civil society, unions, academics, think tanks, business and finance.
In February 2009, in a collaboration between three members of the steering group, E3G, Climate Change Capital and Friends of the Earth, the first paper proposing the establishment of a UK Green Investment Bank was written and promoted. Subsequent analysis was undertaken by other key stakeholders including the Aldersgate Group, Green Alliance, Policy Exchange and the Institute of Civil Engineers.
This inspirational idea to set up a dedicated institution to leverage billions of private capital into the low carbon economy was agreed as the first campaign priority of the Transform UK alliance.
Transform UK operates as the national hub for the Green Investment Bank campaign and helped to get cross party political support for it in the lead up to the 2010 General Election. The Government subsequently confirmed in its coalition agreement that it would set up the Green Investment Bank.
The Transform UK alliance is committed to supporting the development of the Green Investment Bank, Green Bonds and other solutions for accelerating investment into the low carbon economy.
So Energy Bill Revolution is a project of Transform UK, which is itself a project of E3G, Climate Change Capital (bankers), and Friends of the Earth. The financiers clearly have something to gain, as do Friends of the Earth, who, as the public record shows, are the beneficiaries of many millions of EU and UK public money. But who are E3G? Their about page says,
E3G is an independent not-for-profit organisation, established in 2004, that works in the public interest to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development.
We build coalitions to achieve carefully defined outcomes, chosen for their capacity to leverage change. E3G founders had been working together and developing their shared thinking for several years before the organisation was constituted in 2004.
Initially undertaking high-level diplomatic activities linked to the personal experience and influence of its founders, E3G has since been gently growing its portfolio of activities. E3G now has four strategic programmes, twelve additional members of staff, and an extensive network of aligned individuals and organisations.
I always wonder about these ‘about’ pages. They say nothing. No who, where, or how, and with what. The organisation’s ‘governance and funding page’ doesn’t give much more away…
E3G is constituted as a private company limited by guaranteed. Our constitution commits us to work in the public interest, and to reinvest any surplus profits in the further pursuit of our stated objectives. E3G is registered as a company (5158916) in England and Wales.
E3G — aka Third Generation Environmentalism Ltd — maintains full independence in all its activities, and is funded by a mix of foundations, government bodies and NGOs. To date, E3G has received funding from:
Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs
Department for International Development
Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
European Climate Foundation
Italian Ministry for Environment and Territory
Natural Resources Defense Council
So, again, we see high finance, powerful NGOs, and government departments. It’s amazing to see the doublespeak: ‘Independently funded by foundations, governments and NGOs’.
The ECF was established in early 2008 as a major philanthropic initiative to promote climate and energy policies that greatly reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and to help Europe play an even stronger international leadership role to mitigate climate change.
So, who are these philanthropists? They are:
Nationale Postcode Loterij – which is, as far as I can tell, the Dutch National Lottery.
The Arcadia Fund – a fund set up by Lisbet Rausing to protect nature.
The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation – which ‘aims to demonstrably improve the lives of children living in poverty in developing countries by achieving large-scale, sustainable impact’.
The ClimateWorks Foundation – which ‘supports public policies that prevent dangerous climate change and promote global prosperity’, with money from the Hewlett-Packard and McKnight families.
The McCall MacBain Foundation – which ‘exists to improve the welfare of humanity through focused grants in areas of health, education and the environment’ with ‘the proceeds of the sale of Trader Classified Media, the world’s leading company in classified advertising’.
The Oak Foundation – which ‘commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged’.
The Stordalen Foundation – who ‘step into the breach to finance and build companies that are to offer people the greatest number of options to current solutions’, whatever that means.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – who ‘solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world’ with their money.
And there the follow-the-money trail ends.
There may not be anything nefarious going on in any one part of this bizarre network of relationships, which started off as a letter to David Cameron, and now turns out to extend all the way back to the people who made a rubbish printer I once owned. But there is something that should make us uneasy about public policy being dictated by a cabal of super-rich (1% of the 1% of the 1% kind of rich) philanthropists, through transnational campaigning organisations which serve no obvious constituency, but who fund in turn, not-for-profit campaigning companies, in partnership with NGOs, financiers, government departments, and big firms, who in turn finance campaigning front-organisations like Energy Bill Revolution. EBR is passed off as a coalition of civil society organisations concerned with the plight of the poor. But once we exclude the commercial interests, state agencies, and those who are nakedly making instrumental use of the poor for political ends, there are no organisations left to sign the letter to Cameron, except perhaps for the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts.
The reason this stinks is not simply the misleading claims of ‘civil society’. Call me old fashioned, but I believe public policy should be determined by the public, through democratic processes, not by mysterious benefactors through strange networks of organisations, none of which are democratic, none of which are accountable, and none of which are transparent about their aims.
Even if, at the end, the letter to Cameron from the Energy Bill Revolution campaign parters bears the names of organisations with a genuine desire to help the poor, there is no mistaking the weirdness that belies such a straightforward, noble aim. Even if they aren’t self-serving, the day I’ve spent trying to get them to answer my criticisms of their preferred policies certainly makes me suspicious. What the state does with sums as large as £60 million ought to be the subject of debate, not decided by cosy relationships between the privileged, moneyed and powerful, seemingly for the benefit of the poor. Civil society, then, shows itself to be as intransigent, ignorant and indifferent to the poor as it is to democracy.
There have been endless pastiches-upon-pastiches of the zombie movie genre in recent years. As far as I can tell, the only significant development in the basic plot is that whereas zombies were once driven by supernatural forces, the contemporary living-dead seem more often to have been rendered flesh-hungry by some kind of virus, typically engineered by some mysterious agenda. What does this revision of an already hackneyed metaphor stand for in today’s world, then? A cautionary tale about our incautious meddling with the natural order perhaps? No. This phenomenon of remakes is not unlike the phenomenon it depicts. The contemporary zombie perfectly mirrors the zombie movie writer. What drives the zombie is the death of his author’s imagination. The future is gone, eaten away by his nihilistic malaise. Unable to author a new story, he drags one out of the past.
Does this remake sound familiar?
Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.
In this case, however, the authors are re-making their own work. The words belong to Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who brought Malthus back from the dead in the 1968 epic, The Population Bomb.
The Ehrlichs have been claiming that ‘now’ is the ‘first time’ that ‘a global collapse appears likely’ for nearly half a century. Their many failed predictions are well understood, and need no re-telling here. Suffice it to say that the world’s situation is precisely the opposite: there are more people, but there are more resources. There is less suffering, disease and poverty. People are wealthier.
In spite of which, the Ehrlichs drag out that Zombie script…
But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’ , facing what UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems . The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas ; and resource wars . These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ , and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.
There is nothing new here. Consider this United Nations video from 1972, which features Paul Ehrlich.
This was forty years ago, but it could almost be the most recent UN climate meeting. Zombie protesters. Zombie world leaders. Zombie conference. Zombie ideas. Like the remakes, all that changes is the film stock, the clothes and some of the back story. The United Nations is the longest running zombie movie franchise.
Having their zombie prophecies proven wrong by billions of people every day for nearly half a century has not caused the Ehrlichs to pause and reflect on their failure, much less revised the script.
“What is the likelihood of this set of interconnected predicaments leading to a global collapse in this century?”, they asked, as though the question had never been asked before.
There have been many definitions and much discussion of past ‘collapses’ [1,3,28–31], but a future global collapse does not require a careful definition. It could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization , to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.
“A future global collapse does not require a careful definition. No, any old careless zombie definition will do. All that is necessary is to say that a catastrophic end of the world is possible. And then, by virtue of it merely being possible, we must take it seriously as a fact and act to stop it. In fact, why not choose the zombie apocalypse to be the definition of a ‘global collapse’? After all, it does seem to be the case that a bunch of people infected with an idea that causes them to be preoccupied with the end of humanity seem the most opposed to the expansion of humanity, its development and prospering. That looks like a zombie apocalypse to me.
One such organisation that has been infected by such a poisonous agent is the Royal Society. As I reported back in April last year, the Royal Society made Paul Ehrlich a fellow, just as they released their report on population, ‘People and planet‘. The report was an attempt by the Royal Society to expand its reach over policy-making on the basis of an immanent global catastrophe. And it is in Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal that Ehrlich’s latest zombie tome is served up.
The Ehrlichs’ essay continues, with the familiar claims about the environment going to hell in a handcart. References to 163 papers seem to make the case that war, pestilence, plague, famine, flood, drought, biodiversity.. and the rest… will overwhelm civilisation. And then we get to the nub of the argument. In order to avert the crisis, there is a ‘need for rapid social/political change’.
Until very recently, our ancestors had no reason to respond genetically or culturally to long-term issues. If the global climate were changing rapidly for Australopithecus or even ancient Romans, then they were not causing it and could do nothing about it. The forces of genetic and cultural selection were not creating brains or institutions capable of looking generations ahead; there would have been no selection pressures in that direction. Indeed, quite the opposite, selection probably favoured mechanisms to keep perception of the environmental background steady so that rapid changes (e.g. leopard approaching) would be obvious [132, pp. 135–136]. But now slow changes in that background are the most lethal threats. Societies have a long history of mobilizing efforts,making sacrifices and changes, to defeat an enemy at the gates, or even just to compete more successfully with a rival. But there is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet
gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization, we believe is required to avoid a collapse.
But the Ehrlichs always believed that the ‘mobilization’ they wanted to see was the only thing that could save the world. Like the unlikely heroes at the centre of every implausible zombie film, the Ehrlichs exist in the centre of their own fantasy. The advantage such protagonists enjoy in zombie films is that anyone they might have to negotiate with has already succumbed to the sea of the living dead. Any remaining doubters find that their doubt is the agent of their own demise, except for a handful of doubters, perhaps, one of whom is redeemed at the last moment as the heroes risk their own lives to save him or her. But the real world is neither made out of movie clichés, nor does it revolve around the Ehrlichs.
In most blog posts here, I usually attempt to work out what the argument I am taking issue with is. But the Ehrlichs do not offer one. Like a zombie, the Ehrlich’s essay has no real identity, only an insatiable appetite to devour humanity. There is no serious analysis of society’s systematic failures. There is no real attempt to quantify the actual — much less hypothetical — problems they are referring to. Indeed, they admit that they don’t think they have to identify the issue, they only need to demonstrate that it is plausible. And just as there isn’t any argument, there isn’t any science. There is the environmental litany… A zombie, again, which has plodded on and on in search of flesh since the 1960s. And there is a conclusion — the claim that on the basis that a catastrophe is merely plausible, the institutional apparatus to prevent it is necessary — which has the moral depth of a zombie film’s final moments.
This is what happens when you tell the same story for fifty years, non stop. The Ehrlichs offer no more than banal science fiction. It dominates the scientific establishment — the Royal Society and its journal — just as zombie movies dominate the Sci-Fi section of NetFlix. It’s time to kill the Malthusian franchise.
Jo Nova reports that Prof Richard Parncutt, who suggested that climate change sceptics could face the death penalty for their crime, has taken down the original text of his argument and has apologised.
Though I would have preferred a more convincing reflection on his mistake, all’s well that ends well. So what follows is not intended to browbeat the professor at the University of Graz — of music, after all, not a discipline that typically reflects on the rights and wrong of killing people. Nonetheless, one doesn’t get to the position of professor (I used to think) without some broad acquaintance with ideas and their histories and some capacity for reflection on one’s own perspective. The mistakes he makes demonstrate the problem with many arguments that put the environment at the centre of their perspective, even those who do not call for the execution of sceptics. I hope to point out those mistakes — which are broader and deeper than just calling for your political opponents to face the death penalty — below.
Parncutt states his objection to the death penalty…
I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. […] Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him, that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument.
… But then he finds an exception to his objection…
I don’t think that mass murderers of the usual kind, such Breivik, should face the death penalty. Nor do I think tobacco denialists are guilty enough to warrant the death penalty, in spite of the enormous number of deaths that resulted more or less directly from tobacco denialism. GW is different. With high probability it will cause hundreds of millions of deaths. For this reason I propose that the death penalty is appropriate for influential GW deniers. More generally, I propose that we limit the death penalty to people whose actions will with a high probability cause millions of future deaths.
Parncutt claims that his idea has been produced by thinking ‘logically’ and ‘objectively’ about the problem of what to do about all those pesky climate change deniers. I don’t find that claim at all plausible. The argument I make on this blog is that what appears as self-evident to the environmentalist owes much more to environmentalism than to facts unambiguously presented to the environmentalist by the environment. The environmentalist’s thinking is littered with his own prejudices.
Indulging Parncutt’s incautious rant allows us to bring out environmentalism’s ‘ideology’ — it’s presuppositions, prejudices and logic — more starkly than is typically possible with more guarded environmental waffle.
For instance, Parncutt asks us to think about doing something wrong (executing people who deny climate change) to correct a greater wrong (preventing the deaths of people from climate change). But how does one get to such a position using ‘logic’, per his claim?
It’s certainly true that killing people who disagree with you prevents dissent. Similarly, we could claim that all crime, no matter how petty, should be punishable by death. Suddenly crime rates would plummet. What’s not to like?
It turns out that we prefer justice to be proportionate. And that is a trickier metric to get to grips with than ‘logic’ or ‘objectivity’can help us with. There simply isn’t an objective or logical measure of proportionality — it’s a complex idea, which different cultures and different ideologies form different perspectives on, for historical reasons. And so it is with the Parncutt’s blood lust.
The passages of Parncutt’s text are an example of a knot that moral consequentialists find themselves tied up in fairly often. When trying to weigh up the rights and wrongs of doing wrong to do right, consequentialists find themselves committed to some unpleasant ideas, as the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
A well-worn example of this over-permissiveness of consequentialism is that of a case standardly called, Transplant. A surgeon has five patients dying of organ failure and one healthy patient whose organs can save the five. In the right circumstances, surgeon will be permitted (and indeed required) by consequentialism to kill the healthy patient to obtain his organs, assuming there are no relevant consequences other than the saving of the five and the death of the one.
Even if we grant — for the sake of argument — that Parncutt’s argument proceeds logically, it proceeds from a basis where something like consequentialism has been presupposed. Another view might be that even if the consequences of allowing people to speak freely is an environmental disaster of the magnitude he predicts, it is nonetheless incumbent on environmentalists to make the persuasive argument. So there are now at least two views — with very different consequences — that ‘logic’ and ‘objectivity’ can proceed from. The problem being that logic and objectivity have little to say about the right way to navigate the between allowing free speech on the one hand, and terminating interlocutors on the other. Ending up at such an extreme speaks about something else that’s going on inside the professor’s head. ‘I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument‘, he says. But we can see as plain as day his self-deception. Rather than admitting that his argument is based on something like consequentialism — or more crudely, the ’24’ defence of torture — Parncutt tries to use the weight of the consequences to make the argument.
Objectivity aside, the argument fails on logic, too, though. Consider this passage:
GW deniers fall into a completely different category from Behring Breivik. They are already causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of future people. We could be speaking of billions, but I am making a conservative estimate.
Deniers ‘are already causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of future people‘. In Parncutt’s logic, the future is the present. There are two problems with this.
First, the linguistic sleight of hand is something looked at previously on this blog:
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.
How can an action in the present ‘already’ have caused a consequence in the future?
Parncutt might well be right, and us ‘deniers’ will have campaigned against action to stop climate change, leading to the deaths of millions or billions of people. But it might also be the case that he is wrong. And there are many other possibilities. Climate change may continue at any degree between benign and something worse than even Parncutt has considered. But even then, such changes in the environment may not cause a single death, because — as is argued on this blog — human society is less sensitive to climate than Parncutt estimates, or because we are capable of organising ourselves against such problems as they happen. After all, we have thousands of years to cope with sea level rise. The migration away from, and the loss of the twentieth century’s great cities may cause people in the thirty-first or forty-first centuries no more anguish than the loss of Anglo-Saxon villages causes the average Briton. The human race might well prosper in the future, even without ice caps.
Second, a moral perspective premised on bringing the future victims of our carbon profligacy to the present is fraught with problems, as has also been discussed here before. Nearly five years ago, I reviewed James Garvey’s attempt to set out ‘The Ethics of Climate Change’:
Producing carbon dioxide – that is to say, using more than our fair share of carbon sinks – is not simply a moral wrong in the present, according to Garvey. What we do now carries consequences into the future. Accordingly, he challenges us to consider that moral responsibility isn’t limited by any kind of proximity. We have as much a duty to reduce our carbon emissions for the sake of the starving child on the other side of the planet as we do the starving child a thousand years into the future.
But Garvey’s moral calculations are easily challenged. How might the same starving child, were he standing right in front of us, be helped by us reducing our CO2? To suggest that it would help would seem entirely uncaring, and not at all ‘ethical’. Garvey might answer that CO2 emissions are what have caused hunger and injury. But this would seem to forget that famine, drought, and disease have historically always been part of life for individuals and communities living at the edge of society. Such forms of poverty are not new, but they are ‘natural’. If we can’t say that reducing CO2 emissions would help this child, it is hard to see how Garvey’s argument against proximity can be sustained. If, in a wealthy country, we were to stumble across some case of poverty, we would not say that the conditions people were living in were the result of climate change. We would not, as Garvey does, say that it was a consequence of our ‘moral failure’ to consider the connection between our CO2-producing actions, and their consequences. We would instead suggest that it was a social problem, arising out of material inequality. So why aren’t the problems faced by Garvey’s victims, thousands of miles away, not also problems of material inequality? Why are our responsibilities to people thousands of miles away different to our responsibilities to people right in front of us?
[…]Garvey’s portrayal of the remote, poverty-stricken victims makes use of the environmentalist’s maxim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. But the sense of responsibility that Garvey appears to wish us to understand is not responsibility in the sense of commitment, or duty, but culpability. We are asked to engage with Garvey’s view of the world as culprits. And as culprits, we are asked to stop what we are doing, and ‘give’ back to the poor what is theirs by some kind of right. In this relationship, the poor are like puppets that Garvey uses to act out a kind of morality play to elicit our sympathy – or guilt – for his cause. And just as Garvey needs distance and poverty on this stage, he also needs victims to make his case. After all, where is this system of ethics, if there are no victims? He does not allow us to consider how we might begin to change things so that people are not poor – to make things better – but how we can avoid being responsible for making things worse.
The imperatives of ‘sustainable development’ demand that we consider the interests of ‘future generations’ — people who do not exist yet, but who are represented by the likes of Garvey and now Parncutt. It’s an interesting paradox: people who aren’t yet alive have some kind of rights in the present, whereas people in the present who speak in public about the daftness of giving non-existent people rights in the present deserve to be put to death.
What strange ‘ethics’: killing today’s sceptics so that tomorrow’s sceptics may live. But again putting its more egregious consequences to one side reveals the broader problem with environmental ethics.
An eco-centric perspective means robbing people in the present and the future of the thing that makes them different — being alive rather than merely being a life. Being alive means (for humans) being aware of oneself, and a sense of your own desires, will, ambitions and future. But the desire to protect ‘future generations’ denies people in the present and the future a right to express their own ideas about their own interests. After all, how can people in the future express themselves in the present? They can’t; they can only exist as statistical quantities, with statistical approximations of ‘interests’… so much water, air, and carbon. The remainder — things that make life worth living — is thrown out. Humans are not moral agents on this view; the concept of agency doesn’t exist at all, except in the sense of blame. Hence, the consequence of putting so much emphasis on life as a metabolic process, rather than on the experience of being alive. Environmentalism’s ‘ethics’ are as cold as spreadsheets.
This very limited view of humanity causes environmentalism to conceive of people as helpless without it: unable to adapt to changing environmental conditions, incapable of overcoming their dependency on natural processes, and driven by material instincts to consume until everything is gone or the waste overwhelms the consumer.
For instance, Parncutt claims:
When the earth’s temperature rises on average by more than two degrees, interactions between different consequences of global warming (reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures, extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines. Moreover, an unknown number may die from wars over diminishing resources (more). Even if that does not happen, thousands of plants and animals will become extinct. Islands, shorelines and coastal communities will disappear.
Parcutt’s claim to objectivity and logic weakens even more here. There is no scientific basis for the two degree limit. ‘Two degrees’ is a horizon of uncertainty, not a threshold of the environment’s functioning. And the consequences of exceeding two degrees that he lists are equally mere speculation. Previously, this blog has argued that global warming and its consequences can be divided into first and Nth-order effects. While we can be more sure of first order effects, Nth order effects such as feedback mechanisms are far less understood — climate sensitivity remains a controversy, not a matter of fact. And we have barely got into the discussion of ‘interactions between different consequences of global warming’. These interactions and their sensitivity to climate change are presupposed by environmentalism — they have not been detected by science. But much worse than this is the way in which Parncutt imagines that human society is sensitive to these speculative Nth order effects.
Starvation, disease, famine, and war over diminishing resources are as inevitable consequences, it would seem, as the melting of ice. You heat ice, it melts. You heat the planet, you get wars. Parncutts denial of human agency in his ethical framework is matched by a denial of human agency in the real world. The limited, metabolic view of humanity in his eco-centric ethics corresponds to his highly deterministic view of society’s relationship with the environment. This deterministic framework allows him to prophesize: ‘interactions between different consequences of global warming […] combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die’. Looking to the future is just a matter of doing the math.
Were it not for the seemingly shocking argument that climate sceptics should be executed, Parncutt’s hollow argument would have gone unnoticed. It would have been a run-of-the-mill, boring whinge about people who don’t agree with him. We’ve seen thousands of them. Arguments such as Parncutts pour out of government departments and organisations that have sought to identify themselves with the climate issue in recent years. But nobody was listening. The environmental movement failed to achieve any momentum. Nobody believes people who dress up as planet-saving superheroes. In order to explain their failure, environmentalists had to invent a demon — the denier… An all powerful being who could manipulate the public. Says Parncutt…
Much more would have happened by now if not for the GW deniers. An amazing number of people still believe that GW is a story made up by scientists with ulterior motives. For a long list of climate change deniers and their stories see desmogblog. The opinions of everyday GW deniers are evidently being driven by influential GW deniers who have a lot to lose if GW is taken seriously, such as executives in transnational oil corporations.
This is why intellectually weak arguments like Parncutt’s tend to alarmism and to shrill, shocking, and sensational statements. ‘GW deniers’ were never powerful, influential, or well-funded. Environmental alarmism was born out of a growing isolation of the political class from the wider public. Terrifying stories about the immanent deaths of millions of people was not intended to engage the public as much as it was to arm organisations and governments with a sense of legitimacy and purpose in spite of public opinion. Efforts to turn environmental alarmism into international treaties and organisations was never set back by public opinion — they were never vulnerable to democratic control. Meanwhile, radical organisations that attempted to use environmental crisis to engage with the public merely secured their own isolation. And as environmentalists isolation from reality and the wider public increased, so they sealed themselves away from criticism of their ideas. Nobody would challenge the logic of arguments such as Parncutt’s, they would merely say ‘yes, logic and objectivity, hurrah’. Consequently, the quality of the arguments offered by environmentalists has diminished as their tone has grown ever more shrill.
Parncutt’s essay, far from being logical and objective, reflects environmentalism’s failure to make logical and objective arguments, much less persuade anyone with them. In his frustration, Parncutt escalates his claims against those he blames for environmentalism’s failure. Along the way, he reveals the ideological nature of environmentalism, and betrays his own inability to reflect on his failures, and to take responsibility for them. It wasn’t deniers who held up environmentalism’s progress; it was environmentalists.