It’s been nearly a year since this blog last took a look at Monbiot’s thinking. He used to be a favourite, epitomising the green movement’s excesses in each of his Guardian stories. But as useful as it is to see what goes on in the fantasy world that environmentalists live in, it is necessary not to credit them with too much influence. Monbiot’s accent, position on a broadsheet newspaper and style is all that separates him from the man wearing a The-End-is-Nigh sandwich board. Catastrophists are, in general, lonely, powerless, paranoid and daft — characteristics which are as much causes as they are symptoms of each other. Catastrophists disappear into themselves. Nonetheless, Monbiot’s ideas get printed in a national newspaper.
Monbiot has declared that ‘Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear‘. This is not Monbiot’s first epiphany…
If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own.
… His earlier turn-around was his grudging acceptance of nuclear power, which he had spent much of his life campaigning against. Like many other greens, he tore into his erstwhile comrades as ‘deniers’. But like his fellow traveller on some kind of road to a nuclear energy Damascus, Mark Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t really able to reflect deeply on the position he once held so strongly. But unlike Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t able to go as far as singing the praises of genetically engineered crops. Lynas was the victim of corporate propaganda, he complained. How quickly greens turn on each other with the terms they used for climate sceptics.
And Monbiot is not the first to realise that environmentalism is better at alienating than encouraging people. Way back in 2008, I posted this little clip of Caroline Lucas, who had suddenly realised that environmentalists lack a positive message.
Yet at the very same event, she couldn’t help but resort to the alarmism she now wanted to eschew in favour of a more optimistic message.
Lucas wanted to sustain her cake and eat it. But you cannot emphasise a positive message while blackmailing people with stories of catastrophe. Either we’re doomed, or we’re not. Without the doom, environmentalism means nothing at all. The point that this blog has made is that it is no coincidence that negative stories about ecological Armageddon seem to dominate a politically-sterile moment of history. Scare stories are how authorities legitimise themselves, and how political arguments are formulated in these inert times. Environmentalists claim to have transcended ‘ideology’, and have grounded themselves in ‘science’, but in fact epitomise the character of contemporary politics: too cowardly to commit to any principles or ideas; too vain to reflect on criticism; and utterly promiscuous with ‘facts’. ‘Science is a fig leaf.
What is it that such traits force people to do in the face of failure? Blame other people… Monbiot, again…
“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?” several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.
It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue”. People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.
This blog is in its eighth year of telling Monbiot that he emphasises threats, and pointing out that he is forced to use the language of threat because he cannot express a positive argument. But rather than listen to criticism from without the green camp, he preferred to sustain the myth of scientists-versus-deniers. So what of this theory, that Monbiot would reach more people, if only he could emphasis the jolly, fluffy and cuddly side of the doomsters’ credos?
Monbiot makes it clear: he doesn’t think that “climate breakdown” and “mass extinction” are no longer threats. He still thinks his purpose is “saving the planet”, as if he is some sort of holier-than-thou messiah who can promise us a place in paradise if only we wouldn’t squirm under his gentle, guiding hand.
But he realises he’s been quite annoying about it, which must be why we’re not listening to him. And that is a public relations problem. It is a matter of changing how he and his allies in the environmental movement communicate. Like a priest who feels he’s lost the the youth to dancing and wickedness, Monbiot thinks it’s about “changing the language” to be less “alienating”.
It never once occurs to him that his substance, not his style, might be the problem. Monbiot has on many an occasion been forced to renounce convictions he once firmly held. It is true that someone who is often wrong is not necessarily always wrong, but it can’t help his credibility.
Read the whole response, because it is excellent. I will pick up on just one point:
To Monbiot’s mind, repeatedly being proven wrong by both argument and history couldn’t possibly be why environmentalists lack credibility when they warn about threats. No, he thinks it is because the green left fails to heed “psychologists and cognitive linguists”.
Vegter’s point is spot on. And we should see in Monbiot’s appeal to ‘psychologists and cognitive linguists’ precisely the same impulse as the one that drove Stephan Lewandowsky et al to take issue with the structure of climate change deniers’ brains, rather than their argument.
The psychologising of sceptics in an attempt to explain the failure to ‘communicate’ the environmental message does not allow people in general — not just sceptics — to have made up their own mind. It is not unlike being told in an argument that the position you hold in opposition is not the consequence of your thinking about the matter at hand, but because some emotional trauma prevented the development of your rational or cognitive faculties. In fact it’s worse, because it patronises people who agree with the green premise as much as it patronises those who disagree: it says that all people are stupid, and simply need to be tickled with nice words like ‘tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves’, rather than presented with a substantive argument.
Greens are, of course, the first to stand up for Motherhood and Apple Pie. But it’s only later that we discover that there are too many mothers, they’re having too many babies, that the apples must be ‘organically-produced’, sustainably-sourced, and that the pie cannot be eaten, but must be saved for ‘future generations’. But it’s okay, because by not eating the pie, we won’t become obese, such are the benefits of environmentalism.
As I tried to discuss in the previous post, environmentalists think people are stupid. And they treat people as though they are stupid.
In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.
It is this treatment of people which makes environmentalism unpopular, and which causes it to see the natural world in terminal decline. And this runs throughout environmentalism’s thinking.
Another recent example of Monbiot’s writing shows the same anti-human logic at work…
It’s the great taboo of our age – and the inability to discuss the pursuit of perpetual growth will prove humanity’s undoing.
Monbiot is wrong twice. Scepticism of economic growth is not taboo. Everyone has been talking about it since ‘Affluenza’, and since the government launched various initiatives under the ‘happiness agenda’. And he’s wrong about ‘perpetual growth’, too:
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
It’s such a ‘taboo’ that even super rich bankers are talking about it…
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
And, having discovered the principle of compound growth, Monbiot pronounces:
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created.
On Monbiot’s view, ‘economics’ is just stuff taken from nature. More economic growth is more stuff taken from nature until there’s nothing left. Tim Worstall was on hand to correct him:
Think about GDP for a moment. It’s the calculation of all of the value added in the economy. It is not a calculation of the resources used. We do not say that 1 million tables were made and thus we’re richer by 1 million tables. We say that there 1 million tables made and we’re richer by the amount that a table is worth more than the resources we used to make that table. Value add is economic growth, not more stuff.
Greens are allergic to stuff because stuff is the stuff that the unwashed, unthinking masses are seemingly hypnotised by. On the green view, armies of zombie plebs blindly make their way to shopping malls to buy food, clothes and gadgets that they do not need, keeping the system tipping towards the inevitable destruction of the planet. Again: the point is not really that the planet is in peril; the point is the environmentalist’s contempt for the ordinary people and their needs and wants.
Worstall tells us all we need to know about George’s economics. Economic growth might even mean less stuff is used in the production of stuff as we work out more efficient ways to use more abundant materials. But Monbiot makes a bigger claim about human history.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
Monbiot reduces modernity to a pathology — ‘ideologies are mere subplots’.
The view that Monbiot offers can only be true if the coal dug itself out of the ground in industrial quantities, and forced us to burn it in machines that it designed for us.
It was in fact what Monbiot calls ‘ideologies’ that made the progress of the modern age possible. Coal, oil, and now gas, uranium, and whatever next, may be necessary for sustaining that progress. But industrialisation is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It took social organisation to produce the industrial revolution. Capitalism, in other words.
It was no use just having a coal mine if there was no one to mine it, nobody to work out how to use it, and no way of dividing the tasks between people, rightly or wrongly. The coal had been there for ever, as far as humans were concerned. And Wikpedia claims that coal has been burnt by people since 3000BC. It took almost 5,000 years more human history for an industrial revolution to occur, and for knowledge and for institutions that organise knowledge and labour to develop.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that Monbiot hates that history. He sees it as a terminal condition — a pathology. It is only a history of zombies, slavishly dancing to a tune called by coal and oil. Humanity itself is ‘unsustainable’. Beset by some kind of secular, ecological version of original sin, it would be better if we suffered our condition in lives characterised by subsistence, in a ‘sustainable’ natural order.
Far from having to ‘ransack the hidden corners of the planet’ to find resources, we have discovered more and more beneath our feet. Gas in rock. Almost unlimited energy in heavy metals. Integrated circuits in nothing more than sand. Highly resistant crops from the modification of DNA of weaker organisms. But Moniot is agin ‘em. He gives humans mere bit-parts in his account of their history, as if he were above it and them, their roles being as inevitable as the unfolding of the laws of thermodynamics.
What better counter to the funk of such a Fall-obsessed fool exists than the author of The Ascent of Man, again, Jacob Bronowski.