Environmentalism & Mediocrity

This blog has long argued that one of the forces driving environmentalism’s ascendency is mediocrity, especially in the press. Green-inkers fancy themselves in some kind of war with sceptics or deniers of what they imagine to be the ‘reality of climate change’. But in fact most responses to the extravagation of alleged journalists in (but not at all limited to) the Independent and Guardian newspapers are incredulity that somebody so thick in the head could be hired by broadsheets, not that the planet’s response to CO2 is warming.

In the wake of ridiculous articles from Geoffrey Lean, Danny Weston has an account of his interaction with former Telegraph environmental correspondent Louise Gray, over at Bishop Hill. Says Weston,

She became well known for her “churnalism” of environmentalist press releases, which were then passed off as journalism with due diligence. Unfortunately only those regularly commenting on her pieces seemed to be aware of this.

Noting ‘complete lack of critical filters on her part’, Weston confronted Gray, who, to her credit, took the matter up with him after a debate, to defend herself. Whereas most environmental journalists typically take the opportunity to run away from criticism, Gray’s mistake seems to have been honesty. Her copy was no more alarmist or absurdly stupid than anything written by Leo Hickman, Damian Carrington or Suzanne Goldenberg, but her defence was underwhelming.

Weston shows the manifestation of mediocrity at work in the copy — and it really is copied — on the green pages of today’s newspapers.

I’ve often wondered how this happened. Weston offers this explanation.

I look at the rubbish routinely pumped out by the likes of Lean and Gray and have increasing difficulty in believing that they mendaciously cling to the climate catastrophism schtick to drive their journalism as a matter of pure ideology.

Weston is right. I can’t think of a smart green journalist. They are, to a man (and woman, of course), apparently quite dim, not given to thinking even that what they churn from “scientists” and NGOs can be criticised. (Indeed, they occasionally end up working for green NGOs, Leo Hickman and Richard Black, for instance).

My theory about how this happened is this. Geography has never been a sexy subject. No newspaper would have ever willingly run stories on the Earth’s natural processes because they are usually boring to most people. But as environmental issues rose up the global and later national political agenda, correspondents with the knowledge necessary to write on the subject informatively were sought. But editors hiring staff have confused passion for a subject with knowledge of a subject. Let’s face it, activists write more exciting copy than the authors of geography textbooks.

One has to be more ignorant than most journalists are to not know that social experiments with deterministic ideas about the world have been tried before, within and without environmental debates. And one needs to be especially stupid not to be able to see climate alarmism in the context of a movement that began with population and resource-centric environmentalism championed by the likes of Paul Ehrlich. As good as such journalists are at reciting the environmentalist’s litany, they are never any good at engaging with critical reflection on it.

What holds for newspapers holds for the academy and political institutions. At some point, some bright spark asked, ‘what is the use of universities’. Knowledge as an end in itself was abandoned, and universities were increasingly made to explain their value, and so established departments and courses specifically aimed to further ‘good governance’ and to produce ‘policy-relevant’ research. Ditto, as the atrophy of political movements turned into full-blown gangrene, green hues bloomed. As left intellectuals died, became confused by age and disoriented by the collapse of their organisations, so the appeal of a planetary emergency grew. The preferred argument against capitalism that today’s leading left-wing thinkers offer is not, per left-wing intellectuals of the past, grounded in sophisticated and abstract understanding of the human condition, the workings of capital, and the identification of mutual interests, but is mere climate blackmail. Here’s Naomi Klein, introducing her latest book, ‘This Changes Everything‘, for example:

Naomi Klein bases her work on ‘a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’. Klein’s embrace of Werner is discussed here.

“Our economic model”, says Klein, “is at war with life on Earth”. This needs to be seen in relation to the view that used to identify the left’s criticism of capitalism. Whereas Klein proposes that capitalism puts humans into an antagonistic relationship with ‘life’ (i.e. ‘Nature’), the historic left’s position was that capitalism created economic classes of people with mutually antagonistic interests.

The rights and wrongs of the historic position to the side, although Klein pitches her argument in terms of ‘building a better world’, her zero-sum-world eco-socialism is mere window-dressing for shallow apocalyptic utopianism: do as I say or the planet dies. People are not asked to come together to build the better world they want, but the world the ‘pink-haired complex systems researcher’ has designed for them. That’s what pink-haired complex systems researchers do. They aren’t good for anything else.

Klein is only the latest person to understand that mathematical models of the environment have political utility. More mainstream (though arguably no less ‘radical’) political organisations have understood precisely this since at least the late 1960s. Because, similarly, governments have found it as hard to justify themselves as atrophied left wing organisations.

The promise of mediocre individuals in powerful positions — let us call them ‘mediocrats’, and their reign ‘mediocracy’ — is to save us from disaster. But we should see this promise for what it is, an inability to either humbly withdraw from public life or to articulate anything better than mere survival. Once expectations have been set so low as to convince us all that, like some victim of a terminal condition, each day might be our last, each day becomes a gift from them.

And this brings us back to the latter-day eco-hacks — the idiot propagandists for mediocracy. Weston says,

… collective hysteria and belief in imminent doom provides a fantastic cover if you have the unfortunate combination of being incompetent, a bit dim and looking for an easy ride being employed amongst the commentariat and attending jollies. I think I’d rather have the competent ideologues to contend with, personally.

I think he does them a favour. We should not be fooled — they really are that stupid. Running away is as much as the best minds in the climate medicracy can muster. Chris will be waiting a long time for environmentalism’s competent ideologues. Take, for example, the Twitter feed of one mediocrat, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Lord John Deben, PKA, John Selwyn Gummer, on Twitter. In the face of criticism, Gummer, unlike Gray, runs away, calling his critics ‘dismissers‘. Even the Nobel Prize-winning minds at the Royal Society refuse to engage in public debate, preferring instead to snipe at Nigel Lawson. The quality of the debate does not improve as one moves away from the seemingly street-level environmentalism of Klein and Occuppiers, through the realms of the junior mediocrats like Bob Ward, up to the ranks of Stern, Nurse and Gummer, and EU and UN nutcases like Christiana Figueres and Connie Hedegaard. Environmental correspondents on national newspapers ought to be able to catch them out. But their bosses employed dullards, whereas in the past one had to be at least slightly brighter than average to catch a job on a national daily.

19 thoughts on “Environmentalism & Mediocrity”

  1. “Beautiful collection of assertions…”

    Oh, the irony.

    We can only guess what further substantiation the post above requires, on Jim’s view. He says precisely nothing. He might as well say ‘nerr nerr ner nerrr nerrrrr’.

    It is as though I’d never written the words…

    As good as such journalists are at reciting the environmentalist’s litany, they are never any good at engaging with critical reflection on it.

  2. Well written, Ben. I enjoy your “take” on the press lately. Have you looked at the Australian press lately; I had to check that you are based in the UK before I wrote this because you had the local (Australian) press described perfectly.

  3. I certainly see your point on recycling press releases. Indeed, I’m amazed how much of this is done throughout journalism if you look beyond the superficial. Possibly there is a wider point here about rolling news, the desire to fill ever increasing web sites and special sections (‘green’, ‘science’, ‘finance’, ‘business’…) on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I don’t think that green journalists are uniquely uncritical.

    However, you say:

    I can’t think of a smart green journalist.

    I notice George Monbiot is absent from your critique. While I don’t always agree with his articles, they do seem to be original and well researched. He also shows the ability to self-critique in the face of evidence – see for instance his acknowledged volte-face on nuclear to achieve his stated aim of low Carbon energy production.

    I think there are critical eco-journalists out there, of which Monbiot would be my most obvious example. As with anything, you have to read critically and understand the position from which they speak. It is possible that green journalism could suffer more from “churnalism” than other areas, I would postulate this to be because of the manufactured ‘need’ for eco-stories every day. As usual, I am loathe to put this down to people being dim. Often an ideological position will lead to journalists accepting stories with a certain angle less critically, as much as we (and probably they) would like to think that shouldn’t be the case.

    Finally
    Running away is as much as the best minds in the climate medicracy can muster.

    I guess medicracy is a typo, not sure if you want mediocracy or mediacracy, or maybe more likely to conflate the two. Bit inconsistent – as you start by illustrating that’s Gray’s “mistake” was indeed not running away. Or maybe in your view Gummer is one of your “best minds” and Gray is not.

    Some will run away, some will angrily retort, some will think and try to respond thoughtfully. Again, is this not just life and not confined to green journalists? You can imagine, I’m sure, that I was never a fan of J.S. Gummer, and his reincarnation as green champion has not changed that. For me, then, he is not representative of the “best minds” in climate change media, running away, name-calling or not.

  4. Richard – I notice George Monbiot is absent from your critique. While I don’t always agree with his articles, they do seem to be original and well researched…

    I used to write a lot about Monbiot. There was some debate in comments here about the actual influence of the Guardian/Monbiot. And in the end, I felt I’d given him too much attention, and that nobody else was really, even in the green camp. This is borne out by looking at Monbiot’s inability to form a cohesive outlook, and his failed attempts to be part of a movement bigger than himself.

    I have never, ever, felt that Monbiot’s article were either well-researched or original. On the contrary, I have found him to be vacillating, inconsistent, and promiscuous with ‘research’. Moreover, I would say he avoids debate with his critics. Rather than engage in debate with them, for instance, he will typically resort to Oreskes-style ‘tobacco strategy’ innuendo, lifted from places such as SpinProfiles.

    What Monbiot does have is confidence. Like Porritt, Monbiot’s overbearing is testament to the values of famous British public schools and Oxbridge. Their confidence belies their actual talent.

    Here’s a post from back in 2008.

    The crisis is in politics, not in the skies. Monbiot – who, for some reason is regarded as one of the intellectual lights of the environmental movement – misconceives any form of politics as ‘identity politics’ because he struggles to identify himself. Therefore he becomes terrified of any political ‘identity’ or idea which threatens to undermine or usurp his fragile grip, expressed as his fears that ideas themselves will lead to the inevitable destruction of the biosphere by distracting people from their religious commitment to carbon reduction. Similarly, as more mainstream members of the establishment loose confidence in themselves and their functions, their claims to be engaged in ‘saving the planet’ is straightforward self-aggrandizement in the face of nervousness. We can say then, that the wasteland that is the intellectual landscape of contemporary mainstream and radical politics represents its thinkers’ own identity crises. The result is crisis politics – politicians, journalists, and activists who sustain themselves by creating panic, fear, alarm, and tragically, public policy. http://www.climate-resistance.org/2008/08/identity-crisis-politics.html

    And some more.

    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2014/06/monbiotism-again.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2013/07/the-global-guardians-and-the-league-of-extraordinary-nutjobs.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2012/01/its-that-monbiot-again.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/06/all-watched-over-by-monbiot.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2012/01/moonbat-still-at-it.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/12/environmentalism-freedom.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2010/11/what-the-greens-really-got-wrong-2.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2010/06/inner-spin-outer-chaos.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2009/08/folie-a-deux.html
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2009/01/georges-aga-ga-ga-and-the-heathrow-hoo-haa.html

    The last post there summing up Monbiot:

    George emerges dizzy from his own spinning and thinks it is the world that’s confused about what direction it is moving in. And this is his fundamental problem. Everything he writes is a projection of his own inability to understand a world that fails to conform to his expectations. The ideas he uses to orientate himself fail to give him purchase on his own existential crisis; they crumble underfoot.The result is his capricious, vacillating, and incoherent column in the Guardian, with its frequent attacks on Spiked. This disorientation demonstrates beautifully, albeit unintentionally, Spiked’s broader criticism that the Left-Right axis isn’t sufficient to explain the world. Monbiot is a painful symptom of this disorientation, not a bright and leading advocate of an urgent cause.

    So, yes, I would put Monbiot square on the ‘Haxis of Mediocrity’.

  5. Richard — I guess medicracy is a typo, not sure if you want mediocracy or mediacracy, or maybe more likely to conflate the two. Bit inconsistent – as you start by illustrating that’s Gray’s “mistake” was indeed not running away. Or maybe in your view Gummer is one of your “best minds” and Gray is not.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo.

    I say that Gray’s mistake was honesty — not a virtue that we can credit Gummer with. Gummer, however, is influential.

    I also point out that Gray was an exception:

    Noting ‘complete lack of critical filters on her part’, Weston confronted Gray, who, to her credit, took the matter up with him after a debate, to defend herself. Whereas most environmental journalists typically take the opportunity to run away from criticism, Gray’s mistake seems to have been honesty.

    some will think and try to respond thoughtfully. Again, is this not just life and not confined to green journalists?

    I don’t think I’ve seen many attempts to respond. I’ve been doing this for long enough, I think, to know that i) discussion is rare, ii) the overwhelming tendency is to run away, insult, etc.

    While this trait isn’t unique to environmentalism, of course, it is particularly evident that environmentalism has not advanced through debate, and is not born out of democratic engagement in the way other political ideas and movements became established.

  6. There are press releases that state simple facts (“NASA announces launch of satellite”; “New species of monkey found”; “National crime statistics show downward trend”) and these can fairly safely be recited verbatim.
    BUT more and more of the press releases from universities and government agencies put a big spin on the results of some study, even to the extent of saying the opposite of what the study said or taking a small study and implying it means that we are all going to die. To simply reprint these, whether on diet, cancer, climate change, or whatever, is simple-minded and does not count as “journalism”.

  7. “it is particularly evident that environmentalism has not advanced through debate, and is not born out of democratic engagement in the way other political ideas and movements became established.”

    Seeing as how environmentalism has never been a mass movement (and can’t be one thanks to its design), that’s not surprising.

  8. Ben, your link to “Klein’s embrace of Werner” link doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, but I’m wondering if it was meant to go to this story about science telling people to revolt, in the New Statesman:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt

    Klein’s article describes how Werner, apparently a researcher in pink-haired complex systems (pretty much a niche occupation, I’d have thought) gave a talk called “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”.

    Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

  9. The bottom line is that climate is just the selected battleground in what is a war between opposed cultures and ideologies. Marxism failed, and mutated into EcoFascism, as noted in Ben’s comment about Klein.

  10. Richard Snape,
    Monbiot is a misanthropic reactionary. His skill set involves fear mongering and hand wringing in a sincere pose.
    He is not offering anything close to serious critical analysis.

    Ben,
    This is one of your best posts. Frankly I think it describes much of journalism and many journalists across most areas of news coverage. The revolving door/interlocking relations between government and journlaism is no better exxamplified than in the US government, where the distinction between the editorial room and the White House is blurred if not absent.

  11. (Partly reposted from BH)

    In the case of sloppy science/environment journalists, it seems to date back to when the two topics were combined. The people who applied for these sorts of jobs were increasingly environmentalists rather than writers with a scientific background – and so began the long, slow decline to illiterate, innumerate advocacy which characterises so much of it today.

    And, I must agree that if Louise Gray and others need four hours to produce 600 words consisting of a slightly doctored Press Release, complete with spelling errors, one wonders what they were doing for the other 3 and a half hours.

    Someone mentioned what a blogger who is on top of his/her topic can produce in that time. Well, as a public servant who produced briefing notes that Prime Ministers, Premiers and Cabinet Ministers were going to stake their reputations on in Parliament in less time than that, I know just how mediocre and lazy these people are. Our work had to be perfect – no errors of any kind were countenanced, on pain of a permanent transfer to the Archives Authority. And, you know what? They were perfect, at least in the places where I worked.

    The same sorts of pressures and deadlines applied at times when I worked in advertising and marketing.

    Honestly, I have no patience with these precious little petals calling themselves “journalists” – they would be eaten alive in a job that involved real pressure and deadlines.

    It is certainly true that increased competition in the media has forced journalists to produce more than they used to. But, when a few of my friends were print journos back in the good old days, I could never figure out why it took them all day to put together 600 less than memorable words about mundane topics that they already knew the background to. As for all the weeping and wailing about the demise of investigative journalism, even in the old days that was a privilege accorded to only a very few senior writers. Most of them were covering the bread and butter topics that filled 90% of the editorial space.

  12. Sir John Maddox, publisher of Science magazine, tried to push back against the tide of mediocre fear mongering that was so lucratively peddled back in the early 1970’s.
    He wrote “The Doomsday Syndrome” as a popular appeal for people to reject the fear mongering and doom of his era.
    Time showed Maddox correct and the doomsters as wrong. but the lesson he sought to teach was obviously not well learned.

  13. Ben,
    This is off topic, but you might consider closing your old posts off for new comments after some time ash passed. Check your recent comment section. The ones in the older post areas appear to be some sort of ‘bot or worse.

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