The Peer-Reviewed Dirt on Monbiot's Dirty New Scare Story

Just when you thought climate alarmism had passed its peak…

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

Says George Monbiot in today’s Guardian

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve

Monbiot’s tendency towards biblical levels of alarmism is on the record, of course. But this is new.

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

Our fate is being sealed, says the Graun’s miserablist-in-chief, by our mistreatment of mud — the stuff our crops depend on, and therefore we all depend on.

To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

Those wise men of nearly 4,000 years ago new something today’s seemingly chemical-happy farmers don’t…

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

An orgy of soil destruction? Only 60 – 100 years of food left?

Those alarmist claims came to George via Reuters in the Scientific American, who reported on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) World Soil Day. Says’s the FAO,

Soils have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. We must invert this tendency and take up some preserving and restoring actions. The World Soil Day campaign aims to connect people with soils and raise awareness on their critical importance in our lives.

But we should take such claims with a pinch of salt. Global bureaucracies, like disoriented Guardian hacks, need a scare story to elevate and legitimise themselves. FAO claims that a third of all agricultural soil in the world is ‘degraded’. But the website itself offers little guidance on what this measure actually means — if it means anything at all. Even searching Google for the terms “third of soil degraded” yields many results, but which refer only to FAO web pages and the headlines they have generated, and other organisations which seem equally keen to make this ambiguous metric the basis for new forms of governance.

The UK would serve as a good test of these claims. It is an advanced economy. It is relatively densely populated. It has strong regulatory frameworks, making it difficult to change the use of land and to use it in ways not approved by the state (or EU). The FAO’s own statistical database tells a different story to the one it tries to make…







In the case of each food crop, the yield per Ha has increased over the years. It is true that the area being farmed has diminished, but that is explained in fact by EU rules requiring set-aside for ecological reasons and to reduce the productivity of European farms, to avoid the vast surpluses that were created in the days of the EEC.

This increasing yield does not show us a picture of declining soil quality. Yet Monbiot assures us…

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

Yet no such encroachment into nature has taken place in the UK. If anything, it is the green, protected areas of Britain’s landscapes which have grown into the land previously used by people.

But an even odder story emerges…

Shortly after I had tweeted the link to Monbiot’s article, Barry Woods got in touch to say he couldn’t work out what the basis for another of Monbiot’s claims was. Monbiot said,

Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.

This is small-is-beautiful mythology. The fanciful idea haunting Monbiot is that, if only we would all become smallholders, we would all live a more bountiful, wonderful world of endless leisure. Can it really be true that allotments are between 4 and 11 times as productive as industrial farming? It seems far fetched indeed. (For readers outside the UK, an allotment is a small area of land owned by local authorities, which is rented out in small parcels at very low cost to local residents.)

The link seemingly supporting George’s claim was to this article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which claims that ‘Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture’. As we might expect, it is highly sceptical of ‘modern agriculture’, which the authors believe

… in seeking to maximize yields to meet growing global food demand, has caused loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services upon which humans also depend.

And like Monbiot, they want us to be smallholders.

Own-growing makes an important contribution to food security in urban areas globally, but its effects on soil qualities that underpin ecosystem service provision are currently unknown.

Here is the passage which Monbiot borrows his claim from:

Comparison of Allotment and Agricultural Soils
The remarkable contrast in soil quality indicators (higher SOC, C : N, TN and lower BD) between allotments and arable fields reveals the effectiveness of management achieved by own-growers. Furthermore, it demonstrates the extent to which modern agricultural practices have degraded soil natural capital – which has profound implications for the loss of ecosystem service provision (Loveland & Webb 2003; Lal 2004), including reduced structural stability, water and nutrient holding capacity and impaired regulation of N mineralization and supply to plants (Quinton et al. 2010; Dungait et al. 2012). In terms of provisioning ecosystem services by own-growing in allotments, both the historical records of production during the world wars and more recent UK trials conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society and ‘Which?’ Magazine showed fruit and vegetable yields of 31–40 t ha−1 year−1 (Tomkins 2006), 4–11 times the productivity of the major agricultural crops in the Leicestershire region (DEFRA 2013). Importantly, depletion of SOC in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations (Lal 2010).

This is like Chinese Whispers — a tendency of claims made by environmentalists is that the truth or significance of research is obscured by successive citations through the literature. Sure enough, rather than leading to any research which discovers that “allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers”, two studies produced figures which vary by between 4 and 11 times, allegedly. This is not a safe assumption — it does not compare like with like. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It is like comparing apples with paint.

The two, very different studies are the Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Agriculture in the English Regions 2012, 2nd Estimate and Tomkins, M. The Edible Urban Landscape: an assessment method for retro-fitting urban agriculture into an inner London test site. The latter is the author’s MSc Thesis completed at the University of East London, London, UK.

It is not clear how these two figures are achieved, prior to their comparison. The Defra report makes no mention of agricultural productivity in Leicestershire. Tomkins does, however, does offer us figures on page 44:

We can start to work out the yields of the allotment system by referring to experiments conducted in the 1970s by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) (Personal communication, appendix 2), and Which?Magazine (February 1975, Handyman special insert, p. 21).

According to a document entitled ‘Your garden plot – what is its value to you?’ (see appendix 2)

“During 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society maintained a 30 feet by 100 feet vegetable plot at Harlow Carr, with the aim of showing how vegetables for a family of 4 could be provided. The 3 year crop rotation was adopted and most of the work on the plot was carried out by the garden apprentice. Approximately 180 hours work went into the feature.”

But there are two important caveats here. Tomkins admits:

The first sowings were made on 9th March in the cold frame with the total volume of produce recorded until 22 November of the same year. The report states that at the end of the trial, there were “still plenty of winter crops, leeks, onions cabbage, kale, parsnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts…on the plot.”

The total of the produce is 876.1kg for 259 days of the growing season. This would be equal to 31.28 tonnes per hectare. The report, while stating the amount of labour required, does not give an indication of whether fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides were used in the experiment, although the NSALG “believe it was used in a similar manner to normal allotment gardening”.

First caveat… 180 hours of labour is equivalent to 22 days of work — nearly 10 per cent of a working year. And that much to allegedly feed a family.

Second caveat… The use of fertilizer and pesticide is not ruled out. My own (second-hand, anecdotal) understanding of allotment husbandry in the postwar period is that that generation of self-sufficiency enthusiasts adored chemicals.

We might also note that the Defra report covers the year 2012, whereas the Which?/RHS study is nearly forty years old. (Which? is a UK consumer affairs magazine, and the Royal Horticultural Society is an organisation for people with green fingers – hardly scientific research institutions).

Furthermore, although it would be impressive to see an allotment produce 876kg of food, even at 31.28 tonnes per hectare, given the average yields for UK production in the FAO database are 20 tonnes for vegetables, 13 tonnes for fruit, 40 tonnes for roots & tubers, the allotment holder seems not to compete with his industrial farming counterpart on productivity or cost. If farmers were only able to produce sufficient crops for 22 families per worker, they would likely go out of business. The small selection of crops produced in the RHS/Which? study would require 728,000 famers — before we’ve even thought about cereal, bread, dairy and meat production, whereas there are just half a million farm workers in the UK.

Monbiot loves to emphasise the importance of citing ones sources, and of making sure that such sources are trustworthy. But he does very little to investigate much beyond the superficial figures that such sources seem to produce. He takes for granted that what the FAO claim is the case. And he didn’t look too deeply into the claim in the J. of Applied Ecology, which mashed together non-existent figures from Defra, and a 1975 consumer magazine’s experiment with fertilizer retold through an inexpert, and highly political masters thesis.

The object lesson for Monbiot, then, is to understand the scientific claims he reproduces, not just parrot them before jumping to claims such as this:

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

One cannot take FAO campaigning at face value. Nor can we say that the Journal of Applied Ecology or Masters students at the University of East London (currently ranked 122nd out of 123 UK universities) have unburdened themselves of political motivations. As much as ecologists like to claim that their studies are science, ecology is also a normative science and a political movement. Students and researchers, too, have political motivations. It is not as easy to separate politics from science as Monbiot seems to imagine.

But a little research — an hour’s worth of investigation — puts statistical claims into perspective. The world is not running out of soil, and living out of allotments will not save us from non-doom. Unfortunately for Monbiot, though, looking more deeply at the organisations and science he trusts, and which he takes at face value, would deprive him of the alarming headlines that are his stock-in-trade.

A Decade of Lynas

Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian in the wake of the paper’s new climate campaign,

We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes
Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis

The problem, says Lynas, is the emphasis given by the Guardian’s campaign to passages from Naomi Klein’s book.

The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.

Klein’s book has been discussed previously on these pages. Briefly, though Klein professes to no technological understanding, she was moved by ‘complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’, who had given a presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. According to Werner, his research aimed to answer the question “Is Earth F*cked?” by modelling society’s interactions with the biosphere, and the potential of various interventions. According to his model, the only hope for the world is for radical groups who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture” to come together in “protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups” to save the planet. Maths itself had spoken — anti-capitalist direct action could restore equilibrium to the world.

Says Lynas,

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.

Lynas is half right. Of course Klein reformulates her political project in the terms of the climate crisis — as many green anticapitalists have before her. As I have argued previously, whereas left movements in the past took authority for their project from weight of numbers of the people they promised to liberate from capitalism, the green left takes its authority from ‘science’. Whatever your sympathies with any left political idea or their possibilities, the difference between much traditional argument from the left and Klein’s call-to-action is the difference between a promise of a better world and a threat. Klein offers today’s radicals mere survival, not freedom. The revolutionary only guarantees liberation from catastrophe, not capitalism as such.

But Klein’s is not the only reformulation of political ideas under the green shadow of climate change. For example, ex-BBC journalist, Richard Black recently set up the dubiously-titled Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). (The ECIU is discussed here). The ECIU’s funding comes from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The ECF’s funding comes largely from the living and dead super-wealthy and special interest via Climate Works (some more detail here). And Grantham — a super wealthy investment fund manager — funds a number of campaigns, and pronounced back in 2009 that “Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world”. And Tellus Mater’s mission statement is:

… to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill{sic} it’s{sic} role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.

(Isn’t it amazing that such an outfit cannot afford a proof reader.)

So if ‘science has been appropriated [by the left] as cover for an ideological project’, according to Lynas, he should look more closely at the well-funded outfits like ECIU, Carbon Brief and others, which seem to be established to further ‘capitalist’ ideological objectives. He might see that the reformulation of ‘ideology’ is ubiquitous. But the climate debate, I argue, is all about ideological blind spots.

It’s worth remembering Lynas’s own struggles against ideology and how it has changed over the years. In 2004 he wrote,

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere. This doesn’t mean giving up the fight on behalf of the poor, but it does mean that one’s position on the environment is going to be the crucial political divide of the next century. And many left-wingers are very anti-environment. Some socialists retain the old technocratic mindset where they think everything can be engineered and humans are all-powerful. Many more leftish people are also too polite to mention over-population, which along with climate is probably the key environmental issue. I think that we should give just as much thought to other species of life, who will presumably continue to suffer even if human society eventually gets more egalitarian.

Just a decade ago, Lynas wanted to get the left, much of which was on his view, ‘anti-environment’, to relegate ‘the struggle for equity’ behind climate change, over-population and other species. Now he sees the climate issue dividing on left-right lines.

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

Reacting against this rather miserabilist and dystopian worldview, the political right has increasingly adopted an outright denialist position – attacking the science in a covert war against the political ideology it has been co-opted to serve. The reason half of Americans doubt the science on climate change isn’t because they are stupid or misled by the fossil fuels lobby, but because the global warming issue has now become as much as part of America’s culture wars as abortion or creationism.

But as we have seen. If the categories of left and right divide according to anti- and pro- capitalism, how to explain Grantham (and so many other green capitalists)? It frankly doesn’t work. The best we could say instead, is that some capitalists, largely dependent on the sectors in which they operate, have bought into the green agenda. Enron, perhaps being the most visible and earliest example, saw its own future in the regulation of carbon more than in the generation and trade of energy — the financialisation of the energy sector. Similarly, IT and high-tech firms have sought to emphasise their green credentials. This would seem to speak to a split between lightweight and heavy industry, leading in turn to a split on green-brown lines within capitalism as such. But in spite of this perception, which the green movement likes to milk heavily, the efforts to lobby or campaign against climate policies or fund climate scepticism are remarkably hard to find any evidence of, to compare to the $billions spend on the opposite case. Brown capitalism — the Brown Blob or ‘Black Fog‘ — is better characterised as acquiescent. The embryonic fracking industry in the UK, for example, not only concedes to the green movement, it tries to draw strength from it, claiming that shale gas could serve as a ‘bridging technology’ towards a ‘cleaner’ future. The coordinates of Lynas’s world seem very much out of kilter with the real world.

Lynas is a tad confused also, about the ‘culture wars’. What the culture wars represent is not the continuation of ideological struggle between left and right as such, but the dearth of political ideas with which to do battle. Lynas has the clue — Klein’s seemingly recent conversion to environmentalism. But he stops short of seeing it through.

Why does so much of the putative radical left now seek to identify itself with the climate change issue? We could take their arguments at face value, of course. But as even Lynas observes, whereas there were, in 2004, enough sufficiently ‘anti-environment’ leftists to scold them for it, there appears to be none worth speaking of today. There’s not really much left left, and what left there is left isn’t very left.

The argument offered here is that the reds turned green as the broad left movement disintegrated. Even by the 2000s, the left was a shadow if what it had been in previous decades. It had been depoliticised, and rather than emphasising alternatives to capitalism, became preoccupied with identity, tradition and social order — tropes that belonged to conservative thought in previous generations. But the major characteristic of this change is the collapse of its popular base. As the established left lost contact with its traditional base and its traditional philosophy, so it grew more hostile to the very masses it once promised to liberate. The phenomenon of Klein is the epitome of this hollowing out and collapse of left wing thought. The celebrated public intellectual doesn’t even understand the mathematical claims that seemingly make the case that ‘this changes everything’, whereas even yesterday’s Marxists were (or were supposed to be) fluent in Capital volume I, if not II and III. For Klein, who is more likely to be self consciously left on suburban bourgeois coffee tables than picked up and studied by factory workers (Urgh — factories! Urgh — workers!), and who is a celebrated ‘public intellectual’, it is sufficient that some authority instructs the revolution. The left’s corpse lies twitching.

But left-right politics is a game of two halves. Let’s not forget that the recent history of conservative or capitalist ideology is no less graceful a swansong. In 2011, Jeremy Grantham aimed:

… to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

As I pointed out,

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Grantham doesn’t speak for all capitalists, of course. But he does speak to the problem of capitalism losing its nerve, its moral authority and its promise in a way that mirrors the left’s. Losing his own authority, in the way that Klein does, Grantham searches for it by establishing his very own institute at the London School of Economics, supporting no lesser figures than Lord Stern and his cronies. In other words, the capitalist seeks the authority of academic scientists and researchers. The main difference between Klein and Grantham being, of course, Klein can’t quite summon up the cash that Grantham can, for her own institutions — which is perhaps why she prefers to ‘Occupy’.

The emphasis on climate change then, whether it hails from the left or right, is a search for authority. Essential to this search is a process of engendering a sense of terminal crisis, and the construction of saviours, to elevate institutional science as that authority. This makes the priorities of politics non-negotiable (unless we want to die), and the terms of politics if not incomprehensible, exclusive to an elite. Lynas words, ten years apart, ask to eschew normal politics, to peruse an ideological trajectory that is orthogonal to the old axis, to leave behind the battle over how respective interests might be reconciled for the interests of authority itself. But although he claims his statement…

Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.

… puts him at odds with ‘most people on either side of the climate debate’, he in fact alienates himself. And one of those parties he is now alienated from is institutional science. Take, for example, the words of soon-to-be-erstwhile President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, in his attack on Nigel Lawson at the University of Melbourne

A feature of this controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that is a crucial point, because these actions are likely to include measures which involve greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. These are all critical key issues about which we should be worried.

Paul Nurse argued that global warming might indeed necessitate ‘curtailing freedoms’ and ‘risking economic growth’. Science said so. And he said that this necessity is what drives objections to climate politics.

This is a major problem for Lynas, because claims from mainstream, scientific opinion seem to reflect at least in part what Klein is saying, meanwhile, green capitalists are on the case, securing their own ground.

One way out of this impasse, I would suggest to Lynas, is to admit to the political or ‘ideological’ aspects of the climate debate and even his own argument. What seems to be revealed by Nurse and his predecessors is that institutional science is overtly seeking more power for itself under the compact that has been formed under the logic of environmental alarmism. (See for examples, this discussion about Royal Society statements on climate change from 2010, and this post script from 2012). That is to say it is no more Nurse’s place to claim that science demands freedoms and wealth to be sacrificed for survival than it is Klein’s. Yet institutional science has not asked itself about the extent to which institutional science has become ‘ideological’, thus making climate politics climate change sciences’s a priori and its a posteriori.

But instead, Lynas simply heaps more science onto the problem:

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

It would appear that there is some sympathy between Lynas and Nurse, to the extent that both believe ‘ideology’ of one kind or another, drives resistance to what appears to be climate science. But Lynas’s own distaste for ‘ideology’ brings into question Nurse’s ideology, and consequently his own.

The recruitment of social psychologists into the debate, to patch up the inadequacies of climate science and of course, the highest ranking members of scientific academies, reveals a darker political aspect to the argument. If science is only accepted to the extent that it conforms to or confirms a political ‘ideology’, then why does this only ever apply to the sceptics, and to one or two inconvenient political radicals, like Klein? Why does it never seem to apply to Nurse? Or to Lynas?

Such self reflection on the ‘ideology’ of those anointed by Oxford University and the Royal Society — the establishment — of course, would undermine the entire argument. Cod psychology has never once successfully interrogated the ‘ideology’ of climate change sceptics, partly because it seems to be the case that its scientists even more gripped by the alarmist interpretation of climate science than even Lynas or Nurse, and partly because such activist-scientists barely make a secret of the fact that their ‘research’ is intended to frame the debate to particular ends. Psychologists entering the climate debate invariably over-estimate their own purchase on climate science, under-theorise ‘ideology’, and search in the main part for what they understand the subjects ‘ideology’ to consist of. This stems from the necessity of social psychologists measuring their studies’ participants responses against their own understanding of the scientific consensus, which is presumed to be correct, complete, and unimpeachable. The result is that the pay very little attention to the mechanics of the interaction between ‘ideology’ and ‘facts’.

If Lynas was hoping to undermine his own argument, he wouldn’t find anything more equal to this task than deference to social psychology. Climate change psychology is perhaps the most vivid example of politics — ‘ideology’ — having colonised science that it is possible to find since the days of the Soviet Union.

The point of social psychology’s recruitment, however, is not simply to undermine sceptics. It also has the virtue of differentiating the establishment from the hoi polloi it claims to serve. ‘Ideology’ is how the masses understand their own interests, and politics is (or was) how interests are bargained for. By diminishing the faculties of those who fall victim to ‘ideology’, the political establishment can elevate itself, in its own interests, hidden behind scientific authority. On the view Lynas offers, “ideology” is arbitrary — nothing more than subjective or relativised preferences — and contaminates a clear view of objective reality. But this view of human faculties is itself deeply ideological. It says that, humans not being capable of perceiving what is in their interests, and the world being such a dangerous, complicated place, political institutions need to exist above their reach.

But with Lynas, there is always something agree with…

Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

Hear hear.

But the sting in the tail is still present in Lynas’s conclusion…

But to make any of this happen we will need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes. We must then work to come up with inclusive proposals that can form the basis of a social consensus that must last decades if it is to have any meaningful effect on the climate change crisis that faces us.

The social consensus being sought is still a social consensus in which the job of deliberating the consensus is done away from the public. Lynas says he seeks an ‘inclusive’ solution, but ‘inclusiveness’ invariably means most people being equally excluded. The human condition precludes social consensus without the reconciliation of its contradictions in the public sphere. Everyone from left through right, Marx through to Hayek has imagined a world freed from politics, through various means and ends and justifications. But what appears to drive Lynas’s appeal, like most appeals to make climate the central organising principle of politics, is the inability to formulate a social consensus that consists of more than a promise of survival.

Lynas’s problem is deep. The energy required by the human race in 2050 is seen as an inherently problematic thing, which will be demanded, and will need to be provided, not as a positive thing. People are conceived of as technical ‘challenges’, rather than either opportunities or ends in themselves. But a society with sufficient energy, leaving aside the environmental problems it may cause for a moment, ought to be seen as a positive thing in its own right, which people should surely campaign for. The fact that even the green movement is itself so split — pro- and anti-capitalist, pro- and anti- technology, pro- and anti- humanity itself — should demonstrate to Lynas the scale of the task of uniting the entire world, never mind a nation, in a social consensus, never mind a treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is well and truly beyond his abilities, or the abilities of climate science.

I don’t find Lynas’s views any less extreme than Klein’s. Klein at least recognises that the world divides into 99% and 1%, though she fancies herself to be in the larger part. Lynas, on the other hand, seems to want to put to rest the differences that persist, even within the green movement, to forsake arguing in our own interests because we don’t have sufficient faculties to understand what they are. To conceive of your own interests seems to be ‘extreme’. Lynas’s reformulation of politics, under threat of climate catastrophe, suits a narrow establishment which has, over the years, become more and more distant from its public. Climate change has come to the rescue of that political class, whether or not mainstream climate science has the better grasp of reality than its detractors. Untangling that science from the politics that has colonised it will be no more simple a task than uniting the world in a ‘social consensus’.

Not much has changed, then, since I reviewed Lynas’s book in 2011:

Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.

The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea – its ideology – precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.

Barry Gardiner's #TimeToAct2015 Photo Album

Yesterday saw the ‘Time To Act 2015’ protests in a number of cities throughout the world. The Huffington Post proudly announced ‘People’s Climate March In London Draws 5,000, Including Russell Brand And Naomi Klein‘.

Have you ever been to Central London on a Saturday afternoon? In a city of more than 8 million people, just 5,000 (0.0625% of the city’s population) is hardly a spectacle. To illustrate the point, here is one of London’s tourist attractions, the London Eye.

[image Wikipedia]

The Eye has 40 capsules, each with a capacity of 40 people, and takes half an hour to complete a trip (one revolution). The entire Time to Act march could be accommodated by the London Eye in little more than three revolutions in just over an hour and a half. As protests go, Time to Act was a demonstration of the lack of political movement behind climate action. It was a warm day. Yet people were more interested in London’s food, drink, shops, museums, galleries and big wheels than in ‘saving the planet’. It doesn’t even compare to the 1998 march by the Countryside Alliance to protest the banning of fox hunting, which drew 250,000. That’s right: more people seem to want to hunt foxes than save the planet from global warming.

One of the marchers was Labour MP for Brent North, and Ed Miliband’s Special Envoy for Climate Change & The Environment, Barry Gardiner, who some readers may remember threatened to sue me for calling him a liar on Twitter in 2012 after he repeated claims about subsidies for fossil energy he knew to be wrong. Gardiner’s tweets today were no less removed from reality:

Here is a selection from his Twitter timeline.

These glib tweets help to show that climate activists prefer to trade in image rather than reason and debate. But it was this image which particularly sticks in the throat.

The implication appears to be that climate change caused the condition that these children suffering — poverty — and that climate policies will rescue them, and children like them. The link between climate change and species is weak enough, but the link between climate change and poverty is weaker still. Who were these children? How had their lives been affected by climate change? How would climate policy make their lives better?

No answer from Gardiner, of course.

But the origins of the image were soon discovered by Vinny Burgoo

Gardiner had simply lifted the image from a stock photo library.

Corbis describe the image as follows.

Afghanistan – Daily Life – Brother and Sister in Kabul
Afghan girl holds her brother as they take a break from searching for items to recycle in Kabul.

So war, not climate change, in one of the poorest countries in the world explains the condition of the two young children.

It is heartbreaking to see such tiny children shoeless, filthy, and so utterly impoverished. And this makes Gardiner’s cynical exploitation of the image all the more revolting. It’s not merely that he wants to elicit an emotional response from you with it, he wants to make instrumental use of their image, regardless of how their condition arose and can be understood, for his own political ambitions. In other words, he has no sympathy for them whatsover, they are simply useful to him.

Imagine, if you can, that you became some victim of some event or other that left you in such a state: what clothes you had in tatters, covered in mud and dust, exhausted and utterly lost. Now imagine that somebody took a photograph of you, which was used to campaign for something that had nothing to do with the event that had left you in your most damaged, vulnerable, and helpless state. How would you feel? That’s how much sympathy Gardiner has for the children in the photograph.

Gardiner flicked through photo libraries and took images out of context, to use them in his self-serving political campaign. Is this mere, accident, thoughtless oversight, or does such casual disregard for careful argument say something deeper about politicians who seek to identify themselves by the climate issue?

If there really were an abundance of evidence that animals and poor people were vulnerable to climate change, it wouldn’t be necessary for Gardiner to search stock image libraries for content to underpin his glib sloganeering.