The Grief Lectures 2010 – Part Two

In the previous post, I looked at the first of Martin Rees Reith Lectures. The President of the Royal Society believed that there is ‘a 50 percent chance of a setback to civilisation as bad as a nuclear war, or some consequence of 21st century technology equally serious’ occurring before this century is out. On this view, the dangers we have created for ourselves are so great that the notion of citizenship has to be rethought. Science is no longer limited to laboratories. It has transformed the human condition. It has created previously inconceivable possibilities of liberation, but also created the possibility of our annihilation. All it would take is one bad egg…

But on the other hand, concluding his second lecture, Rees finds reason to be cheerful…

I am actually an optimist – at least a techno-optimist. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world beyond 2050 where the developing countries have narrowed the gap with the developed, and all benefit from further scientific advances that could have as great and benign an impact as information technology and medical advances have had in the last decade.

Rees says that we can respond to the challenges that he and ‘science’ have identified. Those challenges are principally: overpopulation – which wouldn’t be a problem, if we ‘all adopted a vegetarian diet, travelling little but interacting just via super internet and virtual reality’; and global warming – which could be addressed by limiting individual CO2 equivalent usage to 2 tonnes per person per year. Straddling these two issues are other matters such as energy security, which can be solved by greater investment in R&D in the renewable and nuclear sectors. Our incautious actions are – says the Astronomer – causing the sixth largest extinction event in the Earth’s history.  We are precariously standing atop an increasingly fragile ecosystem and systems of our own creation that we have long since taken for-granted. And even scientists themselves may be the agents of our doom:

We’re kidding ourselves if we think that those with technical expertise will all be balanced and rational. Expertise can be allied with fanaticism – not just the traditional fundamentalism that we’re so mindful of today, but that exemplified by some New Age cults: extreme eco freaks; violent animal rights campaigners, and the like.

Even ‘eco freaks’ can be bad eggs, says Rees. Yet look what he is asking for. He may well distance himself from deep ecologists, but it is Rees who is setting out the case for revolution, premised not merely on the possibility of nature’s wrath, but the possibilities for apocalypse that are created by the existence eco-freaks themselves, and the endless appetites of the endlessly reproducing masses. Science has the solutions, but the problems lie with silly, irrational humans themselves:

It’s the politics and the sociology that pose the deepest concerns. Will richer countries realise that it’s in their self-interest for the developing world to prosper, sharing fully in the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And, above all, can our institutions prioritise projects which are long-term in political perspective even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

Rees has an odd idea of ‘sharing fully in the benefits of globalisation’. He’s just told us that we’re to limit our use of energy to 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, that we’re all going to be vegetarians, and that we’re going to have to travel less, and engage with distant friends and families more ‘virtually’… If we want to survive, that is. These are all things that we usually hear from people pushing an argument in favour of localism – in which people live closer to the production of the goods they consume, and are more involved in that process, including a necessary increase in the amount of manual labour.

He worries about the continued possibility of liberal values (by which I mean the values that we enjoy in the West, not those opposite to ‘conservative’) in the face of scientifically-minded terrorists, but doesn’t this look more like a justification for a distinctly illiberal agenda? He’s just spent the best part of twenty minutes talking about population control. Indeed, who gets to decide really what ‘long-term political perspectives’ really ought to consist of? If Rees is concerned about the foundations of liberal society, he hasn’t done much to shore them up with ‘science’. In this speech he identifies – seemingly with scientific authority – the human as a destructive and irrational being, needy of control and supervision by institutions that govern as yet inadequately. This irrational creature has created the conditions of his own demise, and is committed to it unless he is properly supervised. Rees uses science to supply authority with the argument it needs legitimately rob people of political agency.

Science and technology created the possibilities from which global super powers – the USA and Soviet Union – emerged. The mutual threat that each posed gave rise to a peculiar form of politics. Now that threat seems to be over, Rees seems to be asking ‘what is today’s cold war?’ But rather than identifying its contemporary equivalent, might Rees not be mourning its loss, and the simplicity that it gave to our perspective on the world? Good versus evil. Left versus Right. Freedom versus oppression. West versus East. Rees was born in 1942, and therefore grew up in the shadow of the holocaust and then the Cold War. Just as these things defined the world’s condition, so too they would have created the basis of political authority. The possibility of annihilation gave shape to the politics of the era spanning most of Rees’s life. Having established today’s existential threat, he works backwards to locate its agent: the irrational human. To complete this picture, he puts us, and our society into cosmic perspective:

But in just a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history, the last one millionth part, patterns of vegetation altered at an accelerating rate. This signalled the growing impact of humans and the advent of agriculture.

Then, in just one century, came other changes. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense submitter of radio waves – the output from TV, cellphones and radar transmissions. And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles, launched from the planet’s surface, escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when our sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this sudden fever less than halfway through the Earth’s life? And if they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years in this unique century? Will a final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

With the cold objectivity possessed by aliens, Rees peers at us and our futures. His optimism that we can navigate the challenges he identifies is mediated by the bleakness of what he says will happen if we fail to recognise them. This is optimism only in the sense that it is prefixed with a caveat. It’s nearly blackmail, in other words. In this way, Rees turns scientific authority into political authority: we can survive, but only on his terms. Who are we to challenge this authority? But isn’t that the point? Whatever the truth of Rees’s claims, and whatever his conscious intentions, it is not clear that the desire for this authority doesn’t precede his argument. In other words, might it not be that Rees’s anxiety about the future owes more to a loss of authority, than ‘science’ accurately foretelling doom?

The Grief Lectures 2010 – Part One

While we were busy, the Royal Society’s diktats on climate change got the world’s oldest scientific academy into the news, again. Back when we started this blog in 2007, we found the language used by those in and around the RS to be perhaps the most peculiar expression of the confusion of science and politics in the climate debate. The RS’s erstwhile president, Robert May had declared that the society’s motto was best translated as ‘respect the facts’ – a revision of ‘on the word of no one’ that looked like a desperate inversion of its ethic. May wasn’t beyond making up his own facts, as we revealed after he accused Great Global Warming Swindle director, Martin Durkin of having produced a three-part series of films denying the link between HIV and AIDS. Roger Harrabin has recently decided to remember that May had once told him that “I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over”. (Harrabin has only now decided to recall the incident, but it would surely have been more interesting to publicly challenge his arrogance while he was president, back then.) And it wasn’t just May using the authority that science itself had bestowed on him. The RS’s then communications director, Bob Ward busied himself by speaking on behalf of science, writing open letters to anyone seemingly daring to challenge any aspect of climate change politics, and any editor of a publication that dared to host unorthodox opinion. The Royal Society is now feeling the effect of certain of its members’ aggression and contempt, and challenges to its authority now come from within.

The Society’s current president is a far more charming character than his angry predecessor. Yet Lord Martin Rees of Ludlow, as keen as he is to share with us the wonders of scientific discovery, is preoccupied with the doom it seemingly forecasts. And it is this doom, doom doooooooom, which is the unstated theme of his thesis at this year’s Reith Lectures – an annual series of radio lectures – which Rees is giving this year. Rees’s talks have been given the title ‘scientific horizons’, and the first is called ‘the scientific citizen’. Although Rees has a more affable personality than Robert May, his perspective is no less political.

Citizenship is an inherently political concept, yet Rees, with scientific authority, reinvents it. Let’s start at the end, where Rees explains what a ‘scientific citizen’ actually is.

There’s a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what it’s prudent or ethical actually to do – there are doors that science could open but which are best left closed. Everyone should engage with these choices but their efforts must be leveraged by ‘scientific citizens’ – scientists from all fields of expertise – engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media, and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science.

On Rees’s view, the scientific citizen is a modest fellow.

Winston Churchill once said that scientists should be “on tap, not on top.” And it is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But the role of scientific advice is not just to provide facts to support policies. Experts should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties of science. But there’s one thing they mustn’t forget. Whether the context be nuclear power, drug classification, or health risks, political decisions are seldom purely scientific. They involve ethics, economics and social policies as well. And in domains beyond their special expertise, scientists speak just as citizens.

Science creates possibilities. Some of those possibilities are good and some are bad. Not good or bad in straightforward ways, but in ways which require expertise to fully understand, and to explain.  Who could possibly disagree?

Of course, it would be a great thing if the entire public were scientifically literate, and alongside the media, had realistic expectations and an understanding of science. And it would be a great thing if ‘citizen scientists’ spontaneously engaged in public debate about the merits and demerits of novel ideas.

But if wishes were horses, poor men would ride. It turns out that many people simply aren’t interested in science, nor even the politics that science is intended to inform. Many scientists aren’t all that interested in the public. Expectations and understanding of science vary greatly.  And, in fact, scientific experts – even as experts – are not so detached from the subjective, human world, after all, and even they often find it hard to talk about and within the limits of their knowledge. Never mind that the public and media’s expectations of science are unrealistic.

Rees only need look as far back as his predecessor and his communications officer to see for himself why such a goal, as wonderful as it is, is not possible in the present. And he only needs to look to himself to see why it has limited of chances in the near future. Rees is discussing a social order, and as much as it speaks about engagement in decision-making processes, the basis for engagement is not really progress, but the avoidance of disaster, and as such, there is no real choice on offer.

For instance, this is how Rees discusses the role of the citizen-scientist in relation to climate policy.

Suppose you seek medical guidance. Googling any ailment reveals a bewildering range of purported remedies. But if your own health were at stake, you wouldn’t attach equal weight to everything in the blogosphere: you’d entrust your diagnosis to someone with manifest medical credentials. Likewise, we get a clearer ‘steer’ on climate by attaching more weight to those with a serious record in the subject.

We’ve encountered this doctor analogy before. A few years ago, atmospheric scientist, Andrew Dessler had asked us to imagine who we’d trust the care of a sick child to – a doctor or a quack? The IPCC represented the ‘doctor’ in his tale, against the quacks on the blogosphere. Dessler had responded to the list compiled by Sen. James Inhofe, of experts who had allegedly expressed doubt of some kind about global warming, or the politics it had created.

To understand why Inhofe’s claims are fundamentally bogus, consider the following scenario: imagine a child is diagnosed with cancer. Who are his parents going to take him to in order to determine the best course of treatment? […] Expertise matters. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. The list of skeptics on the EPW blog contains few bona fide climate specialists. […] That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.

It turned out, of course, that the IPCC reports were authored by individuals with the expertise in areas that Dessler had slighted – ‘scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc’. But Dessler’s analogy also failed because the earth’s systems cannot be compared to an organism in this way. There is no adequate equivalent of ‘sick’ in climate science, nor even health, let alone ‘cure’, ‘remedy’, or ‘vaccine’. Climate change, although it is often understood or used in very simple, binary terms, ultimately refers to a constellation of phenomena, because we humans interact with the climate and environment in many many different ways. Back to Rees’s claim, there is no expert that we could take our “sick planet” to. Who has the equivalent of ‘manifest medical credentials’ in the climate debate? Who has ‘cured’ a ‘sick’ planet?

One major problem we have pointed out with various claims about the climate, is that there is a tendency to overstate the extent to which society is dependent on nature. For instance, the maxim, ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, asks us to mend our relationship with the natural world, as though it would somehow transform the lives of the world’s least advantaged people. Development and relief NGOs such as Oxfam have reinvented terminology to express the idea, and now speak of ‘climate justice’ and ‘climate poverty’.  It is as if we here in the western, industrialised, advanced capitalist economies enjoy justice and life free from poverty because it is given by the climate: as though justice itself fell to earth with the rain, or providence descended from the cosmos along sunbeams and rainbows. What this naturalised view of the human world forgets is that justice is given by our own creations – social institutions – just as are the means to escape poverty.

Why wouldn’t a ‘scientific citizen’ be vulnerable to this political idea, in which some kind of secular, pseudo-scientific equivalent of divine providence underpins a view of the world in which people relate ‘justly’ through the ‘biosphere’, rather than through social institutions? Why should a scientist – even a climate scientist – have a better grasp of justice than his lay neighbour? Why would a ‘scientific citizen’ have a better understanding of the claim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, such that his ‘leverage’ ought to be greater than any other citizen who believes that this better creates an imperative to address poverty, than climate change? ‘Science’ gives the scientific citizen greater leverage, it seems, according to Rees, because only science can give a measure of what kind of what horrific tragedy awaits us. Doom is key in this view. Without it, there is no order.

These catastrophes are varied, in Rees’s view, but increasing in their number and likelihood as science itself creates such possibilities. Either ‘bio-error or bio-terror’ or some other such thing will lead us to some point over the next century when the entire human race will face some kind of disaster that threatens its survival, says Rees. Climate change is one such thing, but a great number of other possibilities await. And it is in these possibilities that gives the scientific citizen his political authority, in Rees’s view. But Rees’s view is incomplete, as this exchange in the questions following his lecture reveals.

SPIEGELHALTER:  You appear to speak approvingly, for example, of the government response to swine flu; but I think many people, the popular opinion would be that that might have been an over-reaction. I mean the problem with low probability high consequence events is that they hardly ever happen, and we’re deeply uncertain about what the probabilities and the consequences might be. You would like to take a more rational, perhaps insurance based approach, but how are you actually going to do that in the face of these really deep uncertainties without the public continually accusing the scientists of crying wolf about things that just don’t happen?

MARTIN REES: Yes. Well of course many of the things we should worry about have a less than 50 percent probability, and you could take the view we don’t take any precautions if the chance is less than 50 percent. But that’s not the attitude we take when getting fire insurance for our house; and many people are aware that you do insure against things which have a much less than 50 percent chance of probability, and therefore in those contexts people accept that they are likely to waste their money because what they’re insuring against won’t happen. And it seems to me that that was entirely analogous to what was done in stocking up the vaccine. The chance might have been less than 50 percent, but if you multiply the probability by the consequences it was not necessarily foolish. I don’t have enough expert knowledge in that particular case, but there are surely many cases when there’s much less than 50 percent chance of something happening but, nonetheless, it is worth a major investment to guard against it.

What Rees doesn’t seem to have considered is that the desire for the authority that crises generate could well exist prior to the desire to protect the world from pandemics. Political authority that legitimises itself on the avoidance of catastrophe doesn’t have to answer to those it is seemingly intends to protect. Seen from this perspective, isn’t it at least possible that political players, sensing that they are losing their moral authority, and hence their democratic legitimacy, attempt to locate their authority in crises? Moreover, the ordinary citizen isn’t able to comprehend the danger he or she is vulnerable to in Rees’s account. What role does the lay-citizen really have, then, in participating in the process of making decisions about their own future, when the future is such a perilous place? As the peril increases, so too does the lay-citizen defer to the scientific citizen’s authority, necessarily. This all seems like ‘common sense’ in a war zone, and, as we have pointed out before, Greens are keen to compare the current situation to events in history, such as WWII. In such circumstances, we are expected to get behind authority, rather than challenge it, and to lower our expectations in order to overcome whatever challenge lies in front of us.

In his own words, ‘Today’s scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature’s laws by observation and experiment. But they should also engage broadly with society and with public affairs.’ The founders of the Royal Society had determined to ‘accept nothing on authority’, but we see in Rees’s words this principle qualified: the ‘practical agenda of their era’ moved scientists to look outwards, through telescopes and microscopes. Now such frontiers are demolished, ‘Our Earth no longer offers an open frontier’, but we’re as badly off as we were before; life here on earth ‘seems constricted and crowded’ and perilously hanging in the balance. Rees turns the telescope and microscope about. Today’s ‘practical agenda’ is about restoring the authority that Rees’s predecessors took from those it challenged. The churches and anciens régimes that were swept away by the age of reason posited that a natural order existed, which, if upset, would lead to catastrophe. Evil would rampage through all of creation. Mankind would stand no chance of salvation. How much has changed?

Inner Spin, Outer Chaos

Rotation has long been a problem for humans seeking to understand the world. Who or what is rotating? Any sufficiently drunk person or dizzy child sees everything else revolving, yet they both remain static in relation to the world they fall to. A more sober Copernicus posited that the earth revolves around the sun, which explained things more simply than the geo-centric view that had existed before. Galileo followed, adding weight to this view and upsetting the order which had located its authority at the centre of the universe. Later still, the notion of a centre ceased to have any real meaning. The revolution of mind about the rotation of the world yields a powerful metaphor – the Copernican Revolution.

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects. – Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason.

What we apprehend in the act of seeing, then, is the bringing together of the perceiver and the perceived, not simply the world. Though, it is the perspective we have on the world which we forget – we only see the world. One does not see one’s eyes ‘seeing’, just as one does not feel one’s hands feeling for the light switch in the dark – we instead feel the surface of the wall. Quicker than we forget that we’re seeing, we forget what we bring to our view.

If we have been saying anything on this blog, it is that, in the debate about the climate, it is the perspectives which are brought to the climate change problem – not the problem itself – which shape the outcome of that meeting. As we put it, ‘the politics is prior’. One effect of this, we have argued, is to see the human world in ‘natural’ scientific terms, as though it had arrived in its current state through a force of nature. An instance of this we have spent much time considering is the reports by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF) who argue respectively that 150,000 and 300,000 deaths are caused each year by climate change. We argue that the causes of those deaths – malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition – are in fact first-order effects of poverty, even if they are (and they may well be) Nth-order effects of climate change. But the GHF and WHO instead seem to argue for climate change to be prioritised, in spite of the fact that from any an ethical, logical or numerical perspective, poverty is the much greater problem. The GHF and WHO are preoccupied with climate.

So much for the view of the world from the perspective of the WHO and GHF, then. We think that we have, on this blog, achieved a better purchase on the world than those we have criticised have managed. We make no claims about this being the last word, or that our view is not itself vulnerable to criticisms about perspective. We welcome criticism that would identify a problem with our approach. Have we mistaken what we had brought to our picture of the world for something that really exists within the picture? Had we failed to reflect on our own perspective? It is this lack of reflectivity that we criticise the environmental movement of.

Criticism of this kind has not been forthcoming. Instead, it seems that we are charged with belonging to a ‘network’ that is somehow committed to something so hideous that our criticism is, by this membership, made illegitimate. At least, that seems to be the logic of the Spinwatch project, who have given us our own page on their muck-raking website Spin Profiles. The copy of this page has since changed (we pointed out to them just how daft it was), but this is how it read

Climate Resistance is a blog based anti-environmentalist project of the libertarian LM network. Launched in 2007, it is edited by LM network associates Stuart Blackman and Ben Pile.

We had been listed by the Spinprofiles site as a ‘Principal Current Associated Organisation’ of the ‘LM Network’, which is characterised by Spinwatch as an association of people holding with a ‘libertarian and anti-environmentalist ideology’, formed from the remains of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Living Marxism magazine (later known simply as LM magazine), which was sued for libel by ITN about a decade ago. This ‘network’, argues Spinprofiles, still exists.

Many of the techniques used are characteristic of the RCP, including: the creation of a range of organisations without apparent formal links; the launching of multiple campaigns; the preference for extensive and extended debate; the adoption of contrarian and controversial positions; the use of martial terminology; and the early adoption of leading edge communication techniques.

So although there is no formal link between ourselves and whatever the ‘LM network’ is supposed to be, this was taken as evidence that a nefarious, underhand connection exists – we are therefore a ‘Principal Current Associated Organisation’ of the ‘LM Network’. Absence of evidence is evidence. We are, according to this claim, a ‘front organisation’. This here little blog is like an al Qaeda cell, unconditionally given to a doctrine, that precludes its authors from reason.

… political extremists who eulogise technologies like genetic engineering and reproductive cloning and are extremely hostile to their critics, whom they brand as Nazis. What is particularly disturbing is that it is a network which engages in infiltration of media organisations and science-related lobby groups in order to promote its agenda as well as establishing a strong {sic} of their own organisations.

So how much of this is true, you may be wondering – though the real question ought to be ‘how much of it is significant?’ Are we libertarian? Shock, horror… yes, we are a bit. Are we anti environmentalist? Read the blog! Of course we are! Are we part of a ‘network’? No.

As flattered as we are by the claim, this blog is an independent project. Spin Profiles believes that this blog is a project of the ‘LM network’ because we occasionally write for Spiked and the Institute of Ideas’ on-line and off-line projects. (And we are proud to have done so.) Thus we are now – in the eyes of Spin Profiles – ‘associated’ with a network. The implication is that we are somehow obliged to some organisation, or take instructions from them, but the substance of Spinwatch’s arguments – i.e, the evidence of ‘association’ – consists of nothing. You could be part of a ‘network’ on this basis for nothing more than having had a beer with another alleged ‘member’ of the ‘network’.

The nerdish and unhealthy preoccupation with conspiratorial networks must be very exciting for those casting themselves as brave investigators. The discovery of every ‘association’ in every ‘network’ must surely reveal to these detectives the full extent of the web of conspiracies that rule the world. However, there is a problem with such an approach. It presupposes that there is something wrong the very nature of ‘association’.

SpinProfiles documents the communication, PR, spin and propaganda activities of public relations firms and the public relations industry. SpinProfiles also includes profiles on think tanks, front groups funded by industry and industry-friendly experts that can influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of transnational corporations or other special interests.

What is a network, then? And what does membership of a ‘network’ imply? Spinwatch could not tell you. All that Spinwatch have observed is an essential characteristic of political life – people with similar ideas converge occasionally. It is no more a surprise that the objects of Spinwatch’s study converge than it is that the people behind Spinwatch have converged. Indeed, this is similar the the argument of a blog – Spinwatch Watch – who point out that the group’s claim to be exposing the undue influence of PR and corporate interests is somewhat undermined by the fact that committed environmentalist and Tory MP and multi-multi-multi-multi millionaire, Zac Goldsmith funded the operation:

Zac Goldsmith is theTory millionaire who funds SpinProfiles, SpinWatch and scores of other green front organisations. Goldsmith, who inherited £300 million from his father James Goldsmith’s asset-stripping, used his cash to buy The Ecologist magazine.

Goldsmith raised eye-brows when it became clear that though he was running to be a Member of Parliament, he was avoiding paying tax in Britain, by having himself registered as non-domicile.

So who is spinning?

The reality seems to be that the people behind the Spinprofiles have a very primitive understanding of the world they attempt to observe. The world and the objects in it appear to be spinning. Yet, it is in fact their own profile which rotates.

We have pointed out before that there is a tendency amongst those of an environmental bent to see criticism of their projects as unjust, and in conspiratorial terms. Mythology and Rumours of ‘well-funded denial machines’ exist to explain to Green campaigners why their success in changing the public’s mind has been so limited. On this view, the human mind is fragile, and so it has been easy for conspiratorial networks to distort reality against the difficult truth that environmentalists have been selflessly working to make known. Heroic, down-trodden, hard-working greens have been battling against the establishment itself. The likes of Prince Charles, Zac Goldsmith, Crispin Tickell, Jonathan Porritt and Nick Stern are today’s… erm… revolutionaries…

… You see, it just doesn’t work. No matter how hard environmentalists try to tell this story, it just doesn’t tally. The establishment is green, Green, GREEN. The UK general election produced a coalition of two parties that are firmly committed to the climate agenda. The major party once stood under the slogan ‘Vote Blue, go Green’, and got its leader – now the UK’s Prime Minister – to announce its energy policy at Greenpeace’s UK headquarters. The minority party promised a carbon-free Britain by 2050. The losing Labour Party is deciding on a new leader, a role which Ed Miliband is competing for. Miliband, you will remember, was so mindful of the stark fact that his government’s climate policies lacked democratic legitimacy that he asked environmentalists to produce a movement like the suffragettes, or the civil rights and anti-apartheid campaigns of the last century. Miliband is also best chums with Franny Armstrong, the director of the Age Of Stupid, and frequently makes appearances with her. The climate agenda enjoys the support of the political establishment, and has denied the public the opportunity of testing it democratically. Yet the mythology which casts the climate agenda as radical – and its players as heroes – persists.

As we have pointed out on very many occasions, George Monbiot and the UK’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, are the first to complain about the undemocratic influence of corporate spin and PR. And indeed, these two greens sit on the advisory board of Spinwatch – Spin Profiles’ parent project.

Is it a coincidence that we criticise Monbiot and Lucas, and that we end up on their project’s blacklist?

That’s not to say that Spinwatch have added us to their collection because we’ve spoken against Lucas and Monbiot, but that rather than answering our criticism – or any of the criticism that has come from any of the people we are now ‘associated’ with – we have now been ‘associated’ with a ‘network’ of ‘PR’ and ‘spin’, so that they don’t have to. It’s easier to complain about networks than it is to get engaged in debate.

We could make more of an issue about the connections between Monbiot, Lucas, Goldsmith, and Spinprofiles’ connections to and sympathies with the British establishment, ie, hypocrisy. But our point here is more to try to explain why Spinprofiles perspective is unwittingly spinning. Lucas, Monbiot, Spinwatch, the UK’s new, green political establishment, are a network, the associations of which consist in each member’s disorientation. We have pointed this out before. Monbiot expresses the symptom most acutely:

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.[…] Monbiot is a painful symptom of this disorientation, not a bright and leading advocate of an urgent cause.

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.

What brings the associates of Spinprofiles together – what they share – is an inability to understand the world, and a lack of confidence in their own grasp on it. Hence they see it spinning – nothing they use to see the world by holds true. And hence they invent stories to explain their failure to make it do as they will it to. A thin grasp on the world amplifies anxiety about its demise. In the same way, an infant cannot make a distinction between his failure to assert his will on the world, and the end of that world. The choice as they understand it is between their way or doomsday.

The Spinners see a problem in the mere fact of association – it implies something underhand and malign – but fail to see themselves as associated. It is as if, in order to compensate for their failures, they now seek the real estate above the petty affairs of mere humans: people who find themselves associated by virtue of shared perspectives or interests must obviously have only been brought together on a dangerous myth, because there can be no objective basis for their coming together. Only the spinners are brought together by truth.

This inability to identify or reflect on their own perspective is nothing new. It’s the same symptom of any of the alienated 9-11 truther, or NWO conspiracy theorists. The world exists as a huge mass of connections, and the connections can be read off to imply that Queen Elizabeth II is related to George W Bush, and so both are implicated in something or other, thereby proving that both belong to some extra-terrestrial race of lizard-Jews. But what is being expressed in such views is not as much a perspective on the world, as these individuals’ inability to understand it.

Against Humanity

Juliette Jowit reports in the Guardian that a “British campaigner urges UN to accept ‘ecocide’ as international crime“.

“Ecocide” is defined as

“The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”

Of particular interest is this passage…

Supporters of a new ecocide law also believe it could be used to prosecute “climate deniers” who distort science and facts to discourage voters and politicians from taking action to tackle global warming and climate change.

The key premise of the campaign is that,

extraction [of resources from the planet] leads to ecocide, which leads to resource depletion, and resource depletion leads to conflict.

Thus, “ecocide” is equivalent to genocide.

The first passage quoted above reveals the truth. What environmentalism objects to is human agency.

It is a twist of logic that has made equivalence of humanity’s ability to transform its own predicament and a crime against humanity.

Humanity, in other words, is a crime against humanity.

Rock… Paper… Scissors… Science

Regular readers of this blog will know that we’re been trying to develop the idea that a great deal of politics exists prior to the science in the argument for a political response to climate change. This was the basis of our criticism of studies such as the GHF’s and WHO’s reports of (respectively) 300,000 and 150,000 deaths a year attributed to climate change – all of them in the world’s poorer regions. You can only make this kind of statement, we argue, if you take for granted that poverty is a ‘natural’ effect. Otherwise, logically, the cause of so many deaths is in fact poverty, not climate change. And on the other hand, we try to point out to sceptics that, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, the political debate does not rest on science. Looking for the ‘smoking gun’ to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make – it expects science to answer the political debate.

When we make this argument elsewhere, it seems to appear to our counterparts as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material or formal reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. What we are suggesting is that the politics is prior to formal reality in the argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the warmists that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, such that to take issue with it them is to deny the causal universe itself.

In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these social, or political presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific about this. But the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from these projections, it seems, comes an argument for the politics that the projection presupposed. This in turn is passed off as ‘science’, ‘speaking’. The GHF and WHO’s projections, for instance, have to presuppose that poverty is an immutable fact in order to make the claim that 150,000 / 300,000 deaths a year are caused by climate change (rather than by poverty). This in turn becomes an argument for policies which aim to mitigate climate change for the putative benefit of ‘the poor’, but in reality miss entirely the factor which makes people vulnerable to climate – poverty, and lack of wealth more generally.

Our citing the cases of the GHF and WHO is not intended to make the argument that ‘therefore all climate politics is wrong’, of course. However, this kind of thinking is evident in virtually every argument that we have seen which posits the human consequences of climate change as a basis for political action. It is a mistake that the GHF and WHO make. It is a mistake that was made when it was assumed that the lives of millions of people would be at risk from the exaggerated Himalayan glacial recession. And it seems that it is a mistake that is almost built into the operations of the IPCC.

The next move in any discussion is the trump card… the end-of-the world story that does not depend on modelling projections from presupposed scenarios. There remains a risk that greenhouse gases will cause runaway climate change. There remains the possibility that sea level rise will be so rapid and so high that it really does inundate society’s adaptive capacity. A small rise in temperature might unleash vast clouds of methane from under frozen land. Just a few degrees of warming may cause a mass extinction event, destroying the world’s biodiversity and capacity to support life. And so on. Only scientists can really understand these risks.

It’s a curious thing to happen. Anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only the scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. It is the straightforward application of the precautionary principle.

Such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, or require some technical knowledge to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order that are made more often in the debate that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.

It makes no difference what that actual numerical values of such risk calculations are. That the scenario they depict is remotely plausible makes ignoring them – rhetorically speaking – as good as inviting them. The mere possibility that your existence is threatened is held over the debate in much the same way as a gun to the head. Not simply the worst-case scenario, but the worst-possibly-imaginable scenario carries more weight in debate than anything rational. And it is passed off as “science”. To challenge it is to “deny” science. This is not a phenomenon that it is unique to climate politics.

If people want to take issue with our contention that climate politics are prior to climate science, they are most welcome. They could, for example, argue that we are overstating the degree to which the politics is prior. We are unaware of any extant sociological accounts of science that deny any confounding effect of politics in the scientific endeavour. A good argument might be made, for instance, that science’s quality control measures of peer review, replication and the like are more effective than we credit when it comes to squeezing out messy humanity from the process, or that political and scientific institutions are better than we believe at appraising their own biases, fears and desires when commissioning, conducting and interpreting policy-relevant scientific research. But, as a general rule, that is not what happens.

Rather, we are accused of denying material reality, of attacking or disprepecting science… of postmodernism gone mad. Which is as funny as it is infuriating. Because to deny that climate politics is – to a greater or lesser degree – prior to climate science is as at odds with reality (and even the academic consensus) as the notion that the causal universe is merely a product of our collective imaginations. If we are wrong, it is only by degree. It’s an argument we would enjoy having. But it’s not going to happen when just to broach the subject is seen as a sign that we are anti-science. It is those writing us off as such who are wrong in absolute terms.

The Poverty of the Ambitious

According to the Observer today,

Some of the planet’s most powerful paymasters will gather in London on Wednesday to discuss a nagging financial problem: how to raise a trillion dollars for the developing world. Those charged with achieving this daunting goal will include Gordon Brown, directors of several central banks, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the economist Lord (Nicholas) Stern and Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economics adviser.

As an array of expertise, it is formidable: but then so is the task they have been set by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. In effect, the world’s top financiers have been told to work out how to raise at least $100bn a year for the rest of this decade, cash that will be used to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change.

A trillion dollars for the developing world, eh? That sounds like a hell of a lot. And indeed it is. Except when you do the math.

It is said that there are a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. So a $100bn a year changes the lives of these billion people to the tune of one dollar a day, for a hundred days a year.

In other words, it makes virtually no difference.

That’s not the way Bob Ward sees it.

“The prices we pay for our goods do not reflect one key cost: the damage that their production does to the planet’s climate system,” said Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE. “We need to find ways to extract payment from those who cause that damage and then use that money to fund developing nations so that they can protect themselves from the worst effects of global warming.”

When Bob Ward isn’t telling people what they are not allowed to say or do, he’s thinking up new ways to use the environmental crisis to do more of it.

What at first pass looks like an impulse to deliver some kind of humanitarian aid is revealed as an authoritarian instinct. When it turns out that the aid is paltry, only the authoritarian instinct remains. This is cloaked in the language of “helping” poor people at the expense of people who are seemingly responsible for their condition, but it’s really about using the climate to control both the wealthy and the poor. Make no mistake, this is a self-serving gesture. If it wasn’t, a discussion about poverty in the world attended by so many of the Global Great and the Good would not be dominated by the climate change agenda. It is only because it offers no genuine transformative potential (yet it offered them a platform from which to elevate themselves) that so many of the world’s most powerful people are so interested. The big numbers and the lofty goal flatter them. But in reality the effect will be to make no more difference than a few pennies here and there would.

The point here being that if $100bn a year is sufficient to make a difference with respect to people’s lives affected by climate change, then there are two serious implications. The first is that climate change is a minor problem – what determines whether or not it is a problem for you is whether or not you happen to have about a third of a dollar in your pocket on a given day. $0.3 makes the difference between you surviving and you being a climate victim. Second, the implication is that the world’s leaders do not give a stuff about poverty, unless it is “climate poverty”. That is to say it is only when poverty carries some instrumental value to them that they become interested. If you’ve $1.3 in your pocket, you can go hang. If you’re a climate victim, you generate moral authority for the changes that Gordon Brown, George Soros, Nick Stern, and Larry Summers – and the rest – have in mind.

This has nothing to do with poverty. What abolishes poverty are roads, factories, hospitals, schools, ports and airports, dams, bridges, and water infrastructure built by the people that use them. All of these things, in their construction and operation, produce CO2. The trillion dollars a decade promised by the people gathering this week will be predicated on minimising the impact of any potential development in the poorest part of the world, and its purpose is to buy support from the leaders of those countries for a specific climate agenda that suits the architects of this deal. The people who will administer this transfer of wealth – likely the cronies of Nick Stern – will be the only ones who see any real change in their circumstances. To the people on the receiving end, it is peanuts.

There are a lot of positive things, of course, that a $trillion could do to abolish poverty. But the abolition of poverty has been conveniently abolished from the agenda by the preoccupation with climate change. What this has done is to reframe the conditions that many millions of people have to endure in such a way as to appear as a natural consequence of industry, as if poverty never existed before climate change. So the very roles – the presidents and prime ministers – that created such conditions are now populated by people who seek to generate moral authority and political legitimacy for themselves out of those very conditions, through the logic of climate change.

Don’t You Believe in Global Warming?

Venture a doubt about climate change politics or ethics, and you’ll likely be asked, “Don’t you believe in global warming?” If you express suspicion about the prominence and function served by alarm and catastrophe in arguments for political responses to climate change, it will be assumed that you don’t understand “the science”, or you simply aren’t aware of “the science”, or you are denying “the science”. As we’ve observed before, the debate is presented as one between sides attached to either the proposition “climate change is happening” or its denial, “climate change isn’t happening”.

It is a mistake to see the debate in this way for a number of reasons – most of which we’ve discussed here before. The point of this blog post is to stress what is interesting about the statement “climate change is happening”. For a statement with such huge implications, it is entirely devoid of meaning or content.

The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency.  If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.

Moreover, that the expression can be unpacked in such a way reveals its emptiness. It is a mere container for prejudices and preconceptions. It is a box, with the word “SCIENCE” painted on the side to flatter the bearer. The proposition “climate change is happening”, then, says more about the person saying it than it says about the material world.

It means different things to different people. “Climate change is happening” means we must all become anarcho-eco-socialists to the radical crusty protestor. To the capitalist climate change guru – Nick Stern, perhaps – it means we need to create carbon markets. To others, such as the New Economics Foundation, it means the entire world must reduce its wealth, and share the little that exists ‘equitably’ through “contraction and convergence”. To the leaders of some western nations, Gordon Brown, for instance, it means that a legally-binding treaty must be created, complete with supra-national, supra-democratic climate political institutions. To the person living a “sustainable lifestyle”, it means moral purpose and direction and smugness. To the local government official, it means a legitimate basis for their increasingly regulatory and authoritarian function (in spite of record low voter-turnouts). Need we go on?

You see, to take issue with any of these positions would elicit the same response “climate change is happening”, as if that was all that needed to be said. It is as if, for instance, supra-national institutions and treaties would exert legitimate influence over sovereign, democratic countries, by virtue of the mere fact of climate change “happening”. No question asked about the degree or consequences of it “happening”. If you don’t like the way the local authority is behaving… tough… climate change is happening… are you denying climate change?

As we have said before, this in some way explains Climategate. Datasets that show warming such as that produced by the authors of the leaked emails are the pivot, so to speak, of the entire climate change movement. The debate has been polarised in this way by those taking their authority (see above) from the binary fact of climate change. Excluding from debate any question of degree, or scrutiny of the process that turned climate science into climate politics has left just one thing for the argument to be about. So all that needed to be done to deprive climate politics of its basis was to show that, in fact, climate scientists are human, have their own prejudices, and make mistakes.

The idea that climate science and climate scientists were not vulnerable to prejudices, interests, influence allowed people to believe that to challenge any aspect of climate politics is seemingly to “deny” climate science. Here is one such politician doing exactly that…

“Climate change is happening” means different things to different people. Ask what it means, and get as many different replies back as people you asked. It is not, by itself a statement with any scientific meaning, but one which clearly carries many political consequences. It allows people to express certain ideas about the world – anything between generalised grumble about things, to a design for the entire world’s organisation – in one neat little declaration. And interestingly, it seems to bring together the establishment and radical subversives (they like to think) in one, hollow, hollow slogan.

Do You Want “Ethics” With That?

The desire that things be “ethical” has developed in the same era as climate change anxiety. Naturally, there is some convergence. Things which promise to lessen ‘environmental impact’ are considered ‘ethical’, and the implication is that things that aren’t clearly labelled ‘ethical’ are therefore ‘unethical’.

This is unusual because “ethical” seems to have replaced the word “good” in the discussion about what is good. This is nonsense for two main reasons. “Ethical” does not mean “good”. Al-Qaida has ethics. The Nazi Party had ethics – It had a very “ethical foreign policy”. Ethics is about determining a moral framework, within which can be established, in any instance, right from wrong, good from bad. So at the same time, those who use the word “ethical” in the place of the word ‘good’ reveal their own lack of confidence in the concept of good, and yet pretend to be the only people to ever think about what is right and what is wrong. Ethics is now what you buy, not what you think.

Last November, George Monbiot said something we agreed with… “We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits”, he said. We agreed,  but with the qualification that George was right to say that “ethical consumerism” is wrong, but for the wrong reason, and was inconsistent. He was responding to a study in Canada, which had apparently demonstrated that “ethical consumerism” had the effect of creating a sense of entitlement to act ‘unethically’ elsewhere. In an experiment, participants who had “bought” ethical goods were more likely to go on to “steal”.

It was odd, then, to see that The Guardian were reporting the study again last week, nearly 6 months after Monbiot had reported it in the same newspaper.

According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the “licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour”, otherwise known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics”.

The Guardian seem to be having a bit of an ‘ethics’ festival at the moment. Commenting on the “news”, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, Julian Baggini says of the experiment,

… complacency is as dangerous in ethics as it is in any other area of life where we strive for excellence. If we think we are “good people” we might think less about the possibility that we might actually be doing wrong.

But if that just seems to be a universal truth of human nature, what of the idea that being in moral credit earns us redeemable naughtiness points? I can imagine what the evolutionary psychologists would say: ethics is rooted in reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. So when you do the right thing, but not to any particular person, we instinctively feel that we have earned some sort of pay back. Since no-one will do that for us, we opt for self-service reciprocation.

That may indeed be natural, but that doesn’t make it right. And even if it did, there is still a problem that when we allow ourselves to dish out the rewards, we can’t trust ourselves to be fair.

The philosopher takes the experiment at face value, to begin to mull over the implications for ethics with respect to “human nature”, before coming to this conclusion.

True virtue would never liken its rewards to points on a loyalty card, not because it is its own reward, but because it is not something we should practice to accrue future benefits. If these latest studies show us anything, it’s that we’ve lost sight of this. It is not to our credit that we see good deeds as ways of earning it. Ethics has gone beyond reciprocal altruism and become unenlightened self-interest. But I’d better stop there: I’m in danger of feeling very, very self-righteous.

It is a shame that Baggini did stop there. Because the experiment says nothing about human nature, and says nothing about ethics in general. Instead, it speaks most loudly about “environmental ethics”. As we said back in November:

If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. …

This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’.  We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something.

Environmental ‘ethics’ are an absurdity. First, they are extraordinarily polar, and lack any nuance whatsoever. All bad actions lead ultimately to nothing less than the end of the world, yet the most mundane actions – buying the ‘good’ kind of paper to wipe your arse with, for instance – become acts of planet-saving significance. This happens for the reason Baggini raises – that virtue cannot be likened to “points on a loyalty card”. Yet this is exactly how environmental ethics force us to see the world. Good is measured as the net balance of our exchange with the natural sphere, as calculated by ‘science’. Climate science, then, gives the ground for environmental ethics as a kind of cheap, vulgar moral realism – the idea that there are moral facts in the world.

What “the good life” consists of has haunted moral philosophers for thousands of years, but human ethics are swept away by the urgency with which the climate issue has been presented. And human politics are similarly abolished in the face of the looming apocalypse. To take issue, with any part of this moral framework is to deny its premises – “the science” – is to be a denier. To question the soundness of the framework is to be a “contrarian”, or a “delayer”. Adherents of environmental ethics even have words for those who are not observant.