Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry

Headlines don’t get much more alarmist than this…

As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:

The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.

Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:

“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.

“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”

Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

[…]

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:

“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”

She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.

[…]

“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.

“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.

“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”

It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.

Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:

we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.

But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:

Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.

She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:

But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.

‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.

As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.

Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.

There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.

Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:

If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us

No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:

In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:

But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.

May, the Farce be With You

We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]

MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.

BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.

MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?

BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.

MK: And you…

BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.

MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.

BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.

MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.

Wow.

So here’s what we understand from the interview.

In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.

In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.

Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?

Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.

Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?

Psycho-Activists' Lack-of-Substance Abuse

Last month, we mentioned a conference at the University of the West of England, which set out to diagnose the debilitating condition suffered by those who fail to subscribe to the environmental orthodoxy.

We suggested that it’s a sure sign that environmentalism’s political arguments are failing when its adherents resort to the pathologisation of dissenters. Climate psycho-activist George Marshall had followed up his opening address to the conference with a Guardian piece explaining that ‘the greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information’.

What he meant by ‘we’ was ‘them’. But that’s the trouble with psychology: we all have one. If scepticism can be reduced to a psycho-pathological phenomenon, then so too can willingness to toe the line of green orthodoxy. Things get even more difficult for Marshall because, given that the majority of the world’s population would count as sceptics (and Marshall’s despair over the results of various opinion polls would suggest that he’d agree with this), it seems rather odd to be writing off such views as an aberration.

We suggested that his analysis could be thrown right back at him just by reversing the meaning of each of his arguments. The same goes for a similar analysis from green campaigning philosopher James Garvey, which we missed at the time. Garvey drew on Mayer Hillman’s ten excuses for inaction on climate change:

1. I don’t believe in climate change.
2. Technology will be able to halt climate change.
3. Others are to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those calling for action.
5. It’s not my problem.
6. There’s nothing I can do about it.
7. How I run my life is my business.
8. There are more important problems to tackle.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. We are already making real progress on climate change.

Once again, with just a modicum of tweaking, these can be transformed into ten excuses to do ‘something’ on climate change:

1. I believe in climate change.
2. Technology won’t be able to halt climate change.
3. I am to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those criticising action for its own sake.
5. This is personal.
6. There’s something I can do to make myself feel better about it.
7. How I run my life is everyone’s business, and theirs mine.
8. I haven’t got anything better to do.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. Climate change is worse than previously thought.

Meanwhile, Marshall continues to clutch at the straws offered by eco-psychology. He has recently posted his Guardian piece on his blog with a postscript in which he lists some of the responses made to the original ‘which are mostly text book examples of the various denial strategies we know only too well’. It’s all he can do; he has nowhere else to go. No point countering with political arguments. Because the outcome of Marshall’s argument is that politics itself is reducible to the sum of the expression of our psychological idiosyncrasies. It’s the only way to resolve the conflict between his statements that A) psychology is the biggest determinant of one’s willingness to act on climate change, and B) ‘political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change’:

Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”

If ‘denialism’ is a pathology, so too is Republicanism. And who argues with madmen? Handy.

Last year, Ben wrote a review of Garvey’s book The Ethics of Climate Change. Since then, Garvey’s argument hasn’t got any more sophisticated, nor even more philosophical.

A more philosophical question might be ‘what are the ethics of treating people with different views as though they had a psychological disorder?’ But indeed, the tendency to psychologise political difference rather than face awkward philosophical and political questions is symptomatic of what we have described as the orthodox-interested category of players in the climate change debate. If it is possible to characterise climate change ‘denial’ with a list of symptoms, then it is legitimate to do the same with their counterparts, as above.

Garvey, like many climate change activists, hides his ethics (or equally possibly, his lack of them) behind scientific authority. But he escapes being head-shrinked into a category by claiming that ‘the science’ justifies his outlook – even though, as he admits, he doesn’t actually understand the science. Knowledge of the material world that informs his ethical perspective comes to him from authority – science academies, the IPCC. Garvey might wish to consult a number of philosophers who point out that experience is prior to science. Science’s aim is to build an objective picture of the world. But it is not executed by objective beings. Nor is it viewed by objective beings.

Hillman’s ten arguments give us a view of what a ‘sceptic’ might say, each implying that the individual hasn’t been sufficiently exposed to the official scientific truth. But as our own ten points demonstrate, it is easy to form an equally ill-informed perspective the other way. Garvey, like Hillman takes what he understands to be an objective, scientific fact – climate change is dangerous and is happening – and runs with it. Where does it take him?

It takes him, Hillman, and Marshall to a view of other people. The prospect of catastrophe allows Garvey to reinvent a system of ethics to explain how people ought to behave. It allows Hillman to speculate on the nature of other people’s ignorance. It allows Marshall to peer inside the heads of his political opposition. It allows the creation of a form of politics which sees people as little more than a collection of animal drives and instincts – objects, which they have studied, that need to be managed lest they unleash thermageddon.

This is what people object to. It is not an objection that appears on Hilman’s list. He obviously hasn’t reflected very deeply on what an objection to his own view might be. Naturally, this is because he denies that there can be an objection. Science says so. Let us correct him. Garvey’s, Hillman’s and Marshall’s arguments are not formed from objectivity. They are formed at a time in which men such as these struggle to find any way of elevating themselves. They have very little to offer the world in terms of ideas about how to make it a better place. So they instead tell us that it is much much worse place than we can possibly contemplate, and worsening. It is only from their privileged standpoint that the danger can be seen. These three men demonstrate their inability to communicate with the public. Their shrill voices represent an increasingly desperate attempt to shout instructions across the distance between them and the rest of the world.

People can see that this is what environmental politics, ethics and psychology are about. That is because they have a subjective position on the world; they are not mere collections of animal drives. And as subjective beings, it is easy to imagine things from a different perspective. It is easy to sense, if not recognise, that what lies behind environmental catastrophism is a desire to control. Once the subjective position of eco-zealots is understood, it is easy to see that there is not only a way of explaining their alarmism, but also a substantial disparity between what emerges from the ‘objective’ scientific process and the bleak environmental orthodoxy they produce.

The Psychology of the Psychology of Denial

Last week, we mentioned an academic conference at the University of the West of England about the psychology of climate change denial, which appeared to be rather lacking on the academic front. It was a gathering of a handful of higher beings – Jungian analysts, climate activists and eco-psychologists – who, having shrugged off the shackles of the human condition, are now able to diagnose what is wrong with the rest of us.

The opening address was given by George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and author of ‘Carbon Detox’, who popped up his week on Comment is Free to tell us just how sick we are:

The greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.

He sets out the problem with a superficial analysis of ambivalent responses to ambiguous surveys:

nearly 80% of people claim to be concerned about climate change. However, delve deeper and one finds that people have a remarkable tendency to define this concern in ways that keep it as far away as possible. They describe climate change as a global problem (but not a local one) as a future problem (not one for their own lifetimes) and absolve themselves of responsibility for either causing the problem or solving it.

Most disturbing of all, 60% of people believe that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change”. Thirty per cent of people believe climate change is “largely down to natural causes”, while 7% refuse to accept the climate is changing at all.

Pesky humans, making simple black-and-white issues so unnecessarily complicated.

How is it possible that so many people are still unpersuaded by 40 years of research and the consensus of every major scientific institution in the world? Surely we are now long past the point at which the evidence became overwhelming?

Cue the psycho-analysis:

Having neither the time nor skills to weigh up each piece of evidence we fall back on decision-making shortcuts formed by our education, politics and class. In particular we measure new information against our life experience and the views of the people around us.

Yes. And Marshall’s article is a warning of what you might start believing in if you choose to hang around with psychobabblers. Each of his diagnoses can be thrown right back at him. First up:

George Lakoff, of the University of California, argues that we often use metaphors to carry over experience from simple or concrete experiences into new domains. Thus, as politicians know very well, broad concepts such as freedom, independence, leadership, growth and pride can resonate far deeper than the policies they describe.

None of this bodes well for a rational approach to climate change. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”.

Marshall – like many political environmentalists – kids himself that he is informed only by cold, hard, rational, scientific reality. Ideology is what the deniers do. Which allows him to pretend that his own penchant for ‘broad concepts’ such as ‘restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention’ – and his distaste for freedom, independence and growth – are merely imperatives determined by the science. Who’s delusional here?

Next:

Dr Myanna Lahsen, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has specialised in understanding how professional scientists, some of them with highly respected careers, turn climate sceptic. She found the largest common factor was a shared sense that they had personally lost prestige and authority as the result of campaigns by liberals and environmentalists. She concluded that their engagement in climate issues “can be understood in part as a struggle to preserve their particular culturally charged understanding of environmental reality.”

Lahsen’s interviews with three high-profile and self-professed sceptical scientists are interesting. They reveal that they recognise precisely what Marshall does not – that scientific information can be interpreted in different ways, and that policy does not flow automatically from any science. Lahsen describes the interviews as ‘remarkably frank‘, and the interviewees certainly appear a lot more self-aware (and to have less to hide) than Marshall, who interprets Lahsen’s findings thus:

In other words, like the general public, they form their beliefs through reference to a world view formed through politics and life experience. In order to maintain their scepticism in the face of a sustained, and sometimes heated, challenge from their peers, they have created a mutually supportive dissident culture around an identity as victimised speakers for the truth.

Which is just hilarious in the light of his claims that his own unpopular ‘truth’ is being steamrollered by dirty oil money, right-wing ideology and a psychologically deranged public.

One academic study of 192 sceptic books and reports found that 92% were directly associated with right wing free market think tanks. It concluded that the denial of climate change had been deliberately constructed “as a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”.

So, given that scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement, how can sceptics be swayed?

That ‘scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement’ is patently untrue. The environmental movement is far better funded, having at its disposal hundreds of millions for expensive PR and lobbying campaigns. Indeed, the likes of the European Union even fund such groups as WWF and Friends of the Earth to lobby its own MEPs.

No amount of ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ can legitimise any political ideology. Contrary to Marshall’s claims, there is nothing ideological about scepticism. Sceptics aren’t asking for the world to be reorganised around environmental ethics. George is. Where you stand on the climate issue does not determine where you stand on the merits or otherwise of conservative ideology. Sceptics object to environmentalism’s hiding of its politics behind ‘the science’ to claim that science produces moral imperatives, and that failing to observe them will cause apocalypse. Stop to ask if climate problems really demand the special politics of environmentalism – that we must swap development and progress for security, for example, or that living a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ really is the best way to express solidarity with the world’s poor and to lift them out of poverty – and George Marshall will call you a conservative. It’s black and white for him – you either do as he says, or you’ve been brainwashed by Jeremy Clarkson. You’re in denial.

Marshall is forced to fall back on psychobabble because the political case for environmentalism has proved unpersuasive. You can almost hear him putting up his hands in defeat in his answer to his own question, ‘how can sceptics be swayed?’ Forget arguing with them, he says, you can cure them only by appealing to their baser, human instincts, especially peer pressure, ‘probably the most important influence of all’:

when dealing with a sceptic, don’t get into a head to head with them. Just politely point out all the people they know and respect who believe that climate change is a serious problem — and they aren’t sandle-wearing tree huggers, are they?

Yep, that’ll do it.

Ultimately, Marshall’s case is self-defeating. If the arguments made by contrarian scientists and the majority of the world’s population can be written off as a product of screwy psychology, then so too can those made by Marshall and his cronies – and everyone else for that matter. But when it comes down to it, we don’t care to peer into Marshall’s head in search of psychological peculiarities that contribute to his political inclinations, his self-delusion, his low opinion of his fellow humans, his willingness to toe the green party line, to reinterpret cautious scientific findings as a sign of the imminent eco-Rapture, to fail to distinguish science from politics, or, indeed, his creepy habit of peering into the heads of anyone who disagrees with him.

Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree

This weekend, the University of the West of England’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies is holding a conference on ‘The Psychological and Political Challenge of Facing Climate Change’. According to conference organiser Professor Paul Hoggett:

“We will examine [climate change] denial from a variety of different perspectives…

Except he doesn’t actually mean ‘different perspectives’:

…as the product of addiction to consumption, as the outcome of diffusion of responsibility and the idea that someone else will sort it out and as the consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency, irresponsibility.”

Brendan O’Neill beat us to it:

…It will be a gathering of those from the top of society – ‘psychotherapists, social researchers, climate change activists, eco-psychologists’ – who will analyse those at the bottom of society, as if we were so many flitting, irrational amoeba under an eco-microscope. The organisers say the conference will explore how ‘denial’ is a product of both ‘addiction and consumption’ and is the ‘consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency and irresponsibility’. It is a testament to the dumbed-down, debate-phobic nature of the modern academy that a conference is being held not to explore ideas – to interrogate, analyse and fight over them – but to tag them as perverse.

We don’t have much to add, other than recommending that you take a moment to browse the conference programme and the outline of the afternoon’s Themed Groups session to get the full flavour of the event. (Links to Word files at the bottom of this page.) Here’s a taster:

It’s one thing – though a very important one – to understand environmental issues intellectually; quite another thing to feel them in our flesh and blood.  According to ecopsychologists, our alienation from flesh and blood experience plays a key role in our numb acceptance of planetary degradation and destruction. This workshop will use simple experiential exercises to help you connect more deeply with your own embodiment, and hence with the beauty and fragility of the other-than-human world.

It sounds like a great day’s entertainment if anyone fancies popping along. And all for only 50 quid.

We’ve alluded to Clockwork Orange (Clockwork Green?) when talking about psychologists’ attempts to get a piece of the climate change action. O’Neill goes with Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Psychologising dissent, and refusing to recognise, much less engage with, the substance of people’s disagreements – their political objections, their rational criticisms, their desire to do things differently – is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, outspoken critics of the ruling party were frequently tagged as mentally disordered and faced, as one Soviet dissident described it, ‘political exile to mental institutions’ (11). There they would be treated with narcotics, tranquillisers and even electric shock therapy. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure our hero Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged!’ he tells him. Today the word ‘Orwellian’ is massively overused, to describe everything from fingerprint library cards to supermarket loyalty cards, but treating your dissenters as deranged? That really is Orwellian, and we should declare permanent war against it.

There are two sides to every debate, of course, so we’ll give the last word to O’Brien the torturer Dr Steven Moffic:

[youtube VcWn3b3h3sQ]

Let Them Eat Shrubbery

Science is often at its most newsworthy when it proves the blatantly obvious: getting drunk makes you more likely to fall over; sunbathing is a risk factor for sunburn, etc. But science that ‘proves’ something that journalists, commentators and policy bods like to think was blatantly obvious can also command more than its fair of column inches. Last year, for example, we reported on how a paper published by the Royal Society had proved once and for all that The Great Global Warming Swindle really did get it wrong about the influence of the sun on global warming, just like the Royal Society had said it had. More recently, there was the news that human activities had been attributed directly to the rise in temperatures at the Earth’s poles:

there was not sufficient evidence to say this for sure about the Arctic and Antarctic.

Now that gap in research has been plugged, according to scientists who carried out a detailed analysis of temperature variations at both poles.

Their study indicates that humans have indeed contributed to warming in both regions.

Which presumably came as a surprise to Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, according to whom the matter had been settled decades ago. In fact, the ‘fact’ that polar temperatures have been increasing faster than in the rest of the world was the prime ‘fact’ presented by Oreskes in her influential lecture, The American Denial of Global Warming, to justify her thesis that the whole issue of global warming and what we should do about it was done and dusted in the 1970s.

The latest example is to be found in the Independent, where Steve Connor reports on how his own personal prejudices about the restorative effects of green space are now supported by ‘the science’:

Proof at last: living near parks and woodland boosts health, regardless of social class.

Another whose assumptions are now vindicated scientifically is David Tibbatts from the charity GreenSpace:

“The study confirms what we have been saying for many years – parks are important for health and everyone should have access to high quality, beautiful and vibrant green spaces.”

The ‘proof’ is provided by a study published in last week’s issue of the Lancet (free registration required). It presents evidence that the health gap between rich and poor is narrower in areas where there is easy access to green space. Having made a good stab at controlling for the effects of socio-economic class – no easy task – the authors of the paper find that socio-economic health inequalities are nearly halved in those areas where greenery is most easily accessible compared to where it’s most sparse.

Of course, whatever the Independent might tell us, a single study rarely ‘proves’ anything, especially in such a noisy, contingent science as epidemiology. As co-author of the study Richard Mitchell of the University of Glasgow told us on the telephone:

It’s the first time anybody has done this, and inevitably it raises more questions than it answers.

Like how big the effect is compared to socio-economic class itself, for example? The answer to that one is far from clear. It’s certainly smaller, as Mitchell confirmed, but it’s hard to tell how much smaller. That’s because Mitchell and his collaborator Frank Popham (University of St Andrews) have used a narrow measure of health – mortality rate before retirement age – that does not compare directly with data on life-expectancy, which is the usual measure of health inequalities. Comparing like with like would require a separate study using different datasets. Life expectancy is approaching a decade shorter for those in the lowest social class compared to to the highest in the UK. Mitchell and Popham estimate that close proximity to green space means that an additional 1328 people live beyond retirement age per year. But it takes some imagination to expect that the latter makes much impact on the former.

And does it really follow that town planners just need to make more space for trees? Which is the take-home message of Connor’s piece:

Dr Mitchell, who is based at the university’s department of public health and health policy, said: “We would encourage the Government to consider carefully what their policy on green spaces is and to bear this research in mind when planning urban areas for the future.”

In these deterministic times – when we see ourselves as slaves to economies, climates and our evolutionary psychologies – these are questions that nobody feels the need to actually ask. Complex political questions are just too easy to ignore when simple mechanistic answers are handed out on plates.

It’s also striking that, although the paper concerned was published as part of a special issue on social inequalities in health, none of the other papers have received nearly as much attention. This paper is media-friendly precisely because it confirms the prejudices of a media machine that consistently fails to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of environmentalism.

Neither do the press reports mention any of the caveats that Mitchell and Popham raise in their paper:

We undertook a highly powered population study with a simple approach, using robust health outcomes from reliable data sources. The study was hypothesis driven, and that hypothesis was based on findings from a large amount of research. However, the study did have several weaknesses. First, the measure of exposure to green environments was restricted. Although we knew the proportion of green space in the area of residence of people who had died, we had to assume that individuals living in areas with equal proportions of green space actually had equal access to that green space. Had appropriate data been available, we could have used a measure of distance to defined green spaces as a proxy for access, although we would still have had no data for whether populations living closer to a specified green space did actually access it to a greater extent. Furthermore, quality of green space could be a substantial determinant of use and activity within it, and we had no data for quality. No national dataset describing the quality of green space to which the population has access in England is available.

Second, our data were cross-sectional. We had no means of knowing the extent to which individuals had access to green environments throughout their life. Migration before death (eg, to access residential care) could have placed some people into a distinctly different environment from that in which their disease was acquired or developed. If such migration varied by income group, our results could be affected. Since we have no data for migration patterns, we were unable to quantify the effect of this factor.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the measure of green space might be associated with other risk factors that we have not controlled for in our models. One of the difficulties of exploring the effect of physical environments on health is that access to good physical environments is strongly associated with the socioeconomic position of individuals. Residual confounding is therefore a threat to studies of this type.

Mitchell and Popham suggest that a combination of increased opportunities and motivation for physical activity plus a reduction in stress-related health problems might account for their results. This is supported, they say, by the observation that inequalities in early death due to any cause and due to circulatory diseases were reduced by close proximity to greenery while class differences in deaths due to lung cancer and suicide were not. The kind of stress that leads to circulatory disease is, according to Mitchell ‘a different sort of stress’ to that which makes smoking attractive or leads to self-harm. That maybe. But that’s certainly a claim that requires scrutiny from the scientific community.

When we spoke to him, Mitchell made it clear that planting trees is no substitute for wealth redistribution:

No government in the UK is ever going to get elected on the kind of really radical redistribution you would need to close the gap that way. The extent to which the gap shrinks in the greenest areas is more than has been achieved by current policy in the UK for quite a long time though, so this is a sizable effect. It’s really important not to overlook the redistribution of wealth. But, while we’re waiting for the revolution, it’s good news that environment can exert what seems to be a substantial influence.

We share his frustration, if not his defeatism. Wealth inequalities might have increased under the New Labour government, but that’s surely something to revile rather than run with. Mitchell makes a similar point in the press release issued by the University of Glasgow:

“Obviously, resources must still be ploughed into trying to narrow the inequality gap between rich and poor, and with that will come advances in the population’s general health.”

But Mitchell himself isn’t always so circumspect. In an article he wrote for the Sunday Herald about this research, socio-economics doesn’t get a mention. But he does sign off with a call to action:

So, the next time there is a planning permission argument in which a local green space is at risk, bear in mind that the green space is worth protecting because it is making a contribution to your health, and those of the people around you.

It reminds us of our conversation back in July with marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer, who told us:

When you’re interviewed, you can give your own personal point of view, but when you publish a paper that goes up for rigorous peer review, then it’s got to have the caveats and everything else.

Well, yes, you can. But it doesn’t follow that you should.

In support of his case that policymakers should heed the message of his study, Mitchell also told us that:

the other thing is, so far as we know so far, green spaces don’t do any harm.

Which could read like a mission statement for environmentalism. As we tend to argue quite frequently on this site, environmental policies introduced in the absence of any better ideas can and do do harm. Green spaces and policies compete by definition for space and resources with amenities and policies that might address class inequalities per se. And when basic services such as refuse collection and sanitation are being reinvented under the banner of environmentalism, tree planting is a convenient and attractive option for cash-strapped town planners.

We feel a bit mean picking on Mitchell. The bulk of the blame certainly does not fall on his shoulders. We don’t doubt that he’s doing good science, or that his intentions are noble. But he has a career to look after like the rest of us. And as a scientist, looking after one’s career means constantly justifying one’s research in policy terms. Then there is the tyranny of the news peg – the reporting of newsworthy single studies in the absence of context or caution – to consider. And the tyranny of ‘relevant’ science. And of ‘evidence’-based policymaking. And of ‘science communication’ policies that require scientists to seek to popularise their work as part of the job description. Combined, the result is that any tin-pot political philosophy can be ‘proven’ scientifically, which does an injustice to both politics and science.

The Greens and the Bell-Curve

A little article on the Times website caught our eye.

Cleverer children are more likely to vote for the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats in a general election than other parties when they become adults, research suggests. The study, by the University of Edinburgh and the UK Medical Research Council and published in the journal Intelligence, indicates that childhood IQ is as important as social class in determining political allegiance. The IQs of more than 6,000 subjects were recorded at the age of 10, before any secondary schooling. Twenty-four years later they were asked about their voting habits.

This contradicts our experience of Greens. But this is science. So let’s not put our experience above the scientific method.

The Times article is a bit misleading. The abstract of the journal article ( http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2008.09.00 ) says

People with higher childhood intelligence were more likely to vote in the 2001 election (38% increased prevalence per SD increase in intelligence), and were more likely to vote for the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats (49% and 47% increased prevalence per SD increase in intelligence, respectively). The intelligence-Green party voting association was largely accounted for by occupational social class, the intelligence-Liberal Democrat voting association was not.

So, in fact, the more posh you are, the more likely you are to have voted Green..

When the associations between intelligence test scores and party voting were additionally adjusted for occupational social class, the association with voting for the Green Party was attenuated by 45% (odds ratio of 1.49 changed to 1.27), and was no longer significant.

This must come as a bit of an annoyance to Mark Lynas, who, as we reported earlier in the year, believes that it’s the working class who were interested in his Green chums.

Lynas had said of a poll that,

perhaps the most fascinating result of all emerges from the small print of the different social classes of the ICM survey respondents. Environmentalists are constantly accused of being middle-class lifestyle faddists, who don’t understand the day-to-day financial pressures faced by “ordinary” working people.

The class breakdown of the individuals who participated in the study, and who voted green are as follows: Professional, 9 (11.5%). Managerial/technical, 47 (60.3%). Skilled non-manual, 12 (15.4%). Skilled manual, 7 (9%). Semiskilled, 3 (3.8%). Unskilled, 0 (0%).

The accusations ring true, unfortunately for Lynas.

Nobody would be surprised that social class is reflected in voting preference. And our beef here isn’t even with the silly claim that Greens are more intelligent. What’s odd about this kind of study is that it tries to reduce voting behaviour to absurd metrics. The only way to understand how people vote the way they do is to understand how they engaged with the ideas on offer, not their ability to engage with them.

Not that this is the intentions of the study’s authors (we just think it is a bit silly), but it is a tendency of the environmental movement to look for ways to reduce its opposition to unthinking, unaware consumer-bots in order to legitimise undemocratic and authoritarian policies. Politics is about ideas. Beware politics – and social science – by numbers.

On the Horizon

1) Battle of Ideas, 1-2 November, Royal College of Art, London

If last year’s event is anything to go by, it will be very good indeed. Here’s Professor Mike Hulme, School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and founding Director (2000-2007) of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, speaking at last year’s Battle at the session The Science and Politics of Climate Change, ten days after Al Gore and the IPCC got their Nobel Peace Prize:

To me it seems implicit that good science, as represented by the IPCC, plus good communication, as represented by Al Gore, will deliver peace on Earth. [But] it is not the case that, we have the scientific debate, then once we agree what the scientific evidence is, we simply have to communicate it, peace will break out, the world will act, and the problem would be solved. That is not what science’s role is; it’s not how most public political issues are resolved; and it’s certainly not the way climate change is going to be tackled […] The real issues are why we disagree about what to do about climate change. And science cannot provide us with the script that we all read from.

And if you have a spare 10 minutes, the rest is good, too:

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As are the other three speakers (90 minutes)

A couple of events jump out at us from the 2008 programme: Is our behaviour determined by our evolution?

Is the renewed interest in the evolutionary, genetic and psychological basis of human behaviour inspired by new evidence, or a diminished view of the human condition? Are social and cultural phenomena beyond the proper scope of natural science, or have we just become less hysterical about turning the microscope on ourselves?

Which makes us think of Andreas Ernst, Steven Moffic and Richard Louv. They aren’t on the panel. But the excellent Raymond Tallis is.

And for anybody intrigued by the uncanny similarities between environmentalism and the War on Terror, there’s Eco-imperialism?:

… Environmental concerns have joined terrorism and nuclear proliferation as key preoccupations in international affairs since the end of the Cold War. Free from the political constraints of the ‘old world order’, UN officials, Western politicians and NGOs frequently argue that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of ‘rogue’ sovereign states.Should industrial pollution and the destruction of natural habitats be seen as ‘crimes against nature’ (ecocide), justifying ecological interventions similar to humanitarian ones? Is the use of force to prevent serious and immediate environmental harm something we should now seriously consider? Or would this amount to ‘eco-imperialism’, transgressing international legal and political norms and state sovereignty?

2) Beyond the Pole, at a cinema near you, maybe, one day:

the first carbon-neutral, organic, and vegetarian option… er… expedition to make the pole

Perhaps satire isn’t dead after all. Although real life did beat them to it.

We Have Ways of Making You Walk

Recently, we have discussed how Green is the colour of reinventing yourself, to make your washed out perspective seem fresh and relevant to today’s world. Gay rights activist and Green Party Parliamentary Candidate, Peter Tatchell, clothes himself in alarmist pseudo-science. Jean-Fancois Mouhot reinvents history itself by rewriting slavery in order to be able to make a moral equivalence of contemporary lifestyles and slave-owning. Arthur Scargill emerges from his tomb to make clean coal the answer to our climate problems. Oh, and Al Gore, who uses anxieties about global warming to make Kennedy-esque speeches.

Enter the psychologists. (Again).

“We know how to change behavior and attitudes. That is what we do. We know what messages will work and what will not.”

So says Yale University psychologist Alan Kazdin, president of the American Psychological Association to USA Today.

The group are convening for their annual convention, and are set to discuss a number of topics relating to the environment.

The article continues, to discuss a presentation of some research at the meeing:

News stories that provided a balanced view of climate change reduced people’s beliefs that humans are at fault and also reduced the number of people who thought climate change would be bad, according to research by Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick.

His presentation will detail a decade of American attitudes about climate change. His new experiment, conducted in May, illustrates what he says is a publicmisperception about global warming. He says there is scientific consensus among experts that climate change is occurring, but the nationwide online poll of 2,600 adults asked whether they believe scientists agree or disagree about it.

Interesting, isn’t it, that Krosnick has conducted a poll amongst the public, to see if their beliefs match those of the scientists, but neglected to poll scientists to establish their views. He takes for granted the magnitude of the consensus, and fails to actually define it. What is the point of agreement, against which he wishes to measure the public’s error? For a professor at an Ivy-League university, specialising in survey methodology, this ommission is stark, and very unscientific. What is more, it exhibits some considerable arrogance and contempt for the public. He assumes to know the truth, and beleives that the difference between his view and the public’s can be explained by some kind of psychological mechanism. They are so stupid and irrational that being exposed to balanced media risks people thinking the wrong things. Call the psycho-cops, democracy is on the loose.

Liberals and Democrats who attach themselves to the global warming issue (as Krosnick says they do more than their conservative counterparts), take note: this is neither liberal, nor democratic.

Krosnick invents a consensus position: climate change is occurring. But this is a meaningless assertion, devoid of any scientific value. Climate changes. Nobody disputes that. The question is about whether human influence (which again, nobody doubts) on the climate is significant enough to legitimise the politics in response to fears about it.Krosnick, who is, after all, an academic with expertise in political science really ought to know this.

The thing which is routinely mistaken as evidence of a scientific consensus – the IPCC reports – is not a product of a consensus. It is the product of 3 working groups, split into dozens of chapters, each of, at most, dozens of scientists, in a confused and non transparent process. There is no poll taken to see how many scientists agree with any particular point. There are few opportunities for scientists to challenge the interpretation of the report. And the IPCC is not made up of just climate scientists, but also social scientists and economists.

Again, we see the IPCC used by others to mean and to say whatever it is they feel like saying, with no regard for what it actually says, nor the process through which it was achieved. But who cares about facts?

By editing CNN and PBS news stories so that some saw a skeptic included in the report, others saw a story in which the skeptic was edited out and another group saw no video, Krosnick found that adding 45 seconds of a skeptic to one news story caused 11% of Americans to shift their opinions about the scientific consensus. Rather than 58% believing a perceived scientific agreement, inclusion of the skeptic caused the perceived amount of agreement to drop to 47%.

There doesn’t appear to be any mention of what the sceptic actually said, by which we ought to be able to establish whether or not the viewers were foolish to believe what they were seeing. The implication is that the sceptic must have been wrong, and the counterpart argument right.

In other words, by closing down debate, you can influence public opinion. You don’t need to be Goebbels to understand that. If there is any psychology to study here, it is not the public’s. It is the twisted psychology of the psychologists who think this kind of exercise is legitimate that needs scrutiny.

American Psychological Association leaders say they want to launch a national initiative specifically targeting behavior changes, including developing media messages that will help people reduce their carbon footprint and pay more attention to ways they can conserve.

In other words, the public can expect psychologists to be engaged in brainwashing them into accepting political propaganda. The APA are not the first to propose this. Last year, we reported on this video.

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Back to the USA Today article. It explains what the APA hope to achieve.

They want to work with other organizations and enlist congressional support to help fund the effort.

Academics wrap themselves in environmentalism in order to reinvent themselves and demonstrate the relevance of their research to public policy. What is at issue is not an interest in the public’s understanding of the science, but their attachment to sides in the political ‘debate’. Social scientists and humanities academics who promise to influence public opinion in this way create their own legitimacy.

The scope of disciplines is broadened by tenuous logic such as Moffic’s, who, on the basis that global warming is a ‘public health issue’, crowbars a way to the table for psychiatrists. All disciplines begin to converge on global warming in this way, and reorganise themselves around environmentalism’s tenets. It has been said before that ‘global warming is the defining issue of our time’. Indeed it is. But climate change is less about society’s vulnerability to the climate, and much much more about various parts of the establishment’s struggle to define themselves. Cynics argue that environmentalism serves to help academics secure research grants. The truth is far darker. Academics are using the climate issue to provide them with direction, not merely cash. The direction is now less towards understanding things such as the mind, and more towards controlling it. On no more than the basis that ‘climate change is occurring’, moral philosophers tell us what is right, social historians invent lessons from history to make climate criminals in the present, science historians invent conspiracy theorists, and psychologists tell us how to apply distress to change public opinion, and why debate is just too risky to trust to the public. Only experts can save the world.

Alan Kazdin claims that he understands people sufficiently to “change behavior and attitudes” and that he knows “what messages will work and what will not.” The truth is that he and his colleagues only believe that they understand people, because they hold such a very low opinion of them. It is this low opinion which has been used in the past to influence the public, not through sophisticated reasoning, but by reducing members of society to creatures not deserving of democratic expression. Once you have convinced yourself of your rightness, and have diminished your view of the public to unthinking masses, things like democracy, debate, and genuine legitimacy cease to matter. You are no longer concerned with winning the debate, but controlling it for the higher purpose you believe you are engaged in.

Environ Mental Ism

We’ve mentioned before how those of an Environmentalist bent are liable to blame the perceived failings of anybody who disagrees with them on some sort of mental illness. There’s Andreas Ernst, for example, the scientist who says that the psychology of sceptics is more like that of rats than human beings. Or there’s the professor of psychiatry, Steven Moffic, who thinks that aversion therapy involving the use of “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” can cure sceptics of their pathological ways.

But there’s a corollary to the idea that scepticism is a form of madness, which is that to stay sane, you just have to be environmentally aware. A recent example is to be found on the BBC news site, which reports on the mounting scientific consensus, or emerging truth if you prefer, that to avoid depression, stress or psychosis, your best bet is to commune with Mother Nature:

The secret ingredient? Greenery. Those of us who live in towns and cities, and even some who live in the countryside, don’t get enough of it. 

The result for most of us is highly stressful; we get irritable and depressed, and even physically ill (because high levels of stress mean higher risk of things like heart disease and diabetes).

While farmers, who arguably get more than their fair share of greenery, would seem to present something of a challenge to the theory (although that’s presumably just due to the psychiatric equivalent of climatic ‘natural variation’, or the rise of out-of-town shopping malls or something), it’s probably not much of a surprise to most people that doing non-stressful things like walking in the woods is good for reducing stress.

But this is science. The BBC’s wholly uncritical ‘news’ story (which is actually just an excuse to flag up its perennial Springwatch tv series, which this year features ‘nature does you good’ as one of its themes) draws on ‘research’ by Natural England, the RSPB, journalists, celebrities and various other experts in the field to prove its point.

First up is Springwatch presenter Bill Oddie, celebrity ornithologist, one-time comic, and BBC spokesman on climate change and now on mental health. He suffers from depression himself, and has no doubt that contact with nature helps his condition:

“when you get a downer, and lots of people suffer from this, there is no question, every self-help book, every doctor, every therapist will tell you: get out there in the fresh air, get yourself moving. It’s to do with fitness, it’s also to do with a meditational thing.” 

Were we inclined towards the level of critical analysis provided by the BBC, we could suggest that, had Bill spent less time out in the woods talking to his feathered friends, he wouldn’t have got depressed in the first place. But we’re not. And anyway, it’s hardly Bill’s fault. (And he’s really quite good as wildlife tv presenters go. He might bang on a bit about how great it is when you’re out in the country and can’t see a trace of all those ghastly humans, but at least he doesn’t talk to the viewers as if they are seven-year-olds and pretend that nature is some sort of lovely, fluffy, real-life Beatrix Potter tale (as recent newspaper headlines testify.)) Our gripe is with the BBC. The article continues:

Scientific support for Bill’s beliefs comes from Dr William Bird, who combines a career as a GP with a part-time role as health adviser to Natural England. 

Last year he produced a report for Natural England and the RSPB arguing that contact with nature and green space has a positive effect on mental health, especially among children.

So, a medical practitioner hired by a quango and an ornithological charity to justify their existences and relevance to ‘Modern Life’ counts as ‘scientific support’. Has the word ‘quack’ ever been more appropriate?

Dr Bird is urging his fellow GPs to prescribe regular walks and exercise in green spaces for patients suffering from heart disease, depression, obesity and the like.

We don’t doubt it.

Referring patients to the natural environment rather than the pharmacist is a lot cheaper than conventional pills and prescriptions…

We don’t doubt it. As we’ve said before, Environmentalism provides the perfect excuse for anyone in power to explain their failure to provide a public service.

The next expert witness is the journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the “deprivation, sometimes amounting to mental illness, of children who grow up without contact with the natural environment”. It is, says the BBC

an echo of the medically-established condition, attention deficit disorder 

Indeed. But as the BBC points out in about the only vaguely factual part of its article:

“Nature deficit disorder” is not a condition the medical profession recognises 

As a certain Dr Fox might say, ‘there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact’. And anyway, it seems that most of the medical profession do recognise it:

Natural England polled 70 GPs and nurses and found that 61% recommended that patients use green space, and 79% recommended walking informally. 

So what’s the problem?

But that still left a sizeable minority who didn’t.

Bastards.

Neither the paucity of research nor the failure to identify a causal relationship between urbanisation and mental health prevented the authors from concluding that:

One way of helping to mitigate these effects would be the provision of good quality green spaces

This is more than just silly; it is verging on the sinister. Aside from the fact that nature deficit disorder is about as scientific as any old snake oil, there is something deeply patronising about the idea that we can all be happier if only we walked in the woods.

Unhappiness is the stuff of life, in that it is the experience that prompts us to improve our circumstances. It is a sign of the political times that, rather than encouraging people to realise their aspirations, various agencies – both governmental and charitable – seem to be telling us that our aspirations are the problem; rather than seek to change the world, we ought to put up with our lot and hang out with the trees.

Anyone who takes at face-value the advice to go for a walk and achieve ‘balance’ with nature, won’t be engaged in any serious attempt to either improve their own life or challenge problems in the real world, as much as they will be wishing them to just go away.

By fitting symptoms to diagnoses for the sake of realising the remedy – the environmental agenda – the powers that be are failing to see the wood for the trees. Fortunately, people don’t lack the brains to make the most of their spare time; unfortunately, they lack the means.