Save Any Planet

For Green buffoonery in all its ghastly, opportunistic, incompetent, self-righteous glory, there is the latest episode of the BBC’s The Apprentice. That’s the series where someone incredibly rich and successful like Donald Trump conducts a “job interview from hell” in which ambitious young things compete for employment at Trump Central. In the BBC version, silly posh people and salt-of-the-earth working class types battle it out for a job with Cockney barrow boy Sir Alan Sugar, whose businesses are worth, we are told, 800 million pounds.

British readers with an hour to kill within the next four days can watch the show here. For everyone else, it goes something like this…

The candidates must come up with a brand new occasion for a range of greetings cards. Will they find a gap in this saturated market? And will their ideas be commercial? 

What the two teams come up with is Happy Singles’ Day and, yes, Save Planet Earth Day. As bad as Happy Singles’ Day may be, a packaged greetings card celebrating the use of fewer resources is, as Sir Alan points out, a complete non-starter. But that alone does not explain the excruciating hilarity of the team’s attempts to sell them to retailers. What makes the pitches for Save Planet Earth Day such exquisitely uncomfortable viewing is the religious zeal with which they fight the cause. These guys think they ought to believe what they are saying. The problem is that they don’t believe it. Which makes it tricky to convince others. But as any environmentalist worth their salt knows, when people don’t believe you, you emotionally blackmail them or appeal to their sense of self-loathing. Team leader Kevin does both. In his pitch to market leader Clinton Cards, he resorts to:

If you don’t put your weight behind it, then it’s just the same as the US saying “we don’t care about pollution” 

Kevin missed a trick there. Why stop at the US? Surely, anyone who begs to differ with environmental orthodoxy is worse even than that – they’re more like rats, slave traders, or Holocaust deniers.

Greens would interpret Kevin’s embarrassing Green epiphany rather differently. They would write it off as mere Greenwash, just another cynical attempt by business to tap into the grassroots popularity of the Environmental movement. The problem for that theory is that the Environmental movement is not popular. No sooner had we mentioned last week the ABC News poll where global warming didn’t figure at all in the US public’s list of priorities, and last year’s Ipsos Mori poll that showed that the great British public aren’t quite so Green as Britain’s Great and Good like to think we should be, than there was another poll, which found that 70% of us would not approve of tax hikes in the name of tackling climate change. The trouble is not that Kevin et al are cynically trying to exploit a market; it’s that they’re trying to sell a product that is wrapped up with a cynical ideology, and for which there is no market.

That the public are not as gullible as the Kevins of this world would have it does not bode well for green initiatives that rely on consumer power. Fairtrade, for example – still far from a market leader – won’t stand a chance once we realise that it’s not actually particularly ethical to give people a friendly pat on the head and toss them some loose change to make sure they carry on doing all those jobs that we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

The beauty of it all for self-righteous greens, however, is that you don’t actually have to take any responsibility when you fail – you just blame the consumers. Just as Kevin does when reflecting on what went wrong with his pitch:

If that’s the attitude everyone takes, then we’re not going to be able to save any planet 

Sir Alan didn’t get where he is today by not cynically exploiting markets. Nor by cynically exploiting non-markets. Nor by cynically blaming people who refused to buy his wares. Kevin gets fired.

Scientific Theory or Sinking Ship?

According to a new theory, people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

Many people know about the dangers of global warming, but only few act… On the one hand, human beings get stubbornly comfortable in their habits. On the other, the human species is biologically programmed to act in its own best interests – and its members aren’t very different from common rats on that point.

But this ‘explanation’ for our behaviour, put forward by German psychologist Andreas Ernst, says more about environmentalism than it does humans.

An additional, crucial key to changing behaviour across society, however, is committed political engagement, said Ernst. The European Union could for example “turn the screws” incrementally to increase energy prices and reduce emission tolerance levels, he said. … the human tragedy and economic losses that resulted from Kyrill, the cyclone that formed over Newfoundland and blasted damage and death across Europe in January, and Hurricane Katrina, which levelled New Orleans in 2005, could help raise human consciousness about the huge problems of climate change, Ernst noted.

Ernst’s is a very degraded sense of engagement. It is one in which the public is treated like an animal, disciplined and coerced by tragedy and punishment. It is not one that encourages an understanding of individuals as agents of their own future. People are not asked to commit to a vision of a better society, but forced to behave by the spectre of its collapse due to natural disaster. The choice on offer is not between different ideas about a better future, but between a nightmare future and survival – exactly the same future rats have. In spite of his appeal for political engagement, Ernst undermines fundamental principles of democracy, the process through which consent is tested and achieved by negotiation, debate, and active political engagement. His understanding of politics owes more to Pavlov than to, say, JS Mill. Ernst cannot be wrong any more than the dogs knew better than Pavlov when it should be supper time. It is the minds of the masses that have the shortcomings. This is deep arrogance, not scientific investigation. Any tinpot political theory can justify itself in this way.

In fact, it is true that reducing carbon emissions blamed for global warming depends on changing behaviour across society, but even that conviction seems to be missing, Seidl said. “Most people still don’t have confidence in the ability of collective action to bring about change,” he said.

Ernst and his colleagues have identified that people are disengaged from politics – which is certainly true. But they ought to see environmentalism as a symptom of that phenomenon, not as some way out of it. The alarmist appeals to urgency and the anti-humanism of this movement reflect the poverty of ideas in the political sphere; they are typical of the way in which political leaders justify themselves today. Environmentalism, which appears radical and alternative because it shares some history with the left is in fact no different to the mainstream in this respect. What Ernst and his colleagues don’t seem to have considered is the possibility that people have understood environmentalism, yet, as they have with many other political movements, simply not been moved precisely because it treats them in this way. The widespread public cynicism about politics is more than matched by politicians’ cynicism of, no, contempt for the public, and nowhere is that more true than in the environmental movement. Nobody can argue that the environmental message hasn’t been given enough air time.

Yet environmentalists need to create stories about why they haven’t achieved the success they feel their alarmist narratives should entitle them to. This is sometimes achieved by conspiracy theories about industrial capitalists paying scientists and media companies to misinform. In this case, it is achieved by simply saying that people who do not see things in shades of green lack the brains to properly consider their own interests. But both of these arguments depend heavily on reducing humans to animals, and defining the public as a problem needing to be controlled – we’re either too stupid, or too greedy to take a wider view. By redefining the political problems that environmentalism has in persuading people that it knows what their best interests are as a problem of human nature, theories like this can be used to justify acting without consent, and treating the public like naughty children.

Even more unpleasant is the implication that the good people who take environmental threats seriously are less like rats than the rest of us. The idea is that environmentalism doesn’t just offer to protect people from the climate, but also from themselves – or rather, from the swarming masses. When a select few are capable of understanding the complexities of climate science and the remainder have no more cognitive ability than rodents, the role of government is to modify behaviour, and to manage human nature.

If humans are just like rats – interested only in short-term benefits – then so too must be the environmentalists. Indeed, long-term, considered and contested worldviews tend to frighten environmentalism – after all, they stop us responding to short-term environmental alarmism. As Ernst’s colleague Roman Seidl puts it: ‘Families with small children are especially receptive to the message: “Climate change won’t affect us, but our children and grandchildren.”‘ Such emotional weaponry is not the stuff of careful consideration, it is blackmail. He might as well say ‘if you don’t act now, your baby will die, and you will be responsible’. There is nothing sophisticated or hard to grasp about his message. It has not been absorbed is because the public are far better at filtering out shrill nonsense than environmentalists give them credit for, and they know that being treated like rats is not in their interest.