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.
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?
Reading it is enough to make you want to stop breathing…
On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.
So writes writer, environmentalist and poet, former editor of The Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth to his friend, ally, and comrade in misery, George Mon-and-on-and-on-biot. The two are discussing the question ‘Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?’ Their exchange is printed in the Guardian.
The subtitle sets the terms of the debate between these two apocalyptic nutcases.
The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot – we can’t let billions perish
Kingsnorth, who curiously shares his name with the site of the site of recent Climate Camp protests, recites a familiar litany – we are going to hell in a fossil-fuel-and-capitalism-powered handcart, and the human race is just to stupid to notice or care, and it will be a good thing when billions of us are dead, because those who remain will have learned a lesson. Like the Rapture, but for Gaia-worshippers.
What the graphs show, says Kingsnorth, is that ‘a rapacious human economy [is] bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos’. ‘…all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse… there is a serious crash on the way… the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it…’ There is no way out of this, Kingsnorth believes.
[we are] wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.
This is an illusion, he says, it is ‘denial’. It’s curious to see the word ‘denial’ being applied to our greenest greens: those who embrace wholeheartedly both the sustainability agenda, and the apocalyptic prophecies that underpin it.
The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.
It is also a surprise to find out that those who have so far embraced environmentalism are labouring under the ‘myth of human exceptionalism’. And if this naked catastrophism wasn’t so utterly dispiriting, it would be funny that Kingsnorth complains about a ‘deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”’. After all, what is it that Kingsnorth expresses, if it’s not a ‘deeply embedded attitude to nature’ of his own, and of the culture that environmentalism has created for itself? Indeed, the culture that he and Monbiot both want to create is precisely a culture in which nature is central to everything.
Here at Climate Resistance, we are fans of human exceptionalism. And we don’t think it’s a myth. Our ability even to consider the concept of human exceptionalism makes us distinct from all other things. Kingsnorth sees the world very, very differently:
… what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the western material culture, which we cannot imagine living without.
The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
Human exceptionalism, in this view, is a notion which has been debunked. Debunked, that is, by the looming apocalypse. The inevitable apocalypse. The one that hasn’t happened yet, but it will, according to Kingsnorth. Soon. Ish. He hopes. And there’s no point hankering after it, because we’re doomed.
But abandoning a human-centric view of the world creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we reduce humanity to the moral equivalent of any bug, slug, mouse or microbe, we prevent ourselves from planning according to our own interests. We therefore submit to the whims of nature that have always killed humans through famine, drought, and disease, etc, etc. What makes Kingsnorth’s fantasy different to a UFO cultist’s is that he expects the whole world to join his suicide pact, not just a small band of ‘us’, the chosen ones, against the ‘them’.
Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.
Here’s some news… George Monbiot thinks he has been ‘professionally optimistic’! When?! When has Monbiot been optimistic? Ever? As we have pointed out in many posts, George is incapable of optimism, because what he is responding to is not the external world, or rather anything that occurs in the real world, but his own confusion about his place in it. It fails to obey his will, and he doesn’t really understand why, and like a small child, cannot make a distinction between his failure to assert his will, and the end of the world. Environmentalism projects its own crises into the atmosphere. When, recently, supermarket giant, Tescos began the process of setting up in the town of Monbiot’s home, Machynlleth in Wales, he imagined himself in ‘the last small corner of Gaul still holding out against the Romans’. This was, in his view, a ‘struggle for democracy’. Nevermind that, in fact, it seems that more people are in favour of the supermarket, than against.
It get’s funnier, because Monbiot then scolds Kingsnorth for his apparent desire for apocalypse.
I detect in your writings, and in the conversations we have had, an attraction towards – almost a yearning for – this apocalypse, a sense that you see it as a cleansing fire that will rid the world of a diseased society. If this is your view, I do not share it.
But without the apocalypse, Monbiot’s entire view of the world crumbles. This he shares with Kingsnorth absolutely. Indeed, last year he gave the title ‘Bring on the Apocalypse’ to a collection of his writings. The message is the same as any other eco-poseur’s: if you don’t do what I say, the world will end, and your children will die. If there is no looming apocalypse, what would Monbiot write about? He says he wants to avoid the apocalypse, but anyone who says it might not be inevitable he calls a ‘denier’, or otherwise hypnotised by deniers. He says he wants to save people, but without the prospect of an imminent global catastrophe, how would he illustrate his unpleasant narrative? The difference between the roles that apocalypse plays in Monbiot’s and Kingsnorth’s account of the future is paper-thin, and academic. They are expressions of the same symptom. For all that their ‘debate’ matters, they might as well be arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Seemingly in an attempt to distance himself from Kingsnorth’s style of apocalyptic propheising, but failing comprehensively, Monbiot continues…
However hard we fall, we will recover sufficiently to land another hammer blow on the biosphere. We will continue to do so until there is so little left that even Homo sapiens can no longer survive. This is the ecological destiny of a species possessed of outstanding intelligence, opposable thumbs and an ability to interpret and exploit almost every possible resource – in the absence of political restraint.
And there’s the rub. Monbiot claims that it is objective fact, issued by an unchallengeable scientific consensus that demands ‘political restraint’, but in reality, it is the desire for some kind of political restraint which is prior to the search for any evidence that may putatively support it.
That is to say that the desire is to limit the expression of humanity, because it is an evil thing that will inevitably cause the destruction of the world. Here, again, Monbiot confuses his own disorientation with the entire human race’s. While it may be sensibly argued that politics throughout the world is suffering from a lack of direction (it is what we argue, after all), Monbiot only recognises this as a ‘lack of restraint’, rather than having some other cause. The purposelessness of today’s politics aims for nothing in particular, except for some kind of security: the War on Terror, pandemics, obesity and demographic time-bombs, climate change, and a raft of disasters await us, and become the issues around which our future is organised simply because today’s politicians cannot really conceive of any other basis for their functions. There is no better future. Monbiot sees environmentalism as a remedy to, rather than a symptom of this problem.
Contemplating the politics of the post-apocalyptic world, Monbiot foresees that
survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory.
Rather than preparing for the apocalypse, we ought to be trying to stop it
However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.
If Monbiot recognises that the conditions of the post-apocalyptic world give rise to certain politics, why is it that he’s unable to recognise that creating a politics that anticipates the apocalypse equally gives rise to politics of the same order? Does Monbiot really believe that ‘downsizing the global economy’ won’t create brutal monopolies? Does he really believe that you can take just the excesses of contemporary life away from people, and that you can do so without force, violence, and oppression? Does he really think that people will embrace feudal modes of existence willingly? And as for political accountability, how does he think protests and the civil disobedience he is so fond of will be organised, and met by the authorities, in a world in which transport is denied, and political authority is legitimised on the basis that “the planet needs saving”? You wouldn’t be able to get to the protest. A green tyranny doesn’t need to oppress the population through violence. It just deprives them of the means to organise themselves. Things like petrol. But if it came to it, once you were there, protesters could be dealt with as any dangerous ‘denier’ – a heretic, no less – has been in history. There can be no ‘ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy’. It is not a machine.
Recognising that Monbiot’s vision of ordered retrogression is unlikely, but failing to recognise that Monbiot is talking about de-industrialisation, Kingsnorth says:
You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available to humanity. One we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a “steady state economy”.
The other we might call McCarthy world, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – which is set in an impossibly hideous post-apocalyptic world, where everything is dead but humans, who are reduced to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future could await us if we didn’t continue “the fight”.
We wrote about Monbiot’s reading of McCarthy’s novel back at the end of 2007. This story, said Monbiot, ‘shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy’. Again, it was humanity’s shortcomings that created the necessity of controlling human impulses. He’d been at a road protest because apathetic humans were building a road. And it was all Jeremy Clarkson’s fault. The presenter of flagship BBC program Top Gear wasn’t taking his environmental responsibilities seriously. ‘Who will persuade us to act?’, he wondered. Not him. And not Kingsnorth, who seems to relish the coming end-of-days.
We face what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a “long descent”: a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure “some good will come” from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction. […] But what comes next doesn’t have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.
That’s right, folks, the deaths of billions of people is nothing to be feared, it is just a necessary step to a better future. In a rare moment of sanity (only by contrast) Monbiot is outraged that Kingsnorth is suggesting that we might ‘do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation’. The ‘macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth’, he says. It’s a curious argument. Who could possibly be afraid of endless growth? It implies a distinctly non-terminal world. What he means by ‘endless growth’, however, is nothing of the kind, but anything which doesn’t resonate with the ‘downsizing of the global economy’ that he wishes for. This is, as we have observed in the past, based on the principle that any growth must ultimately be unsustainable, because the earth is finite, and at some point, growth will outgrow its environs. It’s a spurious argument that rests on many bogus claims, but principally states that because a problem may exist in the future, we ought not to continue. Best stay in the caves. Best remain as peasants. Best to not see what happens if we convert the production of steam into movement.
For a moment, it looks like Monbiot might say something sensible. But this is a competition to see who can hate humanity the most…
Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
Gosh. So what’s worth saving? At the same time as holding us to be equivalent to toxic weaponry, we are, paradoxically worth saving. And there’s only one way to do it.
[A] de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse.
Only by neutering ourselves, and by enforcing restraint and environmental obedience can our species be locked into a sustainable pattern of behaviour, and saved.
The debate rages on. Kingsnorth replies, complaining that ‘my lack of fighting spirit sees me accused of complicity in mass death’, and that Monbiot’s argument is ‘designed to make me look like a heartless fascist’. Surely not…
Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called “nature”, which is a “resource” for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. […]
I think our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, while creating new myths that put humanity in its proper place. Recently I co-founded a new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which aims to help do that. It won’t save the world, but it might help us think about how to live through a hard century. You’d be welcome to join us.
Where Monbiot wanted a human race tamed and forced into obedience by the prospect of Gaia’s waiting wrath, Kingsnorth wants to create a culture from the myths upwards, that puts it in its place while Mother Nature’s anger is visited upon us with poetry, art, singing and clapping. Seriously. Check out his site. It intends to create ‘a new literary movement for an age of global disruption’ as the project’s co-founder, Dougald Hine explains in this video.
So, Hine thinks his project is about ‘finding a new optimism’. The starting point for this ‘new optimism’ are their ‘eight principles of uncivilisation‘. Several of these ‘principles’ (they really ought to be ‘unprinciples’) stick out.
3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our ﬁngernails.
This is grandiose posturing. This is given away by the final (un)principle: ‘Together, we will ﬁnd the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’ This ought to be seen as a rather frank statement of aimlessness; they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know how to get there, other than by making up stories that ‘weave’ the ‘reality’ that they experience. They refuse to ‘lose ourselves in the elaboration of our theories’. Well, that’s convenient, because they are incoherent and inconsistent. They don’t even seem able to wash their hands. And why would you, if you didn’t believe in the centrality of humanity and progress?
What kind of optimism is this going to achieve? We don’t think it can find any. And, indeed, this search for optimism looks more like utter nihilism, these principles being so many self-indulgent whines about their authors’ sense of disorientation. Environmentalism projects its own anxieties onto the world.
Monbiot’s closing comments to their discussion are barely worth looking at, so underwhelming is his reply. There is no defence of progress. There is no defence of humanity. There is not even any defence of conventional optimism. Because, as ever, George’s vision is trapped between apocalypse and survival that means he can only make an argument that is premised on a belittling of humanity. This is the logic of miserable nihilism in search of meaning. It is just as incoherent as Kingsnorth’s. In both arguments, the catastrophes that the writers say we face are not simply the result of unforeseen consequences of our using our abilities, for instance, that industrial society has created a problem – climate change – that need to be addressed one way or another. Instead, climate change is held as conclusive proof of our lust, greed, and stupidity and that they need to be contained, either through legislation, or through mythology. The difference is steep. While on the one hand, Monbiot claims to have virtually the entire climate science community behind him and his argument (that is the basis on which he has agreed to debate climate sceptic, Prof. Ian Plimer) this ‘science’ isn’t being used by Monbiot to make a scientific argument about the necessity of changing our industrial practices – a view with which many scientists no doubt agree – but instead is being used to make arguments about human nature itself. This is the perspective which is prior to the science that is used to support it. It is the ethics and politics of environmentalism.
The very graphs on which Kingsnorth premised his arguments – the ones which spelled out the inevitability of the apocalypse to him – are the story which narrates his myths about human unexceptionalism and uncentrality, and his desire for uncivilisation. Yet if humans aren’t exceptional, these graphs cannot stand for anything. The science which produced them, right or wrong, produced the machines which caused the problem they have seemingly identified. Likewise, the same science which Monbiot claims has identified the inevitable catastrophe that looms over us was produced by the desire for better lives that Monbiot says we simply can’t have. Kingsnorth and Monbiot only want so much science. Science as the expression of human exceptionality is used to demonstrate the non-exceptionality of humans. Science as the means by which we made our lives better is used to demonstrate the dangerous folly of living better lives. The ethics, politics and science of Monbiot and the literature movement that Kingsnorth hopes to create, if they ever flourish, (as much as anything so negative can ‘flourish’) will create an era in human history that will be called ‘the redarkenment’, and the ‘unnaissance’.
The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals, and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’
The campaign for a carbon fast is a morally illiterate attempt to recycle the practice of fasting during Lent as a form of environmentally correct behaviour. The aim is to provide religious authority to the condemnation of everyday behaviour that green moralists find objectionable. So, the tips offered to those embarking on the carbon fast include: don’t drink water from a plastic bottle; forget about having your morning latte (it uses too much water apparently); turn down the lights; eat ‘slow food’ (fast food is too carbon-intensive); and give the dishwasher a break (1). Through rebranding these environmentalist rituals as moral obligations, campaigners hope to invest their cause with meaning.
Given that climate sceptics are as bad as the tobacco lobby and holocaust deniers, and that climate change is worse than international terrorism, which is worse than obesity, which is worse than climate change, and that the church is as desperate to connect with the masses as are all the other bad politicians out there, this was kind of inevitable:
Gordon Mursell, the Bishop of Stafford in England, is a man of the cloth. He is also a member of a posse of disoriented clerics, who have become so estranged from morally literate theology that they have embraced a new brand of demonology.
At a time when moralisers cannot give any real meaning to classical ideas about right and wrong, they try instead to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment. So instead of targeting those traditional demons – Satan, say, or witchcraft – Gordon Mursell attacks climate change deniers.
In a parish newsletter, the bishop said that people who refuse to join the fight against global warming are like Josef Fritzl, the insane criminal in Austria who locked his daughter and her children in a cellar for 24 years. For Mursell, being sceptical about the conventional wisdom on climate change is akin to the monstrous crime committed by Fritzl. He says: ‘You could argue that, by our refusal to face the truth about climate change, we are as guilty as he is.’
Mursell has not called for climate change deniers to be burned at the stake – yet. But the idea that they should be punished is implicit in his message…
In the election for London’s Mayor, the Greens got just over three per cent of the vote. Leaving aside such misguided places as Norwich, where the Green Party gained three seats, they struggled elsewhere to poll anywhere near that. […] Yet Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Nationalists dance slavishly to the Green tune. […] Why do we put up with this “green” extortion to so little purpose? That’s the real mystery.
We have asked this question before. Environmentalism is a political ideology, yet its influence on policy decisions is not challenged politically in this country, and barely anywhere else. How come?
The closest thing to a challenge are the scientific discussions offered by ‘sceptics’, ‘deniers’, ‘realists’ or whatever you want to call them. Of course, these challenges are waved away by many as ‘politically-motivated’ – as if Environmentalism was above that sort of thing. And there’s the rub. ‘Politics’ has become a dirty word, and Environmentalism fills the void, because, with ‘scientists’ backing it, it is presented as a ‘value free’ set of imperatives that we must all respond to. Environmentalists will tell you that it’s not a question of political values, it’s a matter of material fact, scientifically established by the IPCC. But the truth is that the unchallengeable measurements that the movement depends on do not exist. Instead, science only lends Environmentalism credibility through the ‘precautionary principle‘; it is superficially plausible that anthropogenic CO2 will cause global catastrophe (given a substantial number of mainly political assumptions), therefore it is worth treating the possibility of a nightmare as a certainty, according to this doctrine.
From here, Environmentalism easily becomes a religious world view: we start to see disobedient countries through this prism (Burma and its missing mangrove swamps being the latest example); we start to judge the actions of others through green-tinted spectacles; and we start to do the things that are demanded of us, ‘for the sake of the planet’ – not for a genuine conception of a ‘greater good’, but just the mitigation of a worse bad.
Back to Ingham’s question: the Tories (as any party would) will explain their recent success at the polls as a consequence of their taking green issues more seriously. For example, last Friday, on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions, Chairman of the Conservative Party, Caroline Spellman, said of the successes her party had enjoyed the previous night,
Our council candidates campaigned very simply on following policies that would deliver a cleaner, greener, safer country, one that is more family friendly, and one that gives tax payers better value for money. That is a very simple message, it’s one that the electorate like, that is why they have returned conservative governments – in local government – because they like what they see.
Spellman’s words offer no political vision whatsoever; just a promise of better management of public (and, most likely, private) life than the Labour Party – which is exactly the basis on which Blair took power from Major in 1997. The vote did not reflect an ideological shift among the public, nor Blair’s resonance with the electorate. But contrast Spellman’s words to those of Sir Bernard’s former boss. Whether you agreed with her or not, Thatcher’s aim was a political transformation of the UK, if not the world. She went Green as that vision was running out of steam, in spite of its success (and she closed far more coal mines than any environmental protest could wish for).
Surely, if anyone knows how that played out, and consequently, why the world seems to have gone green, Ingham does?
Disagreeing that politics is dominated by a green consensus is the Independent‘s Andrew Grice, who complains that “nobody is talking about climate change” anymore.
We might just look back on May Day 2008 as the moment when the power of green politics peaked and went into reverse. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it. The reaction of the two main parties to the elections was instructive. Desperate to prop up his own position after Labour’s rout, Mr Brown needed to toss a few bones to the voters and jittery Labour backbenchers. So it suddenly emerged that he was about to dump the so-called “bin tax” – allowing councils to charge householders who do not recycle their rubbish. Downing Street didn’t confirm it, and five token pilot schemes will go ahead, but it’s clear the bin tax has been binned.
A temporary halt to the progress of a law demanding that people recycle, or face punishing fines means that climate is off the agenda, apparently.
Grice goes on to complain about the possibility that a 2 pence rise in petrol/diesel tax will be scrapped – even though the current high price of fuel makes these entirely unnecessary, as the Inland Revenue already takes VAT (17.5%) of the sale price (~£1.108) on top of ~£0.50 a litre of petrol. A genuinely ‘anti green’ policy would surely make fuel cheaper, rather than allow it to get much more expensive. Grice continues:
Mr Brown was not alone in relegating the environment to the back burner. David Cameron, the wind in his sails after the elections, held a prime ministerial press conference in which he set out his priorities for government. Significantly, the words “environment” and “climate change” did not appear in his 1,200-word statement.
It is indeed a rare thing when David Cameron utters 1200 words, none of which are green. These seem to be the ones Grice is referring to. Here is another speech Cameron made shortly before that one:
If Cameron has indeed abandoned the environmental cause, he has done it very suddenly. But there’s nothing in the later speech which contradicts it, in spite of Grice’s claims.
Of course, 1200 is a small number of words. If, perhaps, green was ommitted from Cameron’s speech, it was because the cause has been fully embraced by all of the parties. Why mention it? Likewise, does the fact that we can find 1200words uttered recently by Caroline Lucas that include no reference to the environment mean that our favourite Green Party MEP has also turned her back on Mother Nature? As is the case with most shrill environmentalists, Grice confuses omission with opposition. It is what Cameron didn’t say which upsets him. A bit like a failure to say Amen after a prayer, or to say grace before a meal; it offends religious sensibilities. So Grice treats it as a statement that the Tories have dropped all green policies, and are to stand against them in the future.
No such luck. And, as is clear from the past, the Conservatives have been key to establishing environmental orthodoxy in the UK.
The reason there is no challenge to Environmentalism is that there is nothing to challenge Environmentalism with. Instead, Environmentalism, and the senses of crisis and urgency it generates, are useful vehicles for policies for the sake of policies, and for the purfunctory policy initiatives that masquerade as ‘progress’. Historically, for example, it has been sufficient to announce programs to build new homes on the basis that places for people to live are a good thing. New towns, however they turned out, were planned on the premise that it would make life better, and society more rewarding. Now, homes themselves are problematic. The very idea of housing developments upsets people. They use up resources and roads. They change the view. They are the manifestation of the idea that ‘hell is other people’. Environmentalism is on hand to furnish ways in and out of that problem. For those wishing to resist new developments, instead of making selfish objections to the planning process, they can appeal to the ‘greater good’, and claim that the principle of environmental ‘sustainability’ has not been given due attention. Developers, in reply, can greenwash their proposal, to claim that the greater good is being served. Never mind that homes are supposed to be all about people.
Politics today, whether it be Cameron’s or Grice’s, needs crises – real, or imagined – in order to maintain their relevance to an increasingly disengaged public. These appeals to catastrophe are wrapped up in the language of political change. But claims to be about radical change for the sake of “SAVING THE PLANET” belie an exhausted political perspective on the world that increasingly fails to connect with the public in any other way than through high drama, and struggles to distance itself from its opposition.
The current success of the Conservative Party follows the descent of the Labour party, whose 1997 success followed the descent of the Tories, who had enjoyed, since 1978, success at the polls after Labour’s problems in the 1970s. It seems that rather than winning elections, parties loose them. We punish their embarassing yet inevitable failure to connect with the public and reward their increasing mediocrity. This is the environment that Environmentalism has thrived in.
Critics of Environmentalism from the right claim that it is the reincarnation of failed socialism. Clearly, that criticism is incomplete. Critics of Tory policy, such as Grice, claim that ‘vote blue, go Green’ rhetoric is nothing more than spin; empty gestures to convince the public that it is responding to their fears. This too misses the point that that is also the very nature of the environmental movement, which has, like conservative ideologies of the past, used such fear to stand in the way of progress and harked back to traditional ways of life and natural social orders, lest unintended consequences of change cause upheaval.
Challenging environmental orthodoxy will take more than not mentioning it. That is not because Environmentalism is a powerful political idea, but because it exists as a consequence of the inability of political perspectives – Left and Right – to reflect on their own collapse.
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 emotionallyblackmail 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, slavetraders, 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.
Procreation is killing the planet, and traditional religion is to blame, Global-Warming cultists insist. First the industrial revolution had to go. Then it was to the wall with oil company executives, those malignant Carbon Interests. Next, SUVs were declared enemies of the planet.
Hmmm. This is the first time we’ve heard the claim that environmentalists blame ‘traditional religion’ directly for environmental degradation. Noticeably, the claim is not actually attributed to the environmental movement in general, but to an individual, an Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, who asks in a USA TODAY article, “Might our religion be killing us?”. Thomas argues predictably that religious doctrine encourages people to have more babies, thereby creating a greater environmental impact through ‘overpopulation’. Yawn.
You may be wondering why we, the editors of a site that intends to challenge climate orthodoxy, are sceptical of the claims made by Don Feder in his GLOBAL WARMING — LEFT’S LATEST EXCUSE FOR THE WAR ON THE FAMILY. The reason is that it’s difficult to establish which is worse, the intellectual poverty of the environmental movement – as Thomas exhibits – or the intellectual dishonesty of Feder in this article. The fact of the former should make the latter unnecessary. What are we to make of Feder, then?
Notice that Thomas is no atheist, but is in fact a Southern Baptist minister. And notice too that there is no real substance in his article that one could fairly attribute to the ‘Left’. Yet Feder appears to maintain that Thomas’s remarks are evidence that the left are trying to attack the family, and religion.
As we have argued before, Environmentalism and conventional religions are strikingly compatible. But this is not just some dispute about different interpretations of biblical texts, Feder – who is allegedly a political consultant, seems to be absurdly ignorant of political theory. He tells us that
For 200 years, the left has been fixated on an imaginary overpopulation crisis. In 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that wars, famine and plagues were needed to reduce the “surplus population” else we would soon inhabit Planet SRO.
But Malthus’s ideas had no currency in the Left. Quite the opposite. Lenin – about as left as lefties ever got – said of them that they were “an attempt on the part of bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any social system”. Indeed, Tomas Malthus, the classical economist, was in fact a keen fan of Adam Smith – the ‘father of capitalism’. To claim that Malthus is key to the development of the left is as sound as claiming that a pope was instrumental in the development of the ideas in Darwin’s “origin of the species”. A key assumption for Malthus was that poverty is the consequence of the poor’s moral shortcomings rather than unequal structures of society. Again, where’s the socialism? Nonetheless, Feder continues,
In his 1969 book, “The Population Bomb” (the prequel to “An Inconvenient Truth”), Paul Ehrlich forecast worldwide famine by 1975. Natural resources would be severely depleted and arable land exhausted in a futile effort to keep up with the population explosion.
Neither was Paul Ehrlich ‘Left’. He was on the board of advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform until 2003 – “The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is a non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization in the United States that advocates changes in U.S. immigration policy that would result in significant reductions in immigration, both legal and illegal.” And the Left has never been about submitting to ‘limits to growth’, thereby arresting progress; it’s goal has been to distribute the fruits of that progress among those who actually produce stuff, rather than those who merely own it.
It’s not as if Feder doesn’t know that he’s talking bullshit…
If Global Warming didn’t exist, the left would have to invent it. In fact, they did. As Nigel Calder, former editor of the British magazine New Scientist explains: “Twenty years ago, climate research became politicized in favor of one particular hypothesis, which redefined the study as the effect of the study of greenhouse gasses. As a result, the rebellious spirits essential for innovative and trustworthy science are greeted with impediments to their research careers.”
… If he knows that climate research was politicised twenty years ago, he would know that it was politicised by the then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher – a Conservative, and friend and ally of Ronald Reagan. Her administration – a right wing administration, arguably farther right than the party’s tradition – found the ideas of Paul Ehrlich and Malthus expedient. They were communicated to the PM by the likes of neomalthusian (he admits to the term) Sir Crispin Tickell, a senior British diplomat at the time.
And on the subject of ‘traditional religion’, and the ‘left’s attack on the family’, Marx – again, a fairly leftish kind of lefty – says this of Malthus:
Although Malthus was a parson of the English State Church, he had taken the monastic vow of celibacy — one of the conditions of holding a Fellowship in Protestant Cambridge University: “Socios collegiorum maritos esse non permittimus, sed statim postquam quis uxorem duxerit socius collegii desinat esse.” (“Reports of Cambridge University Commission,” p. 172.) This circumstance favourably distinguishes Malthus from the other Protestant parsons, who have shuffled off the command enjoining celibacy of the priesthood and have taken, “Be fruitful and multiply,” as their special Biblical mission in such a degree that they generally contribute to the increase of population to a really unbecoming extent, whilst they preach at the same time to the labourers the “principle of population.” It is characteristic that the economic fall of man, the Adam’s apple, the urgent appetite, “the checks which tend to blunt the shafts of Cupid,” as Parson Townsend waggishly puts it, that this delicate question was and is monopolised by the Reverends of Protestant Theology, or rather of the Protestant Church. With the exception of the Venetian monk, Ortes, an original and clever writer, most of the population-theory teachers are Protestant parsons. [Capital, Ch 25, note 6]
Marx’s point here, like Feder’s, is that Malthusianism is used to coerce the working classes, not for the benefit of the Left, as Feder claims, but for the capitalist elite. Malthusianism is just good, old-fashioned fear of the uncontrolled masses. Too many of them is a problem, you see, for capital. They start demanding things. And they start becoming a viable political force, rather than merely a useful source of labour.
The left must have its scapegoat. This is absolutely essential. For Marx it was the bourgeoisie. For the ’60s New Left, it was America — spelled with a “k.” White males are the villains of multiculturalism. Now, it’s babies and retrograde churches that are destroying the planet. The environment has assumed the role of the proletariat, the Third World and racial minorities in earlier models of damnation and salvation.
If it wasn’t so utterly dishonest, it would be funny that Feder should talk of scapegoating in an article where he attacks the ‘left’, which isn’t left, for characteristics of the right, in defence of the poor and the oppressed at the hands of the bourgeoisie!
The left has always worried about the reproductive patterns of certain people. As Jonah Goldberg explains in his book “Liberal Fascism,” from the beginning, racial eugenics was a project of the left — or progressives, as they called themselves then and now. H.G. Wells, a hero of pre-World War II progressivism (a socialist who wrote science fiction, much like Al Gore), said that in order for humankind to move to the sunny uplands of utopia, “swarms of black and brown, and dirty (lower class) white and yellow people” would have to be discouraged from breeding — or physically eliminated. Moreover, Goldberg explains, “The foremost institution combating eugenics around the world was the Catholic Church.”
In fact eugenics was as much an orthodoxy prior to WW2 as climate change is today. Both the left and the right bought into it. Many US states had programs of compulsory sterilisation, and there’s probably no point in raising that little matter of racial segregation in the southern states up until… oh, well after eugenics was unfashionable. It is only with tunnel vision that Feder can make the point. Indeed, he cites just one prominent socialist. But it wasn’t simply Wells’s socialism which made him keen on eugenics, but his scientism. Indeed some religious movements have stood in the way of eugenics, but arguably, only because reproductive technologies threaten to undermine their influence, by separating our behaviour from its consequences, or otherwise undermining religious orthodoxy. What appears to be a positive stand against the evil of eugenics also stands in the way of life-saving, and life-enhancing medicine and research. Feder is not speaking about anything positive. We agree that it is a bad idea to campaign against families after the fashion of the Chinese one-child-per-family policy. But on the other hand, it is bad to coerce people into families through orthodoxies. Whether you want states or ‘traditional religion’ to maintain the family, the idea that the family unit is both right, and natural, and is the bedrock of society is undermined; it is still a claim that families can only exist with such forms of intervention. Why would families need a religion or a state to exist? What is more, how can Feder honestly claim that the traditional church does not worry about ‘the reproductive patterns of certain people’? It’s not as if the church doesn’t speak about sex before marriage, gay relationships, contraception, and all that stuff.
There are plenty of things to criticise the old left for. But no need. Because it no longer exists. Feder misses the point that Environmentalism is perfectly compatible with right wing, religious as well as ‘liberal’ perspectives. Indeed, it’s more at home with the old right in that, ultimately, it serves to maintain elites and class structures. There’s no problem making rubbish up about Environmentalism if all you want to do is score points here and there against political (or even religious) rivals, as Feder seems to want to do. It’s not fine if you think Environmentalism is a dangerous idea that needs challenging. And it does need challenging. There is plenty of scope for people on the right and left to have interesting conversations about what’s wrong with Environmentalism. But the intellectual dishonesty of Feder’s article is no way to challenge the intellectual poverty of Environmentalism. Please, let’s raise the standard.
This is funny. Funnier is the outrage expressed by Grist readers, of whom Newscloud is funniest:
If there is a hell, Inhofe belongs there
The Grists need to watch out. And not only on 1 April. All those stuffy, old-fashioned churches want their congregations back. And even stuffy old-fashioned churches can recognise a good scare tactic when they see one. Grist are disconcerted by the slogan on an Evangelical t-shirt:
But why fight when they have so much in common? On the back of the t-shirt:
THINGS OF THIS WORLD ARE PASSING AWAY
THERE IS HOPE IN CHRIST ALONE
Whenever they do manage to work out a way to agree that Christ and Gaia are sort of kinda like the same thing in a way really if you think about it, they get on like ahouseonfire. A house probably set ablaze by the ravages of climate change for some reason or other that sounds vaguely biblical, and which might yet turn out to be untestable scientifically. But there is a pdf knocking around somewhere. It was peer reviewed and everything. Onward Gristian Soldiers…
We would only add that it is striking that Pascal was arguing the case for believing in something – God – in the absence of proof or evidence. We have pointed out before that once you remove Environmentalism’s scientific fig leaf, all you are left with is an embarrassment of blindfaith and bad politics. Which is presumably why the video has been received and distributed so enthusiastically. Take out Greg’s sciencey-looking graphs and tables and what remains is an argument for embracing Environmentalism regardless of what science says. It is not science; it is theology – a theology written in the language of science, but which you’re not meant to take too literally or anything.
Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals. The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.
Neither is it surprising to see Sir John T. Houghton – ‘British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical’ (and erstwhile scientific co-chair of the IPCC) – popping up in there. After all, this is the man whose faith in the Kyoto Protocol is based on everything but scientific evidence that it might actually do any good, as he demonstrated at the 2002 Edinburgh Science Festival with his concluding slide summarising why he thought Kyoto would work:
1. The commitment of scientists.
2. The availability of the necessary technology.
3. God’s commitment to His creation.
Or, as the article in Washington Post explains,
“The United States is absolutely key to the question of climate change,” said Sir John T. Houghton, a British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical. For nearly a decade, Houghton — who said he has long sought to “put my science alongside my faith” — worked to convince Hunter and other American evangelical leaders that their shared beliefs should compel them to focus on global warming.