Backwards to the Future

by | Aug 20, 2008

Oxfam was once a charity set up to provide famine relief. It was hard to criticise without looking a bit mean. It is now a gigantic international NGO which influences the direction of policy towards and within the developing world. Like many other organisations, it has found a new way of arming itself by capturing anxieties about climate change. Where once there were ambitions for people in the third world to enjoy Western standards of living, now the voice of the voiceless instead celebrates the primitive lifestyles that the worlds poorest people suffer.

Africa should make more use of the skills of its nomadic peoples to help combat the challenges of climate change, the aid agency Oxfam says.

There are many ways to enjoy traditional culture. But, for example, when people in the UK have finished dressing up as vikings, and anglo-saxons, or reconstructing historic battles, they go back to their (slightly embarrassed) families in warm homes that are connected to mains water and electricity, in cars, on roads, and they return to jobs on Monday mornings. Traditional ways of life should be the stuff of museums, days out, hobbies, history lessons, and slightly weird obsessive people. There is nothing good – not even ‘sustainability’ – in primitive lifestyles. Primitive lifestyles mean dead babies, short and painful lives, a near total absence of justice, hard manual labour, child labour, disease, poverty, famine. The very things Oxfam aimed to abolish, it now seems to celebrate. Such is the logic of relativism.

It can be nice, educational, and fun to visit theme-parks, or read books, and all of that stuff, especially for families. It can raise interesting questions about the development of political ideas such as ‘state’ and rights. Why, though, would anyone want to actually live that kind of life? And for all the ‘rights of indigenous people’ and ‘preserving dying cultures’ rhetoric which emerge from the likes of Oxfam, shouldn’t the important thing be the right of such people to choose whether they want to live primitive or contemporary lifestyle? If you want to live in a mud hut, away from roads, water and power, we at Climate Resistance wish you all the best, and that you enjoy your experiment. But isn’t Oxfam doing it’s own ‘cultural imperialism’ thing here, and isn’t it more than a bit colonial? We wouldn’t accept such conditions. So why should we imagine that any other human wouldn’t want what we want – homes, running water, heat, transport, job prospects? Are cultures so different?

The UN climate panel predicts Africa will be hit hard by climate change in the next century, with tens of millions facing food and water shortages as rising temperatures are exacerbated by more droughts, floods and rising sea levels.

Let us assume the UN are right. Will the lives of nomadic people be better in the face of an unpredictable climate if there are roads, irrigation, running water, hospitals and all that stuff, or without? It’s got to be easier being a nomad if you can get the bus -or, shock horror, buy a van – when you’re bored of being a nomad.

Oxfam’s legitimacy on the world stage, and its role is entirely founded on the idea of there being an excluded voiceless people and forces in society which exclude them. There is nothing wrong with campaigning for change. But Oxfam would be impotent without voiceless victims to speak for. It needs a constituency, or it is redundant. Were the lives of the poor to be transformed such that they became politically and economically powerful, under the logic of Oxfam’s climate campaign, it would need to regard them as the criminals in the picture of the world they have painted. Instead of arguing for factories, roads, infrastructure (all the things which made Western lives better) Oxfam uses climate change to create the idea of victims and culprits, in an argument for ‘sustainablity’ over development. The tragedy is that the only thing it will sustain is poverty… And Oxfam. It claims that natural disasters are happening because of Western lifestyles, when in reality, natural disasters happen because of a lack of development. Oxfam stopped being a charity when it started telling people how they ought to live, rather than campaigning for equality.


  1. A world with no mads

    It is often the voice from these people themselves that they wish to be left to there traditional ways although often this is all rather relative – since for example they might be wearing modern plastic googles when traditionally driving and catching fish – they might even use a motor on the boat and whilst they might not be big spenders they often wear clothes and use other items of modern progressive origin – oh whilst we are here in your tent do you fancy some medicine so your child lives…er… oh go on then! I know I shouldn’t but – you are naughty!

  2. Araucan

    The sustainibility of traditional cultures should also be assessed….

  3. Alex Cull

    To be fair to Oxfam, their report Survival of the Fittest does have some sensible stuff in it. For instance:

    “Pastoralist communities need more investment in good basic services such as health care and education, flood-proof transport and communication links, financial and technical support services, livestock-marketing opportunities, drought and flood mitigation and preparedness systems, access to climate information, and effective conflict-mitigation mechanisms. Both women’s and men’s needs and interests must be taken into account. Civil society and local communities need support to build strong and representative pastoral organisations. Governments need to strengthen the accountability and responsiveness of their institutions to pastoralist needs.”

    And, on the subject of people who may want to transition out of the pastoral lifestyle: “…when diversification is practised, investment in education for women and men is of paramount importance as it is the best way for pastoralists to achieve positive diversification through salaried employment.”

    So, some positive things. The BBC report doesn’t go into all that very much, though.

  4. jnicklin

    The UN climate panel predicts Africa will be hit hard by climate change in the next century, with tens of millions facing food and water shortages as rising temperatures are exacerbated by more droughts, floods and rising sea levels.

    And, by god, the UN will ensure that these predictions come to pass. The people of Africa already face these perils and have for many decades. climate change adds nothing to the calculus. A few billion dollars would alleviate all but a few of their problems. They need sources of power not dependent on wind and solar. They need medication and some engineering to provide reliable potable water. They won’t get it because the “west” is too busy investing all available cash in carbon offsets and other useless projects. While we continue to wring our hands, the plight of Africans continues.

    With or without global warming or “climate change” 4,000,000 children under the age of 5 will die each year from lung disease brought on from cooking with wood or dung without proper stoves and ventilation.

    32,000 people will starve tonight and every coming night, even though obesity is an epidemic.

    40,000,000 people mostly in the 3rd world have HIV-AIDS. More than 20 million have already died, and as many as 68 million more deaths are forecast by 2020. Medication that now costs about $300 per year just can’t be paid for.

    Malaria kills millions in 3rd world countries. It is estimated that 408,388,000 people suffer from Malaria world-wide. It kills 3,000 children every day and more than one million each year. A few billion dollars could more or less eradicate the problem in a few years, but the liberal minded eco-junkies won’t allow DDT to be used. It might hurt the people, forget the fact that the malaria is killing them.

    Species are at risk of extinction, not from GW but from habitat destruction, for what? To get fuel to cook to survive another day or to mow down rain forest to plant soy beans and sugar cane to make the new wonder-fuel ethanol.

    Gore says that 300,000 people will die because of GW in the next 20 years. Pretty small change compared to the millions that are already dying because they can’t get food, drugs, energy and pesticides. One third of the planet doesn’t have electricity. A billion people have no clean water. Half a billion people go to bed hungry every night.

    The UN itself estimated that about 10 billion dollars would be enough to address AIDS and another 2 billion would be enough to cut malaria infection and death by half. But what do they spend their money on? Climate change panels and endless studies.

    They should be ashamed and so should we all.

  5. geoff chambers

    nicklin’s comment on your critique of Oxfam is a compendium of common sense which cries out for an explanation of the question – Why are we letting millions die of preventable diseases while wasting untold billions on countering the unproven negative effects of global warming? Your site usefully exposes the motivation of politicians – but something else is required to explain the motivation of the chattering classes and the journalists and activists who both speak for them and influence them.
    I would suggest that psychology is the field which will provide the explanations. Philip Stott on Global Warming Politics has recently posted two articles on the cognitive dissonance involved in believing in imminent disaster due to global warming when temperatures are falling, and sceptical sites routinely treat the global warming alarmism as mass hysteria. These may be correct descriptions, but they do little more than label the phenomenon.
    Two psychological concepts which might be useful in analysing the AGW phenomenon (may I call it Kyotosis ?) are anomie and displacement activity. Briefly, anomie is the state of psychological depression which results from a situation of unfamiliar freedom; displacement activity is inappropriate behaviour in response to confusing signals. (Roughly, you reward a laboratory rat with food when he presses the right lever, and punish him with an electric shock when he presses the wrong one. If you mix rewards and punishments randomly, he doesn’t know what to do, so he retires into a corner and scratches his bottom – or becomes the environment correspondent for a posh newspaper and spends his time measuring his carbon footprint).
    Is there anyone out there who might take this analysis further? Recent history is full of examples of the disastrous effects of mass psychology (I’m thinking of the origins of the first World War and the rise of Fascism, for example). I’d like to see some authorative analysis of what may happen when Kyotosis confronts reality. Any ideas?

  6. Luke Warmer


    You make some interesting points and I thought that you might want to check out Bill Easterley at NYU Stern – he makes an interesting case for why the west/1st world/northern hem. struggles to help africa in particular. The video of his talk to the authors AT google book club is especially worth watching. It’s on google video.

    The vested interests of all of these support charities oxfam, christian aid, action aid, tearfund, water aid, cafod etc. to name but a few means that so much of the money that is given to them is used for overheads, campaigning and lobbying before the residual even passes into relatively corrupt societies with tribal bias and lack of property laws etc so it’s no wonder that aid is a bottomless pit even before you add in acute crises like tsunami and earthquakes. We’re susidising poverty rather than tackling it at source.

    These same NGOs decry China’s industrialisation due to climate change, putting millions at risk of acute health problems which the UK has been solving since Evelyn’s 1661 Fumifugium and subsequent leglisation up to the Clean Air Acts. They also conveniently ignore the fact that enterprise has brought millions in China out of poverty.

    But I don’t believe it’ll be anytime soon that people will figure this out.

    C-R keep up the blogging

  7. Editors


    A couple of points. We have been very critical of the environmental movement’s attempts to reduce ‘scepticism’ and ‘denial’ to psycho-pathology, because it represents a way of explaining their failure to engage the public. See here here and here for example. Therefore, we would be reluctant to agree with you that psychology explains the debate.

    We don’t need to investigate psychology to understand why Oxfam, which was established in order to provide famine relief, now, like many agencies, overlooks the many problems that JN lists. The problem lies in the understanding of development, and their role that the likes of Oxfam have developed over the last couple of decades as it has become closer to the establishment, and increasingly involved with dictating policy towards and within the developing world.

    If Oxfam were to say that what the developing world lacked was… err… development, then it would find itself unable to distance itself from the agencies and organisations it once criticised. Now Oxfam has to celebrate primitive lifestyles, and encourage them, partly because the understanding of progress has been relativised, partly because the development agenda more generally has also been degraded by absurd notions of ‘sustainability’, and partly because Oxfam knows full well that it cannot deliver the massive investment in infrastructure that is needed to confront the problems JN has pointed to. And to create the idea that it is not unreasonable for people in the Third World to expect Western standards of living, and are capable of organising themselves to achieve it, would mean undermining Oxfam’s own role. And as we can see, Oxfam’s thinking secures a role for itself. Just as governments in the West absorb environmentalism in order to make themselves seem to be responding to the right things, so too Oxfam respond by framing their agenda in environmental terms. Actually, all it serves to do is remove Oxfam, and governments from their responsibilities; the priority becomes ‘saving the planet’, rather than focussing their efforts on people.

    Furthermore, we have argued that the politics of environmentalism are prior to any ‘science’, and that by the time scientific research has been processed by those using it to arm political arguments (i.e. stripping it of caveats, and proportionality), it has lost any meaning whatsoever. The influence of environmentalism stems from a disconnect between the public, and politics. ‘Science’ has been used to try to connect with the public by creating terrifying ideas about the future. It fails. But as long as there are still scare stories in circulation which plausibly create a legitimate role for public profiles, people will continue to take advantage of them.

    Rather than looking inside people’s heads, we think the best way to approach things is to call them to account. That means being as relentlessly critical as they are relentlessly engaged in producing an unmitigated stream of guff.

  8. geoff chambers

    I agree entirely with your analysis of the Oxfam phenomenon, and the wisdom of avoiding ad hominem accusations of insanity of the kind often aimed by warmers at deniers. My reason for pushing the case for a psychological examination of the AGW phenomenon on your site is a specific one, which I hesitated to outline for fear of being overlong.

    AGW is not the first wrongheaded theory to gain widespread acceptance, and our current ruling élites are not the first to lack ideas or conviction. In normal times, wrong theories are disproved (or go out of fashion) and ineffective politicians are replaced by others. I can think of no other example of the political élite of the entire Western world adopting an idea which is demonstrably false, and making it the keystone of their policies, policies which will almost certainly cause suffering to their citizens.
    My reason for appealing for psychological expertise is not because I want to get inside the heads of anyone. (The Monbiots and Browns one assumes are acting from motives of self-interest). I suppose it comes from a foreboding that the normal social and political self-correcting mechanisms which democracies have developed are not working, and possibly cannot work, when an entire society adopts an idea which is totally false. In order to avoid the disastrous social and political consequences of such a situation, you need to understand what’s motivating society as a whole. Your site does a good job of analysing the political and cultural context. I just feel it would be nice to see some psychological analysis added to the mix.

    To see what I mean, imagine what would have happened if our witless politicians had latched on to a “rational” environmental concern, such as the elimination of third world poverty. This seemed a possibility a few years back with the Make Poverty History movement, which had overwhelming popular and political support. An inspired politician could have used this issue to win votes, a Nobel Prize and a place in the history books. Of course, it wouldn’t have been plain sailing. There would have been failures, mistakes, scandals, complaints about waste and corruption. A left / right divide would have opened up with competing models of economic development being proposed; elections might even have been won or lost over the issue. The point is, eliminating poverty is not a theory which is true or false, but a policy which may be sensible or misguided, well or badly implemented. If such a programme proved to be a total failure, it would simply be discarded and replaced by some less bad political plan of action (or inaction).

    Eliminating or avoiding global warming is treated in the media as if it were a policy similar in kind to eliminating poverty, ignoring the fact that we don’t know if it exists (over the long term), and if it does exist we don’t know what causes it, what effects it will have, and if it will continue in the future. But more important than the difference in certitiude between the two issues is that they are diifferent in kind. The assumption that they are similar problems, treatable by similar methods, is what philosophers call a category mistake. Simply put, poverty happens to people, global warming happens to thermometers.

    Over the larger part of the earth’s habitable surface, temperatures rise and fall ten or fifteen degrees every twenty four hours. Every year average daily temperatures rise or fall by maybe thirty degrees. We don’t die of it. Species don’t become extinct. We put on more clothes or take them off. Birds migrate. We take cheap flights to somewhere nicer (often warmer in the summer, colder in the winter, but who says we have to act rationally, temperature-wise?) We adapt.

    So treating a hypothetical 2-4°C temperature rise over the next century as a menace to the existence of mankind is – madness – what other word is adequate? I know it’s bad debating tactics to question the sanity of your adversary, and it’s bad politics to accuse voters of being stupid, but I’m not interested in winning a debate or an election. I’m interested in trying to understand a situation which seems potentially dangerous politically and socially. Psychologically, I’ve probably got exactly the same profile as your average GW activist. I’m a worrier. They’re worried about the future of mankind, I’m worried about them.

    When I try to envisage what will happen when the Global Warming movement confronts reality, I experience a serious failure of imagination. If global mean temperatures continue to fail to rise, will Monbiot apologise and be demoted to gardening correspondent? Will a British government provoke an international crisis by refusing to implement EU renewable energy guidelines? What kind of political movement could arise to challenge the present all party consensus? I too find Jeremy Clarkson sympathetic, but I wouldn’t like to be ruled by a party made up of his fans. It would be anti-establishment, anti EU, anti UN, anti-intellectual, a party of irate overtaxed “little people”, sabotaging wind farms, a mirror image of Ms Jasiewicz’ s anarchists.

    Of course, in the absence of steeply rising temperatures, it would be nice to think people would turn to the internet, read Alan Watts and McKintyre and others and make up their minds. My personal experience is that it just doesn’t happen. When I express doubts about global warming to friends and colleagues I get sidelong glances, as if I’d expressed an interest in UFOs or creationism. I’ve mentioned the subject to an entomologist, an epidemiologist, and an engineering student, among others. Not one has expressed the desire to go on the internet and find out for himself, not because they’re true believers in AGW, but simply because they can’t imagine that the scientific and political consensus could be so completely mistaken. They will no doubt become agnostic if temperatures fail to rise over a decade or so, but where is the movement which could channel rational doubt about a scientific theory into political action? How do you turn agnosticism into votes? Are these political questions, or psychological ones? Thanks for your patience

  9. Alex Cull

    Hi Geoff, I too am interested in both the political and psychological aspects of this whole business. Re the politics, I agree pretty much with what the Editors and John Nicklin have said – generally speaking, if governments and NGOs were really interested in saving lives and reducing suffering, they would abandon the foolishness of CO2 mitigation and spend their limited funds where they would do the optimum amount of good (the Copenhagen Consensus in 2008 identified a number of solutions which would achieve this – their list does include global warming but the emphasis is definitely on nutrition, disease-prevention, water and education.)

    I also find of interest this site ( – the International Rescue Committee; their recent survey reveals that…

    “Conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo have taken the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people since 1998 and continue to leave as many as
    45,000 dead every month, according to a major mortality survey released today by the International Rescue Committee.”

    And: “As with the previous surveys, the vast majority died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition – easily preventable and treatable conditions when people have access to health care and nutritious food.”

    If the AGW proponents were motivated by the desire to do the maximum good for the maximum number of people, they might consider channelling their energies into stamping out the war in the Congo. At over 5 millions of lives per decade, stopping this would surely more than offset the number of lives lost due to sea level rises over several millennia.

    As for the psychology, I think there are several aspects to this. Firstly, cognitive dissonance (I haven’t read Leon Festinger’s books yet but have two of them on order at the moment, hope to read and review them soon.) Then there’s middle-class guilt and angst – haves angry and guilty about being haves, haves pretending to be have-nots, haves wanting everybody to be have-nots, haves projecting the evils of “have-ness” (SUVs, patio heaters, meat, cheap air-travel) onto other haves or even onto the have-nots.

    And there’s the sort of pessimism and glass-half-emptiness that can settle in when there’s no actual crisis to be fought. I note that exhortations to treat the “climate emergency” like World War II when everyone pulled together and did their bit, etc., seem to have failed, because on the whole, people respond to real problems (such as the fallout from the credit crunch) and not to non-problems. But there’s a strain of “world’s going to the dogs” line of thought that seems to flourish when things are actually not bad, although I think that would quickly evaporate and be replaced by resolve if there was a real emergency, climate or otherwise.

  10. geoff chambers

    I’m new to this blogging business. Is it ok to carry on a semi private conversation on the tail end of your article? Thanks to Luke Warmer for indicating the articles by the excellent Bill Easterly published by the Cato Institute, (I feel like a bishop caught coming out of a whorehouse) and for informing me of an unsuspected side to John Evelyn. Thanks to Alex Cull for his comment on middle class guilt and angst. I think this conforms to Durkheim’s idea of anomie – a kind of terror at the realisation that I could do something, but that deep down, I don’t want to. Perhaps this explains why the left / green movement has latched on to global warming rather than the more useful “make poverty history” campaign. As jnicklin and others have pointed out, eliminating poverty or unnecessary deaths is often a boring matter of providing mosquito nets or alternative sources of energy to dung fires, while combating global warming involves nothing less than changing our relartionship to Gaia. If you were a Guardian reading student on a gap year, which would you rather do, study the ancestral wisdom of preliterate communities, or show them how to put up a mosquito net?

  11. admin

    Geoff & co… Feel free to discuss the issues that come up, and with each other – it’s what we intended, and welcome.

    We haven’t replied yet, as we’re very busy.

  12. Luke Warmer

    Thanks to the editors for allowing this exchange to continue. As they so aptly keep blogging, there’s so much confused rhetoric around this issue that needs exposing and ridiculing and I regularly pop by to see what’s new.

    As a climate apostate (of 2 years standing) I have spent far too many late nights, workdays and weekends trying to understand this issue and whilst clearly (as Geoff and Alex mention) individual psychology is important, I think the sociological aspect (within which there is politics and religion) is the key one.

    I only started looking at the poverty issue after Gore and Bono tried to link climate change and poverty at Davos, and from my perspective this was definitely a case of two wrongs don’t make a right. And Easterly was one of the few to make sense on this whole issue.

    There are plenty of climate skeptics who think that because, in their view, AGW has become a religion (and it does indeed fit with Durkheim’s definition of religion – “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.”) it is proof that it is wrong, but this is clearly not enough to expose any folly. There are many parallels with religion – heretics, carbon offsets and indulgences, apocalypse etc but what is really needed is a way to explain how the science can be being so distorted by social processes.

    There’s a very fruitful area of sociological debate around the social construction of truth which I’ve found interesting. It certainly gets messy, through the ‘science wars’ and the whole “Higher Superstition” thing. In this book, the authors take a swing at ‘left wing academics’ and whilst they proclaim the fraud of climate change (amongst many other issues) they simultaneously decry any form of social construction of truth. This is where I believe they have got it wrong and I hope, in due course, to publish a substantial and robust explanation of this.

    One thing is clear is that the cognitive dissonance has already begun and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets clearer, hence pseudonym.

  13. jnicklin

    I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that because AGW and CC have become religious tennents, the theory of global warming is wrong. Its just wrong on other levels. Either way, the poor of the world are poor, not because of climate change as Gore and Bono would have us believe. They are poor because they do not have access to abundant, inexpensive energy. Until that is rectified, they have no hope of not being poor, wether the earth warms or cools or storms become more of less abundant. Making cheap energy less available to the worlds more affluent peoples will only make the condition of the poor more dire.

    There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance and it seems to be getting worse, not better.

    Good luck on your search for truth, I wish you well.



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