In May this year, the UK’s science Academy, the Royal Society, announced that it was going to publish a “new guide to the science of climate change to help the public gain a better understanding of the issue.”
This announcement appeared to follow in the wake of a series of episodes that challenged the scientific basis of the arguments for political action on climate change. Email hacking, questions about the provenance of IPCC claims and the virtues of its chair seemed to make climate scepticism more respectable than it had been. This was in many respects grotesque. As I argued here, climate orthodoxy had not actually been challenged by an open public, technical debate about the conclusions of climate science, and neither had it been challenged by a debate about the premises of political environmentalism. Instead, it was the media’s desire for stories about sleaze and scandal which drove this issue into the limelight. Nonetheless, events at least allowed for climate orthodoxy to be challenged. Even the president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, now seemed to acknowledge that climate change anxiety had been over-egged.
Climate change is a hugely important issue but the public debate has all too often been clouded by exaggeration and misleading information. We aim to provide the public with a clear indication of what is known about the climate system, what we think we know about it and, just as importantly, the aspects we still do not understand very well.
If the Royal Society aimed to clarify the issue for the public, by pointing out that the debate was ‘clouded by exaggeration and misleading information’, it had already failed. You can’t clarify a complex situation merely by pointing at the mess, and issuing ‘the facts’ about what it pertains to, especially since it had been the Royal Society under the stewardship of Martin Rees’s predecessor, Bob May, who had done much to add heat – rather than light – to the public debate.
For instance, in 2005, the Royal Society published ‘A guide to the facts and fictions about climate change’, which is now offline. (We have a copy of it if you’d like to see it.) This is what it said about climate scepticism.
There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded.
The Royal Society in 2005 was not working from scientific facts but was propagating conspiracy theories, none of which it could substantiate. We pointed out for example, that the claims about ‘well-funded’ attempts to challenge to climate politics didn’t pass a test of basic arithmetic. In fact, what characterised the climate sceptics was their lack of funding, especially when seen in contrast to the astronomical sums available to the panic industry.
Bob May epitomised the angry, intolerant and censorious character of the environmental movement further when he offered his own unique translation of the Royal Society’s motto in 2007. Nullius in Verba had long been translated as ‘on the word of no one’, but May had decided a better translation was ‘respect the facts’. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, however, he didn’t appear to be against making them up himself.
May had accused Martin Durkin, the director of the Great Global Warming Swindle of being a HIV-AIDS denier, as well as a climate change denier. And this must speak most loudly about the desperation of high profile and influential climate change alarmists even while they were enjoying almost entirely favourable media coverage, and the sympathy of governments. Even when ‘the science was settled’, it wasn’t settled enough for those who wielded it to make political arguments. They needed to make stuff up, whether it be about the effects of climate change, or about those who were sceptical of their claims, to win the political debate.
Under the stewardship of Rees, the Royal Society’s commentary on climate change was torned down somewhat. In June 2007, it published a ‘simple guide’ to ‘climate change controversies’. This consisted of a number of answers to what the RS had understood as ‘misleading arguments’ that characterised the sceptic’s arguments.
Misleading argument 1: The Earth’s climate is always changing and this is nothing to do with humans.
Misleading argument 2: Carbon dioxide only makes up a small part of the atmosphere and so cannot be responsible for global warming.
Misleading argument 3: Rises in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the result of increased temperatures, not the other way round.
Misleading argument 4: Observations of temperatures taken by weather balloons and satellites do not support the theory of global warming.
Misleading argument 5: Computer models which predict the future climate are unreliable and based on a series of assumptions.
Misleading argument 6: It’s all to do with the Sun – for example, there is a strong link between increased temperatures on Earth and the number of sunspots on the Sun.
Misleading argument 7: The climate is actually affected by cosmic rays.
Misleading argument 8: The scale of the negative effects of climate change is often overstated and there is no need for urgent action.
Each of these ‘misleading statements’ was outlined, and followed by the words, ‘What does the science say?’ These were followed again in each case by an account of what science had apparently said to the report’s authors. Science’s words, however, retold through the mediums at the Royal Society, became bland, condescending, and failed to raise the level of the debate. The approach of the report was typical of the establishment’s mode of engaging with the public on scientific matters at that time. A belief existed that all you needed to do to convince the public was to present the opposite case as ‘myths’ and to counter them with ‘simple’ ‘facts’, and public would obediently defer to scientific authority. The irony here being, of course, that the RS had been involved in its own myth-making, not only by presenting ‘simple’ accounts of the climate debate (which is actually complex), but also by having made unequivocal and unreasonable statements about the climate debate and its politics. It wanted now to retreat to ‘simple’ scientific facts. Too late.
The public, not being as simple as the RS understood them to be, recognised that the reduction of the debate to ‘simple’ facts was typical of those making political arguments on the basis of the over-stretched claims about climate change. The idea that ‘myths’ and ‘facts’ characterise the debate is the corollary of the idea that the debate divides into two camps: scientists and deniers, who deal in facts and myths respectively. The report spoke only to the myths and to the deniers, whereas the public by now knew that the debate was far more complex. The ‘simple guide’ delivered precisely this over-simple message in its introduction:
This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming.
Reports published at the time revealed that the thinking public, even if they believed that climate change was happening, also understood that it had been exaggerated by cynical politicians and scientists who had become giddy with hyperbole and their new-found celebrity status. The failure to treat the arguments made from its own ‘side’ to scientific scrutiny revealed the continued partial treatment of the issue by the RS, and moreover, demonstrated the inability to reflect on its own position that characterises environmentalism. For an institution established with the purpose of promoting the role of science in the public sphere, the Royal Society had perhaps become its own worst enemy.
The events of the last year, which undermined the credibility of climate science in the public’s mind still further, need no retelling here. We can see now that each successive report that the Royal Society has issued has not been amended or improved by developments in climate science, but by the problems generated for it by the attitude of the previous report. As Rees says in the press release attached to the current report:
It is three years since the Society published a document specifically designed to help the general public get a full understanding of climate change. Nothing in recent developments has changed or weakened the underpinning science of climate change. In the current environment we believe this new guide will be very timely. Lots of people are asking questions, indeed even within the Fellowship of the Society there are differing views. Our guide will be based on expert views backed up by sound scientific evidence.”
So if the ‘underpinning science of climate change’ has not changed, what has given rise, then, to the people who ‘are asking questions’. Who are they, and what are their questions? The report doesn’t say. Rees continues,
It has been suggested that the Society holds the view that anyone challenging the consensus on climate change is malicious – this is ridiculous. Science is organised scepticism and the consensus must shift in light of the evidence. The Society has always encouraged debate particularly through our discussion meetings and our journals. The Society has held two recent discussion meetings relevant to this area. One on Greenhouse gases in the earth system: setting the agenda for 2030 and one on Handling uncertainty in science. The debate must be open and it must also be based on sound science rather than dogma.
Rees’s claim here is umitigated nonsense. The RS refused to allow complexity, uncertainty or dissent into the debate, and indeed dismissed as malicious those who had a different perspective on climate change. The 2005 report accused sceptics of ‘undermining science’ for financial ends and private interests. The 2007 report was directed at ‘those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming’. The RS actively discouraged debate, its presidents and their staff claimed that there was no debate to be had, and that those who wanted one were ‘deniers’.
The new report does not say much at all. It is a restatement of the science, divided into three categories of certainty, ‘Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’, ‘Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’, and ‘Aspects that are not well understood’. These are intended, it seems, to delimit areas of permissible discussion. As a document which is concerned with the physical science of climate change, by itself, it seems very limited indeed. This blog is concerned more with the political and moral arguments which putatively emerge from climate science. And it is the inability of the RS to recognise the sheer weight of expectations that are hung on climate science that make this new report almost completely pointless.
The implication of the report is still that if we can establish what the effect of CO2 on the climate system and natural processes is, the answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ will come to us. Instead, the claims in the climate debate are far more complex than can be substantiated by establishing that ‘climate change is [or is not] happening’. For instance, it is perfectly feasible that some degree of climate change is happening, and that this may cause problems for some people, particularly people in the poorer parts of the world, as the RS have pointed out in the past. And it is on this fact that much of the moral argument for political action on climate change rests. This perspective is captured in the introduction to the new report
Changes in climate have significant implications for present lives, for future generations and for ecosystems on which humanity depends.
However, as we have pointed out, the fundamental issue for such people is not the climate, but their lack of wealth. The further implication of this approach is that such poverty as exists to make people vulnerable to climate is inevitable, or even ‘natural’. But can ‘science’ really determine the extent to which human societies and future generations really depend on ecosystems? Or is the claim merely a political presupposition that exists in the perspectives of the authors of the RS report, prior to any data or scientific facts? What if we were to suggest instead that the fundamental dependency that humans have is not on ecosystems, but between themselves? After all, what determines people’s vulnerability to climate in today’s world is not the climatic conditions of their location, but their ability to cope with it. Here in the UK, where we enjoy central heating, a car, and food, we do not have better access to ‘ecosystems’ than people living elsewhere in the world. Poorer people in the world could be richer. Much richer. And this wealth would afford them better protection from a changing, or not changing, climate. The problem of climate change, therefore, is not principally determined by climatic conditions, but by social, economic, and technological development. It is not climate science we should be looking to in order to establish the immediate problems of climate change, but instead social science.
Some have welcomed the Royal Society’s apparent repositioning, believing it to represent a tacit acknowledgement of the extent to which climate change has been exaggerated. But even if the RS are now treating the climate issue with slightly more caution, it is not after any reflection on what took it to its own extremes. The same eco-centric precepts persist in this report, and out of this new position something far more sinister is emerging.
Climate change science has comprehensively failed to produce a basis from which climate politics can proceed. In the first place, it is too abstract a set of ideas to act as a narrative to explain the human world. In the second, and because of the first, it has been wildly exaggerated. People – rightly – simply did not believe that their lives were so dependent on natural processes. Politicians’ and environmentalists’ ambitions to produce moral authority from terrifying stories about catastrophe were shattered by the force with which their messages were thrust upon the public. The stories grew less credible.
As we’ve been arguing here for a long time, climate politics are prior to climate science. As explained above, the premise of human dependence on ecosystems exists before any consideration of material facts or theories about the state of the planet. Accordingly, changes to natural processes count in this perspective as damage to human society. The way out of that framework for those of a human-centric persuasion is to emphasise the degree to which human society makes itself, and depends on its own creativity – not ecosystems – for more than mere survival.
That understanding was once the principle that science promised to unleash, so that humans could progress towards their own future rather than one dictated by the weather. It liberated individuals and society from illegitimate rule and mystical and superstitious ideas. Now science instead is used to find ways to contain that creativity by denying it. In the climate debate, moral authority was sought by claiming that our incautious progress had altered the weather. Now, that same authority is being sought on the basis that we are not sufficiently creative to invent faster than we consume. We are going to run out of stuff. There are too many people.
Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:
The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond. The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global but it will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics and the impact of policy interventions. We aim to complete the project by early 2012.
The timing is no accident. The character of the public discussion of environmental issues is changing. While it is welcome that there has been a marginally more sober reflection on the climate, there is little to celebrate. The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidence suggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.
We invite feedback on the following questions. [… ]
- What scientific evidence is available to show how fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation will affect or be affected by population levels and rates of change, at both regional and global levels, over the next forty years and beyond?
- How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
- What are the key interconnections among population change, environments, economies, societies and cultures? How do these relate to any of the examples listed in the second bullet point of the terms of reference above?
- What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
- What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
- What other issues should our study addresses?
The implication of these question is the same idea that operated at the core of the RS’s climate perspective. The idea of our dependence on ecosystems is still the premise of its neomalthusianism. The climate story emphasised the damage that climate change would do to these systems, resulting in calamity. A weaker form of the same climate story serves as an adjunct to the population story. Neomalthusians can now acknowledge the uncertainty of the climate science, but make the claim that the degree to which climate change is certain is a function of population. The more people, the greater the possibility that climate change is a problem. Climate change has been the principal narrative which connected human society to the natural world, but now population has become the ‘master’ issue. It connects fears about biodiversity, climate change, resource-depletion, pollution, and so on. We can jump up and down with joy when climate science is shown to have been exaggerated by politicians, or is embarrassed by the excesses of a researcher. But it won’t have been the result of attempts to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism, and environmentalists will simply regroup under the population issue, as we predicted they would.
The main problem with this perspective, is as we’ve argued here, that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we start from the premise of environmental-determinism — that our futures are dependent on ‘ecosystems’ — then we preclude the possibility of development that would allow us to exceed ‘natural limits’. The notion of human dependence looks like an objective claim with a scientific basis, but it is in fact a moral argument. Of course, it is possible to find instances of human dependence on natural processes. But these are contingent facts not universal truths, and the point of emphasising natural limits is to create for society an organising principle.
Further, it is hard to make a counter-argument in scientific terms. How do you quantify the potential of human creativity in the scientific terms that neomalthusianism appears to demand? This was the conundrum that led Martin Rees to his conclusion that human understanding is limited in his Reith lectures earlier this year.
Rees couldn’t quantify the extent of human possibility, but claimed that it must exist somewhere. His argument was that we should act as though we are limited now. Just as with the neomalthusian perspective, this seems to demand a seemingly scientific answer to its claims, but neither the extent of human potential, nor the actual limits imposed by nature are given. And so, the benefit of the doubt is given to environmentalism’s political project. As I pointed out, the result is toxic: “it’s only when you take a narrow, limited, and negative view of humanity that you can make stories about our imminent demise, and the necessity of creating special forms of politics to prevent catastrophe from occurring.”
Rees and the Royal Society are seeking ever greater roles for science in the political sphere. Politicians, who are suffering from a historic inability to define their purpose, take the authority this lends them with ever more enthusiasm. But this has resulted in a qualitative shift in the character of science. Where once it provided the means to liberate human potential, it now exists to regulate it. Instead of ‘speaking truth to power’, science increasingly speaks official truth for official power. The result is bad politics and bad science.
I keep coming back to this blog because I enjoy both your clarity of thought and your “just right” economy of expression. Thanks for this essay in particular.
There is a big difference between what we know is true and what we only suspect or extrapolate may be true. Unfortunately, the political class frequently confuses the two, in order to borrow the respect that science has earned over the centuries, as a means of cowing into submission those whom the politicians would rule. So it seems to have been with climate change. It is one thing to present honest scientific extrapolation as the informed opinion it is, and quite another to present it as established fact, with the aim to silence all dissent. We citizens need to be “tough customers” and admit only true facts and the conclusions that may be fairly, directly drawn from them into the discussion of public policy. The further we retreat from that ideal, the more miserable we are bound to become, as faulty or half-baked science can only lead to arbitrary public policies that ultimately prove tyrannical.
I found the video supportive of the post, however its title “Bob May, Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” (I do not believe it was yours choice) detracts from an otherwise very interesting article.
Ian, I must take the blame for the title of the video. I recorded the audio, and took the pictures at an event organised by Oxford City Council in 2007 called ‘Oxford is my World’ — http://www.oxfordismyworld.org/ . May spoke there alongside Mark Lynas and George Marshall, and Cllr John Goddard (now the City Mayor) who got something just short of a standing ovation from the 200 atendees (most of whom turned out to be council and party workers) for claiming that he would abolish the plastic bag from the city. A council official I tried to interview, when sensing that I wasn’t on-message refused to speak further, saying ‘I can’t believe it, you’re a climate change denier’. So much for democracy.
The tone of the event didn’t get much higher, which is possibly why I didn’t sense any problem with the title at the time – I was amazed by the sheer hypocrisy of Lord May. You are right to question the title, however.
I came here via BishopHill. I’m sure you’ll get a lot more visits. As with James Anderson Merritt, I am impressed with your ability to explain and summarise. Your finishing lines ” Where once it provided the means to liberate human potential, it now exists to regulate it. Instead of ‘speaking truth to power’, science increasingly speaks official truth for official power. The result is bad politics and bad science.” are brilliant.
It makes me wonder why and how the 20thC delight in the abilities and potential of mankind has been turned into 21stC gloom and desperation.
How did efforts to stop man-made pollution transform into “Save the Planet” and the goal of “Sustainability”? Is the broadening of education in the late 20thC, with Americans getting entwined with the likes of Rousseau a cause? Has “Calvinism” been shifted from one religion to another?
I’ll bookmark your site and look forward to more of your analyses.
*How did efforts to stop man-made pollution transform into “Save the Planet”*
The short answer is the spread of rampant narcissism which now affects most citizens of Western nations, leading them to believe that whatever they happen to be doing is automatically of the highest importance and so should have a grandiose title like “Save the Planet”.
Arguably, the 20th century didn’t really begin until at least 1915, with the preceding years being little more than the fag-end of the previous century… exhausting itself and its burnt-out values before the unknowable shock of the new arrived on the horizon. Perhaps the pattern is the same this time around.
Arguably, the post-war hippy culture (by which we still very much define ourselves – 50 years on!) had nowhere else to go but its logical conclusion (or cul-de-sac) of aimless Environmentalism (its militancy being, in part, a frustration at its own aimlessness as a movement). And the hippy movement itself might not have happened but as a generation’s clear polar reaction to rigidity and masculinity of the second world war which formed and informed their parent’s lives.
As an active member of the post-war hippy culture, I am not convinced that we “had nowhere else to go”. Whilst high ideals (perhaps many younger generations have these) of free love, equality, peace etc where prevelant, they were not so pervasive as to turn me and many of my contemporaries into AGW activists.
Indeed, amongst all my peers from that time, I can find not one single soul who believes in AGW !! Then again we as a generation were taught to think for ourselves
Going back to the RS position on cosmic rays – it’s amusing that Svensmark et al published their cloud chamber expt results in the Royal Society A journal demonstrating a mechanism for cosmic rays forming cloud condensation nuclei – the question is not if cosmic rays have an effect on climate – the question is how large or small the effect is.
Lord May has no real credibility – he effectively backed two opposing scares – he signed up to the Club of Rome limits to growth, and global warming caused by growth – he’s wrong on both counts.
Very good piece. You make a persuasive case for the existence of an unexamined presumption of human dependence on ecosystems. I date this, rightly or wrongly, to the publication of Silent Spring.
But climate alarmism also follows an older tradition of catastrophism based on perverse extension of uncontroversial science, including eugenics, and a quaint little scare in the mid-nineteenth century that the world was running out of spar timber. These are summarised in a structured analysis by Kesten Green of Great Big Scary Predictions that Never Happened (my paraphrase) to be found here:
Understanding the tendency of a certain section of each succeeding generation to believe that it will be the last to walk the face of the earth unless man listens to it and mends his wicked ways is at least as important as examining its latest manifestation.
Very clear and thought provoking piece. Spot on, I believe. Thank you!
it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject, either of Nature or Art, that comes before them.
TomFP- ‘climate alarmism also follows an older tradition of catastrophism’…
You’re right to point it out. And there are instances of ideas that are analogous to contemporary eco-centric perspectives throughout history. Aristotle set out to find instruction from nature. Malthus too, in a different way. Carson, Ehrlich and their pals should never be forgotten for laying the foundations of the latest episode. It is also interesting to note the players from that episode of environmentalism returning to the current generation.
But what is most interesting to me is that these ideas were not able to capture the imaginations of the political establishment in quite the same way as they have now. What I argue is that these political ideas are not now in the ascendant by virtue of their own force, but have been dragged to it by some other dynamic. ‘Environmentalism is not as much a cause as a symptom’. We should look at environmentalism as a phenomenon, then, not simply as a set of coherent or consistent ideas something like a political philosophy, even if environmentalism does take the form of an ideology. Indeed, those ideas are often in conflict, even if they share the same anti-human ethical premises.
My daughter is now doing science at “big school” and I’m troubled by the “science” syllabus being 70% science and 30% enviro-babble.
It makes me contrast it to my own school days. Starting with the Apollo moon landings and finishing with the silicon chip revolution – which is still going on now.
It was a time of unlimited optimism. Even the sky wasn’t a limit. Anything was possible. A lot of the dreams never turned out – like free electricity or huge numbers of people living in space. But lots of other exciting things did happen. Wow. It was a great time to live and grow up.
Now it’s a gloomy pessimism. Mankind is bad. Children’s TV – CBBC – tells us that we are the world’s most dangerous species. Everything is bad – or “worse than we thought”.
Yes – it’s neo=malthusianism.
So called ‘environmentalists’ will be wrong about the population scare too – due to falling fertility rates:
TomFP very wisely says that:
“Understanding the tendency of a certain section of each succeeding generation to believe that it will be the last to walk the face of the earth unless man listens to it and mends his wicked ways is at least as important as examining its latest manifestation”.
Michael Lewis asks:
“Is the broadening of education in the late 20thC, with Americans getting entwined with the likes of Rousseau a cause?”
Rick Bradford suggests “the spread of rampant narcissism which now affects most citizens of Western nations”
and PeterS “the post-war hippy culture [which] had nowhere else to go but … aimless Environmentalism”.
These suggested causes are not mutually exclusive, and all appeal to something specific to late 20th century middle class westerners. They are thus consistent with Ben’s demand for an explanation of why these ideas (unlike previous alarmist scares) have captured the assent of almost the entire political and media class of the western democracies.
I’ve mentioned on comments to previous threads here the idea proposed by French sociologist Emauel Todd, linking the growth of mass university education to illiberal and inegalitarian doctrines. Briefly: while the acquisition of universal literacy has an egalitarian effect on society, leading to revolution and eventually democracy, the growth of a large university educated class has the opposite effect, as this new class becomes sufficiently numerous to feel culturally autonomous. When the university educated numbered 5% or so of the population, they necessarily rubbed shoulders with their educational “inferiors” at all levels of society. At 30%, what has long been dubbed “the chattering classes” feels confident enough to launch itself as an autonomous class, with its own distinctive political and cultural programme.
Todd developed this idea in his analysis of the state of the French Socialist Party, which has severed practically all links to the working class, and become a self-selecting middle-class think-tank (dependent on tactical alliance with the Greens), but it could easily be adapted to explain the dominance of environmentalism as the defining ideology of the centre-left middle classes in the English-speaking world.
As Ben says above: “It is not climate science we should be looking to in order to establish the immediate problems of climate change, but instead social science”.
There have been some interesting contributions on past threads here from psychologists, but little that I have seen from sociologists or historians.
The above comments suggest lots of ideas forming that could eventually lead to something like an explanation of the peculiar vacuum at the heart of modern politics which Climate Resistance has so convincingly identified. Let’s keep the ideas coming.
Thank goodness for the presence of clear-headed, thinking persons such as you. I was one who rejoiced at the bit of a step-back of RS from the CAGW political agenda, believing that this was only a small first face-preserving step in the progression toward a perspective based on the level of our real knowledge about this complex system called climate. Now I’m worried more than ever as I should be. The ‘guidelines’ show an unmistakable policy prescription in the works for not only control of population behaviour but the more sinister control of numbers, not by the automatic mechanism that acts when economic development leads to self regulation of population. When I look at a problem, I try to calculate a simple model that puts it in perspective. In the case of population, I determined that the entire world population could be contained in Lake Superior with 15 square metres for each to tread water in. Indeed, at one sq m. each, we could take on 90 billion people. Okay, so in fact the endless hordes don’t take up as much space as we thought. Future generations, with a bit of imagination will be able to organize things so that there is ample space for them and a wildnerness ecology for all other creatures to battle out their strive, thrive or fail scenario. We are wasteful (apparently half the food we produce is spoiled on the way to market, in the market and in our homes) but we seem to require economic stimulus to take us to better futures. But please, let us not fall for the failed system of totalitarianism that destroyed its environment and murdered 100 million of its people. Groucho would have done a better job than Karl.
Bits of sinful clay
Well, now, which is it?
On a recommendation from secondary school (long ago but not forgotten), I finally finished reading all 5 volumes of Macaulay’s “History of England from the Accession of James II.” It was well worth the months it took me.
As with other historians, he wrote to his own time, 1840s, a time in which there must also have been considerable pessimism. He described the pessimism of the second half of the 17th century and how much of what was then apprehended in their future and expected to be catastrophic financially for the country never happened because of the increases in productivity through industrialization, the invention of a number of financial institutions and devices, (Bank of England for example) and so forth.
He even referred to the possibility of unforeseen (in the 1840s) changes which would make people in the twentieth century look back on his cohort and wonder how they could have been so short-sighted.
I paraphrase him badly, but one of his points was that there was a sizable part of the population which appeared to need to live in fear of one thing or another and that someone would always come up an object to answer this need.
It does look as though the CAGW mania provides an especially effective object for those in need of the fear du jour as well as providing myriad money making opportunities of one kind or another for a lot of others.
My guess is that notwithstanding the science, (the real thing with replications and experimental evidence) this craziness will still take years to go away – even if it doesn’t get noticeably warmer.
I agree this might take years to go away, which is why Climate Resistance’s socio-political approach seems so useful. On the more science-orientated sceptical blogs, I see a lot of triumphalism, based on the (naive?) idea that once the science is shown to be doubtful, the whole house of cards will collapse. For understanding long term historical movements, Macaulay or any of the 19th century social commentators, left or right, literary or scientific, are probably more useful than modern problem-orientated microsociologists.
I used to spend a lot of time looking for historical parallels to global warming. Witch craze or Childrens’ Crusade? Piltdown Man or Lysenko? Prohibition or McCarthyism? I tend to think now that it’s the sign of a significant historical event that it’s sui generis. It really is like nothing which has come before, and getting out of this mess will take a lot of time and effort . What kind of effort? Cerebral? Political? Activist? We don’t know, and accepting this uncertainty may be a first step to finding out.
I think you have to look for bubbles and manias. The basis or bases of the mania cannot be rational or if rational, the logic has to be inaccessible to the majority of the adherents. Look up the Nika riots in 532, time of Justinian and Theodora. Two factions, blues and greens fought for days with thousands of deaths for non-rational purposes – as far as I can tell.
Reading Macaulay about the religious wars in England and Scotland in the 17th Century. People died over the question of transubstantiation and yet today, a significant minority of the adherents of the religion which has this tenet, in the US at least, don’t know that it is basic to their belief.
It’s important that the basis be rationally inaccessible. Faith is easier to invoke that a chain of logic, as you will find out when you try to get your 6 year old to go to bed.
Goebbels’ observation was that a lie told often enough would be accepted as truth. He didn’t say a truth would be accepted as truth, but a lie. I always assumed he meant that a lie was unprovable and therefore went straight to the faith bin in peoples’ minds, it didn’t need a logical explanation.
Warren Meyers’ excellent essay at Forbes on what to tell someone about the skeptic view of warming won’t work with the believers I know. They will point out that he isn’t a climate scientist, hasn’t published in refereed journals, etc. etc. So I ask, have you read any of the warmist peer reviewed scientific articles maybe Mann et. al 2008, for example.
“Of course not, I couldn’t follow that stuff.”
This is why Fred Singer or Freeman Dyson, or now Hal Lewis don’t cut it with them. They are selling logic, not faith. Gore is selling faith not logic, so he’s acceptable.
Bubbles or manias which can be deflated by an event, failure of the Tulip (or housing) market; the apocalypse not showing up timely in 1000AD; Justinian killing all the Greens in the Hippodrome;
But with warming, there isn’t likely to be an event, so you have to look for comparable manias which tapered off for some other reason – and they are harder to find.
And that’s why I’m worried. You can’t kill a faith based mania except maybe by incorporating it in a bigger, hopefully more tranquil mania.
It’s hard to believe that someone hasn’t thought all this through, done the homework and written a book on it.
What do you think?
“I used to spend a lot of time looking for historical parallels to global warming. Witch craze or Childrens’ Crusade? Piltdown Man or Lysenko? Prohibition or McCarthyism? I tend to think now that it’s the sign of a significant historical event that it’s sui generis.”
Precise historical parallels may be tricky, but I think Lord of the Flies provides a remarkably fitting allegorical description of the global warming movement in our society – and the course it is likely to run.
Yes, I’ve thought of the blues and the greens, tulip mania, etc. Each has its own charm as an example of mass hysteria, setting the scene as it were for the current fear of global warming. TomFP’s link above is very interesting, as an example of an attempt to find historical examples of supposedly scientific prediction using objective criteria. Their work deserves praise, particularly because they are asking the help of colleagues in checking and if necessary refuting their arguments. Imagine a climate scientist doing that!
The English Civil War and the excesses of Scottish Calvinism fit well into Todd’s schema as examples of the turbulent, often incomprehensibly violent, events which accompany the advent of mass male literacy. The French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions also all occurred when 90% of young males learned to read, leading to a kind of popular intellectual ferment which lent a violent egalitarian tinge to the political events of the time.
Todd’s throwaway remarks about the advent of an autonomous university educated class were part of an analysis of the current vacuous state of the French left, but could equally apply to modern Britain. Mass university education arrived earlier in Western Europe, along with May ‘68 and the intellectual far left which eventually spawned Baader Meinhof and the Red Brigades. In England we had the safety valves of a vibrant popular culture – the satire, sex, drugs and rock and roll which Western European youth so envied. The 30% university-educated élite finally arrived in England decades after France, Italy or Germany, too late for post-modernism or the other far-left intellectual offspring of continental philosophy. Green scientism may be our existentialism. It’s more empiricist, down-to-earth, appealing to our folk memories of Darwin and Newton, its concern with the third world unconsciously recalling the white man’s burden of our imperial past. (A vision of thermometers from Cairo to the Cape, of Anglo-Saxon science discreetly watching over a world it no longer controls…)
You say rightly that it can’t be deflated by some event, or sudden failure of a prophesy. There’ll be no Chernobyl on the wind farms. Your idea that it may be incorporated in some bigger mania is anything but encouraging. This is exactly what the article suggests about the direction of the Royal Society is taking:
“In the climate debate, moral authority was sought by claiming that our incautious progress had altered the weather. Now, that same authority is being sought on the basis that we are not sufficiently creative to invent faster than we consume. We are going to run out of stuff. There are too many people”.
Running out of stuff can’t be countered by some imaginary green technological revolution. Too many people is a theme which appeals to the darkest fantasies of the ignorant. It’s even more difficult to base an inspiring political message on the call to have less kids and use less stuff than on the call to switch off the lights and cycle to work. As the science becomes less certain, the calls on blogs to question democracy and free speech become slightly louder.
What you’ve written is very useful. I need to read a bit to better focus on what past manias might be most instructive.
I read the paper TomFP linked.
I’m pondering whether being prediction-based is really necessary to a good analogy, but without finding one to suggest, I can’t make much of a case for that – yet.
I hope our host will let this thread here another day or two.
“Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is available as an Ebook on Gutenberg.org which by the way is where I got Macaulay. Although it’s an 1840 book, there were plenty of manias to describe in the preceding eras.
thanks for your very helpful observations.
“… Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds … ”
Please bear in mind that the argument in the post above is that climate politics is not popular, and as such, if it is a form of madness , it’s not the madness of the crowds.
“..it’s not the madness of the crowds.” I think there’s a difference between “the crowds” and “crowds.”
It has to be the madness of somebody though and not so few either, so why not a crowd?
I don’t speak to “climate politics” because the term suggests too complex a concept – for me at least. I’m more worried about what seems to be almost an assumption now by the media that CO2-driven warming is real and will lead to difficult problems in the foreseeable future unless we change our ways. It seems, to them, almost as much a “given” as “the sun will come up tomorrow.”
It may well be that I’m off after a wild goose and that you have recognized that my idea won’t go anywhere useful, but without getting into the inability of the believers to sell a political solution, what I call an assumption above is still out there and doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon.
Ben, you did write “We should look at environmentalism as a phenomenon, then, not simply as a set of coherent or consistent ideas something like a political philosophy, even if environmentalism does take the form of an ideology. Indeed, those ideas are often in conflict, even if they share the same anti-human ethical premises.”
I am beginning to doubt that an historical mania can be found with the richness of environmentalism – but I still want to look.
Over the weekend, Dana Millbank at Wapo was advocating geo-engineering solutions to the coming threat since it was clear that cap-and-trade couldn’t fly politically. I find this an expression of madness.
I take your point about the Greens not being popular, but one of the peculiarities of modern politics is that pretending to be popular can be as effective as having mass support. In the case of Ed Mliband, three’s a crowd – him, someone paid to criticise him for not beng radical enough, and someone with a camera. Put the lot on Youtube, and by some extraordinary popular delusion, you can get elected leader of the Labour Party. It’s hits and pixels that count , not heads and votes.
I agree with jferguson that the historical route is one of the most promising for exploring and explaining this phenomenon, as long as one avoids the popular delusion that environmentalism must be a carbon copy of something else. It’s difficult to accept the idea that the success of some delusional idea may be due to its originality. The fact that environmentalism is like no other movement (because the 21st century is like no other, etc) may explain our inability to halt its progress. I’m not praising it, any more than I’d praise a new strain of resistant bacteria, but simply suggesting a reason for its extraordinary hold on the political, if not the popular, mind.
The FUTILITY of Man-made Climate Control by limiting CO2 emissions
Just running the numbers: watch
If these numbers are in the right ballpark the whole Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming scare just evaporates.
On average world temperature is ~+15 deg C. This is sustained by the atmospheric Greenhouse Effect ~33 deg C. Without the Greenhouse Effect the planet would be un-inhabitable at ~-18 deg C. The Biosphere and Mankind need the Greenhouse Effect.
Just running the numbers by translating the agents causing the Greenhouse Effect into degrees centigrade:
• Greenhouse Effect = ~33.00 deg C
• Water Vapour accounts for about 95% of the Greenhouse Effect = ~ 31.35 deg C
• Other Greenhouse Gases GHGs account for 5% = ~1.65 deg C
• CO2 is 75% of the effect of all accounting for the enhanced effects of Methane, Nitrous Oxide and other GHGs = ~1.24 deg C
• Most CO2 in the atmosphere is natural, more than ~93%
• Man-made CO2 is less than 7% of total atmospheric CO2 = ~0.087 deg C
• the UK contribution to CO2 is 2% equals = 1.74 thousandths deg C
• the USA contribution to CO2 is ~20% equals = 17.6 thousandths deg C
So closing all the carbon economies of the Whole World could only ever achieve a virtually undetectable less than -0.09 deg C. How can the Green movement and their supporting politicians think that their remedial actions and draconian taxes are able to limit warming to only + 2.00 deg C?
So the probability is that any current global warming is not man-made and in any case such warming could be not be influenced by any remedial action taken by mankind however drastic.
As this is so, the prospect should be greeted with Unmitigated Joy:
• concern over CO2 as a man-made pollutant can be discounted.
• it is not necessary to damage the world’s economy to no purpose.
• if warming were happening, it would lead to a more benign and healthy climate for all mankind.
• any extra CO2 is already increasing the fertility and reducing water needs of all plant life and thus enhancing world food production.
• a warmer climate, within natural variation, would provide a future of greater opportunity and prosperity for human development. This has been well proven in the past and would now especially benefit the third world.
Nonetheless, this is not to say that the world should not be seeking more efficient ways of generating its energy, conserving its energy use and stopping damaging its environments. And there is a real need to wean the world off the continued use of fossil fuels simply on the grounds of:
• security of supply
• increasing scarcity
• rising costs
• their use as the feedstock for industry rather than simply burning them.
The French long-term energy strategy with its massive commitment to nuclear power is impressive, (85% of electricity generation). Even if one is concerned about CO2, Nuclear Energy pays off, French CO2 emissions / head are the lowest in the developed world.
However in the light of the state of the current solar cycle, it seems that there is a real prospect of damaging cooling occurring in the near future for several decades. And as power stations face closure the lights may well go out in the winter 2016 if not before.
All because CO2 based Catastrophic Man-made Global Warming has become a state sponsored religion.
And now after “Splattergate” thanks to the 10:10 organisation everyone now knows exactly how they think.
Splattergate is classic NOBLE CAUSE CORRUPTION. It is probably the most egregious piece of publicity ever produced in the Man-made Global Warming cause. This short film shows doubting schoolchildren being blown up and having their entrails spread over their classmates because they may have been less than enthusiastic about the CAUSE. So any misrepresentation is valid in the Cause and any opposition however cogent or well qualified is routinely denigrated, publically ridiculed and as we now see literally to be terminated.
Maybe the pervasiveness (popularity?) and persistence of environmentalism are different from all manias of the past because our times are different, we have more pervasive communications.
I like to think that sites like this are similar to the English coffeehouses of the 17th century except international, and the coffees not so good.
The absolute delight of discussing these things with folks from Oz and the UK as well as others who care to treat them in English is incomparable and certainly not something that existed in any similar form before Usenet, and then for a very limited audience.
Likely, we have television to thank for this current mania.
You’re assuming that man-made CO2 emissions have no impact on the amount of other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The warmists claim that a small amount of warming caused by man-made CO2 will lead to an increase in water vapour in the upper atmosphere, and thus to a much larger amount of warming.
edmh — it’s hard to see what relevance your post has to the conversation here. I’ve removed it but will keep a copy. If you had limited yourself to one or two lines of what appear to be spam, I would have acted differently, but it interrupts an interesting discussion.
j ferguson – “It has to be the madness of somebody though and not so few either, so why not a crowd?”
Because it’s emphatically not a ‘madness’ of a crowd. It’s not a mass phenomenon, but something that afflicts — if that is the right word — elites/the establishment. The important dynamic is ‘top-down’.
I don’t speak to “climate politics” because the term suggests too complex a concept – for me at least.
That’s fair enough, but that is what this blog is concerned with. I don’t think it is too complex a concept for you, though if some of the ideas are unfamiliar to you, I would ask you to stick with it for at least a while, as I’ll try to explain.
Over the weekend, Dana Millbank at Wapo was advocating geo-engineering solutions to the coming threat since it was clear that cap-and-trade couldn’t fly politically. I find this an expression of madness.
I don’t know anything about what Dana Milbank or Wapo. So I have no idea how mad what he said was. So what follows is intended to explain the problem with the idea of madness, not as a defence of what he has said.
It may be perfectly rational (i.e. not mad) to work from what he understood to be true — including that cap and trade would fail — to conclude that geo-engineering might answer the problem.
Leaving aside the possibility that he may also not have understood the reality of geo-engineering and its consequences, the point is to establish what it is Milbank is working from, and how his argument moves forward.
For instance, in the post above, I quote the starting point of the Royal Society’s report:
I argue that this is a fundamental — a premise — of eco-centric political ideas. If you accept this premise (of human society’s dependence on natural processes) then it’s not hard to conclude that climate change will be catastrophic. (obviously, I gloss over matters of degree here, to make the point).
Environmentalists will claim that the conclusions of climate science are the premises of climate politics. But too often we can see that climate politics are prior to climate science. The science is perfectly ‘good’, but the assumptions were bad. The likes of the RS simply don’t recognise that the starting point of its scientific assessment are political. And why would they? This is not madness, but perhaps reflects your own reluctance to see things in political terms.
As you know, I’m in agreement with your basic ideas, though I think some need expanding to make them comprehensible to the reader who hasn’t followed their development over the years.
Not so long ago, I saw environmentalism as a valid political movement, like democratic socialism in its early days, in the process of coalescing into a “normal” political party, as has happened in France and Germany. Your fundamental insight that the politics comes before the science has persuaded me that this is not so, though I’m still not sure what it is, if not a political movement.
Jferguson’s suggestion that history may help us understand seems most useful, and I’m not sure what problem you have with it. It’s not that the study of the tulip craze or the English Civil War will provide us with a template for understanding the current global warming movement, or for predicting its future development. More perhaps that the study of history and the social sciences deepens one’s understanding of human action in general, providing one with the counterexamples which prevent one from leaping to shallow conclusions.
It’s easier to understand if you reverse the logic and look at what happens when you don’t take history and the proper study of mankind seriously. We recently had an education minister who stated that ancient history was a waste of time, and a prime minister whose favourite book was Ivanhoe. If Tony Blair had read Macaulay, he wouldn’t have thought that banning lightbulbs was a significant political act – not because there’s anything in Macaulay to inform his choice, but because his vision of what politics is would have been radically different.
I sometimes wonder whether your acerbic responses to commenters doesn’t come from your philosophical training. It’s one thing to reduce an opponent’s interpretation of Kantian categories to smithereens before his eyes, but when one is discussing human action, a lighter touch works better. We are not offering up abstract concepts here, but interpretations of the world based on our limited human experience – parts of our selves in a certain sense.
You say: “it’s emphatically not a ‘madness’ of a crowd. It’s not a mass phenomenon, but something that afflicts — if that is the right word — elites/the establishment. The important dynamic is ‘top-down’.”
Agreed. But isn’t jferguson’s point simply that environmentalism is a social phenomenon? The fact that they see themselves as the biggest mass movement in the history of the universe (350org’s description of last Sunday’s actions) is part of their group behaviour. If there was a book called “Extraordinary Unpopular Delusions and the Madness of Small Bunches of People on the Internet” I’d leap on it.
On the important dynamic being ‘top-down’, I’d suggest that the important dynamic is the positive feedback loop whereby élites pretend to be propelled by mass movements like Greenpeace which they are in reality financing. That’s something I learned about here, and and for which I thank you sincerely.
Ben and GeoffChambers,
I didn’t feel beat up by Ben’s comments which I thought quite helpful. I’m trying to run a boat through Georgia and the sections where I can run on autopilot coincide with loss of internet connection. I’ve thought of some questions and a bit of expansion of my idea which will likely make it more convergent with what I take to be Ben’s point(s).
back to navigation.
Geoff – In the case of Ed Mliband, three’s a crowd – him, someone paid to criticise him for not beng radical enough, and someone with a camera. Put the lot on Youtube, and by some extraordinary popular delusion, you can get elected leader of the Labour Party.
Only ‘popular’ amongst the ranks of some of the Labour party. To put that in the context of your earlier remark:
‘At 30%, what has long been dubbed “the chattering classes” feels confident enough to launch itself as an autonomous class, with its own distinctive political and cultural programme.’
The stuff about French Socialists divorcing from the working class looks like the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ observed by Michels. (As seemingly autonomous and democratic organisations such as unions enlarge, so they develop into bureaucracies, which are dominated by a group which uses them for their own interests).
I don’t know if it would be wise to hold with a strong (i.e. ‘iron law’) version of Michel’s theory, but as both I and a commenter on the post about Miliband observe, the character of the Labour Party and the unions which gave their vote to EM have changed substantially, which may reflect something similar.
I don’t think Todd’s account of higher education fits with my argument. Not that Todd is wrong, but that my argument is that vacuity drives environmentalism, which would not be the expression of a new class’s confidence in its politics. Environmentalism looks more to me as politics by default, rather than design. The issue here is agency, I guess. Does this class really launch itself? Is it really autonomous? I don’t think that the ascendency of environmentalism has been the consequence of a conscious process as such.
The bureaucracy that environmentalists and the UK’s mainstream politicians desire already exists. What there is, is a confusion about is the basis from which this bureaucracy can be legitimised. As Mandelson puts it, ‘we live in a post-democratic era’. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Nonetheless, political institutions still need a legitimising basis. in ‘Violence’ (page 34), Slovoj Zizek explains the problem better:
Sadly, Zizek doesn’t follow this analysis through by extending it to the role that ecological crises plays in contemporary politics, and indeed he seems to use these crises ‘in Defence of Lost Causes’ himself, to illustrate the shortcomings of contemporary politics… Which is just daft. But he does say some interesting things about environmentalism occasionally, and he captures the current problem in the passage above brilliantly.
What strikes me about the attempt to use the politics of fear to get people to engage with political projects is how remarkably ineffective it has been. I keep saying it: climate politics simply are not popular. I think the public are just too conscious of it as a mode of mobilisation, and any attempt to build on it simply collapses, as we see with the RS. Thus, politicians and the public view each other with mutual cynicism, though the public’s cynicism seems far more legitimate. But rather than looking at such feeble attempts to connect with the public through their basic emotions as conscious, deliberate or engineered, I think the truth is that this is an act of desperation. It’s cock-up, not conspiracy. Adjunct to Michels’ theory, then, we might add an ‘iron law of bureaucratic disconnect’: as a bureaucracy expands, so it finds it harder to find a basis on which to legitimise itself. Maybe this is reflected in the retrogressive tendency of eco- bureaucracies, who project their own crises of legitimacy onto the atmosphere. It follows that the existential threat to these institutions (or theri legitimacy) is any progressive idea about how to achieve development. Accordingly, they make development the object of their bureaucracy: it has to be ‘sustainable’, and it is inherently problematic and far too dangerous to allow it to develop spontaneously.
Re: your latest comment, I see what you’re saying — and I like the point about ‘madness of small bunches of people on the internet’ — but I was really only attempting to move away from the idea of irrationality and mass phenomena as ways to account for environmentalism. The madness thing, for instance, is what the greens do when they talk about ‘denial’: giving pathological accounts of the existence of their detractors. They complain about the shortcomings of democracy: that it allows politicians to too easily appeal to the public’s material instincts. The greens too, after all, have their versions of ‘social phenomena’ to explain ‘us’. I certainly don’t want to be rude to to JF, I just don’t think it’s the right approach, and the way to win it is to challenge its anti-human tendencies. I will admit to not knowing enough about the madness of crowds idea, however, and will look it up.
You’re right that the rise of a new class could hardly explain the vacuity of its politics. You’d expect the opposite – a new political creed full of optimism. Todd’s idea was not so much that a new class was emerging, but that an old class (call them the educated élite) had rapidly expanded, reaching a kind of critical mass at which they could exist in a culturally autonomous niche, oblivious of the concerns of the mass of the population. And this does fit in I think with your insistence on the upper class origins of so many Greens, for instance. There have always been rich socialists, but they had to merge their interests with those of the mass movement they were supporting. Now we have rich Greens having to invent the mass movement they are ostensibly supporting on Twitter.
Todd has nothing specifically to say about the rise of environmentalism, and his remarks about the rise of a university educated class and its effect on the vacuity of the socialist party were simply a throwaway remark in a newspaper interview, whereas the links he makes between literacy, family structure and political movements are well argued in a number of books. I bring him up because his Durkheimian method, using demographics to explain longterm political change over a wide range of countries and time periods, seems to me to be the way to go. Specifically, if the accusation of vacuity in politics is to be more than a moral judgement, one needs to explain why it should have afflicted all three major parties in Britain at the same time, while current politics in the USA looks anything but vacuous (though maybe jferguson or someone else might correct me there).
Similarly, the different forms taken by the Green movement in Britain and Europe need explaining.
Writing the above made me realise the astonishing contrast between the enormous variety of types of greenery at the grass roots level (much like the variety of left wing sects parodied in Life of Brian, you might say) and the utter conformity at the top. There’s not an ounce of difference between Cameron, Huhne and Milliband; the Guardian got its carbon clarion call editorial reproduced verbatim in fifty newspapers worldwide. How could any liberal / centre-left journalist not be revolted by such conformity of thought?
Zizek looks most interesting, as are your ideas on eco-bureaucracies. I’d like to come back to the “madness thing” sometime. I much appreciated the psychoanalytical insights provided recently on these threads. (Were there two such contributors, or is that my schizophrenia playing up?) Of course, one cannot use such analysis to attack green ideas, (and Freud, to his credit, avoided doing so whenanalysing political or social behaviour) but it is very enlightening nonetheless.
I don’t think I have the background to keep up with you. I do have some observations nonetheless.
I wonder if the various points of view -say greens- are more coalesced in the UK, than in the US – identifiable, named societies, rally together. The madness I worry about here in the US seems widely distributed although I would certainly agree that it’s of elitist origins. And it is certainly sustained by elites.
I agree with your idea, if I have it right, that politics feeds the warmist fire. If the origins of environmentalism were with some quasi-scientific “authority” adopted by elites, the continuation has become much more political than scientific.
The politicians buy the science that meets their needs.
I think I understand you to say that because the political underpinnings (the chassis) of the warmist movement are rational, then it cannot be madness.
Does that imply that the logical extension of a nonsense idea isn’t mad (crazy)? That the combination of the idea or premise and its political embodiment isn’t mad?
As for where to look for an analogous mania.
It must be initially authority driven, and perhaps authority sustained, although not by a particular personality. It cannot be susceptible to deflation by a single event or even a series of events.
The premise doesn’t need to be rational, and probably is more seductive if it isn’t. This is to kick the mania over into the faith-based category which I suspect is far more self sustaining – has persistence. More likely to answer some “need” among the adherents.
Being effectively irrefutable is very important. I fear that in our current mania, even the most conclusive refutation by careful scientific means won’t do the trick.
Seems like Crusades might be a good analogy, but maybe that’s because I don’t know all that much about them.
Dana Millbank is a columnist with the Washington Post (WAPO). He’s a political not a technical guy and the gist of the column I referenced was that given that a climate catastrophe was coming unless …… and Cap-and-Trade seemed dead. we simply must do something and maybe some geo-engineering scheme can get the job done as such might need to overcome fewer political obstacles.
Thanks again for indulging me.
I would have thought it is fairly straightforward. The ‘leader’ (in the position of authority) makes an extraordinary claim about the space (or environment, or surroundings) the group exists in and places this claim into the space in between itself and the receiving group.
The intent of the claim is to gain an extraordinary level of control over the group. The content of the claim is the ‘environment’ and the claim is assigned by the leader as a ‘scientific’ (or reasoned) object.
The will to bring the group into submission to an extraordinary level of control precedes the act of making and placing the ‘scientific’ object into the space in between the leader and the group.
But the will to bring the group into submission to an extraordinary level of control ALSO precedes a non-extraordinary exchange – ie: a democratic political exchange – between the leader and the group… in the sense that the will is a primal fact of being human. A functioning, modern political exchange is the construct we are left with ONCE the will has surrendered its position in the space. In fact ANY exchange which requires the ordinary granting of a mutual authority is the prior surrendering of the will – the result is the civilisation of the space rather than its (re)primitivisation(?). This movement can be reversed.
‘Extra-ordinary’ here could be substituted with ‘post-normal’ or ‘post-modern’ as the meanings are interchangeable. With the particular demands of the environmentalist group, ‘pre-normal’ and ‘pre-modern’ would be more accurate. The model above could possibly be applied to any historical breakdown in the structure of – what was agreed at the time to be – an ordinary political relationship (or, to borrow a favourite environmentalist term: the getting rid of ‘business as usual’).
Hence – the politics is prior to the science, but the psychology is prior to the politics.
Malthusian thought has a spin close to eternal life, the nearest seen on earth. Paul Erlich kept it going with his best seller, Population Bomb (1968), and its soul went marching on with Limits to Growth (1972), of the Club of Rome, and a host of publications over the last two decades that support the man-made global warming scare. After warming stopped for fifteen years it was sold as climate change and it is now the climate disruption scare, to exploit the publicity over the latest natural disasters that befell mankind. A switch of brand name to prop up sales of a failed product is frequent publicity practice.
In another gimmick the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) takes peer-review as a synonym of approval by higher authority. All should believe because an alleged consensus of climate scientists says so. But science recognizes no authority above proof backed by experimental evidence and it does not matter who publishes the proof. Who peer-reviewed the work of Newton? To begin with, he has no peer. Who peer-reviewed some 400 papers published by Einstein over half a century? Again, nobody did. Under its own rules, IPCC must then rate Newton and Einstein as irrelevant to science because they lack approval by higher authority. This intolerant stance, combined with the Climategate revelation of the perversion of the procedure, has rendered the “peer-reviewed climate science” of IPCC an object of derision.
Peer review means that a paper submitted for publication meets the editorial standards of a journal – and nothing else. If its standards are high, a science journal will weed out the papers that don’t add to the stock of knowledge, stand on poor evidence or questionable method. To its credit, the procedure used over two centuries has done much to improve quality of what was published in science journals and avoid waste of time with implausible ideas. It is not infallible. Over forty years, some 250 papers were published about the Piltdown Man as the missing link of ape and man, until it was laid to rest as a hoax.
Another ghost that must be laid to rest is the idea that economic development must be stopped to save the planet from man made catastrophic climate, even while one quarter of mankind has no access to electricity and is mired in all the woes that go with it. It is based on the belief that the world is running out of:
· Non-renewable resources of a finite planet;
· Space for a population that grows at an exponential rate;
· Time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that will bring catastrophic climate disruption.
None of the tenets holds water, but well funded propaganda has made them accepted with an act of faith.
Mankind does not consume the planet like a piece of cheese. There are no non-renewable resources in a world subject to the law of conservation of matter. Human consumption never subtracted one gram from the mass of the planet because all matter that changes form may be recycled. Energy for it is potentially available. One cubic kilometre holds deuterium, fuel for fusion reactors, with energy content equivalent to that of all known petroleum reserves. The oceans hold three billion cubic kilometres of water, more that enough to supply any imaginable need. Desalinisation plants already furnish one fifth of the water supply of a big city like Madras, in India, with a process that uses reverse osmosis membranes. A new nano-tube membrane, that requires far less energy, holds the promise of making desalinised water cheap enough for irrigation purposes, a boon to a dry places like Australia with a coast of 25000 kilometres, or the Sahara for that matter. Mining companies never had use for the notion that the planet holds a fixed inventory of resources because they are aware that little is known about the content of the crust of the earth. Since 1850, The Economist has maintained consistent records of the value of commodities, and none has shown an increase symptomatic of scarcity. On the contrary; in 1850, food for a human being was eight times more expensive than it is today. In 1950, less than half of world population had a diet above 2000 calories/day while today 80% have it, and population has tripled since 1950. The Malthusian fallacy has always been that technology will remain frozen forever. It currently holds that fusion energy never will be practical.
UN population forecasts point to stability of world population in the course of the 21st century, and some estimates foresee a drop in population at its end. A new topic of concern is the widespread ageing of populations, clearly seen in Japan with a population that heads to extinction. China heads the same way and West meets East in a suicide pact with a birth rate that is approaching that of the Chinese official policy, of one child per couple. Overcrowding is a local problem seen in places like Calcutta, but far from the predicament of mankind. With an efficient economy, the world population of six billion could live comfortably on an area of 100000 square miles, the area of the state of Wyoming (0.17% of the terrestrial area of the planet). Manhattan and the Copacabana beach district of Rio de Janeiro have higher population densities that do not seem to drive people away with insurmountable problems.
Global warming induced by economic activity is the last straw clutched by Malthusians as the cause of all misfortunes that happen on the planet. A dust storm in Australia; the Indian Ocean tsunami; an earthquake on the Himalayas; floods in Pakistan and concomitant drought in Russia; tribal wars in Africa; a snail plague on the Isle of Wight; volcanic eruption in Iceland; collapse of a bridge in Minnesota; hurricane Katrina; summer floods in Bolivia, that Evo Morales blames on fuel consumption by Americans. Anything goes if it serves the aim of suspect pecuniary interests: rationing the consumption of fuel and international licensing and taxation of its production. It means power over every act of all human beings. Qui bono?
Surely the nearest historical approximation to political AGW is Marxism?
Political, but supposedly based on other criteria (economics and morality). Non-religious (indeed anti-religious).
Imposed by elites, supposedly so as to benefit everybody. The good of the many outweighing the good of individual.
Scientifically proven. Anyone who failed to see this was suffering from false-consciousness, and clearly incapable of seeing what was really good for them.
More or less impervious to contrary proofs.
BTW Ben, thanks for the best laugh today:
Slovoj Zizek complaining about “an awesome example of theoretical jargon” was too much for my irony circuits, which blew spectacularly.
I know he’s a clever man, and sometimes perceptive, but so much of what he says is such rot that I could never cite him. One of my pet peeves is “hinterlectuals” who continually cite Zizek, Derrida, etc. Your blog is better off without them IMO. Your own thoughts are much clearer. Not to mention more correct.
You don’t even need to invoke the as-yet-unavailable fusion technology to consign Malthusianism to the ash-heap of history where it belongs. Existing fission technology is sufficient — Bernard Cohen wrote a paper in 1983 showing that breeder reactors could provide enough energy from seawater uranium to power our civilization until the Sun goes red giant. And then there’s thorium, which is three times more common than uranium.
Another thing — how likely is it that organizations protesting or lobbying against nuclear energy are actually astroturf groups funded by fossil fuel interests?
More accurately I’d say Marxism-Leninism, as it was Lenin who introduced the elitist “vanguard party” doctrine to Marxism.
Oops, here’s the link to the Cohen paper I mentioned. (It’s a PDF file.)
Sorry I meant this.
The talk by President Klaus at the Royal Society last night looks most relevant to this discussion. The only account I’ve found so far is by Maurizio Morabito here
Jferguson – ‘I wonder if the various points of view -say greens- are more coalesced in the UK, than in the US – identifiable, named societies, rally together. The madness I worry about here in the US seems widely distributed although I would certainly agree that it’s of elitist origins. And it is certainly sustained by elites.’
I think you’re probably right, though I wish I knew more about the situation in the US. It’s interesting to see how similar ideas play out differently on different sides of the Atlantic. Greens (of all shapes and sizes) certainly seem to have a much easier time in the UK media, which will tend to broadcast ‘controversial’ (i.e. sceptical views on climate) ideas self-consciously, yet present hour-long items of completely insane (yes, really, insane!) environmentalism without a hint of criticism. There seems to be a more public contest of values in the USA, and a stronger emphasis on the benefits of industrial society and economic growth. I would suggest (anecdotally, perhaps) that there is also more widespread public engagement in the USA. The only real purpose of green groups’ stunts is to get themselves on TV. Having said all that, there hasn’t yet been a Ted Kaczynski produced in the UK.
‘I think I understand you to say that because the political underpinnings (the chassis) of the warmist movement are rational, then it cannot be madness.’
Rather than ‘underpinnings’, I would say ‘conditions’. There’s no core environmental political philosophy as such. There’s just a predominant but nebulous eco-centric view of the world, such as the expressed by the Royal Society, which even our best scientists don’t recognise as political. And why should they?
I don’t say that the first part is ‘rational’. I would say that it’s ‘received’ in some way. It’s become established somehow that we depend on the natural world for stuff. And unfortunately, there has been nothing much to challenge that view, certainly in the UK. Once you accept that view, it’s perfectly rational to understand that changes to the natural world equate to damage to the human, social world.
‘Does that imply that the logical extension of a nonsense idea isn’t mad (crazy)? That the combination of the idea or premise and its political embodiment isn’t mad?’
I think it would be more useful to look for ways to explain why it happened. Why did the idea of development collapse? Why did people’s views of humans as creative agents diminish to one of passive, but destructive, greedy, rapacious morons? I think sociological accounts of malaise, disenchantment, or anomie might be more useful here. And I think we can throw into the mix accounts of the excesses of postmodern relativism, the cold war and the post-cold war eras, and of course the desire to avoid repeating the terrifying ideological battles of the 20th Century. The mistake sceptics make, I think, is in thinking that once the hockey stick has been finally snapped and cast into the dustbin, the situation will be back to normal, with environmentalists humiliated, removed from their god, forced to admit that they were wrong, get back with the programme. I think a bigger battle lies ahead.
‘It must be initially authority driven, and perhaps authority sustained, although not by a particular personality. It cannot be susceptible to deflation by a single event or even a series of events.’
Authority is a really important political concept. What I’ve argued on many posts here is that we may be able to account for the ascendency of environmentalism by looking at crises of authority suffered by — for want of a better expression — the political establishment. It seems to me that politicians have attempted to borrow authority from science because they cannot generate their own. After all, they seem to be unable to offer any kind of vision to sell, and so speak of the need instead to respond to a putatively objectively defined crisis: climate change. As I put it, ‘the crisis is in politics, not in the skies’. In other words, the political crisis is projected into the atmosphere. But this isn’t limited to the phenomenon of environmentalism. Politicians on all matters — and on all sides — will prefer these days to defer to ‘science’, rather than make moral arguments about drug use, abortion, race, public behaviour and its control, and so on. The emphasis is on ‘evidence-based policy-making’, but the reality is usually policy-based evidence-making. This leads to my point above in the distinction between using science as something which creates the possibility of greater liberty, versus using it to create authority.
President Klaus’s speech is here
Politicians: “We are the solution.” “To What?” “Global warming.”
Marxism seems an excellent analogy although depressing. It just won’t go away. Maybe environmentalism is descended from Marxism with it’s improvement being a problem (for which it is the solution) that is more universal (gasp) and easier to understand.
Mooloo – ‘Surely the nearest historical approximation to political AGW is Marxism?’
Only if we completely misconceive Marxism…
Political, but supposedly based on other criteria (economics and morality). Non-religious (indeed anti-religious).
Put simply, ‘politics’ on Marx’s view is the struggle between classes. Marx observed that different classes have different interests, which leads to antagonism between them, and the control of one over another. The abolition of class is therefore equivalent to the abolition of politics.
I think you’d be hard pushed to find a political philosopher who didn’t think also in economic and moral terms. Economics was not once called ‘political economy’ for nothing.
Imposed by elites, supposedly so as to benefit everybody. The good of the many outweighing the good of individual.
Doesn’t Marx criticise capitalism on the same basis? He certainly says capitalism is imposed by elites, and is administered by the state, for the interests of capitalists.
Scientifically proven. Anyone who failed to see this was suffering from false-consciousness, and clearly incapable of seeing what was really good for them.
Marx doesn’t use the term ‘false consciousness’, and it doesn’t relate to people who don’t hold with Marxism. It relates instead to ‘commodity fetishism’, which is the view of commodities as having inherent value, independent of the labour that produced them, thus concealing from the producer the nature of his relationship to others within a capitalist society. In this respect, the view that commodities have a ‘natural’ value is much closer to environmentalism, but it’s not worth making much of it.
What is historically inevitable, according to Marx?
More or less impervious to contrary proofs.
Which contrary proofs, to which claims? To what extent is this different from any proposition from any political philosopher?
Moreover, the thrust of my post above is that environmentalism may simply put new emphasis on population as climate change ceases to be useful. Marx attacks Malthus vociferously – http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch19.htm – for his many failures and plagiarism, more than any other contemporaneous thinker. I’ve read several conservative commentators in recent years who claim that Malthus was an invention of Marxists, and that neo malthusianism was an invention of neo-marxists. Yet, not only was Malthus part of the classical liberal/political economists school, neomalthusians such as Garret Hardin and Paul Ehrlich were conservatives — the former being a fan of Hayek, and the latter a member of the Republican Party. Malthusianism attempts to do exactly what you misconceive Marx as doing, namely, emphasising that an objectively-defined material limit to development exists.
So where does this leave us? There are, of course, many contemporary liberal-left views that seem to be embracing Malthusianism, which is emphatically ‘of the right’. And there seem to be a number of people on the Right who reject it, with ideas that were emphatically ‘of the left’. So it seems to me that there has been a break from the past, at least insofar as the continuity of the categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ are concerned, and so we should avoid seeing the problem of the present in the terms of the past, or we risk turning our understanding of environmentalism into an argument with ghosts. There is more to this than a choice between Marx and Malthus, and we should be careful to avoid a dogmatic rejection of insight on the basis that the insight became dogma. Marx made mistakes, and Marxists who fail/ed to recognise those mistakes should of course be criticised. But Marx’s mistakes are of no more significance than Adam Smith’s, or those any other political thinker of the past for that matter, except when we try to find neat continuity between political ideas from over a century ago, to today’s. This is a huge mistake.
J Ferguson – Marxism seems an excellent analogy although depressing.
It’s a terrible analogy, for many reasons.
It just won’t go away.
Where is it?
Maybe environmentalism is descended from Marxism with it’s improvement being a problem (for which it is the solution) that is more universal (gasp) and easier to understand.
As I try to point out in my answer to Mooloo, it would be hard — very hard — to draw a line between Marx and contemporary environmentalism. Meanwhile, such a task would be confounded by the fact that much contemporary environmentalism is also the descendent of conservative political thought.
As I try to point out in my answer to Mooloo, it would be hard — very hard — to draw a line between Marx and contemporary environmentalism.
Is this a Freudian slip Ben? In my books ‘draw a line between’ means ‘to separate’. Funnily enough, I was going to finish up my previous (and much ignored) post by suggesting it might be a mistake to draw separating politics off from psychology and then attempt to seek a solution to the environmentalism puzzle exclusively in the political space.
Ooops: “it might be a mistake to draw A LINE separating politics off from psychology…”
Is this a Freudian slip Ben? In my books ‘draw a line between’ means ‘to separate’.
Not at all. A line connects two points. Maybe ‘a line from Marxism to contemporary environmentalism’ would have been clearer. The point remains, I think, that looking at environmentalism as the left’s most recent move is simply counter-factual, and ignores the environmental movement’s conservative antecedents.
the politics is prior to the science, but the psychology is prior to the politics.
I think you’ve mentioned this idea before. But I think my answer then was the same as it is now… How can we say that psychology is prior? Do humans develop in an apolitical space? It seems hard to argue that they do, and so we’re left with a bit of a conundrum: is the psychology of industrial man the same as the psychology of a caveman? I don’t think the answer is simple.
Your posts are not ignored (at least by me) but they take some thinking about, particularly since they involve psychoanalytical concepts with which the rest of us are not necessarily familiar. For example, I’d like a reference for the use of “space” as you use it.
Anyone accepting the psychoanalytic doctrine that our adult selves are formed by our early childhood experiences must accept that “the psychology is prior to the politics”, for a given individual. This does not mean that political or sociological explanations can be replaced by psychological ones. I find PeterS’s tantalisingly condensed analyses of why Greens are the way they are fascinating, and I’d like to learn more. But they can never explain why that sort of person, with that sort of psychological makeup, should be able to impose his world view on society here and now.
Geoff –Anyone accepting the psychoanalytic doctrine that our adult selves are formed by our early childhood experiences must accept that “the psychology is prior to the politics”, for a given individual.’
But childhood experiences do not take place in a sphere outside of ‘the political’. Children experience things such as ‘class’ for instance.
I don’t think that post-normal and postmodern are interchangeable. ‘Post-normal’ science is invoked where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. Postmodernism is too broad a phenomenon to squeeze into this narrow category. Furthermore, many postmodernists would be sceptical of the application of science to such a purpose. No doubt there is much to be said about postmodernism in seeking to explain environmentalism’s ascendency and the changing character of scientific institutions but I don’t think this is it.
I think you miss the point that the establishment’s aim is not as much as transforming political relationships, as sustaining them. The ‘will’ of the ‘leader’ then, is not to achieve an extraordinary level of control for his/its own sake, but an expression of his loss of control. As Arendt says, true authority does not need to use its power — which resonates with your point about the political sphere being the remainder after a surrendering of will, which I read as a reformulation of ‘the social contract’. The desire for supranational political institutions (UNFCCC/Kyoto & sucessors/EU), and the seeking of authority from scientific institutions, then, possibly represents an attempt to recover the loss of authority formerly given to political institutions by the ‘will’ of the public, ‘from below’. (It now seeks authority ‘from above’). Therefore we can’t quite call the political sphere as one produced entirely by the surrendering of the will to mutual authority, as you seemed to — ‘the will is a primal fact of being human. A functioning, modern political exchange is the construct we are left with ONCE the will has surrendered its position in the space.’
Zizek’s quote is useful here (apologies to Mooloo):
Is Zizek’s ‘subjectivity’ the same as your ‘will’? It seems as though it may be. It seems that the leader still needs to take his authority from the group, although the nature of this relationship has been modified.
I think I understand what you may be driving at in putting ‘the will’ prior to the political. After all, i’ve spent much time here arguing that environmentalism isn’t popular. And I’ve criticised the attempt to use fear to moblise the public. Maybe psychological accounts could begin to explain why it had failed, and why this is the recourse of hollow politicians. It could certainly offer some counter-argument to the environmentalists tendency to reduce individuals to unthinking, consuming automata. But first, my concern is that, in emphasising that the ‘politics is prior’, I hope that this will make it possible to criticise environmentalism on more than simply its scientific claims, whereas putting psychology prior to politics doesn’t produce quite the same immediate result. For instance, what does psychology have to say about the value of allowing or not allowing coal-fired power stations in the devleoping world?
Second, it’s harder to delimit (or draw a line between) psychology and politics. We can point to environmentalism’s presuppositions that are passed off as the conclusions of climate science, but can we so easily point to the psychology that exists prior to these politics to account for them? We’ve talked on this blog about anomie, dysphoria, and all types of malaise and what produces them, and their roles in environmentalism. But this appears to me to be an instance of the political being prior (or simultaneous) to the psychology of those who experience it. On this point, I think environmentalists have actually made more progress than we usually credit them with. They have clearly responded to the dissatisfaction experienced by people in everday life, and have sought alternatives to it, albeit by misconceiving ‘nature’ as the thing that people should reconnect with to experience a more fulfilling and authentic existence. Perhaps we need to answer that criticism. But I would do that by reemphasising the possibilities that development could create for people who desire a more fulfilling life. Ultimately, I think I’m not convinced yet that the psychological account is useful in explaiing environmentalism.
After this stuff about the internal lives of environmentalists, I was thinking about the difference between institutional and activist environmentalism.
Environmentalism outside of the political establishment seems to take the form of a tantrum: the world fails to conform to their will. Not being able to make a distinction between the end of the world and their failure to control it, the result is a spectacle of emotion: George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian and silly ‘climate rush’ campaigns, usually resulting in a confrontation with the authorities. The radical environmentalists appeal for boundaries, and then complain when they get them.
From a dynamic psychological perspective, I would say that humans reluctantly accept the need for a political space. That is, they surrender to a need to organise the space they are in, along with the objects it contains (including its people) and the uses these objects can be put to through negotiation. Before this political organisation – to which we are at best ambivalent – there wasn’t a vacuum, but a prior state of human being. The drive to return to this prior state is an ever-present part of human nature and can either be contained (so we can get on with life and find good-enough substitutes in the organised space), or uncontained (where it becomes an obstacle to getting on with life and the organised space is refused in preference for its prior one).
I wonder if the whole idea of ‘human development’ is not in itself a sleight-of-mind – one which the environmentalists are very much capitalising on to give an unchallenged pseudo-authenticity to their demands? It seems to me that ‘human development’ might have shuffled into the arena as the blood-brother to eugenics. We could instead suggest that humans can NEVER develop and that (despite the progress myths we flatter ourselves with) the caveman is physiologically and psychologically identical to industrial man – that each generation simply absorbs, internalises and builds-upon the human-developed external space (and the accumulated acquired knowledge of that space) it finds itself with. If being human is fixed, then the emphasis shifts onto how best to organise the external space – and its objects – so that we can continue doing what we are hot-wired to do and what it is impossible for us not to do… positively exploit and develop external resources to advance our wellbeing and increase the benefits we create from them.
Peter – ‘From a dynamic psychological perspective, I would say that humans reluctantly accept the need for a political space. That is, they surrender to a need to organise the space they are in, along with the objects it contains (including its people) and the uses these objects can be put to through negotiation. Before this political organisation – to which we are at best ambivalent – there wasn’t a vacuum, but a prior state of human being.’
Again, this looks like a reformulation of the social contract.
There is still a need for negotiation in pre-political relationships, though I sense you may be using the term ‘pre-political’ in a historical sense. The club and the rock acted as a form of negotiation. In what sense is pre-political life prior to politics really ‘human’ then?
On the desire to return to a state of ‘natural liberty’, are you suggesting that it’s a persistent feature of humans that we internally desire this? Isn’t this just a myth? Isn’t that simply owed to the fact that the past is always much easier to invent and understand than the present and the future? That’s something which emerges from the luxury of being able to understand time in such terms, not a question of ‘wiring’.
That’s the kind of argument the deepest greens make. I’m surprised to see it made as an answer to the anti-human excesses of environmentalism. Looks like you’re at best answering ‘myths we flatter ourselves with’ with ‘myths we completely undermine ourselves with’. If you’re trying to convince me that psychology has some value to understanding environmentalism, you’re going about it the wrong way!
Why bother, if it’s simply a matter of wiring, and inevitability? Obviously, if it’s impossible for us not to do it, and it’s all determined behaviour, there’s no need to confront environmentalism.
Ben – I sent the above post before I saw your response. By ‘will’ I mean a belief which would, at its rawest, express itself as: “The world revolves around me (and/or those agencies I collude with to sustain this belief)”.
“We could instead suggest that humans can NEVER develop”
That’s the kind of argument the deepest greens make.
This is where the muddle lies, I think. You ask if life would be worth living (“Why bother…?”) without a sustaining fantasy of ‘human development’. And it may be that for some people it isn’t. Of course, a life really isn’t worth living if it is spent wishing that it was (and deciding that, say, only ‘human development’ would make it so).
Here, we can wonder what the difference is between ‘human development’ and ‘saving the world’? Both projects hint at an unwanted present state – even a state which is unsurvivable, whether through suicide or negligence – and a glibly idealised one to measure it against.
Curiously, ‘What might I be doing if I wasn’t so busy saving the world (or developing as a human)?’ is a question those preoccupied with such projects never quite manage to find an answer to. ‘Why bother…?’ of course, being only a deferral.
Peter: “a life really isn’t worth living if it is spent wishing that it was (and deciding that, say, only ‘human development’ would make it so).”
What makes you write here, then? What makes you get out of bed? Wiring?
Here, we can wonder what the difference is between ‘human development’ and ‘saving the world’? Both projects hint at an unwanted present state – even a state which is unsurvivable, whether through suicide or negligence – and a glibly idealised one to measure it against.
Perhaps you are moving towards some kind of Zen? Rejection of ambition, aspiration, and ‘development’ is all well and good as a personal choice, but it makes for some pretty dire politics.
The thing you don’t compare these choices to — and thereby imply that it is preferable — is some kind of stasis. One doesn’t have to be suffering in the present to contemplate ways to make the future better. Furthermore, it seems that you risk an idealisation of the present, which seems to speak to the environmentalist’s preoccupation with risk: there is so much more certainty and security in the present and the past than there is the future. And what about all those situations where there is considerable room for development, and where to point at such need for development is neither ‘glib’, nor ‘idealistic’.
Curiously, ‘What might I be doing if I wasn’t so busy saving the world (or developing as a human)?’ is a question those preoccupied with such projects never quite manage to find an answer to.
I’ll take your word for it, but I’m not that bothered that people haven’t got a satisfactory answer to the question, ‘what would you be doing if you weren’t doing something worthwhile?’.
I really don’t see what you’re trying to do here.
Ben: when I suggested an analogy between the environmental movement and Marxism I was not intending to suggest that they are directly linked in any way. I don’t think they are.
Countering my suggestion that Marxism was a movement of a self-imposed elite with the suggestion that so is Capitalism is not an answer. The sort of people who are most thrusting in their environmentalism seem to me exactly the people who were most into Marxism — academics, artists, politicians of the left, activist youngsters with the need for a cause, and with a sprinkling of fringe toffs who wants to be trendy because it won’t cost them anything. It seems to fill exactly the same niche.
Now I’m not talking of academic Marxism, as Marx purportedly wrote. I’m talking of the actual Marxism that made it into politics. The sort that brought Lenin to power. That motivated the Baader-Meinhof gang and Shining Path. (Academic Marxism is very pretty, but only as a shiny toy.) If you want to argue that Marx wasn’t a “Marxist” by my definition then go ahead, but that is largely irrelevant.
As for Marxism showing an inability to admit contrary evidence. How long did it take the Soviets to realise that their economic theory was rubbish? They had the economic figures and still couldn’t work it out. How long will it take the guys running Cuba to work out that lots of good doctors won’t cover up for poverty?
Because it would be obvious to the working class that Communism would save them, Marx never had to invent false-consciousness. That was a theory that needed repeated failure to explain. It doesn’t let Marx off the hook though – it was invented because his theories failed to hold water.
My least favourite Marxist argument was, in response to the list of Marxist failures, that “next time it will be different”. Next time it will not lead to economic ruin and dictatorship like all the other times. In other words, all the evidence is against us but our theory is sweet.
Mooloo, I think you simply take too many liberties with historical sequence and fact, and I don’t think you’ve got a grasp of the theoretical basis of academic or what lay behind ‘street’ Marxism, nor the context of any communist revolution. None of that is to say that there’s nothing to criticise Marxism, variants of Marxism, and Marxists for.
Environmentalism and Marxism simply don’t compare on any meaningful level, except to those who hold with a crude, counter-factual and ahistorical anti-leftism. On this site, we’ve argued against seeing the debate on Left-Right terms. We’ve linked to, and been linked from conservative bloggers. We’ve criticised elements of the putative left who have absorbed environmentalism. We’ve argued that people should not be afraid to bring their political ideas — left or right — to the understanding of the environment. The emphasis of this blog is on climate politics, rather than climate science. And so while our counterpart blogs are arguing that more attention should be paid to the facts relating to the methodology of the hockey stick graph and its interpretation, we have argued here that we should pay the same attention to the details of history and understanding of the ideas that are behind climate politics. You paint a historical picture with such broad strokes that any detail is lost in what turns out to be an ugly revision of over a century’s worth of extraordinarily complex history. In other words, too many critics of climate politics from the Right seem to need to reduce vast amounts of history to a simple case of a struggle Left Versus Right. Our argument here is that this view of things simply no longer holds any water at all.
If you want a more robust comparison of contemporary environmentalism to something, you’d have more luck looking at conservative political ideas. As I’ve pointed out to you, the ideas of Malthus, Of Ehrlich, of Hardin, were all of the Right. As I’ve pointed out previously here, what became the UK Green Party was established by Conservatives. In the past, it has been the right which emphasised the relationship between the natural and human worlds. This is owed to a simple fact: conservatism was about locating moral authority in such ideas as natural orders, tradition, and so on. Whereas the left was about taking control over the direction of society, rather than leaving it to seemingly ‘natural’ forces. This is how the left came to be associated with the term ‘progress’, and the right ‘reaction’. I don’t believe those categories hold true any longer. There appear to be progressive ideas within what was understood to be ‘right’, and deeply conservative ideas within what is understood to be the ‘left’.
Furthermore, our argument here has been that if we can identify environmentalism with the nominative, contemporary left, it is only because the left has been the wing which has suffered the most recent, and most comprehensive political failure. But this is not always true. We might want to look at the emergence of contemporary environmentalism, and notice that it was Thatcher, who, whilst enjoying her victory over the left at the end of the 1980s, found it hard to find a continuing basis for her political project (which ended in her own tears), introduced the concepts of ‘sustainable economic development’, and ‘climate change’ to mainstream UK politics. And it is was in the context of the complete collapse of the soviet union and the liberalisation of the East — i.e. in the era of the capitalist world’s triumph — that environmentalism has risen within the political class. Moreover, in the 1960s and 70s — i.e. in the era following the post war boom — it was thinkers from the right, not the left, who were reinventing Malthus. And as I point out above, Malthus is a classical liberal, political economist. We might observe then, that there is a tendency to attempt to locate political authority in ideas about our relationship with the natural world in the aftermath of political and economic crises. It wasn’t until the ‘left’ had been stripped of virtually everything that identified it as ‘left’ — it’s popular base, it’s theoretical basis, its criticism of the right, its vision for the future — that it turned from red to green. That is why it’s completely bogus to compare it to Marxism. Marxism did not start out from a position of political, moral, and intellectual bankruptcy — whereas environmentalism does — even if that is where it seems to have ended up.
Off-topic, but there’s an interesting post here about hunger numbers being made up (or at least modelled) by aid agencies to keep the taps flowing:
This might have relevance to your earlier mega-posts on the made up 300,000 deaths (which should be of interest to every reader of this blog):
Mooloo, I have just started reading Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’. A passage there struck me as interesting to this conversation:
This speaks first, I think, to the redundancy of the left/right categories. I don’t know if Ridley agrees with this view, but it seems to me in redefining ‘reaction’, he sets up a new political axis. I think it’s a problem — if we recognise this new axis — to hold with the previous one, as your criticism of Marxism seems to. Ghosts will impede progress. I think Ridley is generous to such reactionaries, and understates what it is he is for. Change means progress, and the introduction to his book is an exposition of this idea, and how amazing it has been, how many people it (increasingly) now involves, and how much more we have to look forward to.
Ben. “Rejection of ambition, aspiration, and ‘development’ is all well and good as a personal choice, but it makes for some pretty dire politics.”
Well, you are putting words into my mouth here. I didn’t reject ambition or aspiration.
“The thing you don’t compare these choices to — and thereby imply that it is preferable — is some kind of stasis.”
“I’m not that bothered that people haven’t got a satisfactory answer to the question, ‘what would you be doing if you weren’t doing something worthwhile?'”
Well, if the available possibilities are limited to ‘being worthy’ or ‘stasis’, we can see why the question – or rather, its answer – might no longer worth your bothering with. However, as human nature never changes, versions of the same question never go away and has preoccupied mankind since we lived in caves – which perhaps suggests that we keep coming up with the wrong answer, or don’t bother to remember it once we find a more usable and vital one. Hamlet, asking himself literature’s most celebrated and enduring question, could only allow himself the limited options of ‘to be, or not to be?’. And we can see that unless the prince found a more exciting – and infinitely more risky – answer than either ‘being good’ or ‘not existing’, he would have remained stuck and we wouldn’t have an important play to learn about ourselves from. This perennial question is revisited in the 10:10 movie – where Phillip and Tracy (and their classmates) learn to their great cost that the green answer, once again, limits the the only alternatives to being good or not existing. Phillip and Tracy, of course, embodied an answer the zealous environmentalist teacher clearly did not want to be bothered looking at, or be troubled by… so she urgently got rid of it.
Reframing the question, we might ask what it is that humans so despise about themselves that they are forever embarking on urgent projects to get rid of it in order to ‘save the world’ or ‘develop’? It seems to me that a politics with these deeply anti-human schemes excluded (along their direct ancestor, religion) might be a politics more worth having.
Peter – ‘as human nature never changes’…
Yet this nature — unlike the nature of any other thing — seems so hard to define. Even the expression itself is in deep contradiction… ‘Human nature’… as if humans weren’t actually humans, but like any other object, animal or vegetable. The consequences of this point should be obvious. You risk denying humanity with premature claims about its nature.
‘Human nature never changes’, but it’s never been identified, measured, located… not now, nor in the past, such that its non-change can be established. In this respect, ‘human nature’ is a myth with even less foundation than ‘the hockey stick’. There are no isotopes of gasses that can be recovered from ice cores to establish humanity’s homoeostasis. Meanwhile, premature claims about ‘human nature’ — not unlike claims about the nature of the climate — can be used instrumentally to devastating effect.
There’s no such thing as ‘human nature’. That is why it doesn’t appear to change. The only things in the world that are impervious to change are things that do not exist.
‘Reframing the question, we might ask what it is that humans so despise about themselves that they are forever embarking on urgent projects to get rid of it in order to ‘save the world’ or ‘develop’?
Yes, but — presuppositions about self-hate aside — asking the question would be an expression of the desire for development. However, there is a difference between understanding one’s ‘nature’ (and I would suggest that using such an expression likely is an expression of self-hate’) and understanding one’s condition. You don’t actually need to be in a condition of self-hate to wonder if your conditions could be better. On the contrary, you need to take yourself a bit more seriously.
Even the expression itself is in deep contradiction… ‘Human nature’… as if humans weren’t actually humans, but like any other object, animal or vegetable.
Ben, I don’t understand what you are saying here. But it does sound as if you are trying to limit ‘nature’ to meaning a lump of meat, whereas I include psychology in the definition. That, in turn, includes an unconscious element which, as its name suggests, has a content which cannot be known (but can be acknowledged and thought about by its expression in the external, conscious space).
Of course, no one can know for sure if this human nature changes or remains a constant. All we can do is look at man’s relationships to his external (and internal) spaces, his exploitation of resources therein, along with the types of organisation he applies to its objects, and see that the only changes in these areas of use are in levels of sophistication – as these external environments develop and become better known (by man’s continuous own-doing).
What I would like to know from you is how you think it would affect or change the environmentalist claim, and its apparent goal, if man was in fact a constant? To me it seems as if the whole green edifice is built on an idea that human nature can somehow be changed from what it actually is into what they wish it to be. And, of course, they would not be the first group in history to take on such a grand project. The paradox is that flirting with such ideas (and the disastrous consequences that inevitably follow) are a constant of human nature itself.
Peter – ‘Ben, I don’t understand what you are saying here. But it does sound as if you are trying to limit ‘nature’ to meaning a lump of meat, whereas I include psychology in the definition.’
But you were insisting that there is a definitive continuity of ‘human nature’.
All we can do is look at man’s relationships to his external (and internal) spaces, his exploitation of resources therein, along with the types of organisation he applies to its objects, and see that the only changes in these areas of use are in levels of sophistication – as these external environments develop and become better known (by man’s continuous own-doing).
Oh, but you were sceptical of the claim that this increasing level of sophistication represented progress, or ‘development’. You said it must represent the expression of some kind of ‘self-hate’. Moreover, you seem to reduce this development to mere changes in the character of the transactions between humans and the natural world, rather than, in fact, a qualitative transformation of humanity. You say this is man’s own-doing, but you don’t seem to credit him with any agency.
‘What I would like to know from you is how you think it would affect or change the environmentalist claim, and its apparent goal, if man was in fact a constant?’
But the environmentalist’s claim usually is that man is in fact a constant. This is one of the fundamental problems with environmentalism, we have argued. We’ve talked about it a lot on these pages, indeed, we’ve written about it on posts that you yourself have commented on. Did you not read them? Did you miss what now appears to be a substantial point of disagreement between us? It is precisely the treatment of man as a constant which legitimises the positioning of political climate institutions above democracy. Read Zizek’s quote again. The point is about subjectivity. The treatment of man as constant denies that subjectivity. He becomes a mindless, consuming automata, blindly driven by impulses. Democracy, therefore, is an impediment to solving climate change, because politicians can manipulate the voter by material promises. The point of climate politics, then, is not to modify man simply as an object (rather, than, in fact, a subjective agent), but either way to constrain his consumption. This has no moral consequences within the environmentalists’ framework, because it simply doesn’t recognise humanity as more than a consuming problem.
To me it seems as if the whole green edifice is built on an idea that human nature can somehow be changed from what it actually is into what they wish it to be.
I suspect that this is owed to the same thing I think Mooloo demonstrated, namely, and anti-leftist tendency to see a continuity between the terrors of the past to the environmentalism of today. I.e. from “we will force you to be free” to “we will force you to be green”. This connection is drawn prematurely, as well as takes major liberties with historical detail, as discussed above.
Your claim seems to be that a human nature exists which makes attempts to control it explode into ‘disastrous consequences’, yet a more plausible account (in my view, at least) is that such attempts at control fail precisely because treating humans as though they had a definitive nature tends to p*** them off. Not merely because it is ‘in their nature’ to get restless at such control, but because, things which have will, or subjectivity, (i.e. things which are not things) invariably suffer as a consequence of that will or subjectivity are brought under control. And it is worth pointing out here, I think, that the historical context of the events you refer to which caused ‘disastrous consequences’ were precisely conditions of control and subordination that were intolerable to consciousnesses, wills, subjectivities. ‘Grand projects’ do not develop in a vacuum, and invariably, the ones I think you intend to criticise with this claim about ‘human nature’, were intended to liberate it. That liberty clearly wasn’t possible in the conditions that adherents of ‘grand projects’ were responding to. And so it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest that whilst the immediate consequence of such battles have been seemingly disastrous, the upshot has been improved conditions, progress, development, increasing degrees of sophistication.. call it what you want.
It’s easy to write off grand projects with 150 years+ worth of hindsight. But quite simply, it does so at the expense of understanding changing contexts.
“Oh, but you were sceptical of the claim that this increasing level of sophistication represented progress, or ‘development’.”
No, I have been saying that the constant in man (the nature by which he can be known) is that he makes progress in his exploitation of resources. And this forward movement began in the year dot. If man was only interested in building staircases, each new step would be dependent upon the successful completion of its preceding one – we cannot fully know why man keeps building them (of his own free-will), or how high the stairs can eventually ascend – but it will always be the same ‘man’, in his core nature, undertaking the task. The only possible ‘development’ in this scenario is of the external resource and in its desired function and benefit.
It is the environmentalist who is claiming that this age-old constant has now become a threat to the space in which it has always been enacted. But the environmentalist can only get away with this claim by mis-assigning the idea of ‘development’ away from the external object (where it belongs) and onto man (where it doesn’t) – in other words: suggesting that man can make a ‘positive’ change into something other than what he is. Man cannot be a constant and admit development. That is why ‘human development’ is just as much of a tyranny as ‘saving the world from man’ is.
Peter – ‘No, I have been saying that the constant in man (the nature by which he can be known) is that he makes progress in his exploitation of resources.’
I think what I’ve found confusing is that you emphasise this nature, seemingly to cast doubt over the general conception of progress, especially if that conception implies some kind of transformation of man. But it turns out in your account that the nature is not about something intrinsically human, as we’d expect a definition of something’s ‘nature’ to be, but on the contrary measured by its outward expression — the character of his exploitation of resources. I don’t think you can be talking about human nature, then, but something else.
but it will always be the same ‘man’, in his core nature, undertaking the task. The only possible ‘development’ in this scenario is of the external resource and in its desired function and benefit.
This is like the claim that you can take a baby from the stone age, and raise him in the present (want of a time machine notwithstanding) and he will be in all respects indistinguishable from his contemporaries. I don’t disagree here. But what I do disagree with is that the indistinctness can imply the existence of a ‘nature’. We change ourselves as we change our circumstances. That is why — as far as the thought experiment is concerned — the stone age baby goes on to express the same nature as his contemporaries. Humanity, then, is bigger than can be captured by understanding ‘nature’ as something given through the individual. We develop as individuals amid a great number of forces which truly do shape our experiences, and we respond with increasing aptitude that I don’t think you could detect in a stone age man. This is why I prefer to emphasise ‘human condition’, rather than ‘nature’. I think ‘nature’ certainly equips us with ‘capacity’, but that what happens with this capacity is far broader than can be explained by recourse to ‘nature’.
The only possible ‘development’ in this scenario is of the external resource and in its desired function and benefit.
This is only because the perspective you have is constrained by the narrow, and extrinsic account of ‘human nature’, which is of course, not actually speaking about ‘nature’ in any conventional sense. Yet in science, the study of the nature of things works towards an understanding of some thing’s internal workings. You seem reluctant to move past a descriptive account of its appearances…. it makes stuff, it uses stuff… it modifies stuff. Yet it cannot, on this view, be modified, or modify itself. Yet this seems to run counter to the first thing that we realise about realisation itself: we are modified by our experiences. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t experience anything. That is a condition of being human, i.e. a subjective agent. Things — i.e. not humans — in the world are modified by the world, too, but passively, and with (we must assume) no internal reflection of this modification, and without awareness of it.
So my constraint by some illegitimate authority may make me angry. This is because I have the capacity for anger, not because I am somehow wired to experience anger at such-and-such an event triggering it. I may well respond with a more sophisticated emotion. Or I may even have developed the skill to negotiate with my emotions, and to control them.
I am not particularly interested in the debate with environmentalists on the basis that its ideological claims are incompatible with our nature. I think that we have sufficient capacity, and have developed sufficient intellectual skills to explain why the argument environmentalists have put forward is wrong.
It is the environmentalist who is claiming that this age-old constant has now become a threat to the space in which it has always been enacted.
Many environmentalists, of course, argue the same as you: that industrial society has created ways of life that are alien to our nature: It gives us cancer; it removes us from our spiritual connection to the natural world and to each other; it allows us to become flabby and lazy; it brings us to conflict…
Of course some environmentalists do emphasise problems with what they imagine to be human nature. There are many posts on this blog about a tendency to identify our ambitiousness, or desire for material comfort as things which are too easily exploited by politicians acting in the interests of industrial capital: we want more, so we vote for the biggest promise.
Other environmentalists argue that innovation, economic growth and industrial society is perfectly compatible with a political response to climate change.
As it says in other posts, ‘environmentalism is a constellation of phenomena, not a coherent or consistent set of ideas in itself’. You seem to want to put a concretely-defined environmentalism next to definitive ‘human nature’, and then ‘do the math’ to demonstrate incompatibility. I think this is a mistake, not least because only nebulous and extrinsic accounts of either one.
suggesting that man can make a ‘positive’ change into something other than what he is. Man cannot be a constant and admit development. That is why ‘human development’ is just as much of a tyranny as ‘saving the world from man’ is.
But as I argue, environmentalism tends to be against development, and in the case of the post above ends up turning against development itself. That’s the point of the post above, and many, many posts on this blog. I’ve asked you this before, but you didn’t answer. Did you miss the point, or do you disagree with it?
To your sentence: ‘Man cannot be a constant and admit development’, I think we can dismiss because man isn’t a constant. So to your conclusion then: ‘That is why ‘human development’ is just as much of a tyranny as ‘saving the world from man’ is’; it now seems to lack a premise. Though, I think you’ve rather started with your conclusion, and worked backwards, anyhow.
Ben – by ‘human nature’ I am following the standard dictionary definition:
“The general psychological characteristics, feelings, and behavioral traits of humankind, regarded as shared by all humans”.
My understanding is that ‘all humans’ means historically as well as within our current space. And those intrinsic ‘psychological characteristics, feelings, and behavioral traits’ can only be known – or communicated – through their outward expression. (Although the word ‘outward’ is rather redundant here, as any expression can only be into an external space).
I agree that environmentalism is a chaotic ragbag of contradictory ideas and beliefs. However, I still hold with the view that the glue that binds this disparate group together is the shared belief in the myth of ‘human development’. To argue that the environmentalist’s ideal of a ‘developed’ human is somehow counterfeit because it is at odds with ones own is splitting hairs… any concept of a developed human is wishful thinking –
an attempt at self-curing an unwanted, present reality. The global warming craze might best be thought about as an outbreak of contagious wishful thinking, and we could wonder what is actually ‘wrong’ with our current space that all this wishing is trying to cure – other than it being feverishly overloaded with too much wishing.
Much as we would like to believe in our own progresses, transformations and changes (a theme modern man has been repeating with a dull regularity – and with an impressive knack for re-invention, each time his cover is blown), what is really happening is merely that we are extending our range of uses for, and relationships to, external objects. And that project (along with the human capacity for undertaking it) has been on-going, unchanged, since our repertoire was limited to just a flint axe and finger paint. We have survived, flourished and prospered all along, in all environments, by trusting the basic, timeless, qualities of our humanness.
The myth of human development, I think, is very much tied in with our recent dumping of the idea of God (along with the various uses – and abuses – our forebears put the idea to) and filling the resulting vacuum with the secular Darwinist theory of evolution. If, as humans, we have a need to believe in something and we attempt to meet that need with transformational ‘development’, then the disappointments and frustrations at its failure to manifest (in accordance with its credo) may tempt some to flirt with the idea of policing ‘development’ into existence. In the case of environmentalism, such strong-arming appears to involve the crude dumbing-down of man’s spaces and available objects – in the belief that human nature will (d)evolve to follow suit.
Of course, any religion or psychology worth its salt might draw attention to the paradox that living life to its fullest human potential is commensurate with letting go of the tyranny of change and development that is its primary obstacle.
Thanks for that really useful clarification. I find your psychoanalytic analysis extremely interesting. As long as we don’t fall for reductionism, and think a social phenomenon can be totally explained in terms of the psychology of the people concerned, it is a useful adjunct to Ben’s politico-philosophical analyses.
Your second to last paragraph sums up well your basic idea of the green vision of development as a substitute religion. Could you please give us the source of your idea of “space”, which presumably comes from some psychoanalytic school. I’m not challenging it, I just want to get some for myself.
Crikey, come back from holiday and find this mind-tickling article waiting for me as well as all of the splendid comments. Thank you all very much! Like John F, I feel a little out of my depth but have some observations nonetheless.
Thanks, Geoff, for pointing out the Vaclav Klaus transcript. One thing that caught my eye was: “We need a help from the scientists… They should present relevant scientific theories and findings in such a way that would make it possible for us to decide for ourselves what to accept and what to question.” This is relevant in the context of this post because the RS is (supposedly) a venerable scientific organisation and yet it has seriously harmed such a process by failing to provide a balanced and honest appraisal for non-scientists. Presumably, this has occurred because the RS position on climate has been driven by activist sentiment rather than scientific argument. And as Ben implies, this is still very much the case (as if any more were needed, here is an almost unbelievably incoherent “open letter” published a couple of days ago by Martin Rees and Anthony Giddens: http://www.icenews.is/index.php/2010/10/23/an-open-letter-on-climate-change/).
What next for the RS? How about ditching the activists and giving Klaus the help he asks for?
Thanks Philip — a correction to the link, which doesn’t seem to work for me…
It occurs to me that there is a need for simplicity in the political arguments, as well as clarity. Many of the arguments turn very slippery when delved into deeply (as here). For example, the debate between Peter S and Ben in the comments impressed me with the observation that slightly different givens (human nature includes/excludes human’s tool related capabilities) lead to the same conclusion (environmentalism is tosh) via completely opposite intermediaries (environmentalists want / don’t want to see changes to human nature). Apparent evolution of the meaning of terms like “right” and “left”, “progressive” and “reactionary” only add to the difficulty for people like me in obtaining a coherent picture.
One concern I have is that this is not simply a war of ideas, but that violence and coercion are just below the surface – together with the likelihood of tremendous harm to many innocents if some of the green policies are strongly pursued. For this reason, I think it is very important that the political argument is successfully won, and I think this will require simplicity in the key messages. I particularly like Ben’s assertion that environmentalism is “authoritarian, elitist and anti-human”. For me, this is a slogan that has resonance and focus across all of the more detailed arguments, and succinctly expresses why environmentalism should be opposed. I have also noticed Richard Lindzen encouraging a simpler message on the key scientific issues as well.
In addition, I think there needs to be a genuine alternative to environmentalism if there is to be any hope of winning this war. I’m not sure what this alternative would be. Michael Lewis might provide a clue when he wonders, “why and how the 20thC delight in the abilities and potential of mankind has been turned into 21stC gloom and desperation.” Perhaps this is an expression of the loss of confidence in enlightenment ideals, a preference for the politics of fear rather than of hope. Can this preference be inverted?
I don’t think science can help. For all its sophistication, I’d say that at heart it’s only a generalisation of the trial and error approach to tool building. So it can honestly be used to create the “possibility of greater liberty”, but never to “create authority”. Attempts to do the latter are I think a heinous misuse of science (which is why I occasionally get so hot under the collar regarding the RS!). I want to add that science can also rarely provide meaning to people’s lives. The need for meaning is presumably also a part of human nature and religion provides it for many. I don’t think that the philosophical idea of providing one’s own meaning for life is ever going to do the job for most people because it is too bottom up (in the same way that unbridled capitalism may be too bottom up to work by itself).
The relationship between environmentalism and religion was also mentioned in a couple of the earlier comments. Although I’m not myself a follower of organised religion, it does at least seem plausible to me that the secularism of modern society really has been a major contributor to environmentalism’s success (perhaps especially in the UK). Christianity (for example) can provide a potent mix of fear and hope that engages people at many levels – often in a very positive way – and its diminution is bound to have implications. I think the influence of secularism on environmentalism’s rise may need to be properly understood and accommodated if environmentalism is to be successfully opposed.
Ben, I found the Zizek quote you provided (post-political bio-politics :-)) very helpful. It seems paradoxical that an absence of ideology may have created the vacuum into which environmentalism has expanded – because ideology of one kind or another was arguably the cause of so much suffering and lunacy during the 20th century. It might be argued that religion is a relatively harmless means by which ideologies can be opposed without leaving such a tempting hole – if so, the motivation for a return to a more rational science-based optimism might be created. Put another way, if secularism is a part of the reason for environmentalism’s rise, then I have to wonder whether giving up religion really is worth the price of admission. Well anyway, I’d be interested to learn what you and the other commenters think about this.
I wouldn’t read too much into the difference between Ben and PeterS on the nature of human nature. Peter is arguing from a psychologist’s point of view, so starts from a fixed definition of human nature. When he criticises environmentalists for embracing the myth of human development, he’s obviously not using “development” in the politico-economic sense, but in the sense of wanting to create a world in accordance with their ideals by changing humanity in some fundamental way – the origin of all totalitarian creeds.
Ben is obviously suspicious of any definition of “human nature”, fearing that it’s smuggling some hidden assumptions into what is bound to become a political debate, as soon as one moves away from what man is to what he does and has done.
I agree with you. What had caught my eye was that their difference in perspective had led to (apparently) diametrically opposite statements of what environmentalists want from people (even though I think they have similar opinions concerning the nature of environmentalism itself). I thought this illustrated the complexity of many of the issues around environmentalism, and my concern that the arguments not become so involved that people become disengaged. Hence my agreement that it is best to focus on the political arguments (which is really why I keep coming back here, despite my lack of background in political subjects).
The main issue I wanted to question above was the relationship (if any) between religion and environmentalism. Irrespective of one’s personal take on religion, there does appear to be a correlation between a rise in secularism and a rise in environmentalism. Is this correlation significant? If so, does the relationship between society and religion need to be considered when addressing environmentalism? (If on the other hand, this is a complete red herring, I won’t be offended if you say so – I am simply interested.)
It depends how you define religion. If you go on Durkheim’s definition (which was wide enough to capture the ‘godless’ (literally) Australian aborigines he was studying) then you get:
“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart & forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim from Wikipedia)
Consequently, the answer might be that environmentalism ‘is’ a religion. But other things can also fit into D’s definition perhaps – politics (sacred cows – democracy, progressiveness, fairness etc) and even science (peer review, CUDOS etc). That’s my simplistic two-penneth. I think that Durkheim’s definition fails to pick up on a behavioural difference between an adhered-to ‘personal’ religion and evangelical/ proselytising religion.
Although can I coin a new term for the environmentalists? “Devangelical” – spreading the bad news.
Philip asks if the coincidence of the rise of secularism and of environmentalism is significant. I should think so, but it’s difficult to spot at the socio-political level. Clearly, people didn’t stop going to church in order to found environmentalism, any more than people left the communist party to join the Greens. In fact, you could argue that the opposite is the case; that the rump of organised religion, and the rump of the organised left, both deserted by the masses, have adopted environmentalism in a desperate effort to stay relevant.
It’s easier to see the relationship between the decline of religion and the rise of environmentalism on the psychological level. Think of the universal confusion between the Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s wager. Both are concerned wth the Hereafter, in the sense of betting on what will happen after one’s death. But the former is concerned with what happens to the world after we leave it, whereas Pascal was concerned about what would happen to him after he left the world. It’s a muddle (or category mistake) that is perhaps in the head of many greens.
Philip – ‘Apparent evolution of the meaning of terms like “right” and “left”, “progressive” and “reactionary” only add to the difficulty for people like me in obtaining a coherent picture.’
My argument is that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are redundant categories which no longer really help us understand the claims made in the climate debate, or environmentalism itself. But the collapse of these traditions may be useful in understanding what environmentalism is a response to. You can see, for instance, that many greens departed from the left/right axis themselves, overtly, because they felt that either side of it was — by the end of the 1960s — too preoccupied with industrial production, and not concerned enough with ‘nature’. I point out that at various times, this kind of thinking has emerged ‘from the right’, even if today’s environmentalism appears as a kind of left (but the import thing to keep in mind is that it’s a distinctly ‘post-political’ kind of left.)
… this is not simply a war of ideas,
Absolutely, I look at it as a kind of war of a dearth of ideas.
… violence and coercion are just below the surface – together with the likelihood of tremendous harm to many innocents if some of the green policies are strongly pursued.
Environmentalism is certainty coercive, but it’s not really us here in the west who experience its violence. And it’s not violence of the kind seen in the first part of the last century: jack boots, and rifle butts.
In addition, I think there needs to be a genuine alternative to environmentalism if there is to be any hope of winning this war.
Spot on. But this means more than demonstrating that the environmental/empirical claims made by environmentalism are bogus. It means saying there’s a moral good in development: transport, civil infrastructure in general, wealth, freedom, better standards of living. I think we must accept that environmentalism has thrived in an era when these ideas have fallen by the wayside, and my answer has been to suggest that we have to take responsibility for this situation. Some have read that as a suggestion that we ‘take the blame’ for environmentalism, but I intend it in fact to say precisely what you have: we need the alternative, and it’s up to us to find it.
Geoff… ‘the rise of secularism and of environmentalism is significant. I should think so, but it’s difficult to spot at the socio-political level. ‘
I’m not so sure about this. We can see over the last 50 years the decline of many institutions: church, family, class and deference, as well as those that concerned the more leftish perspective, trades unions, democratic engagement, and so on. Interestingly, the evangelical evolutionists and angry atheists complain about the ‘rise of religion’, particularly in the USA, and Middle East. I think what they observe is the collapse of secular society, in fact — it’s a complaint about the collapse of their own values, in other words. Again, the important dynamic is ‘fall’, not ‘rise’. Is society more secular, or is it simply less religious? I don’t see any new power in secularist ideas dominating political discussion. Indeed, Blair attempted to mobilise ‘faith-based’ communities to help him with his programme. That looked like a kind ‘desperate effort to stay relevant’, I think, just as much as his apparent greening. I think he thought that if he could encourage religions, he would create an atmosphere of ‘social cohesion’ and sense of ‘community’. I think Giddens is behind some of these communitarian ideas, and so it’s interesting to see his signature on the open letter alongside Rees’s: they represent the two strands of thinking that dominated politics in very recent UK political history, and its almost epic failure.
On Pascal’s Wager and the precautionary principle… the PP is a distinctly political idea, and relates to the role of ‘post-normal’ science. I.e., risk is already the dominant subject of (‘post-political bio-politics’) politics. And so it’s no surprise that people respond to it internally.
Luke’s quotation from Durkheim – that religion is “beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart & forbidden” – is interesting in that it might also be an apt description of the unconscious. If they exist, these “things set apart”… that we cannot know, may have a significant influence over our nature and therefore the quality of any decisions we make – like acting to urgently save the world. Indeed, if modern man gets rid of the idea of God (or its modern equivalent) as the object we have no further use for, it might be worth wondering who actually ends up with the unmanageable sense of abandonment – along with all its related terrors and excess of wishing to be saved.
I’m not challenging your observation about Durkheim providing – unintentionally – a decent definition of the unconscious, but I was going to make a comment going in precisely the opposite sense: that Durkheim’s definition fails to cover the religion which is probably the most widespread nowadays in the west – a vague personal belief in something Out There associated with Christmas Carols and Guardian Angels.
I have some sympathy with Ben’s previous criticisms of your position, relating to the fact that your comments on the interior life of environmentalists (which incidentally I find very interesting) are difficult to respond to for those of us who don’t have the same background in psychoanalytic thought.
You say: “it might be worth wondering who actually ends up with the unmanageable sense of abandonment – along with all its related terrors and excess of wishing to be saved” which inspired me to this parallel thought from a sociological point of view: “Does atheism change its nature when it goes from being the belief of a tiny number of philosophers to being the “creed” of a whole social class?”
A small minority of intellectuals may or may not be capable of facing the terror of their own mortality – society carries on regardless. When a whole class adopts an ideology of non-belief in religion, it would be natural to expect some profound change in their other beliefs, would it not? A psychological theory of the relation between loss of religious belief and desire to save the planet; sociological evidence of correlation between the two phenomena, and a convincing analysis of how these psycho-sociological changes play out in terms of politics – and we might be getting somewhere.
Geoff you’re almost talking about a quantity theory of insanity, as Will Self put it satirically, where there are fixed amounts of sanity and insanity as a whole in society and to make one person more sane means another becomes less so. In this case it would be the QT of delusional belief?!?
Whilst obviously there are factions of the religious who argue custodianship of the earth, many others think whatever happens is God’s will, or even worse want to “Immanentize the Eschaton”. It’s only when you don’t have a next or afterlife to look forward to that you want to make sure this one is more comfortable/ secure. How you go about that is where the trouble starts.
Ben: “…we need the alternative, and it’s up to us to find it.”
I assume the basis of that alternative is the return to an understanding of the moral good in development – perhaps augmented by a decent non-hubristic answer to criticisms claiming harm caused by science. On the science issues Lindzen has suggested, “there is a deep disconnect between consensus statements … and the claims of catastrophe made by advocates; stress these differences.” Perhaps there is a similar line that can be used to extol the pleasures of development? I know it should be obvious (as with the science), but it appears not to be. Many greens seem not even interested in potential solutions to the problems they claim. They want society to stop using fossil fuels irrespective of harm or even whether this solves these problems they use as justification.
If the aim is to encourage an attitude of scientific optimism and faith in development, then I’m not sure this is rich enough by itself to fill the available space. There still seems to me to be this awkward “meaning of life” shaped gap left unoccupied. Some might try to fill it with angry atheism, and some by a cagey suspension of judgement. But for many others, I wonder what could fill it, if not religion? Of course, it could also be that filling the gap is not actually the relevant question. If environmentalism is already unpopular with the general public, then the people to convince are the politicians. Since it is does not currently seem possible in the UK to oppose environmentalism by voting for a mainstream party, I wonder what is the best way of doing this?
(Apologies if I’m digging ground you’ve already ploughed – still playing catch up)
Since it is does not currently seem possible in the UK to oppose environmentalism by voting for a mainstream party, I wonder what is the best way of doing this?
Nor is it the US, unless you’re willing to empower loony teabaggers or dominionists.
Ben, you might be interested in this article and it’s reference to a London conference:
Apparently, our debates must be just pathology. Ecrazes l’infame!
There are no ‘conspiracies’, at worst a ‘confederacy of dunces”. Normally, human society acts rationally in so far as he can master the information in front of him. Which is difficult, for obvious reasons. But a pseudo-science like ‘psychiatry’ or whatever it wants to call itself, which attempts to turn what is best about us, discourse, rational enquiry, what you might call ‘dialectic’, into some kind of reductionist infantile babbling, can only really be a mark of a ‘confederacy’ of misanthropes! True haters of mankind! Just had to say.
Just as a last thing and because, it seems Andy Revkin doesn’t want to accept my original comment, I’ll park it here, if that’s OK?
Andy, I’m sorry, I think you missed Bob of NYC’s irony.It isn’t that so called ‘deniers’ may be ‘diagnosed’ (won’t we all be, by these fools?), rather, it’s that you think it’s a serious matter to discuss when you entertain in your articles, people who think good argument can be reduced to psychopatholigical causation. If your interested in that sought of thing and the pseudo science that is ‘psychiatry’ etc, well good on you, send it to their blogs, but don’t bring it here, to a blog, your blog, ostensibly about ‘climate’. If you can’t see those people are charlatans, I pity you!
It just got my wick because, personally, I’ve known irrational people who, often, are more luminous than Andy has been, but there is a difference but it isn’t located in whether you read the NYT without pissing your pants and taking your clothes of!
Struck me the following article has some relevance as well:
It seems that nowadays governments tend to support foreign aid, but not abolition of barriers to free trade. This despite the fact that many experts suggest that abolition of trade barriers is by far the most efficient means to reduce poverty in the developing world. Oborne suggests that governments support aid because they perceive public support, evidenced through membership of NGOs like Oxfam.
At first I thought this contrasted with the AGW situation, but on reflection I think it is actually very similar, since in this case governments have also been following the advice of NGOs and institutionalised activists, rather than the actual more nuanced and realistic suggestions of many experts.
Oborne talks about a collapse of trust in politics and a desire of politicians to tag on to celebrity status. I assume the loss of trust arises because modern politicians tend to follow the crowd, instead of their own thought through moral vision – and that Oborne’s observations are related to the idea of political vacuum discussed here?
The Revkin article linked by Lewis is awful. Revkin starts:
“I’ve written here before about the substantial part of the climate challenge that isn’t out in the world of greenhouse gases and coal furnaces, but within the human mind”…
“Topics ranged from consumption, identity and our disavowal of the human dependence on nature to issues of loss and mourning as we face a new relationship with oil…”
Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis will realise what a perversion of Freud’s original ideas this represents. For all the obscurity of his later thought, Freud stayed all his life faithful to the basic precepts of empirical science. The idea of curing someone’s political opinions has no place in psychoanalysis. These pseudo-psykes are nuts.
Re “‘Shrinking’ the Climate Problem”, are there any dissenting voices among the psychoanalysts and behavioural researchers? If there are, who are they and do they have a voice? Maybe there do exist dissenters, but I’m wondering whether they might perhaps be dealing with their unease at the politicisation of psychology by internalising the conflict and keeping their mouths shut.
From the Revkin article (Renee Lertzman describing the ideas of John Keene): ‘We often turn to others in social settings for stories and ideologies to help manage anxieties and seek comforting answers. Keene contends, “While thinking is hard enough for an individual in quiet contemplation, thinking clearly and acting in a group setting generates anxiety roughly in proportion to the size of the group. Here the individual is exposed to the risks of shame and criticism, isolation, fears of loss of one’s identity or at worst losing one’s mind.”‘
A pessimistic and limiting view of the human mind, but could something like this help to explain the apparent consensus that forms when mental health professionals gather to discuss the methods by which we are all to be made compliant?
Alex asks “are there any dissenting voices among the psychoanalysts and behavioural researchers?”
When I mentioned my obsession with global warming to my psychoanalyst she just shrugged her shoulders and said “mass hysteria”. She sees through global warming, but she also sees through my obsession with it.
Behavioural scientists, like most academics and media people, are recruited almost entirely from the enlightened left-leaning middle classes; the class which agitated for universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and Home Rule, and whose guiding principle now seems to be opposition to anything big (China, oil companies..) and love for the small (carbon footprints, ipods, disappearing species). They (we)’ve been right about most things for the last 200 years. They(we) can’t imagine how they(we) could ever be wrong.
Geoff: “They (we)’ve been right about most things for the last 200 years. They(we) can’t imagine how they(we) could ever be wrong.”
It’s not that aren’t big social projects we/they could do (for example, controlling HIV/AIDS or liberalising trade). Perhaps the trouble is that such obvious projects don’t press the same correct emotional buttons as abolition of slavery, universal suffrage or saving the planet.
As for your/my obsession with global warming, did your psychoanalyst perhaps suggest any remedies?
Geoff and Philip, it’s a strange thing, as I’m able to see a sort of version of myself 25-30 years ago (left-leaning Humanities graduate) in many of the people who are involved in the Transition Towns movement or people like Jeremy Williams (who is a great chap but who holds a number of views very different to mine) at this site: http://makewealthhistory.org/
It’s difficult to escape the feeling of having strayed from a sort of cultural default setting. Is this also perhaps something to do with growing older? To the young, supporting the perceived underdogs (Tuvalu vs China) and the emotive projects (saving the planet vs liberalising trade) naturally take priority. Or am I stereotyping the young, here?
Alex: “Or am I stereotyping the young, here?”
Perhaps a little, but if you can’t be idealistic when you’re young, when can you be? If idealism is the desire to change human behaviour, then as you get older this desire is only likely to seem more irrational. But I do think there have been genuinely objective changes as well, many mentioned in this thread – which have combined together to cause the cultural straying you mention. What I haven’t noticed yet is a satisfying unified explanation for what has gone wrong.
No, psychoanalysts never suggest anything. It’s up to you to find the solution.
On big social projects which press buttons, I thought Make Poverty History was supposed to be that. I’m sure a close study of what it was and why it disappeared as suddenly as any other fashion accessory would be most enlightening. I can see a lot of reasons why governments and media were attracted to the idea as long as it remained an idea – something big enough to fill a two minute Youtube slot – then went off it when they looked at the practical implications of – say – providing Africa with the doctors, nurses, agronomists, engineers, etc which the continent needs.
The other thing is, big projects used to be mitigated through the big organisations which structure our society – churches, unions, political parties. Maybe one day they’ll be mitigated via Youtube and Twitter, but in the meantime…
Your idea of having strayed from a cultural default setting is a fascinating one. Are you old enough to remember when the TV picture used to go fuzzy and was replaced by a warning notice “Do not adjust your set”? I must have adjusted mine, and I’ve remained maladjusted ever since.
I’ve finished reading “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” It is worth the reading but did not support my earlier suspicion that an analogy to the environmental “movement” might be found in the crusades or one of the manias. These episodes did not rise to the same level of multiple foci that the environmental movement sustains. They lacked the complexity. The analogy, if there is one, must be elsewhere.
I’ve also downloaded your very excellent post to my kindle which makes the type larger and for my lousy vision much easier to read. Your piece is far more insightful than I earlier realized and I think quite useful.
Lurking behind the crusades and witch suppressions described by MacKay in “….Madness of Crowds.” is the invention of these madnesses and their continued encouragement by the church. The real “madness” might therefore be that of the church – but he never says it. I recognize that you prefer a specific meaning of madness which would likely be inapplicable in the sense that I use above, but bear with me.
Accepting your thesis that politics drives the environmentalism, which I do, I propose that what is happening is first the invention and then the adoption of a state religion.
If one might assume that the grasp on the population of a state religion might vary both in time since inception and from person to person, nonetheless, if public statements touching on climate must include the appropriate incantations, then state religion is what Maggie has given us.
A state religion is an excellent tool of political power since it need not be susceptible to logic or reason. This current one is certainly one of the very best ever to be offered up to the politicians. It has everything.
The analogies to our present situation might then be looked for in Constantine’s considerations if they can be found, and Henry’s which are likely much more accessible.
We have a proscription against stater religions here in the colonies, no doubt based on the bad experience you had with them in earlier times. Regrettably, a political movement which is effectively the practice of a state religion by function, resort to faith-based beliefs, suppression of heresies, excommunication of skeptics, and so forth may not be conspicuous as the thing it actually is without the architecture, and the worship services.
It certainly has the priests, the synods, the proposals for tithes, the apocalypse, and it fills the hole left by the secularization of a significant part of the population.
And GeoffChambers, I continue to think it will be a long time going away, whether a significant part of the population believes it or not. Look at the persistence of admitted state religions.
If I understand correctly, you are imagining “gaia” as being the new state religion – and it is certainly easy to find lots of material to support that idea.
http://green-agenda.com/ has a lot about it, and if you follow the link there on to “The Watchman’s Post”, you might end up thinking that the current incumbent feels a little concerned as well!
If you wouldn’t mind, and to help with my own understanding, I would much appreciate a more detailed reference to Henry’s considerations about this.
If it isn’t obvious from what I write, I’m pretty ignorant. I was supposing that if I could find it, there might be discussion somewhere of Henry VIII’s conversion/adoption, institution of the Church of England which would reveal it’s political basis – assuming there is one. I do so assume, don’t you?
My suspicion is that from time to time politics require a state religion and it doesn’t much matter what its precepts are so long as it provides the levers necessary to guide, manipulate, suppress, anesthetize, or control the polity – any or all of the above.
Assuming there’s anything to that idea, and wishing to be able to look forward to where the current invocation might take us, I thought it would be useful to identify an earlier version and see where it went.
I must say, that this particular idea, certainly not original with me, doesn’t look too encouraging at least for suggesting that a full-fledged state religion might quickly go away. I suspect it is more likely to morph into some other combination of “beliefs” having equivalent appeal.
Do understand that my agnosticism includes the supposition that organized religions are created or evolved to sell something and it’s something that isn’t really there. Why else would “faith” be required?
j: I suspect any ignorance is more at my end than yours – I thought your Henry must be a modern academic :-). What you’ve suggested about him sounds plausible, but maybe one of the others will be able to offer more input than me – although I’ll try to follow up to see if I can find anything out by myself.
There does seem to be a surprising amount of new age religiosity around – and a good deal of conspiracy theory about it as well. But I do think that if traditional religion gives an underpinning for a human-centric point of view, than the new age stuff can perform a similar function for the earth-centred view.
I’m not so sure that the relationship between religion and a big sell has to be so direct. It could be more serendipitous than that; the originators likely being sincere and their ideas being subsequently exploited. As for environmentalism’s staying power, I’m afraid I tend to share your pessimism – unless someone else can tell us why it isn’t justified after all!
I might add that naming a political methodology religion may be an inversion of the sequence in the sense that you could as I earlier suggested invent a religion to generate a family of political processes OR, dress up the evolving political processes in religious garb and call them Religion.
One suspects that the Calvinists thought they could de-politicize religion by escaping the episcopacy, but instead they go politics by other means.
It’s amazing where you can go if you don’t let the conventional definitions of terms limit you.
Glad you’ve relit this discussion, and I hope Ben gets some time to join in.
I’ve been looking at ways of analysing AGW as a political ideology, which is basically the same idea as you have with comparisons to a state religion, except that comparisons to eg communism and fascism provide more sociological data to work on than the adoption of Christianity by Constantine or the invention of the Anglican church by Henry VIII.
I want to avoid the facile “ecofascist” and “watermelon” comparisons, while looking seriously at the idea that environmentalism, though not at all comparable in terms of its violence, shares very similar psychological and sociological roots as these two ideologies.
– claims of a scientific basis
– claims to being a mass movement, prior to any evidence of mass support
– origins in the disarray felt at the loss of social authority
– origins in a social class with newly acquired educational level
– origins in the lower middle class
– projection on another, oppressed, social class (the proletariat / developing world)
– similarities to psychotic states, which can, in some individuals, be reactions to the same disarray which, in others, leads to the adoption of an ideology.
These ideas on the origins of communism and fascism are taken from a book “le Fou et le Proletaire” by Emmanuel Todd, which has unfortunately not been translated into English. Throughout the book, Todd compares the social structure of 19th and 20th century France, Germany and Russia, (with their predominant petite bourgeoisie and high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and mental illness) with Britain, with its largely working class population, and lower levels of indicators of stress. A major theme of the book is that the English speaking countries are less given to political extremism because of the lack of a numerous, aggressive, ambitious, stressed out lower middle class.
Social structures have changed radically since the eruption of the violent ideologies of the beginning of the 20th century, and other, less violent indicators of social tension would have to be examined, (eg decline of religious belief, changes in media and education patterns) but I believe an examination of the reasons why environmentalism as an all-encompassing ideology is largely confined to the English-speaking countries, plus Germany and Scandinava, could prove fruitful.
I think you have a better idea than mine since yours has accessible descriptions of the periods when a movement was acquired for its political powers (clumsily put). I’ve jiggered the definition of religion to suit my own prejudices and perhaps left out some of the components in the traditional definition. It is a suitable word though in so many ways. The thing that clinches it for me is expanding (or contracting) the idea to “State Religion.”
Political movement of course is political so that doesn’t work.
We get to choose how we characterize environmentalism. I keep imagining the politicians watching it evolve and they realizing that adopting or invoking environmentalism as policy offers so many opportunities to increase the level of government in everyone’s lives. More patronage, more fees, and so forth. There’s nothing like taking away a free option you might have had and then requiring process and fee to give it back to you.
I’m a recovering libertarian. The nature of the recovery is that I don’t think this stuff is going to go away nor can we chase it away or move somewhere where it doesn’t exist.
I wasn’t able to keep up with Ben and the other fellows in the earlier parts of this thread because I don’t know enough and I hadn’t read Ben’s articles with sufficient care. He really is very good.
I want to keep working on “state religion” though. I can’t imagine that it hasn’t occurred to someone else, but it does help with the “fervor” I see among some of our friends. Drop Catholicism and pick up Environmentalism.
If I might ask, do you think my suggestions that religions are developed to meet a need and that the various mysteries, articles of faith, are invented out of the whole cloth, likely to offend anyone you’d meet at this blog?
I’m trying to get at the idea that whether it’s transubstantiation or CO2 uptake, if you don’t understand the thing yourself, you are taking it as an article of faith and depending on authority. And if this is what you are doing, the guys on the other end need only come up with the idea, there doesn’t have to be any accessible proof because it will be faith, not science.
And that is why none of the powers that be really care whether any of the environmental concepts are solidly founded.
I think faith based beliefs are the essential part of environmentalism. Is that equally true of the socio/political movements you are looking at?
Your take on “state religion” and mine on ideology are perfectly compatible. Indeed, Todd has treated the Wars of Religion in Germany and the English Civil War (which was both a political and a religious struggle) as examples of ideological conflicts with their origins in the onset of literacy and the rise of a middle class, conscious of its power and uncertain of its place in the world. In these cases, the persecution of witches corresponds to the rise of mental illness in the 19th century.
Henry VIII’s creation of a state religion was a more personal affair, and more peaceful, though the dissolution of the monasteries has echoes in Mrs Thatcher’s privatising and selling of council houses (public housing projects).
There’s an interesting difference between Britain and the USA over AGW, in that almost all parties have adopted AGW in Britain, with the exception of the tiny far right parties. In the USA there is a more “normal” division of opinion between the two main parties – i.e. democracy is working normally in the country where, we Europeans are told, all elections are bought, all politicians are corrupt etc.
Could the difference lie in religion? Between a quarter and a half of Americans attend an act of worship every weekend in the USA. That’s a large proportion of the population which feels no need for a substitute religion.
Your points about faith and appeal to authority are excellent. No,I don’t think anyone would be offended, since ecumenicalism is fashionable, and the religiously inclined are used to having their faiths compared and contrasted.
I like the idea of a “recovering libertarian”. Most sceptics seem to be libertarians. It’s a tempting position, where rich and poor, right and left, can commune in peace and mutual distrust of government. I can’t quite bring myself there though. There are too many signs in the world of tough decisions which need to be made by serious governments.
John, Geoff –
I’m also pleased this thread has started again. I’ve not noticed anyone here liable to take offence at discussion of the religious aspects of the issue. I hope not anyway, because I think it is relevant to understanding.
I imagine that mechanisms from group psychology are important – however, not an area I know very much about unfortunately. Perhaps there are similar things involved to those that get people pretending to be chickens in some evangelical churches.
Roger Scruton has what I took to be quite a refreshing and rightish take on matters in this area. Here are a couple of links that may be interesting if you haven’t already seen them:
I think the contrast between human-centric and earth-centric worldviews is central. The earth-centred view is relatively new (I think) and provides the grounding for both the religious and political aspects of environmentalism. It also informs other issues such as vegetarianism and vivisection. It might be interesting to trace the history of this as well.
I know there is a lot of discussion at the moment about eco-education, and I guess this includes the issues like vegetarianism. For example, although my daughter seems to have escaped indoctrination on the GW front, a few years ago she temporarily became a child vegetarian because of what she’d been told at primary school. Obviously, I have nothing against vegetarianism as such, but I do find the educational angle disturbing.
GeoffChambers and Phillip,
Coping with a political system which is predominantly green would be frustrating. I had asked at Bishop’s if you didn’t have an opposition to officially take note of the trickery associated with the “investigations” and was surprised to find little confidence that anything would be done. Very troubling.
We do indeed have bought and corrupt politicians over here, but not all. We have some very good people, both democrats and republicans most of the time. What they do is very difficult. Creating responsible legislation on complex issues is no walk in the park and they do a lot of it. Most of the work is done by staff who tend to be young zealots in their twenties – whose ideas must be filtered through an elder’s more experienced overview. That’s a bit pompous, but there it is.
Henry VIII got control of the the religious hierarchy via his takeover of the English Church. He then controlled the distribution of “livings” throughout the system and could order dissemination of his views on specific Sundays to English congregations – this well before the advent of newspapers in the late 17th century. Grabbing the reins of the environmental movement doesn’t get you this quality of political influence, but I’m still working on the analogy. In other words, what do you get by adopting environmentalism as a political tool?
Phillip, my daughter passed through a period of not eating dead cow, but has outgrown it. For the most part, she was a troublemaker in secondary school and I was very proud of her. The stuff she favored was mostly addressed to undermining the cant du jour. She’s now out in the world with her PhD climbing the rungs of academia.
I fear the discomfort of the truly religious may be triggered by my supposition that tenets of belief can be inventions, nonsense, irrelevancies, and need have no connection with reality on any plane. And it is likely that the less they have to do with any measurable or observable reality, the more effective they become – a bit like keys to understanding the un-understandable. The tenets of environmentalism as a religion can then include all sorts of unsubstantiated nonsense which because the scientific support is either so arcane or so undeveloped that the belief can prosper in the absence of credible disproof.
I didn’t know that about Henry VIII – a sort of Rupert Murdoch at the head of a religious media empire – very interesting. (I hope you’re not still steering through ther Georgia Sea Islands while posting).
On environmentalism as a state religion, only in Britain has that happened, I think. And without the proponents (the Green Party) ever coming anywhere near becoming a mass movement. (Even the USA got nearer, with the decent score by Ralph Nader some elections back). In France and Germany, the electoral system means that a Green party with 5% support in the polls can exercise influence, and hope to join a coalition government. The French, with their power 70% nuclear, are little concerned by carbon reduction. Germany has tried subsidised solar and is now backing down. It’s difficult to imagine a country so economically efficient falling for the sustainability craze as Britain has.
Your idea that “religions are .. invented out of the whole cloth” obviously doesn’t work for most historical cases, but the USA is full of such examples, eg Scientology, which was invented quite cynically as an experiment. The appeal to science is there in the title, but without the backing of real science which environmentalism has assumed for itself.
Scruton’s first article was most interesting. So was the Wikipaedia article on him, in a different way.
How about “evolved” from the whole cloth? If the tenets by which I mean the articles of faith are susceptible only to faith, then why might they not be inventions?
Taking note of the Cancun proposed agreement to indoctrinate our children and my observation above of Henry 8 getting control of the nation’s pulpits, It seems that our governments already do have control at least of what the children hear at school. It does sound a bit more comprehensive over there than here in the US, but maybe the effects are the same.
“In other words, what do you get by adopting environmentalism as a political tool?”
Here, for what it’s worth, is my current understanding.
There are many different groups that exploit environmentalism and whose behaviour is explainable by assuming self-interest. For example:
o Newspapers and television: bad news sells.
o Scientific institutions: research funding, status.
o Businesses: subsidies for renewables, reasons to increase insurance premiums.
o NGOs: continued income.
o Tran-nationals like the UN and EU: reasons for more bureaucracy, reasons for protectionism (EU).
o Political groupings in industrialised countries: political legitimacy
o Political groupings in developing countries: flow of funds from industrialised countries.
I don’t doubt this is very over-simplified, but my point is the diversity of vested interests all pulling in the same direction, creating a force easily capable of blowing up a seed of concern into a bloated mountain. This process seems to have started in the 60s and 70s, and it is in this sense that I understand Ben when he talks of politics preceding science in environmentalism.
There are also a large number of individual people who do not fall into any of the interest groups I mentioned. But of course everybody has an interest in the continued habitability of planet earth, and I think that by playing into this it has been possible to build, or at least to claim, a mass mandate for the activist style of environmentalism. Presumably, the Gaia idea feeds into this by giving the religiously dissatisfied an even stronger motivation, as well as in helping to bind everybody involved together.
I’ve sometimes seen the mass mandate explicitly claimed on the basis of membership or contributions to environmental NGOs. The trouble with this is that many people have contributed or joined because of the cuddly animals without realising that what they are actually supporting is a political cause. I’ve certainly done this myself in the past. But problems of the environment need to be addressed as a technical and caring issue. I think this is a point expressed by Scruton and by Ben and Geoff, as well as being, I understand, the traditional viewpoint of the Catholic Church.
“So was the Wikipaedia article on him, in a different way”
Scruton, another tobacco villain. Who would have thought it!
Your list of groups with an interest in environmentalism corresponds well with a flow chart which TonyN posted at Harmless Sky at
What’s handy about Tony’s “convenient network” is how well it highlights the positive feedbacks involved, which create a kind of perpetual motion machine.
In normal times, the political position of one party is opposed by another party; a story in a rightwing paper is countered by an opposing opinion in a leftwing one etc., creating zones of turbulence in any flow of action, information, or influence. Environmentalism has acted like a massive radiation blast on the complex circuit diagram of society, blowing all the fuses, and resulting in a single one way flow of current.
The “large number of individual people who do not fall into any of the interest groups” that you mention can be defined quite simply as the general public, or the voters.
I’m still munching, gentlemen. My memory is not good, so I downloaded this entire thread with Ben’s original paper to the Kindle, and just reread the whole thing. Astonishing.
If you don’t have Ereaders, you might consider one. It makes it possible to decide to have a look at Hume, Adam Smith, Maimonides, or in the instant case Macaulay and be reading in a few minutes. Used copies of the Penguin Macaulay “History…” would have cost me $100 from Amazon and have been printed with small type difficult to read with my failing vision.
I must whine a bit about Todd, though – only in French? ;)
Boat is now anchored in Biscayne Bay while we make our annual medical visits, then on to the Keys for the winter.
As to Gaia, I’m completely ignorant. As you can probably see, I like to assemble these things a bit autonomously and risk the likelihood that the product will be spurious, self-evident, point better made already by others or ???? that way i get the fun of coping with the inconsistencies myself – or by burdening you guys.
I continue to think that the State Religion idea has much to commend it. Ben, are state religions ever popular? here in the US, we may be seeing a lot of lip service maybe in numbers which far exceed the actual population of true believers.
I’ve been reading David Hume’s excellent and quite readable “History of England” written in the 1750-60 period. I decided not to share his comments on how the Druids confined their literature and practices to the initiates lest the heathen confuse things. When I got to his consideration of the time of Thomas a Becket and Henry II, I had to do it.
Except for his evident lack of respect for the sceptics of the time, this reads very much like a criticism of our time as it might be written 500 years from now. Even the contents of Becket’s writings sound like those of the famous disgorged emails.
“But no man, who enters into the genius of that age, can reasonably doubt of this prelate’s [Becket, jaf]sincerity. The spirit of superstition was so prevalent, that it infallibly caught every careless reasoner, much more every one whose interest, and honor, and ambition were engaged to support it. All the wretched literature of the times was enlisted on that side. Some faint glimmerings of common sense might sometimes pierce through the thick cloud of ignorance, or, what was worse, the illusions of perverted science, which had blotted out the sun, and enveloped the face of nature; but those who preserved themselves untainted by the general contagion, proceeded on no principles which they could pretend to justify; they were more indebted to their total want of instruction than to their knowledge, if they still retained some share of understanding; folly was possessed of all the schools as well as all the churches; and her votaries assumed the garb of philosophers, together with the ensigns of spiritual dignities. Throughout that large collection of letters which bears the name of St. Thomas, we find, in all the retainers of that aspiring prelate, no less than in himself, a most entire and absolute conviction of the reason and piety of their own party, and a disdain of their antagonists; nor is there less cant and grimace in their style, when they address each other, than when they compose manifestoes for the perusal of the public. The spirit of revenge, violence, and ambition which accompanied their conduct, instead of forming a presumption of hypocrisy, are the surest pledges of their sincere attachment to a cause which so much flattered these domineering passions.”