If environmentalism does nothing else, it forces you to stop and wonder, do words still mean anything?
When the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas was elected to Parliament earlier this year, she made the following speech, with these words for her voters:
Thank you so much for putting the politics of hope above the politics of fear.
So what does the politics of hope actually look like? According to Lucas, it looks like this…
The Imperial War Museum in London may seem like a strange place to launch a report on climate change. But that’s where I am this morning, along with speakers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, the Women’s Institute and the museum itself.
Why? Two reasons. First, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our country since the last world war. It’s not only environmentalists who are saying this. Business leaders, prime ministers, major charities and generals have all recognised the level of risk.
Second, if we are to overcome this threat – and the alternative is simply too awful to contemplate – then we need to mobilise as a nation in a way we haven’t seen since 1945.
There could not be a more precise expression of the politics of fear than this.
A politics of fear demands that we sacrifice normal ways of life and our ambitions for the sake of survival. That is to say the politics of fear demands not only that we accept austerity, but that we accept fewer political and civil freedoms, and that we put up with a government whose legitimacy is solely premised on the claim that it — and only it — can see us through some crisis. On top of this, Lucas promises catharsis:
People put up with so much disruption and deprivation because they knew there was no alternative, and because they believed society would emerge stronger at the end of the war.
As far as I am aware, the people who believed that society would emerge ‘stronger at the end of the war’ were the ones who used gas chambers and ovens to purge society of what they saw as holding it back. But let’s not confuse environmentalism and Nazism; Lucas is simply thick in the head, not a fascist.
WWII appeals to Lucas for several reasons, each of them a mythology. First, it exists as a story of moral absolutes. Thus re-inventing it creates the possibility of a favourable comparison to the leaders that won the war against unspeakable evil. Second, it harks back to an era of deference to authority, and of a country united by a shared purpose. Third, it creates a baseline for statements about the possibility of annihilation, against which comparisons could be made.
This is nothing all that new or unique to the Greens attempts to mythologise the war. Informal discussions with those of a hysterical, Leftist mentality will often result in unfavourable comparisons to fascism, if for instance, you don’t hold with a particular (i.e. their) anti-capitalism. And more recently, many identifying with the Right have mirrored the tactic. Many discussions about the climate these days seem to inevitably draw somebody to claim that the Nazi’s were in fact a Left movement because, National Socialism has the word ‘socialism’ in it (d’uh), and because it’s a ‘collectivist’ ideology, whereas the Right is more concerned with the individual… This stop, Obama-care; next stop, death camps. Both forms of historical revisionism forget what is historically particular to fascism and nazism, and so reveal the poverty of perspectives in the present, never mind on the past.
Reinventing the complex geopolitics of the 1930-1940s to create a black and white moral universe is the expression of a completely exhausted argument. During the other most recent expression of a politics of fear, the War on Terror, countless attempts were made to make Saddam Hussain ‘Hitler’, thus casting the leaders of the Coalition of the Willing as the Churchill or Roosevelt of the 21st Century. (No one wanted to play Stalin in this re-enactment). Lucas plays the same game of make-believe.
Previously on this blog, we’ve called this phenomenon pastiche politics. You take a moment from history — WWII, the Moon landing, slavery… — and you find some superficial way of attaching it to the climate debate. Some go even further, dressing up as ‘climate Suffragettes’. The irony being, of course, that democracy is the problem for these protesters: everyone has the vote, but are not voting the right way. Democracy isn’t doing what the climate Suffragettes want it to do. It’s a peculiar, postmodern phenomenon, that environmentalists — in the broadest sense of the word — epitomise, even if it isn’t particular to them. Environmentalism, then, says something about society and politics more broadly.
In the report itself, Lucas explains its origins.
We have been here before. That’s why I commissioned this report from the leading writer and analyst Andrew Simms, to explore what lessons history may be able to give us. There appear to be many. In the 1930s, some politicians of all parties ignored the threat of war brewing in Europe and failed to take the steps to deter aggression or prepare early enough to defend ourselves. At the time, the two main excuses put forward to justify inaction and appeasement were that there was not enough money to pay for proper defences, and that the British public would not support a government that took tough measures.
Simms is better known for his monthly countdown to Armageddon in the Guardian. In August 2008, the New Economics Foundation, which Simms is a policy director of, published a report and a campaign website, claiming that within 100 months, the world would cross those fabled ‘tipping points’ unless immediate action was taken to drastically reduce emissions. This kind of environmental reasoning is typical of the NEF’s claims. For instance it argues that economic growth is no longer a possibility without environmental degradation and catastrophe, and calls for a new model of economics, focussing on happiness instead. And so it becomes clear that the ‘foundation’ for ‘new economics’ is disaster. That is to say that the NEF embody the politics of fear absolutely. It’s dressed up in token, progressive gestures about regard for human ‘well-being’, but without the promise of doom, these latter day Noahs are with Ark, but without flood.
The emphasis that the NEF have placed on well-being has become increasingly influential amongst the political establishment. David Cameron, for instance, has absorbed the NEF’s nonsense, and is set to create a ‘happiness index‘ to rival the UK’s economic performance measure, GDP.
To make the point then, that this is not new, not unique to environmentalists, and symptomatic of some broader phenomenon, it’s worth pointing out that the New Labour government attempted to create a ‘quality of life barometer‘ in 1998.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has revealed a set of 13 indicators which will be published each year. The index will comprise facts and figures, ranging from housing to wild bird populations, which can be used to judge the government’s progress.[…] He said: “This is the first time any country has tried to put these indices – the social and the environment – alongside the economic and I’m quite proud to be doing it.” […] He said: “We are used to judging the economy’s performance on the basis of the GDP, inflation and employment figures. I want these headline indicators over time to become just as useful and familiar, reported regularly on TV, radio and in the newspapers.” The areas covered will include not just social investment, but also water quality and numbers of wild birds, to show the severity of hedgerow destruction.
The seemingly radical impulse to de-emphasise economic growth in matters of public life, therefore, do not emerge from radical movements, but as we can see, emerge from the establishment themselves. Yet more curiously, the promise to deliver ‘well-being’, happiness, and ‘quality of life’ comes with the threat of ecological crisis. The politics of fear will make you happy. What on earth is going on? Lucas gives the game away in the conclusion to her introduction:
Our aim is to help forge the national consensus that will support this or future governments in sustained, radical action. This is an ambitious project: but only if we show ambition can we hope to resolve the threats to our country that the changes in our climate are bringing.
Only a crisis can create the basis of a ‘national consensus’. Environmental politics, then, is not about protecting the environment, but about protecting a political establishment that has lost contact with the public. Whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, today’s politicians need it. What else could they use to ‘mend’ ‘broken Britain‘? The irony, of course, is that neither the climate, nor Britain is broken, but its political leaders are. They project their crises onto the atmosphere.