A Decade of Lynas

by | Mar 15, 2015

Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian in the wake of the paper’s new climate campaign,

We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes
Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis

The problem, says Lynas, is the emphasis given by the Guardian’s campaign to passages from Naomi Klein’s book.

The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.

Klein’s book has been discussed previously on these pages. Briefly, though Klein professes to no technological understanding, she was moved by ‘complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’, who had given a presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. According to Werner, his research aimed to answer the question “Is Earth F*cked?” by modelling society’s interactions with the biosphere, and the potential of various interventions. According to his model, the only hope for the world is for radical groups who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture” to come together in “protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups” to save the planet. Maths itself had spoken — anti-capitalist direct action could restore equilibrium to the world.

Says Lynas,

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.

Lynas is half right. Of course Klein reformulates her political project in the terms of the climate crisis — as many green anticapitalists have before her. As I have argued previously, whereas left movements in the past took authority for their project from weight of numbers of the people they promised to liberate from capitalism, the green left takes its authority from ‘science’. Whatever your sympathies with any left political idea or their possibilities, the difference between much traditional argument from the left and Klein’s call-to-action is the difference between a promise of a better world and a threat. Klein offers today’s radicals mere survival, not freedom. The revolutionary only guarantees liberation from catastrophe, not capitalism as such.

But Klein’s is not the only reformulation of political ideas under the green shadow of climate change. For example, ex-BBC journalist, Richard Black recently set up the dubiously-titled Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). (The ECIU is discussed here). The ECIU’s funding comes from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The ECF’s funding comes largely from the living and dead super-wealthy and special interest via Climate Works (some more detail here). And Grantham — a super wealthy investment fund manager — funds a number of campaigns, and pronounced back in 2009 that “Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world”. And Tellus Mater’s mission statement is:

… to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill{sic} it’s{sic} role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.

(Isn’t it amazing that such an outfit cannot afford a proof reader.)

So if ‘science has been appropriated [by the left] as cover for an ideological project’, according to Lynas, he should look more closely at the well-funded outfits like ECIU, Carbon Brief and others, which seem to be established to further ‘capitalist’ ideological objectives. He might see that the reformulation of ‘ideology’ is ubiquitous. But the climate debate, I argue, is all about ideological blind spots.

It’s worth remembering Lynas’s own struggles against ideology and how it has changed over the years. In 2004 he wrote,

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere. This doesn’t mean giving up the fight on behalf of the poor, but it does mean that one’s position on the environment is going to be the crucial political divide of the next century. And many left-wingers are very anti-environment. Some socialists retain the old technocratic mindset where they think everything can be engineered and humans are all-powerful. Many more leftish people are also too polite to mention over-population, which along with climate is probably the key environmental issue. I think that we should give just as much thought to other species of life, who will presumably continue to suffer even if human society eventually gets more egalitarian.

Just a decade ago, Lynas wanted to get the left, much of which was on his view, ‘anti-environment’, to relegate ‘the struggle for equity’ behind climate change, over-population and other species. Now he sees the climate issue dividing on left-right lines.

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

Reacting against this rather miserabilist and dystopian worldview, the political right has increasingly adopted an outright denialist position – attacking the science in a covert war against the political ideology it has been co-opted to serve. The reason half of Americans doubt the science on climate change isn’t because they are stupid or misled by the fossil fuels lobby, but because the global warming issue has now become as much as part of America’s culture wars as abortion or creationism.

But as we have seen. If the categories of left and right divide according to anti- and pro- capitalism, how to explain Grantham (and so many other green capitalists)? It frankly doesn’t work. The best we could say instead, is that some capitalists, largely dependent on the sectors in which they operate, have bought into the green agenda. Enron, perhaps being the most visible and earliest example, saw its own future in the regulation of carbon more than in the generation and trade of energy — the financialisation of the energy sector. Similarly, IT and high-tech firms have sought to emphasise their green credentials. This would seem to speak to a split between lightweight and heavy industry, leading in turn to a split on green-brown lines within capitalism as such. But in spite of this perception, which the green movement likes to milk heavily, the efforts to lobby or campaign against climate policies or fund climate scepticism are remarkably hard to find any evidence of, to compare to the $billions spend on the opposite case. Brown capitalism — the Brown Blob or ‘Black Fog‘ — is better characterised as acquiescent. The embryonic fracking industry in the UK, for example, not only concedes to the green movement, it tries to draw strength from it, claiming that shale gas could serve as a ‘bridging technology’ towards a ‘cleaner’ future. The coordinates of Lynas’s world seem very much out of kilter with the real world.

Lynas is a tad confused also, about the ‘culture wars’. What the culture wars represent is not the continuation of ideological struggle between left and right as such, but the dearth of political ideas with which to do battle. Lynas has the clue — Klein’s seemingly recent conversion to environmentalism. But he stops short of seeing it through.

Why does so much of the putative radical left now seek to identify itself with the climate change issue? We could take their arguments at face value, of course. But as even Lynas observes, whereas there were, in 2004, enough sufficiently ‘anti-environment’ leftists to scold them for it, there appears to be none worth speaking of today. There’s not really much left left, and what left there is left isn’t very left.

The argument offered here is that the reds turned green as the broad left movement disintegrated. Even by the 2000s, the left was a shadow if what it had been in previous decades. It had been depoliticised, and rather than emphasising alternatives to capitalism, became preoccupied with identity, tradition and social order — tropes that belonged to conservative thought in previous generations. But the major characteristic of this change is the collapse of its popular base. As the established left lost contact with its traditional base and its traditional philosophy, so it grew more hostile to the very masses it once promised to liberate. The phenomenon of Klein is the epitome of this hollowing out and collapse of left wing thought. The celebrated public intellectual doesn’t even understand the mathematical claims that seemingly make the case that ‘this changes everything’, whereas even yesterday’s Marxists were (or were supposed to be) fluent in Capital volume I, if not II and III. For Klein, who is more likely to be self consciously left on suburban bourgeois coffee tables than picked up and studied by factory workers (Urgh — factories! Urgh — workers!), and who is a celebrated ‘public intellectual’, it is sufficient that some authority instructs the revolution. The left’s corpse lies twitching.

But left-right politics is a game of two halves. Let’s not forget that the recent history of conservative or capitalist ideology is no less graceful a swansong. In 2011, Jeremy Grantham aimed:

… to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

As I pointed out,

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Grantham doesn’t speak for all capitalists, of course. But he does speak to the problem of capitalism losing its nerve, its moral authority and its promise in a way that mirrors the left’s. Losing his own authority, in the way that Klein does, Grantham searches for it by establishing his very own institute at the London School of Economics, supporting no lesser figures than Lord Stern and his cronies. In other words, the capitalist seeks the authority of academic scientists and researchers. The main difference between Klein and Grantham being, of course, Klein can’t quite summon up the cash that Grantham can, for her own institutions — which is perhaps why she prefers to ‘Occupy’.

The emphasis on climate change then, whether it hails from the left or right, is a search for authority. Essential to this search is a process of engendering a sense of terminal crisis, and the construction of saviours, to elevate institutional science as that authority. This makes the priorities of politics non-negotiable (unless we want to die), and the terms of politics if not incomprehensible, exclusive to an elite. Lynas words, ten years apart, ask to eschew normal politics, to peruse an ideological trajectory that is orthogonal to the old axis, to leave behind the battle over how respective interests might be reconciled for the interests of authority itself. But although he claims his statement…

Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.

… puts him at odds with ‘most people on either side of the climate debate’, he in fact alienates himself. And one of those parties he is now alienated from is institutional science. Take, for example, the words of soon-to-be-erstwhile President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, in his attack on Nigel Lawson at the University of Melbourne

A feature of this controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that is a crucial point, because these actions are likely to include measures which involve greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. These are all critical key issues about which we should be worried.

Paul Nurse argued that global warming might indeed necessitate ‘curtailing freedoms’ and ‘risking economic growth’. Science said so. And he said that this necessity is what drives objections to climate politics.

This is a major problem for Lynas, because claims from mainstream, scientific opinion seem to reflect at least in part what Klein is saying, meanwhile, green capitalists are on the case, securing their own ground.

One way out of this impasse, I would suggest to Lynas, is to admit to the political or ‘ideological’ aspects of the climate debate and even his own argument. What seems to be revealed by Nurse and his predecessors is that institutional science is overtly seeking more power for itself under the compact that has been formed under the logic of environmental alarmism. (See for examples, this discussion about Royal Society statements on climate change from 2010, and this post script from 2012). That is to say it is no more Nurse’s place to claim that science demands freedoms and wealth to be sacrificed for survival than it is Klein’s. Yet institutional science has not asked itself about the extent to which institutional science has become ‘ideological’, thus making climate politics climate change sciences’s a priori and its a posteriori.

But instead, Lynas simply heaps more science onto the problem:

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

It would appear that there is some sympathy between Lynas and Nurse, to the extent that both believe ‘ideology’ of one kind or another, drives resistance to what appears to be climate science. But Lynas’s own distaste for ‘ideology’ brings into question Nurse’s ideology, and consequently his own.

The recruitment of social psychologists into the debate, to patch up the inadequacies of climate science and of course, the highest ranking members of scientific academies, reveals a darker political aspect to the argument. If science is only accepted to the extent that it conforms to or confirms a political ‘ideology’, then why does this only ever apply to the sceptics, and to one or two inconvenient political radicals, like Klein? Why does it never seem to apply to Nurse? Or to Lynas?

Such self reflection on the ‘ideology’ of those anointed by Oxford University and the Royal Society — the establishment — of course, would undermine the entire argument. Cod psychology has never once successfully interrogated the ‘ideology’ of climate change sceptics, partly because it seems to be the case that its scientists even more gripped by the alarmist interpretation of climate science than even Lynas or Nurse, and partly because such activist-scientists barely make a secret of the fact that their ‘research’ is intended to frame the debate to particular ends. Psychologists entering the climate debate invariably over-estimate their own purchase on climate science, under-theorise ‘ideology’, and search in the main part for what they understand the subjects ‘ideology’ to consist of. This stems from the necessity of social psychologists measuring their studies’ participants responses against their own understanding of the scientific consensus, which is presumed to be correct, complete, and unimpeachable. The result is that the pay very little attention to the mechanics of the interaction between ‘ideology’ and ‘facts’.

If Lynas was hoping to undermine his own argument, he wouldn’t find anything more equal to this task than deference to social psychology. Climate change psychology is perhaps the most vivid example of politics — ‘ideology’ — having colonised science that it is possible to find since the days of the Soviet Union.

The point of social psychology’s recruitment, however, is not simply to undermine sceptics. It also has the virtue of differentiating the establishment from the hoi polloi it claims to serve. ‘Ideology’ is how the masses understand their own interests, and politics is (or was) how interests are bargained for. By diminishing the faculties of those who fall victim to ‘ideology’, the political establishment can elevate itself, in its own interests, hidden behind scientific authority. On the view Lynas offers, “ideology” is arbitrary — nothing more than subjective or relativised preferences — and contaminates a clear view of objective reality. But this view of human faculties is itself deeply ideological. It says that, humans not being capable of perceiving what is in their interests, and the world being such a dangerous, complicated place, political institutions need to exist above their reach.

But with Lynas, there is always something agree with…

Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

Hear hear.

But the sting in the tail is still present in Lynas’s conclusion…

But to make any of this happen we will need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes. We must then work to come up with inclusive proposals that can form the basis of a social consensus that must last decades if it is to have any meaningful effect on the climate change crisis that faces us.

The social consensus being sought is still a social consensus in which the job of deliberating the consensus is done away from the public. Lynas says he seeks an ‘inclusive’ solution, but ‘inclusiveness’ invariably means most people being equally excluded. The human condition precludes social consensus without the reconciliation of its contradictions in the public sphere. Everyone from left through right, Marx through to Hayek has imagined a world freed from politics, through various means and ends and justifications. But what appears to drive Lynas’s appeal, like most appeals to make climate the central organising principle of politics, is the inability to formulate a social consensus that consists of more than a promise of survival.

Lynas’s problem is deep. The energy required by the human race in 2050 is seen as an inherently problematic thing, which will be demanded, and will need to be provided, not as a positive thing. People are conceived of as technical ‘challenges’, rather than either opportunities or ends in themselves. But a society with sufficient energy, leaving aside the environmental problems it may cause for a moment, ought to be seen as a positive thing in its own right, which people should surely campaign for. The fact that even the green movement is itself so split — pro- and anti-capitalist, pro- and anti- technology, pro- and anti- humanity itself — should demonstrate to Lynas the scale of the task of uniting the entire world, never mind a nation, in a social consensus, never mind a treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is well and truly beyond his abilities, or the abilities of climate science.

I don’t find Lynas’s views any less extreme than Klein’s. Klein at least recognises that the world divides into 99% and 1%, though she fancies herself to be in the larger part. Lynas, on the other hand, seems to want to put to rest the differences that persist, even within the green movement, to forsake arguing in our own interests because we don’t have sufficient faculties to understand what they are. To conceive of your own interests seems to be ‘extreme’. Lynas’s reformulation of politics, under threat of climate catastrophe, suits a narrow establishment which has, over the years, become more and more distant from its public. Climate change has come to the rescue of that political class, whether or not mainstream climate science has the better grasp of reality than its detractors. Untangling that science from the politics that has colonised it will be no more simple a task than uniting the world in a ‘social consensus’.

Not much has changed, then, since I reviewed Lynas’s book in 2011:

Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.

The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea – its ideology – precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.


  1. Graham Strouts

    Another interesting analysis Ben. Like you I admire and support some of what Lynas says but find some of the rest maddening and contradictory.
    I am interested on your view of Steve Fuller’s suggestion that the old Left-Right dichotomy is becoming redundant, to be superseded by “Up-wingers” and “Down-wingers” and how this might pertain to the climate debate:

    To be sure, the precautionary and proactionary principles remain relatively marginal to mainstream political discourse. But they have the potential to shift the ideological axis by 90 degrees. The right is currently divided into traditionalists and libertarians; the left into communitarians and technocrats. In the future, I suggest, the traditionalists and the communitarians will form the precautionary pole of the political spectrum, while the libertarians and technocrats will form the proactionary pole.


  2. Ben Pile

    Fulller’s up/down axis is interesting. I think it perhaps may come to explain to people why they found themselves lumped in with the end of the historical axis that they never saw themselves in.

    But I wonder if it takes Risk Society — i.e. the centrality of risk — for granted. For instance, how will the up-wingers intervene, assert themselves, or challenge their counterparts’ legitimacy when it seems the institutions created by the nascent down-wingers have been established above the contested political sphere?

  3. hunter

    it struck me for some time that the commie vs capitalist spectrum is not relevant anymore. I have pondered on the up to freedom-down to tyranny axis since I first heard it in 1984, but only recently has it become pressing. Russia is not, apparently so far, turning back into the USSR. But it is certainly not progressing towards an open capitalist system either. The promoters of cliamte obsession may talk against ‘capitalism’ but they certainly have no problem at all in enriching themselves. And far too many so-called capitalists are completely caught up in government subsidy to support economic boondoggles like wind power. A darker take on it would be that we have merely been corrupted by the wealth explosion of the current age, but I am optimistic.

  4. johanna

    I was reading away, enjoying your article, when suddenly I hit this massive pothole:

    “But with Lynas, there is always something agree with…

    Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

    Hear hear. ”

    Why in “as low carbon (dioxide, FFS) a way as possible”? And carbon capture is a complete failure, even if it is accepted that there is a need for it. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the best way for us to go.

    But the worst is “put a significant international price on carbon” (dioxide, BIRM). This is the dream of statists, rentiers and eco-nutters all around the world, and should be opposed at every turn. It is simply a tax on development and growth, and the proceeds would be expropriated by crooks or used by politicians to buy votes – not that these are mutually exclusive.

    It’s not hard to see why a lot of businesses got on board with Greenism. First, it is a marketing opportunity. Second, for big players, there is lots of money to be made by gaming the system, with subsidies and concessions being handed out like lollies at a kids’ birthday party. Third, long term survivors in business know that it is wise to keep a foot in both camps, to buffer them against the winds of electoral change. It’s not that complicated.

    What is interesting is the way that the money made by industrialists and energy kings in the C19th and the first half of the C20th are now being used against the very things they created, via their trusts (see the article at the Bishop’s recently about the Rowntree Trust, for example, not to mention numerous examples in the US).

    I suspect that if these people had their time over, they would have left the lot to a cats’ home or a charity hospital, had they known what would happen.

  5. Ben Pile

    Johanna – Why in “as low carbon (dioxide, FFS) a way as possible”? And carbon capture is a complete failure, even if it is accepted that there is a need for it. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the best way for us to go. But the worst is “put a significant international price on carbon” (dioxide, BIRM).

    I agree I should have put some more qualifiers on that. In principle, I have no real objection to Pielke & Lomborg’s idea of a microtax on energy use, to finance energy R&D, with the aim of further the world’s population with access to energy, reducing its price (if that’s not the same thing), and perhaps meeting some environmental objectives.

    (Another qualifier on that idea — at the time, I suggested that energy use in its own right shouldn’t need a planetary emergency to legitimise it.)

    Admittedly, this might not satisfy some anti-statists. But while I have become highly suspicious of ‘statism’ over the years, I have no major problem with the principle of P&L’s ‘technology-up’ approach, because it seems to me to be a proposal for a not remarkably radical intervention, is capable of producing something of tangible merit, and that it would have put to bed most concerns about excessive state intervention for its own sake in the climate debate. That is to say that very few carbon bureaucrats would get as much of a look-in under such an arrangement.

    A demonstration… When I interviewed Pielke a few years ago about his criticism of the UK’s policy-down approach — the Climate Change Act — one of those Climate Bureaucrats, was there. Prof Julia King from the Committee on Climate Change was quite angry with Pielke. She’s an engineer, but seemed much more interested in social control than technical solutions. The problem as she saw it was the ‘selfish population’, who needed to have their behaviour modified by policy.

    Of course, that leaves room for discussion about state vs private funding for energy R&D. But it seems to me that both are currently inadequate.

  6. johanna

    But, where is the market failure in energy research? It seems to me that there is plenty of research going on all over the world, in both the private and public sectors. And anyway, there is no shortage of cheap, available energy sources for the forseeable future. The problems with energy poverty are political, not scientific.

    More importantly, I am utterly sceptical of the integrity of a honeypot of money like this being maintained. All the usual suspects will be circling like sharks. Who could we trust to administer it forever? Just look at what has happened to the trust funds of industrialists and energy magnates elsewhere.

    That said, I enjoyed the rest of your post very much indeed. Please keep up the good work!

  7. Ben Pile

    Johanna – where is the market failure in energy research? It seems to me that there is plenty of research going on all over the world, in both the private and public sectors.

    One of the reasons I find any discussion about some alleged development in solar PV, for example, so disappointing, is that it’s always barely a step forward at all. Ditto with articles about wind power, or energy efficiency. They’re rarely about more for less, much less more for us. I have argued in the past that it would have been much harder to argue against higher energy prices if, for example, the same amount of money which is transferred from the consumer to renewable energy operators was instead used in projects like JET/ITER, to develop a number of fusion/fission experimental pathways. That’s not to say problem solved, but a technology-up approach would have produced a very different debate.

    The usual suspects may well sniff around such a pot of money. But they might be forced to be useful, and wouldn’t be able to claim to have pioneered interventions as today’s bureaucrats imagine themselves to be innovators. Take Bryony Worthington (author of the UK’s Climate Change Act) in yesterday’s Graun, for example:

    There is a quiet revolution underway in the way we produce and consume energy.

    This revolution has been kickstarted by laws, regulations and the arrival of new technologies. It’s been influenced by people – no less passionate than those protesting on the streets – who’ve chosen to engage in the existing economic system to divert it toward more sustainable ends.

    It is telling that she puts ‘new technologies’ last.

  8. Peter S

    Ben – The emphasis on climate change then, whether it hails from the left or right, is a search for authority. Essential to this search is a process of engendering a sense of terminal crisis, and the construction of saviours, to elevate institutional science as that authority.

    I wonder if the emphasis on climate change (whether it hails from the left or right) is actually a search for significance. And that essential to this search is a process of reestablishing a public sense of unmet need – along with the reintroduction of the politico/scientific self as significant to that public in being both the arbiter of that need and the negotiator of it being met.

    The exchange between both politician and scientist and a collaborating public was, historically, a reciprocal one – one side identified real needs (for a good-enough life) and posited mechanisms by which they may be met – and the other side, in return, granted the politician and scientist the resources they needed to retain an ongoing significance to the public in the relationship.

    As we have seen, the mutuality of this relationship falters when the public are made to relinquish any discernible role in, or influence over, the transaction. That is to say, when the politician and scientist arrange for their own needs to become met irrespective of the actual significance of their output to the needs of the public. In unilaterally deciding their contribution to the wellbeing of society is far too significant to depend upon – and risk – this reciprocity, the politician and scientist become estranged from the very foundational transaction upon which – paradoxically – the wellbeing of society is built… and by which it can be reliably measured.

    The benefit of excluding themselves from the interdependency of this relationship must have seemed too compelling to resist – especially so for those who believe in (and collude in believing in) the myth of their own non-negotiable significance to it… a myth facilitated and privileged by institutionalisation. But the heavy – if unforeseen – cost of rendering the public’s ‘return’ insignificant to the needs this social transaction functions by meeting, has been to render the (ostensibly) political and scientific input into it tangibly insignificant to the needs of the participating public. The exchange breaks down.

    Rather than a ‘search for authority’ then, what we may be witnessing from our political and scientific classes is an increasingly desperate neediness for significance. The loss of which was brought about by their own self-exclusion from a process in which it is found.

  9. johanna

    Interesting points, Peter. But, it depends on when you start the history of “science” and how you define it.

    For example, the explosion of scientific endeavour in the Victorian era was largely driven by comparative amateurs, independent of politics. Some scientists (I am including the discoverers and developers of great technological breakthroughs, as well as natural and physical scientists) were wealthy enough to pay their own way. Others found private patrons, or worked in industry. Still others found niches in academia, not many though. There simply weren’t that many academic places available for them. For a long time, Oxford and Cambridge regarded all scientists as second raters, as was well described in some of C P Snow’s novels.

    The political dimension came later, particularly during and after the World Wars. But,that’s a whole other topic.

    Oh, and a plea to our esteemed host – any chance of allowing paragraph breaks to appear in comments? The walls of text are not only hard to read, but rather obscure whatever structural writing skills your humble commenters may have.

    Thanks. :)

  10. johanna

    Paragraph breaks! You’re a star!

  11. Peter S

    Johanna – When science was known to provide pathways to human needs being met, it became a significant activity to the public and transactions were arranged to facilitate its continuity. We might say the same about politics – classical capitalism and socialism never stopped talking about needs – identifying very real ones and positing systems each believed were best able to meet them.

    The question arises, what happens when the public’s needs become well-enough met? That is to say, when a need is so well preempted and so effortlessly responded to that we can pretty much go through life without ever having to feel it – without ever getting to know a version of ourselves in which needing is included? If our needs become so insignificant to us that we might come to believe that they (like our gods) don’t exist, what significance do we then give to that institutionalised social strata whose continuity has always depended upon the affirmation of its own significance through the public’s ongoing participation in an exchange with it?

    In this scheme-of-things, we might see environmentalism as being primarily different to capitalism and socialism in that it wishes to reestablish needing as opposed to getting rid of it. Hence, we can place into context environmentalism’s nostalgic privileging of the third-world – a place where the experience of needing is still very much a defining present. By forcing its own association with this region, of course, environmentalism is claiming for itself a significance which is altogether illusory (I imagine the last thing a third-world public would identify as potentially meeting its needs is a system which fetishises having them). If environmentalism – in its political and scientific aspects – is the search for a lost significance, we might see needing (and its management) as the place where it is hoped to be found.


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