Saturday, 13 February 2010

Que Sarah, Sarah

I don't usually find the strain of environmentalism espoused in the pages of the Guardian very persuasive, too clearly descended from a long tradition of British Puritanism, principally concerned with feelings of personal moral superiority and showering blame onto unrepentant sinners. I shudder at the sort of new world imagined: soya gruel, donkey carts and hempen tee-shirts with your carbon footprint printed on them... 

However at least one of these columnists, George Monbiot, has recently revealed a new depth and passion in his critique of contemporary capitalism. It appears that public reaction to the recent "Climategate" emails shook Monbiot deeply, revealing the true depth of malevolence among climate-change sceptics, and a desperate desire among the public of affluent nations to delude themselves that business as usual is possible after all.

Personally I'm a climate sceptic of a different kind: I think it's pretty certain that the amount of carbon dioxide we've pumped into the biosphere is having an affect on the world's climate. The climate is a vastly complex web of interacting systems, and the increasing greenhouse effect adds energy to these which must change established patterns, generate more extreme events, and possibly even trigger one of several feed-back processes that lead to even greater instability. However science doesn't understand these systems well enough yet to precisely predict the resulting changes (for example the sea level in 5, 10, 20 years). Basing policy on imprecise predictions merely offers a hostage to those real sceptics who will pounce on every wrong one (like the current cold snap in the UK) to further their case. The public is untutored in statistics, impatient and uncomprehending about scientific cautions over the precision of results, and it seems more and more unlikely that a democratic will to do anything serious about carbon emissions can be aroused. Monbiot seems to have felt this sea-change, and it's added a trenchancy and eloquence to his recent writings, like this from the Guardian 14th Dec 2009:

"A new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere, demands to trample on the lives of others as if this were a human right. It will not be constrained by taxes, gun laws, regulations, health and safety, especially by environmental restraints. It knows that fossil fuels have granted the universal ape amplification beyond its Palaeolithic dreams. For a moment, a marvellous, frontier moment, they allowed us to live in blissful mindlessness.

The angry men know that this golden age has gone; but they cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. Clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged, they flail around, accusing those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but knowing at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.

I fear this chorus of bullies, but I also sympathise. I lead a mostly peaceful life, but my dreams are haunted by giant aurochs. All those of us whose blood still races are forced to sublimate, to fantasise. In daydreams and video games we find the lives that ecological limits and other people's interests forbid us to live.

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands."

Stirring stuff, he's now arguing on broader grounds, no longer talking solely about environmental matters but about that whole mindset which Thorstein Veblen characterised as "predatory". Veblen saw a deep division that runs through whole societies as well as through individual psyches, between the "predatory" and the "industrious" instincts. The predatory hunts what it needs from nature and despises drudgery; it admires courage and prowess; believes in luck and the supernatural; loves pomp, ceremony and sport. The industrious makes the pots and tills the land; it bows to economic reality by cooperative labour; believes in causal rather than magical explanations; values diligence and craftsmanship. Veblen saw this deeper division as underlying the classes described by Marx - the predatory caste became kings and aristocrats, generals and priests, capitalists and bankers, shunning toil in favour of ruling the industrious majority by confiscating their surplus product. Such predators invented the Judeo-Christian-Islamic notion of Divine Providence, whereby God gave the Earth to man to exploit as he wishes - an idea which has permitted scientific capitalism to bring us to our current state of unprecedented wealth and freedoms, and unprecedented hazard.

Perhaps the most terrifying manifestation of Divine Providence nowadays is Sarah Palin (wherever she spoke during the 2008 presidential elections, redneck audiences chanted "Drill, baby, drill!") and it's not entirely inconceivable that she could become the next president of the USA, should Obama stumble very badly. Were that to happen then Monbiot's finishing flourish - "This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands" - would gain a whole new resonance...  

originally posted 13 Jan 2010 16:39 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 14 Jan 2010 14:32 ]

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