Thursday, 4 July 2013

Dreams That Hurt or Idiots, Bystanders and Perpetrators: Living the Neo-Liberal Dream of Climate Change Denial

Each weekday morning I wake up to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. Often interviews and reports become incorporated into my dreams, as I lie snoozing instead of jumping from my bed and heading out for a run. Often these Today-induced snooze-dreams climax with my realisation that I am in fact dreaming and not participating in a three-way discussion. In my dream I attain increasing levels of despair as I forcefully and repeatedly insist to interviewer and interviewee that they must allow me to speak and put across my view. Why else have they engaged me in conversation? ... and then. Oh, right, they hadn't. Naughtie is interviewing Balls and I'm snoozing in bed. Sometimes the dream-state plays tricks on me, and subtly exchanges those who are actually speaking on the radio for the people I would prefer to listen to and converse with. One such occasion had me engaging, or in an increasingly frustrated manner trying to engage, Stephen Fry and Caroline Lucas, on my front doorstep with giant Jackson Pollock backdrop (against which Mr Fry and Ms Lucas looked rather splendid). While this began enjoyably it ended all too predictably with me berating them both for ignoring me and talking over my contributions to the discussion. None of us commented on the Pollock in my front garden. My frustration was mitigated because as I awoke I realised that my tormentors were not (A Bit of) Fry and Lucas but actually Jim Naughty and Natalie Bennett. Frustration followed by disappointment, such are my dreams.

I share these thoughts because I am procrastinating and can think of nothing else to write want to draw an analogy between my dreams and what seems to me like our collective dream-state. My dreams generally only impact on me and then really only in a mildly amusing if occasionally irritating way. On the other hand, the dream-state to which we seem to be collectively subject has impact not merely on us, but on those who share our planet (but not our dreams) and those yet to be born. Furthermore, the impact is resolutely negative.

In this collective dream-state the news that there is much more shale gas than we initially thought contained in the rocks under the UK is reported with no mention of the climate-costs of burning that gas and releasing into the atmosphere over the next decade or so even more of the carbon-energy which has been provided by the sun and stored by our planet over millions of years. Because that is what we are doing. In burning fossil fuels, we are taking energy stored by the millions of years worth of plant photosynthesis, that has been stored in carbon-dense fossilised vegetation, and using it in the space of a few hundred years (though most intensely over a few decades). In doing so, in helping ourselves to this millions of years worth of stored energy we are releasing carbon into our atmosphere at an alarming rate. We need to stop doing this, not continue to do it; not find more inventive ways to increase the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Sure shale gas is preferable to coal, but then what fuel-source isn't from a climate perspective? Think wind turbines are ugly? Wait till those beautiful shale gas rigs are littering the fields of Lancashire and Yorkshire. And, of course, Boris Johnson believes nowhere should remain unfracked.

So, to Boris...

...Well, in this collective dream-state one of the country's leading politicians (and favourite buffoon) can make statements of immense stupidity about climate science without that diminishing his public appeal or drawing into question his education or intelligence. For Boris Johnson seems to think that glancing out of one's kitchen window at snow falling (in January) might serve as an empirical refutation of climate science. Climate science employs a diverse variety of well-understood scientific methods (such as modelling, testing the models' data outputs against historical data, gained from ice cores, and so on, and on, and on), is subject to peer-review and scrutiny, and under a process of constant revision, which leads to greater understanding. Does Boris really believe seeing snow in January in London is even relevant, much less serves as a refutation? Apparently he does.

In this collective dream-state the occasion of our reaching of a very dark milestone in our ongoing failure to combat global carbon emissions, on May 10th 2013,  passed with little media impact. One might be forgiven for expecting the reaching of 400 parts per million of CO2 (and equivalent greenhouse gasses) in our atmosphere for the first time in human history to be a little more worthy of note. Nope. On the same day, however, news bulletins in the UK were dominated by revived attempts to resuscitate old arguments for a third runway at Heathrow airport. Hmmm... I know, let's respond to the overdose by advocating increasing the most effective way of administering the drug responsible for the overdose. Dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere? Let's seek to mainline some more.

In this collective dream-state daily papers still perpetuate the myth that there is no scientific consensus on human generated climate change by citing commentators writing on neo-conservative blogs who don't so much question the science as, at best, demonstrate their politically-motivated ignorance or, at worst, their willingness to pedal fatal lies. The Independent's "i" newspaper did just this on two consecutive days in June 2013: take a look here (for the "i" "Opinion Matrix" on 12/06/13) and here (for the "i" "Opinion Matrix" on 13/06/13). In both cases the newspaper's framing of the 'story' as there being disagreement on climate change transpires to be nothing more than that someone in the "i" office (or maybe while down the pub?) managed to Google a neo-conservative crackpot somewhere writing on a self-proclaimed conservative blog who had taken political exception to the scientific facts. The precise motives for printing such nonsense eludes me. But the casual reader of the paper might put down their edition with the impression that there is some scientific disagreement, when there is not.

You see, whatever Boris Johnson sought to convey in his Telegraph column from January this year when he questioned climate science on the basis that looking out of the window of his house in London he could see snow falling, what he actually succeeded in demonstrating was that he has failed to grasp the concept of 'empiricism' and that he hasn't grasped the rather basic distinction between weather and climate. What next? Bo-Jo watches the sun rise one morning and writes a column dismissing all this Copernicus nonsense. Cripes.

Or maybe there is a different answer. Maybe it is not that Johnson, a product of reputedly the best education this country--some might argue the world--has to offer, doesn't understand the meaning of 'empiricism' and doesn't know the difference between weather and climate, localised events and general planetary trends. No, that isn't the problem. Indeed, even if he did not know such things surely someone on the editorial team at the Telegraph knew that casually observing a single localised event does not amount to an empirical refutation of decades-worth of climate science. The point is that there is an ideological agenda here. Accepting the truth about human induced climate change has consequences for anyone who wishes to maintain even the appearance of someone who cares about other people and about our children. Because accepting the truth and continuing to live as if climate change were not happening is to be a bystander to atrocity, it is to succumb to the bystander effect on a global scale.

However, I believe that the truth is that Johnson does not fit this category either. He is not simply a bystander, failing to help through indifference or a perverse rationale. The choice we face in making sense of Johnson's position is one between stupidity and perpetrator, not stupidity and being subject to the bystander effect. Because Johnson is actively endeavouring to undermine the science through his columns, his political influence and his celebrity. He is not simply standing-by, pretending he doesn't know that continuing to live carbon-profligate lifestyles will make things worse, will lead to more future devastation. He is actively encouraging this attitude and worse in others.

Moreover, whatever the editor of the "i" newspaper wants readers to believe, there really is NO scientific dispute over whether or not climate change is taking place and that it is caused by human carbon emissions mainly due to our burning of fossil fuels.

One of the problems is that the discussion of climate change in the public sphere has become ideological. That's not the same as saying it has become politicised or political. The nature of anthropogenic climate change is such that its discussion is inevitably political. The effects climate change will increasingly have on our lives and the nature of the measures required to prevent runaway climate change are such that the responses required demand political coordination. Voluntarism, the thought that this might be addressed through the choices of individuals, is simply not a viable option. An organised political response is required. So what do I mean then in saying that the problem is that the discussion has become ideological? Well the point I want to make is about the nature of ideologies and how they operate. Ideologies are not merely collections of beliefs about the world, they actually serve to frame the way we see the world. Collections of beliefs about the world can be challenged by demonstrating those beliefs to be at variance with the facts. We can address collections of beliefs about the world, belief by belief, by identifying those that don't correspond to the facts they are supposed to represent. But this strategy will not work with an ideology.

Ideologies are different, they are world-views and they operate pre-factually as it were, or pre-belief. For example, if one is committed to the ideological view that the social world is a collection of atomised, autonomous individuals with their individual interests, as opposed to that world being composed of rational social beings, whose lives are by and large as much characterised by dependency on others as they are by autonomy, who as well as having interests and preferences also have rich and crucially-important emotional and ethical lives, then this has impact on how one sees the world. The former will see the world in terms of individuals satisfying their self-interests and pay scant attention to the promotion of institutions that might facilitate and even promote caring, sharing, and collective flourishing.

Seeing the world through the frame of extreme individualism will lead one to frame facts in a way that leads to certain beliefs about the world, that to others seem just plain wrong. For example, it as an ideologically-induced consequence of seeing individuals as atomised autonomous agents pursuing their interests that one then sees demands which clash with those interests as illegitimate, as dangerous, as fetters on one's autonomy and freedom. Viewed through the frame conferred by a commitment to neo-liberal ideology, such facts will be seen as doing violence to one's autonomy.

The problem is that while there are many different potentially viable political responses to tackling climate change, such that even those who are depicted as environmentalists often do not share political views, the dogmatic extremism of neo-liberal individualism is not one of those viable political responses. Because, neo-liberalism, like its most charismatic British cheerleader, Boris Johnson, is not inert (not a bystander) in the face of the problem of climate change, it exacerbates (it perpetrates) the problem.

So, what do you do if you are committed at a fundamental ideological level to neo-liberalism and you are faced with the facts of climate change? Well, what happens is that your ideological commitments will kick-in and re-frame those facts, so to you they do not appear as facts but as spurious moral imperatives advanced by a bunch of people opposed to your political views. The result is then that facts stop being facts simply because as facts they don't fit the frame through which you view your world.

This neo-liberal idea of individual autonomy is a myth in and of itself. As individuals we are dependent in obvious ways, during childhood, illness and old age. We are dependent in less immediately obvious, though no-less real, ways also, owing to how the effects we have on our planet impact on others, whether that be through polluting a river upstream from where others take from it their drinking water, or whether it be through causing global overheating for future generations, knowing that we can act collectively now to prevent this. Moreover, this extremist conception of individualism operative as an ideological principle in neo-liberalism actually results not in a maximisation of individual autonomy for all individuals but in the maximisation of the autonomy and freedom of a very few individuals through sacrificing the lives of many many others.

This is crucial.

So much as it is justified in terms of the maximising of the autonomy and freedom of individuals, neo-liberalism is a lie. It serves the interests of a minority of individuals at great cost to the vast majority of others. We seem to see no irony in finding the human sacrifices of the Aztecs abhorrent and indicative of a culture more primitive than our own, while we sacrifice life on a much larger scale at the alter of corporate greed, presided over by the high priests of neo-liberal ideology. Is it the feathers that were the problem for the Aztecs? You know, is it an image thing? I mean, was it a matter of poor marketing and bad brand image on the part of the Aztecs? Maybe if they had framed their penchant for human sacrifice in terms of individualism and maximising economic growth we would not be so ready to view them so negatively... Nope. Killing people, however framed, is a pretty dastardly thing to do. So maybe our lack of horror at our own penchant for sacrifice is, rather, based on our choosing to remain in an ideologically-induced collective dream-state rather than waking and facing the world we have made, as it is. While we seem obsessed with railing against extremism and fundamentalism when we find it in other cultures, by and large we ignore it and its consequences in our own. Most of us are bystanders, even if we might not be perpetrators (how sure are you..?).


  1. Beautifully done, Phil.
    [You could include some of this material in your still-at-present-'samizdat' "Liberalism and climate change" essay.]

    Re. The Aztecs: the point you are making above is, in my view, the point of APOCALYPTO. The devastating move made at the end of that film is to make one realise that that film is really about US. About the way we are 'sacrificing' poor / 3rd world / future people on our altars, continually, destroying ecosystems en masse, enslaving others, etc.

    On waking up from this nightmare: as you know Phil, that, on my reading, is what AVATAR centrally concerns. See my piece in‎

  2. Thanks Rupert. Glad you liked it. Yes, though neither were in mind as I initially thought of the examples of the Aztecs and the collective dream-state, as I was writing the closing paragraphs both films came to mind. Indeed, I was tempted to go off on a tangent and write a little about the original Total Recall or mention your discussion of Avatar. Regarding Apocalypto, I would have to see it again to think about whether I concur with your reading of its message. Maybe you could do a quick piece on TR and Avatar when we launch the thinkingfilm blog in the next week or so?