The death of climate change enlightenment – or Monbiot’s self-inflicted wound?
The Titanic often crops up in climate change discussions. It’s an apt metaphor, never more so than now because, as George Monbiot laments in his latest bout of self-pity (Climate change enlightenment was fun while it lasted. But now it’s dead):
“we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power…We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so. So what do we do now?”
How about waking the fuck up? For years I’ve been stating the bleeding obvious, in my writing, in CiF posts, in my blog and elsewhere – that no government can or will address issues that, through their actions, will get them booted out of office. This is the end of the empire of electricity, and like all empires, those who run it are going to be the last to acknowledge its demise. Global trade won’t save us any more than global militarisation. Doesn’t anybody read Gibbon anymore?
So here we are then on the deck of a ship steered by greed, fuelled by consumerism and crewed by the complacent. Nobody is steering, nobody looks at maps because the coasts and reefs, the docks and all the other navigable markers keep shifting like sand before the tide. This huge vessel has inertia proportionate to its size, so like an oil tanker, there is no chance of stopping it on a sixpence, and even less chance of changing direction. This great ship of state is plunging onward towards its demise and there’s not very much anyone can do, since we can’t even agree who should be steering right now, let alone where we should be going.
“What do we do now?” asks the plaintive Monbiot. My answer: build more lifeboats, because there are never enough of the damn things.
We have incurred a debt so grave – nature the debtor – that we cannot repay it voluntarily. The bill has come due for our irresponsibility and lack of foresight, and these particular debt collectors cannot be reasoned with, nor stalled, nor seduced. Returning to my briny theme, Canute’s demonstration still rings true: when this tide comes in, we’ll all be rushing for the lifeboats.
Never mind those who don’t even believe the tide will turn. What about those who we elected to run the show, the ones too craven to address the issues even though they accept the science of climate change and the inevitability of peak oil? I know there’s a fine line between cynicism and pragmatism, but it seems ludicrous for pundits like Monbiot to expect something so astonishingly unlikely. Two recent events demonstrate this facility to invest faith with foolish abandon – the Obama election, and the Copenhagen conference.
On both occasions, it seemed like many of us were so desperate for meaningful, constructive change, we were prepared to indulge ourselves in childish fantasies. Dreams are fine, except when we invest in them such expectations that their failure to materialise becomes traumatic, and we – like Monbiot – become disillusioned. You cannot blame Obama for the circumstances surrounding his ascendancy, any more than you can blame politicians for doing what they do when they try to negotiate a massive, world-shaking deal in the public eye.
In the end, Monbiot did this to himself. It’s curious he mentions paternalism in his article, because it is this childlike notion of social responsibility that got us in this mess in the first place. The polity have rarely wanted responsibility. Leaders – politicians, businessmen or whatever – are the paternal figures that absolve us of personal responsibility. When things are bad, we know who to blame: everyone except ourselves. ‘What can we do?’ we cry out, maintaining the fiction we are powerless, small, of no consequence. I’ll tell you what we can do: grow up!
If Monbiot wants to indulge himself in regret and helplessness, that’s up to him. Trouble is, he’s doing it to a lot of other people too because his voice is heard and his views taken seriously. He has influence, but has used it badly. Instead of campaigning for sensible adaptation, he tried to change the system. That’s the equivalent of trying to rebuild a ship while at sea: it sinks.
We will all get real about climate change, population growth, resource management and all the rest, when the threat becomes real. It’s like Britain in 1940 – war deniers were hard to find once the bombs started falling. This time the bombs will fall in slow motion, as the sea rises and economic infrastructure convulses. We have to wait, and prepare in our sorrow for what we are losing, because change will come only when we cannot withstand it any longer, cannot deny it and cannot avoid the consequences.
The only other alternative is chaos: if you want revolution George, then stock up on body bags, for that is the price we always pay for violent upheaval (and that’s not to say that conflagration is off the menu – far from it). This civilisation will not fall, but it will stumble very badly, and many will feel great pain. Stop complaining, put the kettle on, and start making bandages.