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The death of climate change enlightenment – or Monbiot’s self-inflicted wound?

September 21, 2010

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.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. Garry Hemming permalink
    September 21, 2010 10:59 am

    Graham, I take what you are saying about Monbiot, his self pity and disillusionment. His latest blog, which I read just before yours was not much of a pep talk and seemed devoid of hope.

    But your own blog also ends with a sense of the fatalistic. You seem to be suggesting that nothing will be done, even nothing can be done until climate change gets so bad, it’s effects so far reaching.

    Do we really have to wait for the bombs to start falling, in slow motion, before there is action? By then there may well be plenty of bombs already falling. Shouldn’t we, to use your analogy, be pushing for disarmament talks and building air raid shelters?

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 21, 2010 11:18 am

    Absolutely Garry – my fatalism is restricted to mitigation. Instead, we should be considering how we can adapt, and more’s the point, how we can help those in the world who cannot afford the kind of solutions we in the west will invest in – sooner or later. I’m not sure if we can get governments and big business to see sense, and I don’t think they will give up the heady notions of ‘growth’ any time soon (any more than they will concede that consumerism is a dead duck), but this is what we should all be campaigning to achieve – and that’s my point in a nutshell: we must try to do the possible, not the laughable. This is no time for political or economic abstractions like ‘regime change’.

  3. September 21, 2010 1:23 pm

    Appreciated this post over on the Monbiot site. I like to think that life and people may still surprise us yet on this issue, but in any event, lets build more lifeboats and get the bandages ready. Could not agree more.

  4. elsa permalink
    September 21, 2010 2:15 pm

    Oh for goodness sake! What a depressed and depressing bunch you are. I think you have all spent so long trying to make out that global warming can only possibly be a total disaster that you forget a) that quite a few places will be much nicer. Maybe buy a house now in the north of Sweden b) that historically warm phases have not been all bad for everyone, in fact they’ve generally been quite good c) even the IPCC concedes that it may actually not be right d) if the warming doesn’t come along soon you will end up with egg on your faces and be discredited when in fact you do have a sensible point to make. And let’s think what that awful concept “growth” means. It means people in China and India whose parents had virtually nothing will have children who may enjoy the sort of life that we all have. How can that be bad? Monbiot is a fanatic and we should all open a bottle of champagne if he think’s his ideas are being disregarded. Chance would be a fine thing I suspect.

  5. September 21, 2010 4:47 pm

    Here is my response to Monbiot, which is basically that we’ve known for a while that we’re well past the point at which we can avoid serious negative consequences, so we need to acknowledge that and not only build “lifeboats”, but still engage politically to salvage what we can/minimise the wreckage.

  6. September 21, 2010 7:56 pm

    On the Titanic metaphor/analogy, here’s a cartoon

    http://www.climatecartoons.org.uk/titanic.html

    On us wanting our ‘leaders’ to be whipping boys (and more rarely girls), try

    No-one Ever is to Blame
    http://www.eco-action.org/dt/blame.html

  7. September 21, 2010 7:58 pm

    Oh, and Gibbon, not Gibbons.

  8. September 22, 2010 2:23 am

    Great write up Graham.. In retrospect, much of my own writing over the previous fortnight has been somewhat in a disillusionment tone as well (although, I haven’t Monbiot’s readership, so less harm done) and this post is a well needed slap to the face.

  9. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 22, 2010 5:17 am

    Dwight – you’re quite right. That certainly made a monkey out of me 🙂

    Moth: I got the same way after CO15/CRU. I just remembered that I never believed COP15 would deliver, any more than I thought Obama would fix America overnight (or even in a full term). But as you point out, we’re hardly making any dent in the public discourse, where George can make a huge one. Nothing breeds actualy failure like…er…the promotion of a sense of failure, right?

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 22, 2010 5:34 am

    Elsa, that’s a remarkly trite, vacuous, irresponsible and bloody fact-free post you made:

    “…quite a few places will be much nicer. Maybe buy a house now in the north of Sweden…”

    So you fail to understand even now, after all this time, that the people who will be worst affected can’t afford bread, let alone move several thousand miles from – say – Bangladesh, to Sweden, who I’m sure will welcome several million new, broke, immigrants who have walked from Asia to Scandinavia.

    “…historically warm phases have not been all bad for everyone, in fact they’ve generally been quite good”

    Tripe. You made that up. Bring evidence because I don’t believe you.

    “…even the IPCC concedes that it may actually not be right”

    Outright lie. Where’s your evidence? You have none.

    “…if the warming doesn’t come along soon you will end up with egg on your faces…”

    What do you end up with other than zero credibility when you write nonsense like this? The warming’s been with us for a century, and accelerated rapidly in the last 30 years. In keeping with your pantomime post, for warming – IT’S BEHIND YOU!

    “…[growth] means people in China and India whose parents had virtually nothing will have children who may enjoy the sort of life that we all have”.

    Are you also indulging in denial about peak oil, population growth, resource shortages, water, tin, metal, glass, rubber, food, medicines…where the hell do you think we’re going to get all this stuff when there is already insufficient to go round.

    The frustrating thing about you is that you know all this perfectly well, and ignore the facts relentlessly to suit a stupid agenda of contrarianism and denial – as your post aptly demonstrates. I truly cannot believe this blog benefits from such crass remarks and I wish to God you’d say something sensible, and if you can’t then nothing at all.

  11. September 22, 2010 6:00 am

    Well I couldn’t have replied to Elsa any better.
    I was going to make three points;
    – I live in the driest state of Australia.. There’s nothing good coming our way with change – the decade long drought just broke, how long until we’re the next? And why would I want to move oversea when the country of my birth and ecological training dies due to our blatant ignorance?
    – as for being better off… what about when (most likely within a decade) oil prices start to sky-rocket? Most human activities are tied to oil…
    – Egg our face? Change, as has already been observed, is already evidence rich. Even if another phantom force “debunked” anthropogenic climate change, no-one will have egg on their face… You obviously don’t know how science works – it aims at clarity, advocacy of a particular idea regardless of the fact – that’s ideology (which continuously has egg on it’s face).

  12. September 22, 2010 7:02 am

    “In keeping with your pantomime post, for warming – IT’S BEHIND YOU!”

    First laugh of the day – thanks!.

    And Elsa – why are you doing this? Is it freelance trolling? Contractedtrolling? Or do you just like being a “contrarian”? Actually, scrap that, I don’t care. I just want you to grow up. You’re obviously literate. We need people like you to grow up and to help to start preparing this species for the shitstorm that is at most a couple of decades away. Do you think you can do that?

  13. adelady permalink
    September 22, 2010 9:11 am

    I do think Elsa demonstrates those Northern Hemisphere blinkers quite well. There’s some clown (forgot the name almost instantly) proposing that if it gets tto hot in Los Angeles, then those people should just up sticks and move north to SanFrancisco – 400 km north.

    Sound good? Adelaide is at the same latitude as Los Angeles, but in the Southern Hemisphere. If we want to move 400 km south we move to …… the ocean. Add in all the other cities at similar (Melbourne) and further north latitudes, Darwin, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. Now we’ve got the whole population of mainland Australia cramming into Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand. Not very comfy and where exactly are the crop producing areas to feed these 30 million people?

    Migration is not a solution. It’s a huge problem.

  14. elsa permalink
    September 22, 2010 9:53 am

    Well at least I’ve pulled you all out of your depressions! I’ll be back with some comments on your comments but I just need to go and earn a living for a few hours.

  15. elsa permalink
    September 22, 2010 2:09 pm

    “…quite a few places will be much nicer. Maybe buy a house now in the north of Sweden…”

    I think my point here was that if the world warms it isn’t all bad news. There will be some areas that improve even if the overall effect is one of deterioration.

    “…historically warm phases have not been all bad for everyone, in fact they’ve generally been quite good”

    I think my remark is quite moderate. “Have not been all bad for everyone” is hardly saying they were fantastic. And I well remember being taught in the 1970s, long before global warming came to the fore, that in the early 1300s life was actually quite good in England with quite a high population. Then a series of disasters struck. The plague came, the weather cooled down and there was a run of bad harvests.

    “…even the IPCC concedes that it may actually not be right”

    The IPCC, much as I don’t doubt that it would love to agree with you that the science is proven and the issue closed, is actually much more careful in its opinions than some of the postings here. They word things in terms of “likely” and “very likely” not certain. This they cannot do because they have not been able, even using their own numbers, to reach the 95% confidence level required for such a statement that warming is man made.

    “…if the warming doesn’t come along soon you will end up with egg on your faces…
    What do you end up with other than zero credibility when you write nonsense like this?”

    My point is this. You claim that the science is proven, which it is not, you claim that the world will warm. But even if you were right in saying it will warm, it will not necessarily do so evenly or rapidly. There could well be a few cooler years before the big heat sets in. By using hysterical language and overstating your case now you risk being made to look a complete fool if there is a prolonged period of cooling. No doubt you and the warmists will then all say “well this is only a passing phase” but your problem will be that by being shrill now should that event occur (and I think it is quite likely that it will and I also think there are plenty of the more scientific warmists who think so too) you will find it very hard to be taken seriously.

    “The warming’s been with us for a century, and accelerated rapidly in the last 30 years. In keeping with your pantomime post, for warming – IT’S BEHIND YOU!”

    I am grateful to Byron for pointing me in an earlier post to the booklet from the Australian Academy of Sciences. This has a graph setting out how the climate has changed in the recent past. From that it is clear that there have been fluctuations but by 1980 the temperature was no higher than it had been in 1880. Thereafter I agree there is an increase, though whether it is a significant one we have yet to see.

    “…[growth] means people in China and India whose parents had virtually nothing will have children who may enjoy the sort of life that we all have”.

    That is a statement I stand by completely. Nor do I think there will be any shortage of oil or other natural resources nor do I think that the population is too high.

    “Where the hell do you think we’re going to get all this stuff when there is already insufficient to go round.”

    The present problem is not insufficient resources. The problem is that the people who go short cannot afford to buy them. An increase in food production will not feed the starving in Zimbabwe if they have no money. Only growth will give these poor people the chance to live the nice lives that you and I have.

  16. adelady permalink
    September 22, 2010 2:32 pm

    Zimbabwe! What an example. The country that was well placed to be the bread basket of Africa became the basket-case of Africa in less than a decade. How?

    Poor leadership. Lack of foresight. Failure to educate. Shortsighted greed. Political idiocy.

    Sound familiar?

  17. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 22, 2010 3:09 pm

    “Nor do I think there will be any shortage of oil or other natural resources nor do I think that the population is too high”.

    Then you must think this elsewhere. I’ve tried hard to be accomodating, but every time I return I feel like you’ve sprayed graffitti all over my blog. I just can’t put up with such ill-informed remarks any longer.

    This site will not accept any more comment from you Elsa.

  18. September 22, 2010 5:06 pm

    Elsa is doubtless still reading (needs the attention, for validation). Your decision to block is, IMHO, sound

    Well at least I’ve pulled you all out of your depressions!

    Classic trolling – mock/faux concern for mental state of other posters

    I’ll be back with some comments on your comments

    Classic trolling – wants to enter into endless hall of mirrors conversation

    but I just need to go and earn a living for a few hours.

    Classic trolling – trying to draw “but I have a job just like you do” from other users on the site. Elsa, male or female, knows full well we have jobs. Wants to insinuate that we don’t in order to get a rise, get off topic.

    This is simply a bid for attention. Because without the attention from normal people, these broken-inside narcissists feel empty. “Look at me look at meee look at meeeeee.” No thanks.

    Trolls deserve our pity. Sometimes our contempt. They never deserve our time and energy.

  19. adelady permalink
    September 22, 2010 11:57 pm

    Good decision, Graham.

    If you allowed such comments, other people have to respond for the benefit of the casual readers who don’t contribute. When they’re not there, we can talk sensibly.

    After all, we send the tired toddlers off to bed when our adult guests want to talk at the dinner table, don’t we.

  20. September 23, 2010 1:13 am

    Graham, probably the best decision, but a tough one to make, I know – I’ve been accommodating Pete Ridley on my site too long, but censorship is not my favoured option.
    I suspect people like Elsa and Pete stir up trouble like this more for attention than any genuine debate.

  21. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 23, 2010 6:28 am

    Thanks folks for being supportive. I really don’t like doing this, but I was thinking much the same as Adelady – it’s like a bunch of adults trying to talk about something with a child keep interrupting. This blog is not intentionally set up to educate – I think it would be arrogant even to assume such a purpose – it exists as a medium for my writing and a forum for constructive discussion and to challenge my ideas – but not by challenging reality itself! Looking back since Elsa started posting, the discussions have not been constructive but good natured attempts to correct foolish misunderstanding.

    And it isn’t as if I’m rushing to judgement, since Elsa has been posting on the Guardian for quite a while, so I am aware that she cannot really be engaged with. In the end, I value my regular visitors too much to ask them to keep wading through this stuff, or ignore it.

  22. September 23, 2010 2:00 pm

    What about actual solutions? Here is one. Free public transit. Available now. Low tech. Proven. Leads to culture change.

  23. September 23, 2010 2:52 pm

    Thanks Graham.

  24. swiss tony permalink
    September 23, 2010 3:50 pm

    Face it guys. Don’t know about her views on climate but you dont come across as a haapy bunch.

  25. King In Yellow permalink
    September 23, 2010 4:38 pm

    A quick read of the responses to Monbiot’s article, shows the deniers in full cry, and showing they have less decorum and sense than a chimp’s tea party. It was also exceptionally vitriolic in there.

    They obviously can’t get their head round the fact that the science is unchanged, that AGW is happening and we’re going to be too late to do anything than mitigate it. They have won a battle and lost the war.

    Banning Else, was sadly the right thing to do. The ground rules were quite clear, and you had warned her sufficient times.

    All the best

  26. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 25, 2010 9:29 am

    PLEASE READ THIS (UPDATED):

    Sorry all, but the ‘Lovelock’ posts were fake.

  27. King In Yellow permalink
    September 26, 2010 8:06 pm

    “Sorry all, but the ‘Lovelock’ posts were fake.”
    And the chances of that were ?

    :-/

    FUD

    All the best.

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