How did we get into this mess?

While I was writing my last essay, on environmentalism and humanism, I kept thinking that I had written about the development of environmentalism some time before. Where was it? It turned out to be in an essay I wrote for Judith Curry’s website, Climate etc, in 2011, and you can read it here, along with the 737 comments it received then. I was prompted to write it by remembering that when I was an undergraduate, in the mid 1950s, no one talked about ‘environmentalism’ or even ‘the environment’. ‘Nature’ was probably the collective word for all that. My Shorter OED, bought in 1964, defines ‘environment’ as ‘the act of environing…that which environs, esp. the conditions or influences under which any person or thing lives or is developed’.

Writer Prof Don Aitkin image quoteToday ‘the environment’ is an indispensable part of our language. There are ministers for it, groups for it, citizens for it, laments for it, fears for it, and so on. There are people who think it is much more important than humanity. Paul Ehrlich, Prince Philip and John Davis, who edited Earth First!, have all made disparaging remarks about humanity, as a kind of cancer or virus that needs to be put down. Maybe they were throwaway lines. But you do come across, quite regularly, statements that see humanity as dangerous and that all other species deserve equal consideration. I’m not sure that beetles, let alone viruses, are quite what such people have in mind.

How did all this happen? And why is it so difficult to turn it around? I can summarise what I wrote four years ago, adding factors that have seemed important since then. Note, there are no villains or conspiracies here. These slow processes over two generations just happen, and they affect one another. The words in italics are from the 2011 essay.

1. There’s been a great increase in wealth in the developed world, and that has led to a shift from a view that the interests of all are most important, to the view that one’s own needs, wishes and capacity to act are most important — a shift from ‘we’ to ‘me’.

2. We are now able to communicate almost instantly and globally in a fashion that has no past parallel.

3. Our society is much better educated than was the case sixty years ago. An educated population is relatively self-confident about its capacity to understand what is going on and to form opinions about issues and policy options. 

4. There is now an Australian research industry of considerable size — 120,000 person-years in 2011, of which 55,ooo are in universities. In all Western countries governments supply a great deal of research funding, and this is especially the case in the field of climate science, which is virtually a government monopoly.

5. Organised religion has declined quite dramatically in the last sixty years, for a variety of reasons, including the greater penetration of women into the workforce. Australia is now a much more overtly secular society. But materialism — retail therapy — is not finally satisfying, and in the place of Christianity has come a vague spiritual feeling associated with the Earth, the worship of Gaia being its extreme manifestation.

6. Environmentalism has produced a great number of organisations, especially international ones. Many of them have established themselves as charities, and pay no tax. The most prominent are far wealthier than all but a few of the others, even in the field of medicine.

7. All these factors have worked together to affect what is taught in schools and universities, in part through the development of new curricula and in part through the replacement of older staff with younger staff who are ‘believers’ in or ‘acceptors’ of the new theology of environmentalism and sustainability.

8. We have reached a time in the development of our political system where governments are afraid of leading, and the prevailing mood is one of negativity. The confidence and optimism of sixty years ago has largely gone. Yet Australians are wealthier, better-travelled, better-educated, more creative and better-informed than their parents or grandparents were at the same age.

How you mix all these ingredients is up to you, and you may have other ingredients to stir into the pot. I’ll stick with what I wrote in 2011.

It seems to me that environmentalism has moved in to take some of the spiritual role that organised Christianity once played, and it also offers a new political path for those who find things wrong, bad and unacceptable. Something is bad, and we must fix it! Democratically elected governments are sensitive to the fears and anxieties of the electorate, and a significant part of the electorate is worried about the ‘future of the planet’. So governments have asked the new priests, the scientists, to help. Since many countries seem to have these woes, the outcome has been a common one, helped by international organizations and the ease of global communication. No matter that climate affects us all locally, the outcome has been to find the villainy in our universal use of fossil fuels, leading to increases in temperature, leading to disaster scenarios. The villain is ourselves, and we require government action, more regulation and new taxes.

Kenneth Clark’s magisterial survey of ‘Civilisation’ which I watched again some time ago, and found just as good as the first time, argued that civilisations look strong but are always potentially fragile. Their enemies are fear of the unknown and of the future, a loss of self-confidence in the society’s laws, philosophy and values, and a slow loss of vigour, energy and vitality — declines that lead in time to a loss of the prosperity that allowed the civilisation to grow. 

I think we can see that around us, though I am personally optimistic about the future. For example, the Intergenerational Report does not deal with the possibility that changes in technology and communication will obviate the scary possibility that there won’t be enough able-bodied workers to support the old. Of course, we can’t just rely on ‘possibilities’, but it is well to remember past horrors, like the Great Horse Manure Scare, of which I wrote eighteen months ago.

And not just horse manure. I have a Turgot map of Paris in 1739 that shows a huge amount of urban land devoted to the storing of firewood. So great was the loss of forests for firewood that the head of the French Navy wrote to the King pleading that it stop, because there would soon be no timber for the Navy’s new ships. Within a generation the Western world had begun the move into the coal and iron age. I think we can and will cope with energy needs and apparent over-population, too. But nothing will happen overnight.

And I’ll finish with what was my concluding paragraph four years ago, with a little editing.

I plug along, reading, thinking and writing, inspecting new argument and evidence, prepared to be shown strong evidence that AGW is as real as the doomsters say, but rather expecting that someone really important, not a little boy, will point out that the Emperor has no clothes, and that the science is perplexing, not settled. If we go into a prolonged cool period, as seems entirely possible, then the AGW scare will subside more rapidly. But I would expect to see some of the current scaremongers switch to some kind of new scare, missing scarcely a beat.

Alas, life is like that.

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  • David says:

    Don, you write,

    “If we go into a prolonged cool period, as seems entirely possible, then the AGW scare will subside more rapidly.”

    So what are you saying? All sort of events are “ entirely possible”. Could you please convert “as seems entirely possible” into a probability. In your mind what is the probability that at some date in the future [your choice] the world’s average temperature will be less than it is in 2015.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Given that we are going through a period of lower sunspot activity, a number of competent northern hemisphere scientists have been suggesting we are likely to enter a cooling phase. To ascribe a probability would be fatuous, as silly as the latest IPCC SPM with its “95%” probability figure claim based on nothing mathematical at all. With your evident background, you would know that worthwhile figures of probability must have a mathematical basis, the latter being supported by fact, not opinion. Are you asking Don to be as silly as the IPCC?

      Meanwhile, would you care to comment on the major themes of Don’s post?

      • David says:

        Any conceivable event with a probability > 0% is entirely possible. All I a asking is for is some clarification.

        General comment about the post. I am glad we have moved on from the 1950’s.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I agree. I have written elsewhere, probably more than once, that if I were to be born again, and could choose only to be born in say, the 1940s or today, in Australia, the rest being concealed by Rawls’s veil (that is, you wouldn’t know whether or not you were to be female or male, able-bodied or otherwise, etc), I would plump without hesitation for the present.

    • kvd says:

      In your mind what is the probability that at some date in the future
      [your choice] the world’s average temperature will be less than it is in

      100% – given only that there is no perceptible reduction in our orbit round the sun.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      As others have said, this is not a sensible request, but I will answer it sensibly: it would be extraordinarily unlikely for the planet’s air temperature at about 2 metres above the ground not to fall below the 2015 average some time in the future.

      • David says:

        Of course it is a sensible request. You are telling me something might happen. And I am asking you how likely you think it is. And you respond like this.

        Commentators like Peter Kremiss might think the IPCC “silly” but at least the IPCC have the scientific integrity, and dare I say intellectual self-respect, to present their predictions in a way that can be understood, scrutinized and tested.

        You have said that it seems entirely possible the world might go into a prolonged cool period. I have simply asked you how likely, and you have decided to take your bat and ball and go home. 🙂

        • Don Aitkin says:

          David, I said that it would be extraordinarily unlikely for that not to happen, which means that I think it is likely to happen. Putting a probability estimate on it, given the lack of data, would not be sensible, in my opinion.

          • David says:

            Don as my late father used to say, “you must think I came down in the last shower”

            Simply saying that something is very likely to happen at “sometime in the future” is meaningless! Sometime in the future covers a lot of possibilities. You say the world might experience prolonged cooling. So should I buy a coat or not. 🙂

          • Don Aitkin says:

            You puzzle me. There are no good data on which I could assign a probability estimate to the likelihood of the average in say 2025 being lower than the average in 2015. I know that the IPCC does, on the basis of its models. But then I have scant regard for its models as sources of prediction, because they have an appalling track record.

            It may be that we are in for extended cooling. Many scientists think so. I don’t know whether or not they’re right. But if they are then 2025 could well be colder. Should you go out and buy a coat? No, I don’t think the drop is likely to be so severe, in the short run at least. What you have in your wardrobe is probably sufficient.

            It may be that we will see a warmer period soon.The SOI is suggesting an el Nino later in the year. But that is natural variability, not GGE.

            We know so little that it is fanciful, in my opinion, to be offering strong statements about what will happen with the weather, let alone with climate.

          • BoyfromTottenham says:

            P!ss off, troll.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            I don’t regard David as a troll. He usually has a point to make that is relevant to the essay, and does not try to hijack the discussion down his chosen pathway, which is what I think the true trolls do.

            If you don’t like what he says, just scroll past him!

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Your analysis really concerns the Western world. I share the same concerns, that it is in danger of “losing its way”. That is not to argue that the West should return wholly to the understandings of the 1950s and early 1960s, for there is much of value that has been learned and applied since then in that world of the environment. Much of that awareness and improvement has been triggered by the “naturalists” of whom you wrote the other day. But it is a matter of balance, between the almost total emphasis on “progress” of the Bjelke-Petersen years in Queensland, and the “hands off nature” cries from the comfortably ensconced urbanised latte set, whose well-being today is only there because of “progress”.

    The developing world today is having none of the nonsense, an ennui towards civilisation, that we see around ourselves. It is the West that is at risk of “shooting itself in the foot”, for the developing world concentrates on the basic necessities still, and literally has no time for silly navel-gazing. So I don’t see a collapse of civilisation (and you are not suggesting that), but I do so a major re-ordering, and the risk we face is that the values over which our antecedents fought and died, may be swamped by new tides, with values and practices most unwelcome.

  • Gordon Watson says:

    Dear Don, Another thought provoking piece. It reminded me of this article I came across in this morning’s Brisbane Times. A free UQ course to ‘combat’ climate change deniers! At the taxpayers expense I would imagine.

  • Alan Gould says:


    Given the variabeness and unknowableness of how effectively heat gets delivered to our planet, you are quite right to resist venturing probabilities at the same time that you do venture likelihoods on the basis of past climate fluctuations. Petulant of David to insist on this, in my view.


    Your description of a “comfortably ensconced urbanised latte set, whose well-being today is only…” is smear, in my opinion, and unhelpful. We oppose the stupid, the negligent, the intractable, not caricatures. This kind of dismissal places us on the same moral level as those who demonise sceptics as equivalent to child molesters and the like.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    A most interesting but worrying piece Don. Like you I was around in the optimistic 1950s when progress was a good thing and we felt good about ourselves in the post-war world of opportunity. In retrospect, that world had few of the great advances we now enjoy in health, transport, communications, fairer societies and knowledge, but we saw improvement every year and and that sparked optimism.

    Today the doomsayers and naysayers dominate the opinion makers and although we do actually live in the best of all times, the majority don’t seem to know it and see only the problems and imperfect wrinkles in an imperfect world. Like you I remain optimistic, but sometimes I’m not sure why.

    I would add the demise of Communism to the demise of religion as an ideological gap soon filled by environmentalists able to combine their innate urge to do good with an equal urge to dictate to the rest of us how we should live. I suspect these urges are owe much to both nature and nurture,

    For David. I note you are still not directing comments at the main thrust of the blog, but disputing the choice of words or phrases used and essentially nit-picking. I for one find this annoying and ask that, like everyone else, you enter into the spirit of discussion so we can all gain something positive from the process.

  • Karen Dahl says:

    permaculture is part of the solution. Mimicking nature. Geoff Lawton has done some wonderful research and practice on greening the desert.

  • David says:


    FYI, I am going to provide a link to your blog, as example of how to write English well.


  • […] essay rather follows on from my last one, about the bog we seem to be in politically and culturally, unable to fight our way out of what […]

  • […] Five years ago I wrote a piece for Judith Curry’s Climate etc website called ‘How did we all get into this?’, which was my attempt at an analysis of the dynamics underlying what seemed then the general public acceptance of AGW and the need for governments to do something about it. The essay was quite long, and received more than 700 comments. Some were supportive and others were critical (and others still galloped off in different directions). But I learned a lot from the discussion, and would have written a much better essay had I had the opportunity to do a second edition. You can see a later summary of it here. […]

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