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’.
Today ‘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.