In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins sings a vexed song to Colonel Pickering about why can’t a woman be more like a man. I proceed no further on this line lest I be accused of sexism. But I have often wondered why there aren’t more people like the ones I know who are sceptical of the approaching climatic Apocalypse. I know quite a few of them quite well. They seem sane to me, often quite witty, well educated and well read, generally optimistic about life, keen to discuss and debate, and always interested in argument and evidence. Why aren’t we all like that?
I have been asking questions like this for a decade at least. Australia is a much better society, in every way I can think of, than was the case in the 1950s. We have achieved a great deal, and while there are always problems, and always will be, we have shown a commendable capacity to tackle and solve them over time. Yet there is a pervading sense of gloom and doom. In the last little while I have been coming across clues to the answer.
The first clue comes in the book whose title is also the title for this essay. Pascal Bruckner is a French philosopher who writes in a familiar French intellectual style, discursive, highly theoretical, and rather data-free. He is noted both for this book, whose subtitle is Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, and for another, The Tyranny of Guilt, which I have not read. His thesis seems to be, to quote from a review I have read, that environmentalists are prone to pessimistic misanthropy. Some can even be paraphrased — or indeed quoted — as thinking all would be well if Homo sapiens became extinct overnight.
Bruckner is eminently quotable himself, but if I do too much of it there won’t be any essay left. The key message I gained from the beginning of the book is the role of ‘fear’ in our contemporary discourse, the media and serious writing. This fear of the future, of science and of technology, reflects a time when humanity, and especially Western humanity, has taken a sudden dislike to itself. We are exasperated by our own proliferation, and can no longer stand ourselves… Rejecting both capitalism and socialism ecologism has come to power nowhere… and has never shed blood, at least not up to now. But it has won the battle of ideas…. it is triumphant by capillary action, at the UN, in governments, in schools. It has become the dominant temper of the dawn of the twenty-first century. It excels more in preventing than in proposing….It is the power that always denies. And much more in this vein.
One tiny bit more: Fear has the power to mobilize people, to get them to overcome their divisions by proposing an object of collective repulsion, designating a scapegoat that binds them together and leads them to put their fates in the hands of a third party… anxiety has been elevated to the status of a political virtue, whereas joy is seen as a sign of unawareness. So much of it rings true to me. Bruckner says that Ecologism, the sole truly original force of the past half-century, has challenged the goals of progress and raised the question of its limits.
I began writing for newspapers in the second half of the 1960s. The temper of that time was much more optimistic, despite the war in Vietnam and the divisions with Australian society that it caused. We were building things, opening mines, enlarging the higher education system, building a film industry, developing the arts, widening the society to include indigenous people and immigrants. The ‘temper’ of the times, to use Bruckner’s word was positive and forward-looking.
How different it is today. Everything is a worry, according to our local newspaper. Setting aside politics, where the paper tries to be evenhanded, and the World, where just about everything is bad by definition, it invited us to worry about income slide, the use of a closed school site for housing, bad behaviour by a diplomat, accidental death, murder, drugs, industrial strife, robbery and even the unsafeness of online voting. Only two items could be classed as positive. One told us that when a large site for IKEA is finished, the completion will be good for everyone not just those who want to shop there; and there are new media possibilities for people who want to skip ads. It’s hard to be inspired about the future when this is your daily diet of news.
I don’t think today has been at all special. What else is there to report on? Whatever any government wants to do will be seen by others as wrong-headed, even pernicious. There are no new dams, colleges of advanced education, or universities. There is a new hospital coming, but all we hear about hospitals is bad, so even before a brick has been laid there are already criticisms that it is the wrong idea, or in the wrong place, or will be a waste of money.
One major change since the 1950s has been the creation of a national media system, so that no matter where you go in Australia you can see the same programs and read the same newspapers. This has led too, I think, to the development of a dominant Australian ‘world-view’, which is everywhere in the media. To depart from it is to invite exclusion from discussion. This is plain enough in the area of ‘climate change’, but it is also obvious, at least to me, in the areas of rational discussion of indigenous affairs on the part of anyone who is not indigenous, and in discussion about anything to do with Islam. You can call it ‘political correctness’, but to me it is unthinking conformism, enhanced by ‘fear’.
A second major change is the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the Great Enemy. I agree with Bruckner that ‘ecologism’ has taken over from international communism, and in effect has renewed the charge that ‘capitalism’ is the real enemy, and that those who live off it, which is the Western world, are responsible for everything that is bad. It’s nutty stuff, but it’s there all the time, like a miasma around us.
It doesn’t matter what the facts are. On the evidence I saw, domestic violence is becoming less prevalent, but that doesn’t stop us from becoming fearful, and thereby making it appear worse than it is. It doesn’t matter that there has been no significant warming for the best part of two decades, because warming might return any moment, and we would all face the Apocalypse. It doesn’t matter that the arid world is greening slightly because of greater CO2, because we know that CO2 is dangerous. When you’re in the grip of ‘fear’, facts don’t really matter.
And that is why I wonder why there are so many who feel that way, and why there aren’t more who feel, as I do, that the world is doing well, and that the rational, Western, secular approach to problem-solving actually works. We do need political leaders who can inspire us not only with what we have achieved, but of what we might achieve if we got rid of this enervating fear of the future.[Another take on this fear can be read on Pointman’s website, which I have referred to before. He begins, in explaining why he despises the Green mentality, It’s about fear, paralysing self-doubt and above all, inward-looking.]