Over at The Conversation recently Geoff Chambers of these pages responded to academic and blogger And Then There’s Ken Rice, who asked, snarkily, ‘is [the fact that major publications ignore criticisms of bad practice in climate science] some kind of conspiracy?’, with:
No… Mass hysteria perhaps? Group solidarity among the chattering classes? Displacement activity? An outbreak of religious fervour among atheists faced with their own mortality? Who knows. Where are the social scientists when you need them?
Replying myself in another Conversation comment thread to somebody called Alice Kelly who had painted a portrait of climate sceptics as ‘system justifiers, more often men than women, [who] tend towards scepticism, and denying environmental problems, because of their information-processing distortions’ and who added, in a slightly Mengelian tone, ‘they are studied’, I said
…the thing is, increasingly you’re studied too. By sociologists.
But who’s right? Is Geoff right to cry out for the intellectual aid of social scientists markedly absent from the debate? Or am I right in suggesting there’s an increasing interest in the chaos and anomie that sees institutions fall for climate alarmism and sociologists are gathering to make notes?
Sadly, Geoff is nearer the mark and my attempt to ‘get-my-sociologist-dad-on-you’ was the empty cry of a weakling child merely wishing his sociologist dad lifted weights and was ready any-time-matey to come roaring out of the house shaking his fists at the name-callers or ‘denialist-spectrum taxonomists’ or whatever they like to call themselves. This must change. Sociology needs to man up.
In a bid to encourage sociology to eat four eggs for breakfast and build up some muscle mass, then, here are some thoughts I’d be stopping to jot down if by some exciting temporal anomaly I was suddenly eighteen again and walking down Woodland Road, Bristol BS8, on my way to another sociology seminar and possibly passing Stephan Lewandowsky and thinking ‘I worked really hard to get to this Russell Group university with all the public school knobs in their Mini Coopers and I was prepared for that culture-shock but nobody even so much as hinted I’d have to suffer the strange torture of overhearing your weirdly elongated speech patterns in the cafeteria every other day.’
(A note: if these thoughts seem wildly speculative and fanciful that might be because they are. In defence, so what? This is only an invitation to think about these things, not a demand. My ‘sociologist dad’ wouldn’t really come roaring out of the house, fists shaking. He’d come out and say ‘Yes, but have you thought about it this way?’)
Anyway, back to crouching down with a notepad on Woodland Road…
1. Climate alarmists are angry, but are they really angry about what they say they’re angry about?
On the face of it, the climate-concerned have alarming news straight from the coal face of science; if they are angry, then, it’s because other people are not heeding these alarming findings as much as they should be. To find out why people aren’t as agitated as they should be the concerned most recently turned to a mighty army of psychologists, the idea being to closely map the neuronal contours of science denialism so that newly effective communication strategies could be devised.
But if I were in my third year of sociology preparing my final dissertation, I would pay attention to the two most high-swinging parries that have surfaced during the reign of the psychologists – and the deep difficulties the concerned have encountered in trying to justify them. The first is John Cook’s 97% paper, a paper so ludicrously loose in its terms that the 97% of scientists who agree that global warming is human caused includes the people who call themselves climate sceptics; and the second is Stephan Lewandowsky’s ‘Moon Hoax’ paper which argued sceptics are mad people who believe all sorts of nonsense but failed to back up this claim since only three out of 1100 respondents matched the description and this isn’t a significant amount.
I would note these problems with the two highest-profile papers (I’ve skimmed over the facts, for detailed criticisms see http://www.joseduarte.com/blog/lewandowsky-fraud / http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11191-013-9647-9 / http://www.joseduarte.com/blog/cooking-stove-use-housing-associations-white-males-and-the-97 ) and acting in good-faith I’d consider the possibility that sceptics – not being mad, and not wildly disagreeing with the basic points of the global warming story – are not in fact suffering from being too psychologically errant to be communicated at, but are un-agitated rationally; that a weighing-up of the evidence has led them to a different assessment of the dangers ahead. At which point I’d start questioning whether it’s tenable to be angry at people who perceive risk differently.
Being angry that people have different attitudes to risk and are willing to take further risks than you (by delaying action on climate) is akin to being angry at rock climbers teaching their kids to rock climb as you watch them with your kids from the car park. How can these parents be so insouciant with the next generation? Well, the answer is they don’t think they are being insouciant; on balance (and using balance) they think they’re being good parents, teaching their children that obstacles and risks exist but they can with effort, and a bit more confidence, surmount them. So maybe I should get over my anger. But if I find I’m still angry, perhaps I should ponder whether it isn’t something else I’m really angry about?
Clues as to what that something else might be can be found in the moralising that accompanies climate-related anger. The action called for by the climate worriers is a change in consumption habits, in lifestyle: the call is for less excess, less consumption, less intense fetishism of stuff, therefore less production and economic growth and a switch to a more human (and planet) centred economics. It’s an anger at capitalism, then. But again, if I were being ruthlessly honest with myself, I’d have to concede that some people are not as angry about capitalism as I am and that this might be for rational reasons. There is good evidence that compared to the other systems tried out in preceding centuries, capitalism has done most to raise people out of poverty and increase their life-chances. Of course we can (and must) argue about inequality within capitalist systems, but in comparison to state-controlled systems there is a clear winner.
At this point, then, I’d think harder about capitalism and the problems with it.
2. Tallis & The Hungers
In his short book ‘Hunger’ philosopher and medic Raymond Tallis conceives of human beings as being hungry in four kinds of ways: hungry for food; hungry for pleasure (and the absence of pain); hungry for others (or one other in particular), otherwise known as desire; and finally, hungry in a fourth, metaphysical way that’s somehow related to the soul (that’s shorthand – Tallis is an atheist and doesn’t sit easily with the word ‘soul’).
This fourth hunger is important. It exists because the other three have an inherent problem: they are boringly cyclical. Hunger follows satisfaction after eating, which came about because of hunger. Desires and appetites fulfilled lead to the extinction of those desires and appetites – and so on around the mulberry bush again. The fourth hunger in contrast is a yearning to escape the cycle, to reach a point of arrival away from ‘and then, and then’. It is concerned not so much with consumption, but with trying to establish something, namely meaning and significance – a recognition that the futile can be saved by being beautiful. Our fourth hunger, Tallis argues, is attended to with art: It’s therefore arguable that a measure of a civilised culture is the degree to which it recognises the fourth hunger and the degree to which it is willing to make sufficient space for the arts to flourish for their own sake. Conversely, it’s a sign that a culture is in trouble if it doesn’t recognise that uniquely human yearning and instead tries to satisfy fourth-hunger pangs using second and third-hunger solutions. In other words, if a culture decides that the best way to deal with the gap in meaning and significance is to try to fill it with the fleeting, cyclical distractions of fortune, fame, sex, hedonistic consumption and nice things in general, it’s not a healthy culture.
This is brilliantly illustrated by Louis CK in the video below. Louis refers in his interview to a feeling we all know of an incredible sadness, a ‘knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone’. He’s talking about that fourth-hunger yearning to reach some meaningful destination beyond what Tallis describes as the ‘Dominion of And’ where, as Steven Poole has it in his review of Hunger, ‘mere appetite is temporarily sated by one damn thing after another’. So Louis reaches for his phone for some third hunger satisfaction, a splurge of distracting text messages, one damn message after another. But he puts it back down, and he’s glad that he did because he goes through the sadness and comes out the other end. He concludes that a lot of the time nowadays, ‘you never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your products’. (The clip, by the way, is funny, unlike this description.)
3. The great chickening-out of the 90s
The idea that some things are valuable for their own sake – art, the pursuit of knowledge – was something the left (people who had a problem with capitalism) held dear for many decades. They understood the fourth hunger; the need to value something outside the arena of consumption. But confidence in this understanding slipped over the years – a slippage which gathered enormous pace through the 80s as the money men of the right asserted themselves. By the 1990s, the idea was utterly abandoned and something very strange began to happen. Cultural leaders who would once have made the case for some fourth-hunger wriggle-room in capitalism, swapped sides and made a dazzling accommodation with the money men. It was called:
(I seem to have gone all Adam Curtis. I do apologise.)
The main elements of postmodern irony as practiced by the cultural, artistic elite were brashness, chutzpah, and the celebration of trashiness and money. It was able to pull this off because it was, after all, being ironic. The celebration of trashiness and money was acceptable partly because it was elitist to insist meaning and significance were laudable aims, but mainly because it was somehow all a joke. They sort of meant it, but sort of didn’t at the same time. Tongues were in cheeks. But while it appeared brash and confident, ironic and even cool, underneath it was cowardly. These people and this movement actually knew better, but actively decided to ignore that they knew better out of cowardice – and then to cover up their cowardice by insisting the whole thing was actually cool.
We don’t talk much about the postmodernist 90s anymore, which is odd because it’s one of the strangest decades in modern history.
4. Just cowardice?
The coolness/cowardliness of these times is summed up in the tagline to one of the most iconic cultural products of the 90s: Loaded magazine. The tagline for Loaded, a magazine on the border between pornography and lifestyle, was ‘for men who should know better’. But what did this actually mean? Did they know better, or not? ‘Loaded – for men who don’t know any better’, after all, doesn’t really work if you want to attract a readership. So they did know better, but were making a conscious decision to ignore the better things they knew. As I say, this was an act of cowardice – but it was also a result of something else: they were exhausted.
I mentioned above that this piece might turn fanciful, and you might think peak fancy has now been reached – but this is a key point. The line ‘should know better’ stood for jaded young men in the case of Loaded magazine, but it echoed much more widely than in the Lynx-scented bedrooms of new lads. It was also a description that could be applied to the left in general. Like the ironically postmodern leaders of culture, the more explicitly political left were also exhausted, and also made an accommodation with the money men – and found a way to do it that gave them too a get-out clause. But it wasn’t the distancing mask of irony they used: a playful, cheeky abandonment of sincerity didn’t suit them, they weren’t as flamboyant as the artists and comedians. Instead, the position they carved out in the market was predicated on sincerity, even the gravest gravity: sustainable careers for them came from criticising capitalism. So, exhausted and acceding to the seemingly all-powerful demands of money, they accepted they had to have a product to sell, and saw that they could sell fear: the fear that capitalism was killing us.
The monsters brought forth were multiple: capitalism was making us fat and unhealthy; it was destroying the planet; it was bullying and kept people in charge who deliberately cultivated the low self-esteem of others; above all, it was greedy and immoral.
But notice what happened: instead of making a positive case for something beyond capitalism, based on the fact that capitalism can’t reach those parts, the strategy became negative – constantly poking and pinching capitalism for being a nasty bully. Instead of conceding, like Marx, that the dynamism of capitalism had much to offer in raising material conditions (it was incredibly efficient in matching our third hungers) but that it fell short in other areas (it struggled to match our fourth hunger for something beyond the cycle of hungry-sated-hungry), they began instead to attack what capitalism was good at and people’s natural hungers, and natural self-interest and competitiveness, became greeds with a variety of negative consequences. The ground was cleared for the moral market.
The strangest decade in modern history has resulted in the bizarre world we see around us in which the best survival strategy for any politically-minded individual is to join a group engaged in a negative campaign against another group. Gone is the idea of a universal set of principles and values outside the arena of consumption (outside the market), and instead the market is now the central locus from which to do politics. Profit and careers come from placing our unique grievances up for sale.
5. The growing logic of prostitution
You might say that these developments are nothing much to write home about; that the switch from positive to negative is just a subtle question of emphasis with largely the same outcomes in mind – namely, a critical assessment of capitalism with an eye to establishing a better political arrangement, even a new society. But you’d be wrong. The difference is a million miles away from subtle. By welcoming the market into every area of life a horrible logic becomes established.
It is of course true that even the greatest artistic geniuses have needed a day job in the ‘grubby’ world of commerce to get by, and academics similarly make connections with business to keep things ticking along. However, the problem is made much worse if the ulterior, separate goal of the arts and the academy – of producing something beautiful, or discovering something new – itself is subject to market conditions. As soon as those in charge in the arts or in the academy ask ‘and how relevant is this to the problems we face today? Does it speak to the experience of transgender people in working class communities, will it add to the global fight against climate change?’ and are willing to gate-keep entry to the airwaves, theatres, galleries and laboratories on that basis, then the enemy is within. Why should a playwright or an academic struggle for years to pursue the beautiful and true if she knows it may well fall at the last hurdle either because it’s just not relevant, or because the final hurdles are set cruelly high by people with a competitive interest in guarding that height? What’s the point? Much more sensible to avoid the pointless struggle and get on board with what’s relevant from the outset. And so writers, comedians, scientists and academics sell out. They do what’s required.
But there are even nastier consequences to allowing the market into areas it shouldn’t go. It was recently reported that a quarter of a million young female students have signed up to a website through which they can come to an ‘arrangement’ with rich, older men to pay their way through university. You can probably imagine what kind of arrangement that might be.
We shouldn’t blame the students for this. Again, when we squeezed out the gap where things could be pursued for their own sake in the great chickening-out of the 90s, that’s where we began the process that now sees a student of clinical psychology – of clinical psychology! – able to go on national radio and totally fail to reflect on a state of affairs that sees her cauterising her own emotions in pursuit of debt-free qualifications.
If the NOW section above is a reflection of the modern university experience, then the description ‘higher education’ should fold itself up, flop itself into its battered old travelling case and conspire with said luggage to get flung over the nearest bridge. That show’s over; that’s it. Over. It’s a different show now and needs a new title: market skilling or…. gold-digging.
By all means lets have training courses funded by prostitution; by all means let’s have left-wing politics primarily focussed on victimbux and other imaginative ways of generating a rental income (by over-inflating threats from vast, nebulous systems like the climate, the patriarchy, American capitalist-imperialism, or the sugary-drink industrial complex); balancing the books is sensible and everyone does ok if they pay enough attention to that side of things. It doesn’t get us anywhere interesting, though. In truth it’s a rather sad life and a rather cowed one too. Just the way capitalism likes it, some might say.
Now, where’s my phone?