Alarmism: for political activists who should know better


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 / / ) 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?

17 thoughts on “Alarmism: for political activists who should know better

  1. I think it is a combination of two things. First of all there is a lot of money in climate change research. I personally know of a scientist who could never get money for her research on turtle breeding until she started adding a few lines about how turtles have their gender selection by temperature in their nest and we need to know what will happen when climate change cases gender ratio to change. I you talk to this scientist face to face she will openly admit she doesn’t think anthropogenic climate change in real nor does she think there is any problem with nest temperature on a local basis but she can’t get funding otherwise so she lies. Second as a long time old style environmentalist I have gone out trying to raise funds for worthy cause and I have been told there is no point trying to do this because climate change will just wreck the whole world anyway so why bother? Climate change has become the old style “We have to find the root causes” meme as an excuse for doing nothing while feeling good about yourself. I think it is really as simple as that, money and an excuse to continue doing nothing about real issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t judge how right you are to tag the nineties as “the strangest decade” or the age of “the great chickening out.” I was bringing up kids at the time, which always gives you the impression of a blind spot in your life, a period when nothing much important was happening around you. Was it really the decade in which we lost “the idea of a universal set of principles and values outside the arena of consumption”?

    I’d place the merchandising of culture firmly at the door of Thatcherism, which began in 1979. And certainly the sordid gold-digging you mention in your last chapter is a direct result of the end of university grants.

    But profound changes in society are often over-determined, and if the Thatcherite philosophy of “you get what you pay for and you’re worth what you’re paid” explains a lot, another factor is surely the confused mixture of success and failure on the left. There was a real sense of the possibility of profound democratic change around in the seventies, and when it was utterly defeated politically by Thatcher, it took a kind of unconscious cultural revenge which is continuing today. As if the collective superego said: “No, you can’t have greater economic equality and participatory democracy, but as a consolation prize you can have some of the cultural droppings from the media and technological revolution.” Social barriers were torn down – at least symbolically. Cambridge graduates became comedians and working class comedians were respected as philosophers. And women and racial minorities could be either or both. This is an advance of sorts, but it hides regressive tendencies too. Once upon a time communists were tolerated on the radio if they were university professors; now university professors are tolerated on the telly if they have regional accents.

    It’s the same the whole world over
    And it’s sticking out a mile.
    It’s the rich wot gets the substance
    It’s the poor wot gets the style.

    Enough for now. This kind of rambling discussion of the soil from which global warmism has emerged is valuable groundwork – I hope.


  3. The 90s stick out a mile for me probably for the popular postmodernism: when ‘the end of grand narratives’ idea spilled everywhere, everything meant nothing and we were all only kidding. A brilliant internet essay from 2001 called ‘Thick Plus’ goes into incredible detail about the weird things that went on; I wish there was some way I could put it up, it’s one of those pieces that captures an era.

    In the talk I went to earlier Douglas Murray made people laugh by being honest and saying ‘too many people go to university now, they shouldn’t be there’ – can’t remember exactly how he put it, he was more rude than this really which is why people laughed. But it’s true. As you say it’s fees leading to special ‘arrangements’, but fees are charged now because the goal of university education shifted into something that *everyone* needed to get a good career.

    I’m such an elitist.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Unless I’m mistaken, a number of comments have been deleted from this post. Not complaining, mind you; it’s your site to do with as you wish. However, you might want to ponder why I take little notice of complaints from regulars here about censorship on other blogs.


  5. And Then There’s Ken Rice: no, no comments deleted here. I was at a debate yesterday about campus censorship where arguments were made that it’s better to engage with views and opinions you find offensive or vile, and I agree. So no, everyone comment away.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, sorry, I’m on the wrong post. I also know why. Your main page highlights 3 posts using images, and then has a link to one post on the RHS. I didn’t realise that each image does not link to its post; I clicked on the Delingpole image thinking it would take me to that post, but it didn’t; it took me here.


  7. Yes, we’re working within the bounds of our web expertise. It’s not the most graceful solution, but you have to click left or right till you land on the one you want, then click.

    Liked by 1 person


    “Unless I’m mistaken”

    You generally are.


  9. That’s a classic. AndThenTheresParanoia complains about comment deletion wrongly, then says he’s not complaining.

    He was the most prolific commenter at our blog last year according to our annual summary – which suggested that we should thank him. I neglected to do that at the time but I’m happy to thank him now for all his intelligent
    and thoughtful contributions.

    Yet he’s banned me from his blog for pointing out that he used the term boundary conditions incorrectly, astonishing for someone presenting himself as a physicist.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “astonishing for someone presenting himself as a physicist”

    He appears to be a “Professor of Computational Astrophysics” actually, which is, I suspect, not the same as a physicist who deals with everyday physics-y stuff and also. I suspect, mostly involves playing computer games producing computer models of stuff that is mostly made up speculative assessment of stuff that no-one has ever managed to measure directly.

    Certainly zero to do with climate “science”, which is not going to be a surprise to anyone.


  11. Maybe it’s to do with your age – the decade where it all went wrong for the left is roughly the decade in which you grew up/went to university, which (I’m rather guessing here) might be 70s for Geoff and 90s for Ian?

    I’m not qualified to comment on the art/sociology/postmodernism side of things, but from the straightforward politics side you are both right. In the late 70s we had the winter of discontent followed by Thatcher and feeble opposition from Foot and Kinnock. In the 90s Labour finally got back into power with an entirely principles-free leader who would do whatever he thought would be popular and continued a Thatcherism-light privatisation in universities and the NHS.



    .. and you’re absolutely right that one’s view of historical turning points is profoundly influenced by the particular time when one grew up. Possibly that’s why Warmists expect something catastrophically important to happen around 2050. It’s the decade they expect to grow up themselves.

    On the specifics of the seventies, I would disagree though. At the end of a decade of fairly animated class struggle, the fairly rightwing Labour PM Jim Callaghan got inflation under control, but provoked a series of strikes by low paid workers. A very cold winter led to headlines like: “Dead left Unburied” (the ground was frozen, so striking gravediggers couldn’t work anyway) and: “Ambulance Strike: Woman Left to Die in Pub” (the roads were snowbound and she’d choked after drinking ten pints) – the normal rough and tumble of an election year in other words. Labelling it “the Winter of Discontent” was a stroke of adman’s genius.

    The election was won by Margaret Thatcher, who immediately raised VAT (and therefore inflation) and interest rates (and therefore the pound, causing large swathes of industry to become uncompetitive, putting up unemployment).

    Despite being despised and derided in the press of both right and left, Michael Foot led Thatcher in the polls throughout her first term, up till her victory in the Falklands and snap election. That’s when I left Britain for good, which probably explains why it was a key period for me, and I really don’t know much about the nineties.

    IAN WOOLLEY (17 Feb 16 at 11:38 pm)

    You don’t have to apologise for being an élitist. It’s the price you pay for thinking for yourself.


  13. Geoff, a couple of days ago I watched a programme called “That’s so 1981” that looks back at a year’s events, often with amusing sarcastic subtitles (there was some good stuff on Charles and Di).
    It reminded me that was the year of the SDP split-off. If things were going so well for Labour under Michael Foot, I wonder why that happened. If only someone electable like David Owen or Shirley Williams had been leader of the Labour party we might have been spared 18 years of Tory rule.

    Ian, the doublethink and hypocrisy of the modern so-called left was nicely illustrated by the Oscars. Private-jet-owning megayachter Leo pontificated about climate change in his acceptance speech having won a prize for a film that required cast and crew to fly off to various remote locations. Then they had a black guy talking aboiut how there weren’t any black guys while making racist caricatures about Chinese people.


  14. [And Then There’s Ken Rice: have you commented on the wrong article again? Out of interest, any thoughts about this article and the subjects it raises? – IW]


    Yet he’s banned me from his blog for pointing out that he used the term boundary conditions incorrectly, astonishing for someone presenting himself as a physicist.

    This is not true. The relevant comment is here and the relevant reason is

    Given that you seem incapable of making a constructive comment and given that I suspect that I would be incapable of engaging constructively if you tried, I suspect it would be best if you didn’t bother wasting your time commenting here again.

    In other words, not only are you someone who seems incapable of having a constructive exchange on my blog, I was no longer in a position of having a constructive exchange with you even if you tried. Ultimately, I would really rather have nothing whatsoever to do with you, but I do find it hard to ignore when you decide to say things about me that aren’t true.

    Also, I was somewhat too generous in my response to your criticism. It is true that in some strict sense boundary values are values defined on a boundary. However, in this context, it’s often used in the following way

    For understanding climate, we no longer need to worry about the initial values, we have to worry about the boundary values. These are the conditions that constraint the climate over the long term: the amount of energy received from the sun, the amount of energy radiated back into space from the earth, the amount of energy absorbed or emitted from oceans and land surfaces, and so on.

    and this is roughly what I was getting at when you decided that you were going to criticise my terminology. It’s possible I guess that everyone else is wrong and you’re right, but I wouldn’t bank on it.


  15. I think they should be called ‘Thatcher’s left’. Remember the generation referred to as Thatcher’s children? Thatcher’s Left is a sub-group of these, but the ones struggling to disagree with Thatcher’s assertion that ‘there is no alternative’. Unfortunately for them they’re doing so in a way that merely seems to prove her right. Which is to say, they don’t operate as a distinct, left-wing political force, but as moral entreprenuers, seeing only a market-place, and operating in it in a way as to maximise self-flattery and convince themselves (and political consumers) that they’re a distinct political force. They’re tribute acts, whose acts consist in the performance of virtue.

    All businesses with a product need to advertise their products. In the case of Thatcher’s Left, advertising for them is known as virtue-signalling.


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