This article is part of an occasional series exploring the possibility (or rather the necessity) of a sociological analysis of climate catastrophism. Others can be found at
It argues 1) that the key criterion for identifying the social class which has propelled climate catastrophism to centre stage (the green blob; the chattering classes, Guardianistas, the “right on” generation – define them how you will) is university education and 2) an explanation is required of how such a weak (woolly, vague, unconvincing) idea as environmentalism (“we live on a fragile planet”; “we need to recycle/conserve/cycle to work to prevent the sixth great extinction” etc.) has conquered the world. Both ideas I have lifted from the work of Emmanuel Todd, a French historian and demographer I have often referred to in different posts. I’ve added an appendix describing Todd’s work, which is of great interest outside the narrow bounds of an analysis of climate catastrophism.
Belief in climate catastrophism is a social phenomenon, and requires an explanation in terms of the social sciences. There are a number of interesting psychological theories around – in fact every climate sceptic seems to have one. But while a psychological analysis may explain why certain people choose to be environmentalists, it can never explain how environmentalism – and in particular its most acute form, climate catastrophism – came to conquer the world; how, in other words, belief in climate catastrophism managed to attain a critical mass that permitted it to impose itself as a consensus belief, or ideology. Only a sociological explanation can do that. And a sociological explanation must account for a unique event – the rise of climate catastrophism – in terms of unique, or at least rarely repeated, social phenomena.
It’s easy enough to identify the social group which has most fervently adopted the climate catastrophism ideology. It’s the university-educated, upper-middle-class intelligentsia:- metropolitain; left-liberal; more likely to be humanities graduates than scientists; often working in academia, the media, or in related professions involved in the collection and exchange of information of all sorts. The libertarian social theorist Thomas Sowell in his book “Intellectuals and Society” defines “idea workers” as “people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas (writers, historians, academics, etc.) [and who] usually consider themselves as “anointed”, or as endowed with superior intellect or insight with which to guide the masses and those who have authority over them.”[Wiki]
I’ve often mentioned the work of the French historian Emmanuel Todd and its usefulness for understanding the catastrophist phenomenon (though he has never, to my knowledge, mentioned environment policy in his numerous comments on current politics).
One of his major achievements is to have convincingly demonstrated the close correlation between political revolutions and the attainment of universal literacy: in 16th century Germany at the time of the Protestant Reform; in England in the 17th century, announcing the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution; in France in the late 18th and in Russia in the early 20th century. His demonstration that literacy, rather than economic exploitation, is the prime cause of social upheaval destroys a major pillar of Marxism, but it also confirms Marx’s fundamental insight about the importance of class struggle in the evolution of society.
In an aside somewhere on the decline of the French Socialist Party Todd highlights one of the unintended consequences of advances in education. Whereas the attainment of universal literacy naturally reinforces egalitarian tendencies in society – leading, if not always to democracy, at least to nominal respect for the Common Man – the advent of mass tertiary education has the opposite effect.
For most of the 20th century university education was the reserve of a tiny élite, highly concentrated in the professions (law, medicine, academia..) Though they undoubtedly exercised disproportionate influence, as does any élite group, whether in Parliament, in their clubs and learned societies, or in the letter page of the Times, they were too few and isolated to be able to ignore entirely the opinions of their less educated fellow citizens, particularly as the latter included a large number of people (in industry, finance, the armed services, the media, as well as in the organised working class) who were obviously their intellectual equals.
[The late Guardian political correspondent Simon Hoggart recalled arriving at the Guardian in the fifties as one of just two graduates who were allowed in every year, by-passing the union rule that demanded two years’ apprenticeship on a provincial paper before setting foot in Fleet Street. Sixty years on, I transcribed a Greenpeace debate moderated by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who spent an inordinate amount of time boasting that his ten or eleven environmental journalists all had three or four degrees apiece. Hasn’t he heard that anything above two degrees is dangerous?]
In just over a half a century the percentage of graduates in the twenties age group has risen from a few percent to 20-30%. Graduates in my crusty generation of baby boomers were always conscious of being members of a privileged minority (about 5% in the sixties I believe) and of the fact that the most talented members of our generation (Lennon, Jagger) only entered college to drop out again. Todd points out that when graduates are counted in millions, accounting for 20-30% of an age group, they cease to be a dispersed minority and become an autonomous class, with their own culture and ideology, firmly anchored on the centre left and in the professional classes, but largely transcending traditional social categories. Whether in hippy commune or government-sponsored thinktank, they share a common belief in their superiority to the undiploma-ed masses. They notoriously rule the centre left parties, having all but ousted their traditional working class core, and have, via their control of academia and the media, imposed their ideologies on society at large: (pro-Europeanism and wilful blindness to the effects of uncontrolled immigration at the expense of the working class; militant sexual liberalism at the expense of the feelings of religious minorities; climate catastrophism at the expense of scientific rigour and common sense). Their disdain for the common man was long masked by their leftwing pose, but their reaction to the victory of the Brexit campaign has brought it out in the open. (See for example the emails in Ian Woolley’s recent article).
The idea of an autonomous educated class reversing the trend of several centuries of increasing egalitarianism and unconsciously adopting anti-egalitarian policies (while continuing to declare itself as “of the left”) because of supposed intellectual superiority has tremendous explanatory power, not least in accounting for catastrophic enviro-mentalism. As with many of Todd’s creative perceptions, it is highly speculative, but also scientific, because rooted in empirical data.
Todd has expanded his criticisms of the educated middle class and its epiphenomenon, the French Socialist Party, in a book on the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 – “Qui Est Charlie?” (translated as Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class: Polity Press) which has brought him media notoriety and the detestation of most of the French intelligentsia.
In this book Todd examines the relative strength of the turnout at the huge public demonstrations in sympathy with the families of the murdered journalists, in favour of Charlie, and in defence of its right to publish blasphemous cartoons mocking Mohammed. He discovered that turnout was highest, not in the centre and south of France characterised by an egalitarian family structure – the part of France which instigated the French Revolution and has voted left for two centuries – but on the East and West peripheries, characterised by an inegalitarian family structure and a continuation of an anti-republican Catholic tradition into the mid-twentieth century. He had already established in a recent cartographic study of French voting patterns that support for the Socialist Party had migrated in recent decades from the egalitarian Paris basin and Mediterranean coast to the ex-Catholic strongholds of the Atlantic coast and German border. This led him to posit the existence of a socio-political force he labelled “Zombie Catholicism”. As Catholic belief collapsed in the mid-twentieth century, ex-believers sought refuge in the Socialist Party, which shared some of the characteristics of the church they had so recently deserted (a universalist ethic, belief in social justice, internationalism…) This movement changed the nature of the Socialist Party, effacing its egalitarian principles and links with the urban working class, and raising pan-Europeanism and worship of the Euro to the status of an ideology.
Todd places himself on the centre left, but is a wicked critic of the ruling Socialist Party, President Hollande, and the chattering classes in general, who have betrayed a two hundred-year-old tradition of radical middle class activism in ignoring the suffering imposed on the working classes by austerity and endemic mass unemployment provoked by economic liberalism and the economic nonsense of the single currency. Add climate catastrophism to the list of ingredients of the blinkered dominant ideology and you have an excellent framework for analysing what’s wrong with the modern developed world.
Qui Est Charlie? was largely written off in the French media as a bilious anti-Hollande pamphlet. In fact it is a densely written sociological thesis, as are all his books. And it introduces one new theoretical concept which seems particularly apposite to the analysis of climate catastrophism: the explanation of how a weak affect arising from an unconscious social structure can be transformed into a strong social force.
After accusing the socialist governments since 1983 of having pursued economic policies which penalise the working class and maintain the immigrant minority in a state of apartheid which the socialists then accuse certain immigrants of maintaining in the name of “communitarianism”, Todd then proposes the following explanation of what seems to be a contradiction in his thesis: (The translation is mine, and sometimes deviates from the literal in the interest of transmitting its polemical flavour)
P178: The Insignificance of the Actors and the Violence of their Ideologies
“I’m very conscious of the fact that the anthropological model proposed above is difficult to accept…The interpretation which I have given suggests, not only an extreme violence and an immense hypocrisy on the part of the people involved, but also a high level of conviction, of determination and of strength.
“It’s easy to imagine such characteristics in the case of far right politicians; or Moslem fundamentalists, or militant atheists, but how can you explain them in the case of people who place themselves on the centre left? The President of the Republic for example, is someone easy-going, insignificant, “an ordinary bloke”, according to his own description.
“The socialists are moderate in all things. Our thesis seems to be incompatible with the reality of a bunch of big girls’ blouses who believe in nothing very much, an army of militant softies. How to explain how such weak tendencies towards differentiation and inegalitarianism can result at the level of society at large, in a stubbornness of such a rare violence?”
Todd goes on to suggest that weakly held beliefs (such as the fundamentally inegalitarian world view unconsciously held by recently converted socialists emanating from a “Catholic Zombie” background) are particuarly prone to being transmitted in the holders’ milieu by a kind of mimetism: the weaker, the vaguer the idea, the more easily it can be adopted by the surrounding milieu. And Todd cites his personal experience of being able, in one-to-one conversation, to persuade a pro-European that current EU policies can only lead to the sacrifice of Southern European countries on the altar of a German ideal of economic rigour. But once the conversation terminated, the interlocutors revert to their (firmly held, because socially determined) belief in the importance of maintaining the Euro at any price, suppressing political dissent in recalcitrant countries, etc.
Here is a sociological model that seems to apply perfectly to the case of climate catastrophism. Who has not had a conversation in which he has seemingly persuaded his interlocutor that global temperature measures are not all they’re cracked up to be; that maybe some environmentalists exaggerate a little; that scientists are not saints; that windpower and electric cars are rubbish: only to find at the end of the conversation the interlocutor activating the kind of spring mechanism that rewinds the cord on your vacuum cleaner and retracting all the admissions he’s made in order to revert to the position of faithful Guardian reader he assumed at the outset?
And who, among those of you who place sceptical comments at warmist articles (and Gaia bless you for your efforts) has not been astonished at the pathetic nature of the opposition? I’m thinking of a couple of articles at the New Statesman (a once great journal that boasted Bertrand Russell and George Orwell among its contributors) by Brian Cox and Naomi Klein. These are mega stars in the intellectual firmament, yet their pro-catastrophe articles provoked opposition from maybe a half dozen of us sceptics, and we found ourselves opposed, not by 97% of the intellectual world, but by a handful of peabrained greenies who couldn’t reason or form proper sentences. Environmentalism, like Gravity, is a weak force which appears to govern the universe – until a stronger force opposes it. (Neither Klein nor Cox have been back, and the Statesman has now suppressed all comments on its articles).
It does seem a bit cheeky to accuse the likes of Sir Paul Nurse and Professor Brian Cox of mimetism, as if they were some kind of rather unimaginative reptile, but – frankly – has anyone got a better explanation?
Appendix: More on Todd’s Sociological System
Emmanuel Todd is by profession a demographer, though he describes himself as a historian of long-term trends, and he is as at home using the tools of American economists or German sociologists as quoting the French Annales school of historians (which includes Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, author of a massive History of Climate).
His entire system is based on the idea, at once simple and radical, that certain long-term tendencies of history, such as political ideologies, are largely determined by the details of family structure (inheritance patterns, numbers of generations living under one roof, acceptance or not of marriage between cousins, etc.) These family structures, once rigidly imposed by custom at the level of nation, tribe, or even village, continue to exist unconsciously in the minds of inhabitants even after they have been effaced in reality by migration, technological advance, and all the contingencies of a fast changing and convergent society. While working on his doctorate at Cambridge on family structure in different peasant societies in Europe he was struck by the similarities in family structure in Russia, Vietnam, and China, but also in Tuscany, southern Portugal and Kerala province in India. The communist vote in Kerala has been around 30%, and until quite recently Florence had a communist mayor. The fishermen of Kerala and the handbag manufacturers of Florence are about as far as you can get from an exploited urban proletariat, but no political scientist, Marxist or otherwise, has ever bothered to try and explain this flagrant contradiction. Todd explained it, and was politely ignored.
Todd’s position in French intellectual circles is a strange one. He achieved some notoriety back in 1976 at the age of 26 with a short book predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union. His analysis was based, not on the political science of professional Kremlin watchers, but on first hand observation of life in Budapest and analysis of the meagre statistics available. Demographic data are difficult to falsify, since everyone has to be born and die sometime and somehow, and Todd noted that infant mortality, which had steadily declined, even in the worst days of Stalinism, had begun to rise under Brezhnev. To a demographer, an inability to keep newborn babies alive suggests a society in a very bad way, if not on the brink of collapse.
It was thirteen years before Todd’s prediction was verified, and in the meantime he embarked on a lifetime’s work analysing the relation between family structure, literacy, and political development. His fundamental discovery that the great political movements of the past five centuries years can be largely explained empirically in terms of family structure and the advent of mass literacy is one of the great advances in the social sciences of the past century, comparable to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and the importance of infantile sexuality. Freud’s discoveries were ignored at first, but, twenty years after their publication, they were eagerly discussed by intellectuals all over the world – by poets and philosophers as well as by doctors and academics. Todd’s principal ideas were published thirty years ago, and achieved a certain amount of media notoriety in France, but were never, as far as I know, seriously analysed by his peers. The French have never liked empiricism backed up by statistics, preferring their ideas woolly and unverifiable. But his books have nearly all been translated into English. In the 1920s every poet, painter and parson in the Western world was aware of the ideas of Marx and Freud. Today’s cultural élite is more likely to be going on a European Union-sponsored trip to Greenland to look at glaciers than be reading books. It is a frightening reflection on the state of our intellectual life that profoundly original ideas such a Todd’s can be published, verified by correct predictions, and then politely ignored.
Only with the publication of the polemical Qui Est Charlie? did intellectuals start to take notice of Todd’s theories of the deep anthropological structure of our political and ideological beliefs, and that was usually to vilify him as a reactionary and a closet racist.
I hope this article will have demonstrated that there is more to social science than the mendacious pseudo-science of a Royal Society laureate like Stephan Lewandowsky. Todd, ex-member of the French Communist Party, successfully predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union. While proclaiming himself a supporter of the centre left, he has provided a devastating analysis of the failure of the French Socialist Party. His theoretical models, when applied to the rise of climate catastrophism, can provide fresh insights. They can be invalidated empirically. In other words they are scientific – something rare in the social sciences.