By Ben Pile
This is an edited version of the comment Ben left on Geoff’s Weak Minds Think Alike post.
The rise of tertiary education Geoff raises as a possible factor in the rise of environmentalism is an interesting phenomenon. As one who did a degree relatively recently as a mature student, I was able to compare notes about experience of University with friends my age, my classmates, and friends who were as much older than me again. But perhaps a more significant development might be the transformation of the university itself, not just the number of graduates it churned out.
The expansion of higher education has come with a transformation of the University. As Jaime notes in the comments under Geoff’s post, the 1992 transformation of polytechnics into universities all but turned plumbers into ‘graduates’. Similarly, I noticed that older academics tended to have fewer advanced degrees. World authorities on Kant’s metaphysics in their seventies might be plain old Mister, not Professor, nor even Dr, whereas 30 year old lead authors of IPCC chapters on ‘sustainability’ had titles and tenure. It seems uncontroversial to say that the rise of tertiary education has not raised the level of education as much lowered the standard, and has not elevated ambitions or expectations as much as coincided with their catastrophic diminishing.
Dumbing down can’t just be the unfortunate consequence of squeezing 50% of the population into degree courses. It struck me also, that even the requirement of having advanced, albeit deflated degrees had not prevented some actually quite thick (in the head) individuals from arriving, so to speak, at the new campus. Thick, but nonetheless competent at compiling what was necessary to support prosaic insight. In particular, mediocre ideas were seemingly given weight by imploring social imperatives.
The most obvious transformations here, then, are the University’s descent to three year relief from the dole queue for middle class youngsters (i.e. Major’s legacy, ‘post-92’), and the expectation that research has to demonstrate its utility to wider society (Thatcher’s ‘relevance’ legacy). To cut some long stories short, we should also add Brown/Blair’s legacies: ‘Government of all the Talents’ (GOAT), and the development of relationships between business, government, the ‘third sector’ and academy. The elevation of academics to experts and technocrats came after a call from government.
A third transformation — the politicisation of the University — might shed more light on what’s going on than merely the artefacts caused by increased numbers of graduates in society. One cannot get a job as a “conservative” researcher at a school, established on a dead philanthropist’s legacy, which promotes research into ‘social inclusion’, or ‘equality’. In the same way, one cannot get a job as a climate sceptic in The School of Sustainability at New or Old University. Yet it is academics from these institutions who are called on to comment as ‘experts’, and who dominate, excluding a wider public from participating in arguably *political* debates, and rendering politicians merely ‘policymakers’, whose job it is to take advice from whichever researcher has produce the most alarming report. The politicisation of the academy implies a de-politicisation of wider society and public life, and recasting of the academic as a (willing) technocrat.
Weak ideas, it seems to me, have emerged from the academy, because of pressure from without, and from above, not merely because of the swelling of the numbers entering it. In other words, although tertiary education has expanded, environmentalism has remained an elite preoccupation. It’s true that there has been no major popular resistance to political emphasis on climate change (as some of us bored old lapsed bloggers have lamented), yet there is conversely no overwhelming support for it from even the barely-educated alumni. And everywhere its leaders are dullard toffs, from Jonathan Porrit, to the likes of Tamsin Omond. Green still smacks of daft and posh, not first-generation humanities graduates of red brick campuses, or former Polytechnics.
I don’t think environmentalism is a powerful idea, then. And I don’t think the era of university has made it the wellspring of ideas. Rather, the era is characterised by a dearth of ideas. “[Weak ideas] ability to spread without taking root”, speaks to the sterile ground they have colonised — the barest topsoil in the West gives ground to green ideas, whereas other parts of the world are prospering, largely by burning coal, and embracing unsustainability.
I offer three, extremely abbreviated, points that I think give us a clue about the nature of the political change that has in turn driven the change in the Western university, and its role in climate alarmism.
First is the emergence of the Neomalthusians in the 60s and 70s. Second is more complete development of the ‘sustainable development’ agenda by the UN in the 1980s after Brundtland, after which climate was emphasised by Thatcher. Third is the emergence of the green/left in the 1980s and 1990s.
Briefly: the Neomalthusians were Conservatives (and billionaires) whose time came only as the world plunged from postwar boom into oil shocks and deep recession. Brundtland, some time later, sought to establish ‘sustainable development’ for the sake of ‘future generations’ as the basis of supranational politics, largely because those institutions couldn’t speak to the present generation about development at all. Equally, Thatcher, having realised her domestic political project, found herself alienated. And the ‘left’, too, found itself incapable of engaging with the masses it had once claimed to speak for. In other words, behind every move towards environmentalism is an existential crisis that requires reinvention.
One way of explaining it, then, is to observe that any system of ideas, or any institution that needs a system of ideas of some kind to function with legitimacy, has a tendency to respond to its own crises of legitimacy and relevance by ‘naturalising’ its outlook. For an example of how far things have sunk, notice how war, poverty, criminality, and so on — categorically objects of study that are the domain of the social sciences — are now explained in terms of biology and increasingly as the consequence of climate change.
Hence it was ‘capitalists’ and their appointed agents, who, having unleashed creative potential, turned instead to the Natural Order of Things when the oil wells seemed to run dry, to account for their inability to make sense of and turn around economic chaos. Ditto, radical movements, unable to form enduring criticisms of capital, found authority in the same notion of natural limits, rather than by standing Against Nature, to overcome them; the “people” became merely unruly metabolic entities, not agents of their own future. It was the job of the green leftoid — with his degree, yes, but on orders from above — to merely feed, clothe and house them, not to put them in charge of the means of production (they would run amok in planes and cars, rather than take the bus and consume ‘responsibly’).
And the UN? It is telling that, for only a brief moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its narrative was optimistic. Without the geopolitics that had dominated the era in which it had been established, it was disoriented. But at the same time, whereas the foreshadowing of nuclear winter had driven its agenda, now ecological degradation presented an opportunity. The minute-before-midnight narrative returned to pages of UN reports, the mushroom-cloud-shaped hole in the hearts of UN hacks’ souls had been filled, and the institutions had been rescued from the threat of post Cold War optimism. Phew!
Green is the colour of political exhaustion and reinvention. Hence red, blue and even brown now put green first. What underlines this is the intellectual exhaustion of those who were nonetheless able to hold on to, and even build on the institutional wreckage that aimlessly bobbed about. Although stranded initially, they found each other, the melting ice caps serving as the new magnetic north for disoriented institutions, now that East and West no longer identified the coordinates of their ‘research’.
The problem, I have argued, with seeing environmentalism as an ‘ideology’ or doctrine of ideas is that it credits it — and its adherents — with far too much. Too much coherence, too much self-awareness, and too much of an understanding of the world. An overly ‘ideo-centric’ view of history presupposes that the engineers of ideas have a grasp on the world, whereas in fact people cling to ideas more often because they have such a weak grasp on things … Weak minds think alike. And don’t the angry and wild claims of environmentalists — and green academics in particular — look like tantrums at being unable to make sense of the world *at*all*, yet while carrying the burden of an undue sense of entitlement to say how it should be? Environmentalism is narcissistic, but not self-aware. It lives in its own fantasy, divorced from the world, not better connected to it. And its ideas are not coherent, but are invariably formed from the discombobulated and failed perspectives of eras past — everything “from Plato to NATO” has been repainted green. Bad ideas propagate when there are no better ideas.
Or, as Geoff put it, ‘Environmentalism, like Gravity, is a weak force which appears to govern the universe — until a stronger force opposes it.’ Clearly there is more going on than ‘ideas’. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that even when we convince people that we can save 2 billion lives at a stroke by demonstrating the overstatement of climate catastrophism, they nonetheless retreat back to the authority of the consensus.
This is why I have said to many sceptics, it really doesn’t matter how many hockey sticks we debunk. So, while I agree that the sociological (and historical, political) is essential — more fundamental than debunking the claims of palaeoclimatologists — I don’t agree that a certain and *broad* class and an ideology can be identified. Rather, we waste our time with Guadianistas, who are ultimately no more than a Reserve Army, whose vapid and disposable opinions are reinvented (or merely restated) as soon as they are debunked. The academy prospers so long as its policy-relevance flatters some number of policy-makers. The University might well now be an institution that fetters — shuts down, shuts up, and shuts out — ideas.
Green ideas, and the institutions that champion them, are not popular, even amongst the chatteratti… I went to have a look at a demo against fracking in 2012 — there were barely 300 people in central London, on a Saturday. A year or so later, Greenpeace brought only a couple of thousand people from across Britain to Westminster. And only a few multiples more buy the Guardian, which itself burns more than a £million a week — around £7.50 per hardcopy buyer — advancing its hackneyed positions.
Environmentalism is rear-guard action — the desperate moves of narrow and remote establishment players, trying to sustain their position with merely the dwindling resources and positions acquired a century ago. If the left, the right, academics, NGOs and even churches have gone green, it is because they are dead and have gone mouldy, or they are about to die, gangrene having set in. Anything resembling a popular green movement consists of alienated weirdos, not a mass of engaged individuals — people who refuse to vaccinate their kids, breastfeed them until they are 15 before weaning them onto lentils, and retreat from Brighton and London to undiscovered Wales on trust funds, to live ‘sustainable’ and ‘self-sufficient’ lifestyles.
We need more focus then, not on a broad class and its nebulous ideology, but on particular institutions and their populations. We need to ask what legitimises them, what crises they experience, and how their emphasis on existential, external threats — “global challenges”, as they call them — are at best self-justifications, not facts about the world. And we need to show how those institutions are able to close ranks against the rest of the population, merely having won a War of Position, not a contest of ideas.