Heat the Rich: Prologue: On Primitive Modes of Thought

I intend to write a series of articles on the role of the hyper-rich in promulgating the fantasy of global warming catastrophe. But I start with a digression that arose from my reading on the subject, specifically from the introduction to Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” published in 1899. Here’s a quote from that excellent work:

man’s “power over nature” is currently postulated as the characteristic fact of industrial productivity. This industrial power over nature is taken to include man’s power over the life of the beasts and over all the elemental forces. A line is in this way drawn between mankind and brute creation. In other times and among men imbued with a different body of preconceptions this line is not drawn precisely as we draw it to-day.

[…] the barbarian notion which it is here intended to convey by the term “animate” is not the same as would be conveyed by the word “living”. The term does not cover all living things, and it does cover a great many others. Such a striking natural phenomenon as a storm, a disease, a waterfall, are recognised as “animate”; while fruits and herbs, and even inconspicuous animals, such as house-flies, maggots, lemmings, sheep, are not ordinarily apprehended as “animate” except when taken collectively. […] This category comprises a large number and range of natural objects and phenomena. Such a distinction between the inert and the active is still present in the habits of thought of unreflecting persons, and it still profoundly affects the prevalent theory of human life and of natural processes;

[…] To the class of things apprehended as animate, the barbarian fancy imputes an unfolding of activity directed to some end. It is this teleological unfolding of activity that constitutes any object or phenomenon an “animate” fact. Wherever the unsophisticated savage or barbarian meets with activity that is at all obtrusive, he construes it in the only terms that are ready to hand—the terms immediately given in his consciousness of his own actions. Activity is, therefore, assimilated to human action, and active objects are in so far assimilated to the human agent. Phenomena of this character—especially those whose behaviour is notably formidable or baffling—have to be met in a different spirit and with proficiency of a different kind from what is required in dealing with inert things.

Veblen uses this distinction to go on to distinguish two fundamental activities: “exploit” (hunting and fighting – the activities of the aristocracy) and “industry” (work, as performed by slaves, women, and other inferior beings.) From this he derives the particular characteristics of the modern leisure class with its exploitative activities – derived from hunting – of conspicuous consumption, of both time and nature.

I’ll leave Veblen’s analysis of wealth and the leisure class for another time and concentrate on this fascinating example of binary thinking, and Veblen’s equally fascinating claim that this mode of thinking “is still present in the habits of thought of unreflecting persons, and it still profoundly affects the prevalent theory of human life and of natural processes.”

What is it that could make one see a storm or plague or waterfall as being alive? Well, they are all massive, mysterious natural phenomena which behave in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Add other natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, floods and landslides and it makes some kind of sense. Add the fact that now, a century after Veblen wrote, we are all part of the Leisure Class which, for Veblen, constituted the upper classes of the American bourgeoisie, and you have a key to the understanding of the fascination which climate change excercises over a certain kind of person.

But why should maggots and sheep* be seen as inanimate in the singular, but not in the plural? They move, but not much. Shearing or strangling a sheep takes little more effort than picking a cherry, while herding a flock of them requires skill. And a maggot on its own is just a maggot, while a swarm of them could ruin your dinner. “Live” things, in the sense used here, are volatile, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.

*[What do “sheep”, “deer” and “fish” have in common which means that they don’t take an “s” in the plural? They all move in large groups, and, unlike bees and starlings, are edible. Were they singular things to the Anglo-Saxon inventors of our language, as they were to Veblen’s “savages”?]

Before a largish animal you either attack it in order to kill and eat it, or flee. You succeed in the hunt… or not. It’s live or die. Binary is for heroes. Subtle, graded distinctions are for wimps – foragers and gatherers – slaves and women who must pick and choose – empiricists, in other words.

To the class of things apprehended as animate, the barbarian fancy imputes an unfolding of activity directed to some end. It is this teleological unfolding of activity that constitutes any object or phenomenon an “animate” fact.”

Looking around for examples of binary activities of this kind, to which our still barbarian minds might impute “an unfolding of activity directed to some end,” one thinks immediately of competitive sports, and their offshoots, such as quizzes, jury trials and democratic elections. For the ninety minutes of a match, all your sophisticated mental processes go into binary mode: win or lose? Goal allowed or penalty?

And any “unfolding acitivity directed to some end” can in principle, be predicted. Nobody’s interested in predicting whether the match will be interesting or boring. Win or lose is what counts. Will the hunter feed the tribe tonight or be gored to death? Three points or zero?

Just as the primitive hunter could give visual form to the hunt on the wall of his cave (and therefore help to predict, and therefore bring about, a successful outcome); just as the mediaeval monk could give visual form to his hoped-for afterlife in the company of saints in a fresco or manuscript illustration, so we give visual form to any “teleological unfolding of activity” – such as an election campaign or a melting polar icecap – with a graph.

Who invented the time graph? Who first thought of plotting (whoops! There I go conspiratorialising again) data against time? Descartes gave us x and y co-ordinates. Marx made great use of government statistics to support his theory of impoverishment of wage earners over time, but I don’t remember any graphs in Capital (I may be wrong.) Graphs are modern – and alive. You look at a graph of the value of your shares portfolio (or rather: “share portfolio” – shares are like maggots, insignificant in the singular, but alive in the unfolding of their activity) and you see where you might be some time in the future.

(Was anyone else, like me, addicted to the RealClearPolitics graph of voting intentions during the run-up to the American election? Or to WattsUpWithThat’s lovely multicoloured sinusoidal proof of the living nature of Arctic ice?)

What is climate hysteria but the obsession with graphs of global temperature, the “teleological unfolding of activity” which “the unsophisticated savage or barbarian” “construes ..in the only terms that are ready to hand.. Activity [which] is assimilated to human action.. Phenomena …whose behaviour is notably formidable or baffling..”?

What could be more alive, to certain sort of mind, than a spaghetti graph, wriggling across the page like a horde of hungry maggots towards.. who knows what?

[I welcome in comments any examples of those lovely animated graphs which Cook et al are so good at producing]

9 thoughts on “Heat the Rich: Prologue: On Primitive Modes of Thought

  1. Fascinating stuff, and I look forward to returning to it and to the promised sequels. But en passant, the credit for the first graph of data against time is given by some to William Playfair in the late 16th century: http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/p/williamplayfair.html . But I have a vague memory that there may some tablet of stone found somewhere (Mesopotamia?) showing the size of wheat harvests over time in some graphical manner.


  2. Lots of threads there Geoff, not sure how to address the whole.

    It’s human nature to view all sorts of things as animate, sentient and even out to get us. Whether we actually believe it or just enjoy the pretence is another matter. I’m not sure that the vagaries of the English language – sheep as opposed to sheeps – are particularly edifying because the roots of them are usually well buried in time. We label a flock of sheep, ‘sheep’ but an almost identical animal does not acquire the label ‘a flock of goat’. Blame the car crash of languages that English was formed from.

    Our desire to give life to things that display none is somewhat random although it might be connected to an adversarial relationship. I often feel that my car is sentient in its ability to know when the most inappropriate moment to stall would be. Do I name it nicely in the hope it will be a good car or continue to heap abuse on its steely, smug countenance? The swearing has reduced now that we know each other better but it still gets an expletive or two when it chooses to bit a tardy leg when getting in. Those things that get a friendly word or name are those that exceed my expectations. My new computer is proudly named The Beast in admiration, not dismay.

    Binary is for domination, subtlety is for negotiation. Sometimes we are happy to dominate or be dominated but in such a crowded world we are experts at deal making. We seek the shades of grey we know are there. We distrust the binary as a demonstration of power seeking. CAGW and its consensus is all about the binary, despite the ludicrously obvious complexity. In seeking to close down debate, the warmists created the opposition.

    I love a graph. If a picture paints a thousand words, a graph colours in a 10,000. With a time axis, it’s not just a movie trailer, it’s the whole plot synopsis. Warmists prefer to give you the ighlights but when you see the whole thing, you realise that they’ve exaggerated the best bits and left out the disappointing ending. Far from a block buster, it’s a flock fluster. Sorry guys but the sheeps are not impressed.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I know that graphs can be badly produced or misleading, but in the climate sphere it is often sceptics who go to the greatest lengths to lie with graphs. A good graph can illuminate a subject. Are there particular graph s that get your goat?


  4. Thanks John for the reference to Playfair and Mesopotamia. Maybe the original plan for the pyramids of Giza was just a temperature graph?

    I agree about loving time graphs. Especially the empty bit off to the right. Your thoughts about binary thinking being incompatible with negotiation are interesting and a continuation of Veblen’s. I should have given more background, but the article was long enough. Writing in 1899 Veblen obviously used the work of the anthropologists of his time, like Sir James Frazer, who were anecdotic rather than scientific, and weren’t bound by modern politically correctness. Though their vocabulary of “savage” and “primitive” shocks nowadays, they were among the first intellectuals to recognise our common humanity, whatever the stage of civilisation.


  5. Mmm… Graphs. Have Mann and Rahmstorf ever produced a graph that stood up to the scrutiny of a toddler? Gergis has produced some hilarious efforts. And how about PAGES2K? Just how difficult can it be to know which way round to plot their nonsense? The more you look at the field, the more you wonder whether it belongs in a nursery school


  6. This paper from an associate Philosophy Professor, might be worthy of a blog post,… !

    Climate change denial, freedom of speech and global justice – Trygve Lavik
    Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen,

    “… In this paper I claim that there are moral reasons for making climate denialism illegal. First I define climate denialism, and then I discuss its impact on society and its reception in the media. I build my philosophical arguments mainly on John Stuart Mill and Thomas M. Scanlon. According to Mill’s utilitarian justification of free speech, even untrue opinions are valuable in society’s pursuit of more truth. Consequently one might think that Mill’s philosophy would justify climate denialists’ right to free speech. A major section of the paper argues against that view. The main arguments are: Climate denialism is not beneficial because its main goal is to produce doubt, and not truth. Climate denialism is not sincerely meant, which is a necessary condition for Mill to accept utterances. Climate denialists bring harm, by blocking necessary action on climate change.”

    “….Furthermore, there are better reasons to outlaw climate denialism than Holocaust denialism. Holocaust denials are harmful to the surviving family members in particular, and are damaging to human dignity in general. The big difference between Holocaust denial and climate denial is that the former is a crime against previous and present generations, while climate denialism is a crime against present and future generations. If the widespread practice of climate denialism prevents actions to stop the burning of fossil fuels, the result will be runaway climate change that will kill tens of millions. In other words, climate denialism may kill people in the future, in a way that Holocaust denial, of course, cannot. Hence, climate denialism brings more massive harm into the world than Holocaust denialism.”

    Where would he draw the line?, Richard Tol, Matt Ridley, William Happer, Lindzen, Spencer – Me? all the way to Nigel lawson or Delingpole. He does seem to be of the George Marshall (Greenpeace, Rising Tide, Climate Outreach) school of thought (the ecologist ages ago), when the holocaust metaphor was, like the jews, we are ALL in denial of the holocaust about to befall us, because we can’t comprehend the enormity of it, denial in the classic psychology reasoning,

    The Psychology of Climate Denial – George Marshall

    “…In Beyond Judgement, Primo Levi, seeking to explain the refusal of many European Jews to recognise their impending extermination, quotes an old German adage: ‘Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.’
    In the case of climate change, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims. The language of ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘human impacts’, and ‘adaptation’ are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse; they are scientific euphemisms that suggest that climate change originates in immutable natural forces rather than in a direct causal relationship with moral implications for the perpetrator. ” – Marshall

    The ethics professor paper, is quite a read!


  7. Warmists don’t like graphs very much because most of them show that nothing of note is happening. They particularly don’t like the graphs they’ve posted in the past because they show how many false claims they’ve made and how much they’ve tinkered with the data over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Barry Woods, thanks for the link. How truly depressing that a Philosophy Professor could produce such utter disgraceful twaddle. Is it any surprise that some of us refer to them as eco-fascists?


  9. With ethics and philosophy if you begin with the wrong axioms you can make yourself believe anything. But inflicting it upon others while claiming the high ground is morally reprehensible.
    Houses on shifting sands come to mind.


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