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]