Why have I never heard of the Munk debates? Held at regular intervals in Toronto, these public debates on significant social or political questions attract audiences of over three thousand. I knew there were some sympathetic, highly intelligent people in Toronto – but so many?
A recent one pitched Matt Ridley and Steve Pinker against a couple of “humanist” journalist / philosophers defending the motion that “Humanity’s best days lie ahead.” I’ll come back to that one another time. (You can read, watch, listen to or download them all for free.)
This post is about an old one from December 2009 in which George Monbiot and Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May defended the motion that: “climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response” with Nigel Lawson and Bjørn Lomborg speaking against.
I remember Monbiot mentioning it in his Guardian column at the time, agonising about the morality of taking a plane to Canada, but I can’t find any trace of a mention afterwards. (Mind you, he had a lot to agonise about just then, post-Climategate and just pre-Copenhagen.)
And no wonder Monbiot stayed silent about it. The pre-debate poll showed 61% of the audience in favour the motion, which fell to 53% after they had heard the arguments – a significant success for Lawson and Lomborg. To be frank, I think they had an easy time of it, since the wording of the motion meant that every time May or Monbiot linked climate change to some fearful consequence – drought, disease, infant mortality or whatever – Lawson and Lomborg could reply: “Well, aren’t they the real defining crises? Why not tackle drought, disease etc directly, rather than link them to something as uncertain as catastrophic global warming?” to which Monbiot and May had no answer. Because of course, the worse the putative effects of global warming, the more urgent it is to deal with them right now, rather than lowering the CO2 content of the atmosphere in a few decades time. And this argument is unanswerable right up to the most extreme effect imaginable – the end of life on the planet. Which explains neatly why climate change activism must be catastrophic or nothing.
In his closing argument Monbiot veered off-subject to recount an anecdote about something that happened to him in Kenya which convinced him that Climate Change was the Big One.
Here’s Monbiot’s autobiographical anecdote:
The reason I’m concerned about climate change is because of my experiences in northwest Kenya. I mentioned the region before, but I haven’t told you exactly what happened.
When I was there in 1992, they were suffering the most severe drought they had ever suffered to date. Since then they’ve suffered two which have been even worse. And because of that drought, everyone was under the most extraordinary pressure. They had run out of basic resources and the only option they really had was to raid neighbouring tribes and take resources from them.
At one point, I was about to go up to the cattle camp that my Turkana friends and their families were running. And it had been stricken by tremendous drought and I fell very ill just before I was due to go up. I got malaria and I collapsed on the street and eventually had to be taken away to Nairobi. And I thought it was a terrible misfortune that had befallen me. It was actually the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life. Because when I finally recovered, I went back in the Land Rover, back to this cattle camp I was supposed to have visited before. I was with one of the relatives of the people in the cattle camp.
About ten miles before we got there this man suddenly burst into tears and he was screaming and wailing and crying and I asked him what on earth was going on. And he said, can’t you see? And I said, I’m sorry, I can’t see. And as I got closer and closer, I did see. There were vultures hanging in the air just above this cattle camp. And when we arrived, all that remained of the 98 people who lived there were their skulls and backbones. The rest had been eaten by hyenas. The Toposa people had come in the night and surrounded this cattle camp and machine gunned it with AK 47s and G3s. They killed 96 people that night. There were two that got away and they killed them the next day. They killed them because they were desperate and they were desperate because of droughts. And that drought almost certainly was a result of climate change.
This is what we are up against. Not the esoteric abstractions and the figures and the squabbles we’ve been having over spreadsheets and computer programs and what this and that figure say. This is about life and death to these people – people I came to love and respect when I was there. And it was seeing that, which turned me into a climate change campaigner.
I was always switched on to social justice and environmental issues. But all these other things that I’d been fighting for all my adult life – getting people properly fed and preventing conflict and preventing disease – all that spending and that effort becomes wasted in the face of climate change. And when I was working there I was working with Oxfam in East Africa, and it was them who told me that this was the major problem. If we don’t deal with climate change, forget the rest of our programs. We might as well pack up and go home.
You can’t help admiring someone who gave up a cushy job at the BBC to become a freelance journalist and who, at the age of 29, had already had a lifetime of unpleasant experiences and narrow escapes. From Wikipaedia:
Working as an investigative journalist, he travelled in Indonesia, Brazil, and East Africa. His activities led to his being made persona non grata in seven countries and being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Indonesia. In these places, he was also shot at, beaten up by military police, shipwrecked and stung into a poisoned coma by hornets. He came back to work in Britain after being pronounced clinically dead in Lodwar General Hospital in north-western Kenya, having contracted cerebral malaria.
Monbiot’s horrifying anecdote seemed weirdly significant when I read it late last night, but I couldn’t work out why, until this morning when I was watching a documentary on al Jazeera on a completely different subject – the life of a certain Sheikh Bassam.
[Correction: The link above is to the first part of the film about Sheikh Bassam’s son, whereas my text below is based on the second part at
starting from about five minutes in. I’ve now seen the entire film from the beginning and corrected a few minor errors in the text below. It’s well worth watching in its entirety. The first part has film of one of the first peaceful demonstrations against Assad’s regime, when, according to the Sheikh’s son, three of four villages, representing 100,000 people formed a march on the city of Irlib. We see them marching through lush countryside, no sign of drought. Fifteen were killed by the Syrian Army. Later footage of fighting by the Free Syrian Army takes place in well tended olive groves.]
I missed the beginning, and came in where the elderly sheikh, turbaned, with a long white beard, is shown surrounded by young men with kalashnikovs, overseeing the release of a hostage in a rebel-held part of his native Syria. Then we had his life in a series of flashbacks: opposition to the Bashar Assad régime; studying art and architecture in Aix-en-Provence; marriage to a French PhD student; preaching fundamentalist Islam in France and Belgium while running a Syrio-Lebanese restaurant (he claims to have made over two thousand converts); imprisonment for eight months in Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in a coup against the régime; imprisonment for three years in Italy on trumped up charges of terrorism (he was released and received financial compensation); and finally back in his ancestral home in Syria, where he recently had his arm blown off by a car bomb placed by Daesh/ISIL. Interviews with a French engineer who befriended him in Saudi Arabia and a Belgian police chief who investigated him for suspected terrorism make it clear that he is no terrorist, though, as the police chief explains, his proselytising made him the ideal suspect. And his own explanations of his admiration for the student revolt in May ’68 and the French democratic system, the Islamic principle of tolerance for Jews and Christians (he didn’t mention atheists,) and his practice of Sharia Law back in Syria (he was a bit vague about the cutting off of hands of thieves) where he lives with two new wives (his French wife is still in France, being looked after by one of their sons) showed a personality which can only be described as – complex.
The last scene of the film covers the death of his other son, a Jihadist, in an attack on a Syrian army position. The Sheikh is shown going to the site of his death to recuperate his bones, and finding the tail of the missile which killed him. But his son’s body is buried in a mass grave. The Sheikh pokes at the stony ground with a spade held in his one remaining hand and mutters: “We’ll need a bulldozer.”
Apparently there was one at hand, because the son’s bones are now buried in the family cemetery, and this extraordinary old man can comfort himself with the simple precepts of his 1400 year-old religion, at least until Daesh or Assad’s troops get him.
Monbiot, faced with a similarly horrific event, couldn’t console himself with the simple precepts of an age old religion, but luckily Oxfam were on hand with a substitute. It’s interesting to learn that the theory that wars are caused by droughts which are caused by climate change which has been used to explain the Syrian disaster was already being used 25 years ago by aid workers in Kenya.
Every intelligent article I’ve ever read about the Middle East insists on the importance of tribal chieftains like Sheikh Bassam, usually with the message that unless we get to grips with these hopelessly backward people and their hopelessly backward feudal system, we’re never going to get anywhere winning whatever war it is that’s being discussed, though I’ve never seen an article featuring anyone quite like Sheikh Bassam, his feudal manners tempered by an education in jails in Saudi Arabia and Italy and in one of Europe’s oldest universities.
George Monbiot also went to one of Europe’s oldest universities – Oxford – though according to Wikipaedia he felt that he didn’t fit in there. I wonder why. Whereas Sheikh Bassam seems to fit in anywhere. You could imagine having a pint with Sheikh Bassam (his name means “smiler”) – of something non-alcoholic of course – which I somehow can’t with Monbiot, whatever his qualities. But then Sheikh Bassam isn’t worried by climate change.
Has anyone else been reading the tweets on the Middle East by Steve McIntyre?