Three days ago George Monbiot announced in the Guardian that he had prostate cancer. He’s in surgery today. This is definitely not cheering news, even in an odd way, and I’m sure we all wish him a successful recovery.
I’ve expressed before my admiration for Monbiot the political activist who risked (and nearly lost) his life in Africa and East Timor, and for Monbiot the commenter on climate change who, in the wake of Climategate, immediately understood that this was a major scandal and that Phil Jones should resign. One day, I hope, he will reveal why he became the first investigative reporter in history to announce ahead of time that he was willing to change his mind, depending on the results of an official investigation.
His article on his latest confrontation with death is interesting, and even uplifting in an odd way. He claims to be
…happy. In fact, I’m happier than I was before my diagnosis.
The reason is that I’ve sought to apply the three principles which, I believe, sit at the heart of a good life.
The first is the most important: imagine how much worse it could be, rather than how much better…
The second principle is this: change what you can change, accept what you can’t…
The third principle is this: do not let fear rule your life…
Those are fine principles. How do they apply to Monbiot, the campaigner against climate catastrophe, or global weirding as he once labelled it? Does he stop to imagine how much worse it would have been if the prophesies of doom he has been purveying for years had actually been realised? Is he cheered at the thought of all those gloomy predictions he’s made in his 191 articles on climate change in the past 23 years that didn’t come true?
“Change what you can change..” All the commenters who poured scorn on Monbiot’s Guardian articles in Comment Is Free twelve years ago have disappeared, no doubt banned by moderators, only to be replaced by others. Does he still accept that, as he said in 2009
There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease.
and that there’s nothing he can do to change it?
And as for his third principle: “do not let fear rule your life” – who’s he kidding? Or was he just joking when he announced, in 1995, that:
we refuse to acknowledge the impending global catastrophe.. why aren’t we panicking?
and in 1999
The global meltdown has begun. Long predicted and long denied, the effects of climate change are arriving faster than even the gloomiest prophets expected.
I wonder whether the government of Denmark, whose atrocious management of the conference contributed to its failure, would have tried harder if its people knew that in a few hundred years they won’t have a country any more. As people are displaced from their homes by drought and sea level rise, and as food production declines, the planet will be unable to support the current population.
Also in 2009, Monbiot reported on a COP Scientific Foreplay conference he attended in Copenhagen. In his report, which I can’t find for the moment on his website, he spoke of the “whispers” he’d heard from the scientists, that things were worse than they thought they were, they thought.
He also complained about the fact that his carbon-lite train trip to Copenhagen took 60 hours and cost him £600, which the Guardian wasn’t reimbursing. This inspired me to comment at the Graun (and the comment may still be there – I’ll check:)
On the night train that left Copenhagen
George announced to the sleeping Schlafwagen
(To tremendous applause)
“I’ve just wet my drawers
And beshat myself into the bargain.”
Trawling through George’s œuvre one realises that he hardly ever discusses climate change. His articles on the subject are either whispers from the scientists, or blasts of invective against sceptics. His forensic skills enable him to discover that something David Bellamy got wrong about receding glaciers was due to him having tapped a 5 instead of a decimal point on his keyboard. When Alexander Cockburn ruined his theory that deniers are all rightwing slaves of Big Oil by ridiculing climate catastrophism at the far left Counterpunch website, Monbiot destroyed his argument by pointing out that one of his sources was an article published by a far right publisher. Sea level expert Nils-Axel Morner denies catastrophic sea level rise? George points out that Nils-Axel believes in dowsing. The classical scholar Christopher Monckton dares to write scientific articles demonstrating that temperatures are not rising? He is not a real Viscount. And the debate is closed.
Possibly his sleaziest attack was on Clive James, for having dared to suggest that scepticism was important. George’s article was entitled: “Clive James isn’t a climate change sceptic, he’s a sucker.”
Plenty of intelligent people have also declared themselves sceptics.
One such is the critic Clive James. You could accuse him of purveying trite received wisdom, but not of being dumb. On Radio 4 a few days ago he delivered an essay about the importance of scepticism, during which he maintained that “the number of scientists who voice scepticism [about climate change] has lately been increasing”.
George doesn’t say so, but Clive James’ article was about Montaigne and potato crisps. Only in an aside did it mention climate change:
Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist.
It’s a nasty word to be called, denialist, because it calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust. In my homeland, Australia, there are some prominent intellectuals who are quite ready to say that any sceptic about man-made global warming is doing even worse than denying the Holocaust, because this time the whole of the human race stands to be obliterated. Really they should know better, because the two events are not remotely comparable. The Holocaust actually happened. The destruction of the earth by man-made global warming hasn’t happened yet, and there are plenty of highly qualified scientists ready to say that the whole idea is a case of too many of their colleagues relying on models provided by the same computers that can’t even predict what will happen to the weather next week.
In fact the number of scientists who voice scepticism has lately been increasing. But there were always some, and that’s the only thing I know about the subject. I know next to nothing about climate science. All I know is that many of the commentators in newspapers who are busy predicting catastrophe don’t know much about it either, because they keep saying that the science is settled and it isn’t…
Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it.
A conjecture can be dressed up as a dead certainty with enough rhetoric and protected against dissent with enough threatening language, but finally it has to meet the only test of science, which is that any theory must fit the facts, and the facts can’t be altered to suit the theory.
George’s analysis of Clive James’ defence of scepticism is as follows:
I am constantly struck by the way in which people like James, who proclaim themselves sceptics, will believe any old claptrap that suits their views. Almost all my fiercest arguments over climate change, both in print and in person, have been with people in their 60s or 70s. Why might this be?
In 1973 the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with “vital lies” or “the armour of character”. We defend ourselves from the ultimate terror by engaging in immortality projects, which boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death. More than 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker’s thesis. When people are confronted with images or words or questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and increasing their striving for self-esteem…
One of the most arresting findings is that immortality projects can bring death closer. In seeking to defend the symbolic, heroic self that we create to suppress thoughts of death, we might expose the physical self to greater danger. For example, researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel found that people who reported that driving boosted their self-esteem drove faster and took greater risks after they had been exposed to reminders of death.
George loves a paper written by researchers. Unlike the observations of a simple citizen (an excellent TV critic, or an excellent investigative journalist, for example) it’s been peer-reviewed; and so, and so…
And so, respect (until Phil Jones revealed that he and his team mates were willing to change the meaning of peer review).
So George’s awareness of a paper by researchers at Bar-Ilan University which found that people who reported that driving boosted their self-esteem drove faster and took greater risks after they had been exposed to reminders of death boosted George’s belief in cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s proposal in 1973 that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with “vital lies” or “the armour of character”, which in turn boosted George’s belief that Clive James’ defence of scepticism was “claptrap,” because Clive James was old, and therefore closer to death than George.
(George’s article was written in 2009, before Clive James started writing about his own incurable disease.)
George and Clive are still alive, thanks be to Gaia and the NHS. Which one of them will continue to entertain us with occasionally frivolous articles about intensely serious subjects? Which one will respond to their unenviable close shaves by “shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and increasing their striving for self-esteem”? Both and neither, I hope.