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Rupert and the Magic Windmill

One of the great advances of modern life is the separation of dwelling place from workplace. Until quite recently the farmer lived on his farm, the schoolmaster in the school house, and the miner in a terrace in the shadow of the slag heaps. Few workers nowadays live on the premises of their office or factory, and most, when they can, choose to get as far away as possible, physically and aesthetically. (I’ve taken this to extremes by living in the south of France for the past thirty years – in an end-of-terrace house on the edge of an industrial estate, if you want to know, not far from the airport, so handy for Stansted.)

For a century or so the ideal place of residence for most middle class people has been the village, close enough to the town to be practical of course, but not so close as to turn into a suburb. This ideal is no doubt based on a thousand cultural influences; for us Brits they would include Jane Austen TV serialisations, through Thomas Hardy novels back to Hobbiton and Rupert Annuals. And the way we live, or aspire to live, influences the way we imagine how the world is, or how it might be. Hence that strange phenomenon, middle class environmentalism.

I share this fantasy to some extent, and for a couple of weeks a year I indulge in it, swapping houses and sampling life in an English village a short bus ride from an ancient University town. The Guardian is delivered every morning by Rupert Bear on a bicycle, and most afternoons, Bilbo Baggins can be seen smoking a pipe on the bench by the duck pond. There’s five pubs, one of which has Thai cuisine, served by Rupert’s friends Pong Ping and Tiger Lily, and if it weren’t for the through commuter traffic and the Tesco’s you could believe yourself in a Green Arcadia. “Once you get there, there’s no there there,” said Gertrude Stein. But she was a city girl, and no doubt Paris didn’t seem a patch on Pittsburgh, except for the company; and Alice B. Toklas’s cooking.

Where was I?

And where and how you live influences the way you imagine the rest of the world. Hence the Oxfam executive’s vision of an Africa made up of self sufficient villages, with a solar panel on the roof of every mud hut. (I didn’t make that up. It’s in one of their brochures.) So if Africans are moving to mega-cities and aspiring to buy a fossil fuel powered vehicle, it must be someone’s fault.

Moving out of your work environment to somewhere nicer has its sociological equivalent in moving out of your social class into a superior, more comfortable one. Much post-war British culture was about getting out of the factory into the office, or even – wonder of wonders – into the university. (Americans, with a more fluid society, dropped out of the class system altogether, into one of their own making, in the beatnik and hippy culture.) And a modern society which abolished the old class barriers got a name, the Meritocracy, which was universally considered a Good Thing. Somehow, it got forgotten that the man who invented the concept intended it as a savage criticism of modern society, not a model for what it should be. From Wikipaedia:

The Rise of the Meritocracy is a book by British sociologist and politician Michael Young published 1958. It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited...

The word was adopted into the English language with none of the negative connotations that Young intended it to have… Young expressed his disappointment in the embrace of this word and philosophy by the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the Guardian in an article in 2001, where he states:

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Well, you can always make room for others, of course, by simply abolishing the people at the bottom of the heap who make stuff, and employing more people to organise stuff. Out of the mines, into “The Office”. In an ideal world, we can all work at home sitting at a computer, while stuff is made by robots, or Chinamen, or Poles, or someone else, somewhere elseJust not in my village, thank you.

Fortunately, social engineering is never 100% perfect, hence a phenomenon like the revolt of the Yellow Jackets. France has done as much as any country to form an educated workforce fit for the 22nd century, in a country with a sophisticated culture, crisscrossed with high speed trains and autoroutes. But there’s a lot of space between the cultural and industrial hubs, and someone’s got to live there. But not enough people to make it economical to keep open the school, the post office or the hospital.
Back in the 19thcentury, when 90% of the population lived in villages, and socialism was just a mote (or a beam) in the eye of an exiled German professor, there arose the curious idea that a letter could be posted for the same price whatever the distance, that every child should have a school within walking distance, and that street lighting could be provided free for everyone. But those days are nearly gone, thank goodness.

Back to our model village, not too far from the hospital or post office, we hope. Not all of us educated office worker types are dyed-in-the-wool Greens, raising our own chickens and keeping bees, but it’s nice to think we could do so if we wanted to, and in the meantime we can at least buy organic and sign petitions against the use of pesticides. We have the time for the one and the money for the other.

Which is part of the problem, indirectly. The worm in the bud, that no organic pesticide can treat, is the nagging knowledge that our chosen way of life is not sustainable. Not for everyone. Hobbiton is fine as long as it’s inhabited mainly by hobbits, plus the odd wizard working from home, but you don’t want it being overrun by any old orc.

And this is where the fear sets in. The fear that there’s too many of us, that there won’t be enough space, or stuff to go round. And then the fear that one is being terribly selfish. Isn’t the whole point of having a nice job and living in a nice environment the fact that it demonstrates that one is a nice person? And then the fear mutates. The orcs don’t arrive, or not in unmanageable numbers, and the oil and other stuff doesn’t run out – indeed, there seems to be too much stuff, too many cars, which is partly because there are too many orc… sorry, I really must stop having such uncharitable thoughts. I really must find another source for my fears, one which doesn’t lay blame on anyone, or perhaps one that blames everyone, even and especially me. Yes, it’s Me that’s the problem, and therefore Me must be the solution.

I read this article in the Observer many years ago about the North Atlantic Ocean Oscillation. Apparently, the fact that the earth is warming means that the direction of the Gulf Stream might change, and Britain will find itself cooling – dangerously, catastrophically, even. The article was long and serious and very sciencey, and I found it interesting, partly because it sounded counter-intuitive, and partly because, well, it wasinteresting. The whole reason I read the Observer is to find out interesting things which I can repeat at dinner parties to people like me who find such things interesting, but perhaps haven’t read it because they take the Sunday Times. I mean, the whole point of my job, the reason for my existence you might say, is to exchange information – in the classroom, in the boardroom, in the outer reaches of the corridors of power. So a snippet like that, which has world-reaching significance but may also influence my own decisions concerning double glazing and wood-burning stoves and the like – well, it’s something that sticks. And it takes my mind off the orcs.

So I read some more. And so did all my friends. And the newspapers started having colour photography, and computer-generated graphs which told you everything you needed to know at a glance about things you’d never suspected happening in places few photographers had been to and no satellites had flown over before. And then there was the internet, and any idea that I might find the time to raise chickens or keep bees was finally abandoned. There were bigger things to worry about. Like Tuvalu, which is not actually that big, but you know what I mean.

By now, my uncharitable fear of the Other had mutated into a wholly charitable fear for the Other, including those who might invade my village, and especially those coming from elsewhere. And I couldn’t accuse them of coming to steal our jobs, or spoil our view with their horrible housing estates, because we had stolen their entire flooded or drought-ridden country. My fear was no longer for me, my family and my way of life, but for the entire planet. So naturally, I felt much better about it.

And my fear even included fear for the unborn, those who don’t exist yet. And this fear was particularly gratifying, because it helped to drive out a certain uncomfortable feeling that worms its way into your half-conscious as you get older. A feeling that the words “then” and “now,” “before” and “after” are subtly changing their meaning, that they are somehow not immutable concepts… Whenever that feeling starts to nag I like to get out a graph with a nice long time axis stretching far into the next century. With several pathways. The road not taken, and all that.

So all in all, I’m feeling much better in myself since I discovered Dangerous Global Warming, or Catastrophic Climate Change, as we initiates call it, (though I feel I may go over to calling it Global Weirding, if it catches on.) But now that the facts are all in and I’m settled in my mind, I find I’m reading less about it. I’m more interested in psychology now: the tricks memory plays; how unconscious bias can lead to false belief; how fake news spreads and why people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s very useful for explaining why some people don’t agree with you. I’ve read some interesting stuff about it. I’ll tell you more, the next time we have a dinner party.

[Dedicated to the dear friends with whom we swap houses. I’ve only met them a couple of times for a few hours, but having shared their bookshelves and benefited from their Guardian delivered daily, I feel I know them as well as I know myself. (Not very well, actually.) And also to Tom and Paul, for recent articles here which inspired these thoughts. It’s a small world, and I like it that way]

9 thoughts on “Rupert and the Magic Windmill

  1. Had I known Geoff, you could have exchanged houses with me and gained a totally different perspective re. living in an English village, where half of the inhabitants work on the farms surrounding (all of them sharing the same three surnames), the other half either on benefits, self-employed working from home, or in low paid employment in local towns, where half the children in the local primary school are ‘special needs’. I suspect it is very different from your idyllic commuter village just outside Oxford or Cambridge. The principle source of new blood into the village came from the less upwardly mobile parts of Essex, where house prices are still sky high enough to enable the oiks to move out of their overpriced semis and terraces and upgrade to much cheaper housing in the sticks. The guy who fixed our phone line here summed the place up nicely; he and his work colleagues call it Bug End. We just called it Dead End. Nobody gets the Observer delivered on account of the fact that there’s no paper round. Not many residents, I suspect, were concerned about saving the world, but plenty about saving their own piece of splendid rural isolation, virtually untouched by the wider world (mainly on account of the fact that the wider world was not really inclined to touch it).

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  2. Geoff,

    Cultural phenomena such as exampled by the certainty of imminent global climate catastrophe, which thrive on the back of our fears (and various other emotions), pre-date not just the Western middle-class, but the European civilisation that produced it, any other civilisations in Europe before that one, and indeed probably the presence of (any type of) humans in Europe at all. While this doesn’t lessen anything said above, it does mean that English villages, dinner parties, the Observer, the Internet, and even the class system, are not ultimately causal, they are merely the framing in our current era of an age-old mechanism which arose from gene-culture co-evolution. Bearing this in mind in always worthwhile, so that during the useful and needful navigation of all the above cultural pathways, one doesn’t inadvertently fall into thinking that such things *are* causal. And hence be tempted into dubious follow-on thinking, such as we if we eliminated the middle class or traditional English literature or dinner parties or even environmentalism, these cultural phenomena such as climate change catastrophism would no longer be prevalent. Not so. I think your piece speaks well though to how half (or indeed fully) submerged cultural fears (and indeed hopes, anxieties, joys etc) are fluid and inconsistent, even within individuals let alone societies, to which one might add that no-one is free of them.

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  3. ANDY WEST
    I fully accept your analysis of all things cultural, and in particular your observation about dinner parties, the Observer etc. not being causal causal factors, but simply trivial epiphenomena, in the greater scheme of things.

    What I am trying to get at, as often, is not what “caused” climate catastrophism to emerge, but what protects it from the kind of evolutionary pressures – the struggle of opposing cultural phenomena leading to the survival of the fittest and the extinction of the less “useful” or well adapted – which are normally active. Climate catastrophism appears to me to be unique within the field of environmentalism in being impervious to any criticism at all. It’s perfectly possible to be pro- or anti- other environmentalist concerns, like veganism, or nuclear power, or population control or greater protection of endangered species or whatever, all of which are recognised as questions of degree, with a spectrum of possible responses. Only in the case of climate catastrophism is the cursor set at one end of the scale, and any attempt to reposition it treated as denialism, to be suppressed by all means. This makes it unique, and I enjoy trying to identify the highly specific features that make it so. What this would require, ideally, is the talents of a novelist, someone like Tom Wolfe who could dissect an entire society and reveal its dicky heart. In the meantime, my small contributions sometimes help me to see more clearly. I’ll say more about that later.

    To stick with the evolutionary analogy, climate catastrophism seems to me to be, not just another cultural species, but a whole new genus, with no known predators, and nothing to stop it from gobbling up its entire habitat. I try in a trivial way in this article to define the habitat where the beast thrives – its socio-ecological niche – which is basically the Western, culturally sophisticated, left-leaning humanist environment that I inhabit. I want to see climate catastrophism, if not destroyed, at least reduced to its rightful place as an ideology among others. The powerful forces I see that might achieve that are Presidents Xi, Trump and Bolsanaro. How comforting is that?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Geoff,
    “I fully accept your analysis of all things cultural…”

    Apologies I wasn’t implying at all that you didn’t. Just noting that without an occasional caveat / caution tacked on, a minority of your audience might possibly slip onto the wrong path and start blaming those secondary factors (mass rejections have probably been triggered by less 0: )

    “Climate catastrophism appears to me to be unique within the field of environmentalism in being impervious to any criticism at all.”

    Maybe indeed within the field of environmentalism, meaning it is less at the constrained / reality end of that domain, and more at the culturally convinced end. But not at all unique more generally (at various phases of their unfolding, religions or political ideologies brook no criticism, and likewise even prior science topics that also got entangled into culture, or writ smaller group-think, in different ways, e.g. per Lysenko).

    “What I am trying to get at, as often, is not what “caused” climate catastrophism to emerge, but what protects it…”

    I think the same process that caused it to emerge is also what ‘protects’ it (notwithstanding the process is actually a double-edged sword, see below); cultural consensuses have been a major net evolutionary advantage for a very long time indeed, hence the ingrained group behaviour. Unfortunately, this has no bearing on whether the next one that comes along is a net benefit or net burden, or even net disaster. The behaviour evolved before science and is to a large extent in conflict with it where topics rise into the social radar for whatever reason. But we aren’t able to leave culture behind yet, so I guess management is the game.

    “It’s perfectly possible to be pro- or anti- other environmentalist concerns, like veganism, or nuclear power, or population control or greater protection of endangered species or whatever, all of which are recognised as questions of degree, with a spectrum of possible responses.”

    Agree, except when for minorities of the ultra culturally convinced on climate catastrophe, one or more of these get subsumed by narrative mixtures into their absolute belief, so likewise end up with a digital response, e.g. when Oreskes called Hansen a ‘denier’ for supporting nuclear.

    “Only in the case of climate catastrophism is the cursor set at one end of the scale, and any attempt to reposition it treated as denialism, to be suppressed by all means.”

    Well yes, but this is more or less self-defining if ‘catastrophism’ is the criteria. But many who may still be regarded as orthodox (i.e. not skeptics) nevertheless do not advocate catastrophism (even if they don’t actively oppose it either). For instance mainstream / IPCC science doesn’t support a certainty of imminent (decades) global climate catastrophe, and only a small minority of scientists appear to be pushing this. In some forums mainstream scientists may even admit such, but the cultural pressure to conform does indeed tilt the table towards absolutes – cultures are highly polarizing (it’s their purpose, you are either in-group or out-group).

    “This makes it unique, and I enjoy trying to identify the highly specific features that make it so.”

    There are certainly unique features, and all worth identification / exploration. No two cultures are the same anyhow, and this one has all sorts of entanglements. Knowing that the generic action is not at all unique, indeed isn’t all that helpful when trying to see what’s actually happening in detail on the ground.

    “In the meantime, my small contributions sometimes help me to see more clearly.”

    And everyone else too, including me 🙂 My comment was merely to remind about a caveat, that no doubt you personally didn’t need anyhow, but maybe others will. Attributing disproportionate blame to cited habits or segments of society can happen all to easily for some within a wide ranging audience (no doubt you have millions of hits :), and smoke from this can sometimes obscure / detract from otherwise useful material.

    “To stick with the evolutionary analogy, climate catastrophism seems to me to be, not just another cultural species, but a whole new genus…”

    Notwithstanding per above that there are for sure unique features (Brad likewise emphasizes these), this is like saying Christianity is different to Islam. Well it is, and in some very significant ways, which all are very well worth exploring and recording in detail else we can’t make models of how populations following these different religions will behave. But the process that caused them is identical, and in this same sense, it’s also the same process that causes a cultural belief in climate catastrophism.

    “…with no known predators, and nothing to stop it from gobbling up its entire habitat.”

    All cultures are polarizing (because you can’t create an in-group without also creating an out-group, plus also nominal in-group signallers who do not exercise belief in practice), so as time goes on cultures create their own opposition. As the high growth phase reaches a mature phase where many indeed have been gobbled up, the action of acquiring still more recruits will also mean more opposition (it is a blind process, there is no agency or sentience regarding what happens). And as the new culture muscles into the pack of others, boundaries / alliances change, and for any strong ally picked up, the new entrant will also acquire the enemy of its new ally. This has occurred in the US regarding Rep / Cons and Dem / Libs.

    “I try in a trivial way in this article to define the habitat where the beast thrives – its socio-ecological niche – which is basically the Western, culturally sophisticated, left-leaning humanist environment that I inhabit.”

    Your article is great and not trivial, I only wanted to add a caveat regarding causality 0: And indeed it does thrive there. But bear in mind too that cultural alliances are to some extent arbitrary. It was the path of greater success / propagation to align with right-of-centre not left-of-centre in Germany, for instance. The right-of-centre Merkel is also known as ‘the climate chancellor’, and in latter times there is resistance from the left and the far right.

    “I want to see climate catastrophism, if not destroyed, at least reduced to its rightful place as an ideology among others.”

    For sure this will happen in time. I think only its ascendent mode has made it look so unstoppable, but I think there’s already many more questions and doubts than there used to be, and it sure doesn’t seem to be winning the policy game re fossil fuels, globally (so maybe the culture will morph). But anyhow its unique features do not place it outside the rules of culture, though when it be get seriously attenuated, and after how much damage, who knows? Cultures generally become more benign over generations (if indeed they last that long), because then there is time for genuine group competition to occur, and unless they net benefit (or at least do not damage) their hosts, non-believer groups / societies succeed instead.

    “The powerful forces I see that might achieve that are Presidents Xi, Trump and Bolsanaro. How comforting is that?”

    Um, yeah 0: Without even needing any skeptics, if mainstream science could find the courage to oppose the catastrophe narrative it doesn’t support, this would produce a much less conflictual hobbling of the beast. If I’ve read him right, I think this is one of the reasons why Brad places such blame on the science – i.e. its silence is complicit (albeit I maintain, not conscious lying / advocacy either).

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  5. P.S. “…so as time goes on cultures create their own opposition…”

    …and competition, via heretical splits, e.g. Catholicism / Protestantism. Would be interesting if something like that happened within the culture of climate catatsrophism.

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  6. Andy:

    But the process that caused them is identical …

    I deeply disagree. The more historians look at the origins of the two phenomena you list, the more the gulf appears to be. But I don’t want to argue about it. Just to register that this is a weak spot for me.

    (As I’ve said before elsewhere, the category of ‘political religion,’ as advanced by folks as different as Raymond Aron and James Billington, seems a helpful one in assessing modern climate catastrophism. And that may suggest common ground between us.)

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  7. Climate change is endangering one of our best loved species.

    The drive to reduce carbon dioxide levels by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is having unintended consequences as we close coal mines across the planet.

    A spokesman for SPOD, the Society for the Protection of Dragons, Mr. Draed Goke explained;

    “Dragons have survived the millennia, even the extinction of the dinosaurs, but as coal disappears the Dragon population is decreasing to dangerously low levels and may soon face extinction unless their food source is protected. We call on governments around the globe to ensure adequate supplies of our staple diet are made available. We particularly call on the Welsh Government to keep available supplies of Welsh Steam Coal, the most healthy food for our kind, to ensure the national symbol of Wales continues to flourish.
    Copyright Adrian K Kerton 2018
    https://adriankerton.wordpress.com

    Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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  8. Geoff,

    “What I am trying to get at, as often, is not what “caused” climate catastrophism to emerge, but what protects it from the kind of evolutionary pressures…”

    You might be surprised to learn just how much common-or-garden anchoring can explain here, particularly in the context of post-normal science. I recently came across some quite interesting research in this area. Since ‘anchoring’ follows on alphabetically from ‘ambiguity aversion’ (the subject of my last article) I am minded that I should make it the subject of my next one. If so, I thank you now for giving me the idea.

    Like

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