Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Environmentalism: make it a non-prophet organisation please

Bit slow with this one. Peter Preston asks, where are the Elijahs of the environment?
"And the plain fact is that we surely need a prophet, not yet another committee. We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince – not because he preaches apocalypse in gory detail, but in simple, overwhelming terms. We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient."
As someone who knows very little about this subject but a fair bit about religion, I would have thought this is the last thing environmentalism needs - forming as it does part of the problem rather than the solution.

I assume global warming is a reality and would like to be told in a rational manner what is likely to happen and what our option are. Instead I am confronted with behaviour that is beyond question religious in character - and if environmentalism is to overcome scepticism, it has to become less religious. By this I mean it has to drop the assumption of moral superiority, cognitive infallibility and hypocrisy - the features of religion everywhere.

It might help, for example, if when confronted with dissenters, they could actually engage with the arguments - rather than simply branding them as heretics. The phrase that has gained currency here is 'deniers'. I appreciate it is probably too late to do anything about this but I really wish they wouldn't do this because it is stupid and offensive. It is derivative from the expression 'Holocoust deniers'. Howard Jacobson once remarked that those who deny it happened are the very ones who are glad it happened. Say what you like about 'global warming deniers', you can't draw an equivalence here, and not only because what they are denying lies in the likely future, rather than the past.

The assumption of moral superiority can also be seen in the manner in which interests are imputed to the 'denialists'. Why do they make the arguments they do? Because they are simply evil, seems to be the answer. I really don't get this. A self-employed 'libertarian' with a blog may or may not be a 'wingnut', whatever that means, but it isn't obvious to me that they have any more or less interests at stake than scientists who have careers and research budgets to defend.

Peter Preston wants a prophet who doesn't preach the apocalypse in 'gory detail'. But this is intrinsic to the role of the prophet. The purpose of foretelling catastrophe is to provide vindication to the faithful and prompt repentance amongst the back-sliders. The greater the catastrophe, the greater the need for moral reformation there is. A recognition that this is the tradition that the 'eco-prophets' we already have stand in might be helpful - because all the available evidence we have is that they are not helping matters.

Finally, there is the question of hypocrisy - and it's the one part of Preston's piece that might make sense when he says that environmentalism needs an advocate that believes. Because as an outside observer, it isn't obvious to me that the present crew actually do. Certainly some of their behaviour would suggest otherwise. Take George Monbiot, for example.

According to George, the ecologically destructive behaviour of a country with around 33 million inhabitants is such that it requires a nothing less than a visit from himself to halt their delinquent behaviour. This mission, he informs us, necessitated nothing less than a relinquishing of his 'self-imposed ban on flying'. It's worth reading why George banned himself from flying: here he argues that every time you board a plane, you are killing people. So what should we conclude from his decision to fly to Toronto: that he thinks while he may kill some people now, he will be saving more in the future? It's certainly possible that he is that arrogant - but I would have thought the more likely explanation for his behaviour is that he doesn't really believe that every time you board a plane, you are killing people. Over to George:
"When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening."

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