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Potato Print

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When I wrote this, I thought my subject matter was clear, and my point straightforward. Then, joy and surprise, David Roberts of Grist cites an extract as an exemplar of a kind of environmentalism, which he wants to contrast with a more ‘radical’ way of thinking. Thank you for the attention, David; it’s flattering. Eli might worry for me that coming to the attention of the Blorg might put the Old man in danger, but they have bigger fish to fry, and anyway, it hugely enhances my sense of self-importance.

Dutifully, the old man checked out the comments, to find, with some dismay, that I’ve been cast as some kind of ‘eco-denialist’ by one commentator. I blanched.

So I suppose I’ll have to try to set the record straight.

These were the first two lines of the original post:

For a while I have been concerned that the emissions reduction policies which have been enacted or proposed so far might be problematic.

So, the subject of the post was emissions reduction policies.

David cites this section:

The message here is simple: yes, the climate system is at risk of being changed for the worse because of CO2 emissions. No, it isn’t our fault – not us, the end-user, the taxpayer, the car driver or holidaymaker. The risk comes from energy production and industry. The fault lies with the infrastructure which lies at the heart of a developed economy, and with the investment and shareholding system which underlies our commerce and our comfort. It is not an easy thing to change the way in which we work, especially when the values which matter are purely economic and fiscal, and not ethical or social. It is not an easy thing to move the balance of power away from an inequitable hierarchy towards a more genuinely Democratic distribution of wealth, whilst avoiding spiralling inflation, recession or shifts in international power-dynamics. But, if there is any hope of actually preventing CO2 emissions from reaching levels which lead to the worst of the predicted outcomes in the next hundred years, then this is what will have to be done, somehow.


‘…Though Brown cites ethical and social values, fundamentally he’s talking about tweaking the rules of modern capitalist democracies to make them work better and more equitably. And he’s specifically rejecting the notion that average citizens should feel guilty about their unavoidably destructive lives…’

I think David’s comment is fair, but it is also slightly misleading. As he says, here, I am rejecting the notion that average citizens should feel guilty..

And I am. In the context of the original post, the point is clear: current (UK) emissions policy seeks to transfer both blame and responsibility for emissions squarely onto the shoulders of us, the citizen. What it does not appear to do is tackle the source of the emissions, thereby constituting an effective and dynamic policy. My objection is to the transfer of blame. That we have a responsibility is not in question, but I do not believe that we are being treated fairly, nor are we being spoken to honestly, about the ‘real challenge’.

At no point do I want you, or the commenter on Grist, to think that this is a licence to avoid individual action. But I do believe in the value of freedom, and believe that each of us should make a free choice, based on accurate information and taking into account our own sense of responsibility towards our environment, locally and globally. In fact, we cannot make a truly free choice if we do not know the facts.

Placing an obligation on individuals to act may not be constructive. Often, the reaction to feeling compelled to act by polemicists is to rebel or ignore the apparent compulsion, simply to establish that we are not ‘victims’, and that we will establish our own power in the world. The ‘guilt trip’ may be potent, but it is based on a misguided proselytism which is arguably unhealthy and probably, in the long run, counter-productive.

In this context, I repeat my point; we should act from a sense of responsibility and care for the world and the people in it, not because we feel guilty about making a mess. And this must be a free choice. This is not a call to pass the buck back to the ‘system’, but a recognition that the system has been trying to pass the buck, unfairly, onto us.

Finally, we should return to the citation used on Grist. David characterises it as;

‘…tweaking the rules of modern capitalist democracies…’

I suppose he has a point. That’s what it looks like. But my observation (contentiously), is that our society has more characteristics of a Plutocracy than a true Democracy. If our society was more genuinely democratic, in that our input extended beyond the occasional right to cast a vote, to active participation in decision-making (for example, by online referenda), then I would be generally happier. Whether this would make any difference to the underlying problem is harder to say.

‘The fault lies with the infrastructure which lies at the heart of a developed economy, and with the investment and shareholding system which underlies our commerce and our comfort.’

Even if we choose to believe that a radical reconsideration of the entire way we see the world is required, we still have to deal with the practicalities of what we already have, how much we depend upon it, and how to deal with it. One possible solution is to reject the trappings and ‘simplify’ our own lives; but it is not the only response. It may not even be the best response. I say this, because, however many of us choose to change our lifestyles, in the face of the comparative extent of emissions from individuals versus institutions, it won’t be enough. if we are to avoid a path which leads to a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 values in the coming decades, action must be taken to deal with the core sources: so, policy should be directed principally at dealing with this problem, not ‘mugging’ the electorate into thinking we are the cause and the solution.

That is enough for now.

Be loved.

The so-called climate debate has often made use of metaphors relating to conflict. The ‘battle’ to convince people of the problems, the ‘war’ against scepticism. The oppositional stance, confrontation between ‘sides’ in a ‘battle’ for the future, for the planet, whatever, is also familiar in environmental discussions, too.

But who are we fighting? Who is the ‘enemy’?

Many sceptics want the war to be between ‘them’ and ‘us’; between conservative, morally ‘proper’ preservers of the American Way, and suspect scientists and leftists and government bullies, who are trying to destroy the fabric of civilisation by taking away the hard-won liberties of ‘the people’.

Many environmentalists want the war to be between ‘them’ and ‘us’ too, ‘them’ in this case being morally suspect, self-centred, inconsiderate, polluting, individuals, organisations and nations. On occasions, the ‘war’ is presented as being fought against the source of these perceived moral failings, ‘Capitalism’.

For these groups, in particular, those at the more extreme ends of the issue, this kind of polarisation works very well. In some cases, the politicisation fits well into ‘right’ and ‘left’ pigeonholes, leaving both sides with the tools of polemic, moral indignation and an attitude to the perceived ills of the world which can tie easily into the existing prejudices of their particular congregations.

But where does it leave the majority? Where do scientists fit into this polarising approach? The public seems well able to discern that neither of the extreme ends of the spectrum is being entirely honest – they generally recognise propaganda when they see it – but also often views issues relating to climate change as belonging by necessity to one ‘side’ or the other.

To take the analogy of a ‘war’ a bit further, what ‘sides’ are there? In fact, as in almost all intellectual/theoretical ‘wars’, the two sides are Reason and Unreason.

Climate scientists are often picked on from both ends of the argument; Mike Hulme, Tyndall Centre director, pointed out in his op-ed for the BBC that he is often berated violently by people in his audiences who want him to promote the idea of a coming apocalypse. Almost any scientist with a blog knows about the sniping by sceptics which goes on almost constantly. So climate science is ‘the enemy’ of others with their own agendas to push. So, what to do? Should the climatologist take the diplomatic approach, try to reach a peaceful solution through reasonable discussion and negotiation, or should she take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them? (Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare).

If ‘our’ side is the side of Reason, then we must use the weapons of reason. To do what? To wave in the air and say, ‘look, I know know how to use this..’, or to take careful aim and bring down the sniper in the trees?

Whether the scientist likes it or not, he is a combatant in a war against Unreason. When he donned his white coat, he adopted a uniform which marked him out as being on a certain side. His enemies are all about him. Does he hide, negotiate, or fight?

Now, consider the nature of the enemy. Characteristically fanatical, dedicated to a cause, willing to use any means to achieve an objective and justify it by the ends. Is the enemy amenable to Reason? Is the enemy going to negotiate? Do I need to give an answer?

If a sceptic or environmental ‘dramatist’ chooses to comment on a blog or website, that person has already taken aim and fired. Put up a shield, or return fire? Defend, surround, bypass, or counter-attack? Maybe it depends on the context. Maybe, on principle, one could shoot first and ask questions later. The response helps define the nature of the exchange.

Next time, there will be an opportunity to discuss strategy. Before then, read the first thirty pages of Sun Tzu, or Musashi’s ‘Book of Five Rings’.


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May 2007