Mar 18, 2010

Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. Scientists can't boil it down, the rest take too much on trust. Where is the Communist Manifesto for saving the environment?

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


While dealing with the minutaie of British life -- filling a free prescription (good) that the pharmacist said would take 45 minutes because of the absurd process of checks and counter-checks (bad)* -- your correspondent browsed in the second-hand section of the excellent Bookmarks bookshop, run by the Socialist Workers Party. Among a range of purchases two stood out. One was Mao's pamphlet On Peasant Revolution. It was sitting on the desk beside me as I read various Crikey reports about Julian McGuaran, and his latest mad blurt about the CSIRO. Quite possibly it's a new high/low in conspiracy theories, but it's nothing new, really. Yet the reaction is fresh horror at the degree of irrationalism, stupidity, of McGuaran's remarks, as if climate change should somehow sell itself as an idea autonomously. The reaction is of a piece with much of the Green/climate change movement 's work, which has been, over past years, one of the most ineptly conducted campaigns, and avoidable political losses, in the last 200 years. There is no doubt that a lot of this is to do with the formidable money and power of the anti-climate change movement (sceptics is too neutral a term, denialists too prejudged). But as the pamphlets of Bookmarks remind us -- Shaw, Lenin, Mao, Emma Goldman, Stafford Cripps, John Strachey, Rosa Luxemburg, etc -- progressive movements have faced far greater challenges hitherto. And the pamphlets tell us something else -- the climate change movement should stop focusing on each fresh outrage by the antis, and focus on the positive campaign that it is not making. Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. For a start, you can't honestly say that the science is settled, because no science is ever settled. So one is faced with either advancing a great oversimplification, which then has to be walked back at times, or make the more complex argument about probabilities and the precautionary principle. Secondly, it's a more abstract process than, say, killing whales, or some other concrete and visible thing. Thirdly, it asks people to be in a permanent state of transformation, rather than relaxing into their familiar lifeways. And that's before you factor in the relentless propaganda of News Limited (Australia), etc. But many of these things can be said about the challenges faced by the Left and the labour movement in the early 20th century. What was relatively concrete for workers were things like nation, empire, and race -- these were immediate, visible things, rich in symbols and manifestations, of sufficient power to march millions of people into trenches to slaughter each other over a four-year period. Class as a concept (as opposed simply to wealth and poverty) was a different matter. Profit, surplus value, labour-power, exploitation -- all these had to be established as an alternative account to notions of hard work, a fair day's wage, king and country, blahblah. How was it done? It was done by establishing a whole disciplined apparatus, with the explicit object of creating both a core of full-time cadres/organisers/propagandists who could expound the argument everywhere, anytime, a hundred different ways, at the drop of a hat. Step by step they created a wider band of people who, while not professional agitators themselves, had been so convinced by the argument -- intellectually, politically, morally -- that they felt some of its urgency and identified with it, so that they would talk to others about it. Crucial to this process were four things -- the training school, the pamphlet, the public meeting and political self-criticism/analysis. It's a signal fact of the climate change movement that none of these features are really present. The Right likes to argue the Green movement is Marxism by other means. If only that were the case, some of these things might have been in place. Instead few of them are. There are many good books on climate change -- by Monbiot, Mark Lynas, David Spratt among many -- but there is nothing in the style of a Communist Manifesto, the US Declaration of Independence, a Lenin, a Mao, or a Santamaria for that matter. Something that in a few thousand words sets out an argument about what is happening, about why its critics are wrong, and about what should be done. The Green party should have produced something like this years ago. If it has, it should be printing it in the tens, hundreds of thousands. Everyone who wants to do something about climate change should just be able to take a stack of them to give to people. It should be written in clear, direct language, but without skimping on the science. Secondly, you need people trained in the arts of argument, propaganda and recruitment. At the moment, most people actively involved in the climate change movement are simply terrible at arguing their case. Those with a scientific background don't know how to boil it down, those without take too much on trust. Some sort of ongoing training would address both problems. But here self-criticism would come in because the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists -- 'I mean, it's obvious, why are these people being so stupid' -- some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking. That is, the scientific /professional/managerial/cultural class (SPMC) who, in many ways, run the joint. As Bernard Keane has noted here, the active anti-climate-change movement is old, white and overwhelmingly composed of people who once had unquestioned cultural authority but now don't -- the old bourgeoisie, some manufacturing workers and tradies, farmers, etc. Consciously or otherwise, they see that acceptance of climate change as a model means the transformation to a new framework in which the cultural power of the SPMC class becomes entrenched. Trouble is, many of those advocating the reality of climate change don't really factor in this class difference to the way they think, or the manner in which they campaign -- when they campaign at all. And that is the final missing piece, the lack of public meetings and campaigning. No-one likes 'the hours spent at the boring meeting' (well some do, but they should be used very carefully) and leafletting in the street requires a ceaseless war against a creeping feeling of embarrassment and absurdity. But it's got to be done. Even in post-post-modern society there's no substitute for it. The trouble is the SMPC class are not only digital natives, they can easily talk themselves into believing that a TweetDeck and a smokin' thought-meme crowdsource flashmob thing can wholly substitute for grassroots face-to-face campaigning. The Greens, the FOE, the ACC, must have a potentially active membership larger than the far-Left groups such as Socialist Alternative. Yet you rarely see posters for a climate change public meeting, a table in Bourke Street Mall -- and never for the Green party, which appears interested in repeating early Labour's obsession with factionalism and parliamentarianism. The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself. The longest march, as the man said, begins with a footstep. Or a pamphlet. *These have nothing to do with the free nature of the drugs, which have not the slightest degree of recreational potential, and minimal possibility of overdosage. It is simply the autonomous process of British paternalism, rolled over from 1948, when the system began. The chemists still have specially printed ledgers in which every prescription filled must be hand-written.

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68 thoughts on “Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

  1. JerryG

    Frank Campbell,
    in response to your point about modellers and the CRU emails, I would simply make the point that you can remove all models from the climate science and make not even a tiny dent in the overall picture.

    The picture is in the empirical evidence that shows increasing rates of ice and glacier loss, shows reduced amounts of heat leaving the earth from satellites, shows increasing Ocean salinity, shows changing rainfall and climate in Australia (for example), shows coral bleaching and rising ocean temperatures, etc..

    The evidence is overwhelming. Forget about the models that despite what you say perform very well, and just look at the evidence.

  2. JerryG

    “Struggling to imagine where Rundle got the idea that the ‘signed-up feed me what you like and I’ll happily digest without complaint or question’ brigade are lacking in communication skills?”

    True. But I fail to see what that has to do with my comments, unless you take them as supporting your proposition, in which case ok.

  3. Frank Campbell

    “in response to your point about modellers and the CRU emails, I would simply make the point that you can remove all models from the climate science and make not even a tiny dent in the overall picture.”

    You’re confusing factual evidence of short-term warming (150 years/30 years) with prognostications about future warming and explanations of the reasons for observed warming. Yes, it’s warmer, so expect less sea-ice. Expect some thermal expansion of the oceans. How much? We are offered an absurdly wide range of possibilities, from bugger all to Armageddon.

    Every step in the long chain of assumptions making up the AGW hypothesis is fraught with doubt. Read climate priest Trenberth’s 2009 paper. it was , remember, who bewailed the inability to find the warming that “had to be there” after 2000, but apparently wasn’t. If he doesn’t know, why should we revolutionise the world? The world has already decided this, so all our arguments are superfluous. Politics rules, and it has spoken at Dopenhagen. Every Australian premier is salivating at the thought of expanded fossil fuel exports to you know where…

    The game is over, so let’s stop beating ourselves up. Insulation yes, electrocution no. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you?

  4. milo

    This is a blast from a pretty horrific past. I hoped never to see murderous thugs like Lenin and Mao ever presented as an example again, let alone by somebody who often makes a lot of sense. Do you know what they did? That aside ( I’m still reeling) it is chilling anyway to see the climate change issue presented as another leftist movement (so called ‘progressive’). If you got out of your phone booth for a second you might notice it is a real event in the real world and something needs to be done about it, not just more fodder for another twentieth century flashback to massacre manifestos. Or was this a joke and I’ve taken the bait?

  5. Cameron Shingleton

    Isn’t there is an obvious disanalogy, Guy, between the political conditions 20C revolutionaries brought to a head and the environmental-social conditions that greenies are trying to galvanise. The Bolsheviks didn’t bring your average Joes, Josefs and Osips to understand abstract (if forceful) arguments about labour or the reproduction of the conditions of production, they appealed to the tangible facts of the misery of workers, peasants and anyone else who felt downtrodden. This misery was an undeniable fact of daily life. Greenies are faced with arguing a case that *can* really only be made in the abstract – an argument about the future (by definition something that exists only as a concept) and about the physics of the atmosphere – I s’pose you could say it’s about the weather too, but that’s something whose variations we have totally ingrained methods of acclimatising to: what a great source of socially cohesive banality is provided by our ongoing efforts to nullify the effect of day-to-day climate variation. Even more importantly, there is an enormous unspoken counter-argument to the Green case – not so much a counter-argument but a practical counter-poise: the overwhelming fact of material prosperity, at least in Australia, North America and Europe. The Green case essentially involves calling an aspect of material prosperity – indeed a major aspect – into question and in that sense is the opposite of the Bolshies’ case – which involved working with comradely solidarity towards a material prosperity the Bolshies’ followers palpably felt was absent.

    Australians on the whole are climate change numbskulls – their position on the science of the climate is similar to that of a Monty Python pope faced with Michelangelo: I may not know much about science, but I know what I think! At a guess I’d say a sizeable minority are willing to paraphrase the deliverances of gut-feeling and common-sense as “scepticism”, swear to themselves that “the science is not settled” and get on with doing next to nothing – that’s putting the conspiracy theorists of the Monckton and Bolt variety to one side. What they don’t get is that being sceptical on this issue, given the complexity of the climate system, means accepting the limits of non-expert average-everyday knowledge, which in turn, a little paradoxically, means placing a degree of trust in the experts – the expert experts, i.e. the ones doing up-to-date research with credible publications on climate science in journals like Nature to their name, not superannuated science teachers or even former leading lights in single climate science subdisciplines. From Janet Albrechtsen announcing that “I’m more on the sceptic side personally” as if she were talking about her preference for blueberry over chocolate muffins to the Chairman of the ABC telling us he’ll remain a sceptic till he’s found evidence that “moves” him one way or the other, the common themes are (1) that my opinion is as good as the next man’s and (2) that none of these people seem to have begun to grasp that climate science, as a scientific endeavour, by its very nature involves a sceptical weeding-out of misreadings of the facts of nature (both commonsensical and developed technical-theoretical misreadings).

    So my guess is that no amount of charismatic vanguardism, no amount of unflinching really *political* political activity is going to change Aussies’ self-limiting minds on this one for quite a while. Unfortunately, a few more years of remembering the frost-covered winter sports fields that don’t exist anymore mightn’t do the trick, possibly not even another meandering 5 years of drought or a string of Black Saturdays. Smoking kills and releasing billions of tonnes of CO2 per annum into the atmosphere has a long-term effect on the climate system. Neither of those are scientific facts, they’re semi-scientific simplifications – meaning they’re a kind of shorthand for the complex chains of physical causality which is good enough for practical purposes. Soapbox sceptics can argue in the first case that smoking only *really* increases your statistical likelihood of developing cancer, just as they can argue in the second case that intermediary causes and effects, natural climate ariation and the like, make them agnostic about the connection between emissions and warming. In the case of smokers, any “scepticism” they might have about smoking being a killer can safely be put to down to, well, liking smoking too much. In case of a nation of “sort of” climate sceptics, with their monster-size carbon footprints, it seems equally reasonable to put the scepticism down to . . . that other well-studied smoking addiction.

  6. Frank Campbell

    Milo: Relax. It’s not gunna happen. Chairman Hamilton couldn’t even shift the soft Tories of Malvern, though the tin-eared “progressive” pundits like Keane and Rundle were breathless with excitement, as was Bob Brown.

    And it’s all downhill from here…

  7. Frank Campbell

    Cameron: “Australians on the whole are climate change numbskulls”

    Another example of why the end is nigh for the cult. You just don’t get it, do you?

  8. Tony Kevin

    Most people – 0n b0th sides of the climate science believer/denier argument here – missed Guy’s central theme, which was actually a political metaphor . AGW, to get anywhere, has to be a broad-reaching political movement, bound across the whole society (not just a counter-culture) and mobilised by compelling public political messages. It is not enough to just say : “Here is the science, it is really obvious, now you lot have to act on it”. Result – apathy, disunity, paralysis, disillusionment.

    We just do not have a compelling political leader or party to mobilise an effective climate crisis movement . The Greens – consumed in their own busy, cosy, self-referential culture – won’t do it. There is no unified disciplined political movement with a clear robust decarbonisation agenda for Australia and a political strategy how to get there.

    350.0rg has the agenda, but not the political strategy . Most environmental groups are compromised by the thought of losing their connections with/ subsidised program budgets from governments or corporations – read Johann Hari in Nation (USA) on this. And the street radical baggage of the counter-culture frightens conservative people who might become allies in a broader movement.

    AGW is a set of ideas and values – not a united movement. As of now, it couldn’t manage a walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge. It couldn’t stop a coal train. It couldn’t stop a new coal mine cutting into Australia’s best topsoil.

    And there is no emotionally compelling agreed message out there like “”Stop stealing your and my children’s futures”. Too strong, apparently. So we have meaningless empty slogans like ”Climate Action Now””. Whose actions? What actions? Nobody knows.

    That was Rundle’s message. Most people missed it.

  9. Boris

    Jerry G said it at the beginning: “The Communist, and National Socialist movements flourished in amongst people who were struggling to survive economically.” The “Aussie battler”, by contrast, is not, compared to those in the small Pacific island states and others not as insulated from the effects of climate change.

    If there is a political battle needing to be fought, it is not about climate change, because it simply isn’t an issue it makes economic sense for a lot of Australians to care about. [That this is screwed-up or irresponsible is neither here nor there].

    The bigger political battle that I see is about belief in specialist knowledge that takes decades to acquire, versus the idea of “my mate up the RSL did a science degree and he thinks it’s all bullshit”. On those stakes, as a few commenters point out, the risks of blowback from flawed populist campaigns is pretty high.

    Leadership on climate change is never going to come from Australia. But it would be nice if by the time the shit hits the fan that Australia has a population at least prepared to listen to facts, rather than being captured by denialism. Science eduction, rather than media or political campaigns, may have the most to offer.

  10. Guy Rundle

    replies to various –

    thanks Tony K for pointing out how various readers were missing the point.

    Re Michael James – accepting doubt about AGW, I have never been one who said the science was settled. I don’t thinl the high cholesterol-heart disease question is settled either, and aware of a dissenting mintority of medical specialist who suggest that statins do more harm than good. Unable to judge the science, I am sticking with the statins. That is the difficult argument that greens etc have to make.

    The ding-dong chiming of Jerry G and Frank Campbell seem mostly irrelevant. I wasn’t arguing the science or the politics – and i suggested that a lot of the green movement was elitist and anti-political – simply a better method of arguing it.. there’s no possibility of a layperson judging the ‘anti-s’ case for or against, beyond a rough assessment of whether they’re plausible or spurious – in the same way that a cancer sufferer can judge between supplementary treatments based on rationales that are plausible (vitamins) or spurious (homeopathy). In that respect, like many I see no compelling case the anti-s have made for not acting on climate change.

    My good friend Cameron Shingleton’s argument seems to miss the point I made, about how people frame their situation. Poverty of itself does not create unrest and change, since it can always be subsumed into ideologies – god’s will, the natural order etc – that make it seem inevitable. Mobilising it demands getting first a core and then a wider periphery of people to understand it as systemic and human-caused. That involves training a core of people who know the arguments backwards, forwards and sideways. It’s only in supplement with that, that simpler messages – ‘peace, land and bread’, ‘life. liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ ‘turn the other cheek’ – have effect. Cameron’s comments seem to reproduce the elitism i suggested was endemic in the green movement – blaming the public’s alleged obtuseness for the political failure of the climate change movement. A little too much Friedrich N in the mix, Cam.

    As to whether i know anything about the green movement or not, I know they’re losing the fight to accepting AGW as necessitating action and change. I’d be more interested in alternative accounts as to why that might be the case, than wounded assertions that it’s not.

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