Tuesday, December 22, 2009

George Monbiot: worra facking liability

So George Monbiot is pissed off with readers of the Guardian for not doing their bit to combat climate change:

So what happens now? That depends on the other non-player at Copenhagen: you. For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn't do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you.

The problem with Monbiot's attitude here is that he is taking discussion of the serious problem of anthropogenic climate change and turning it into a discussion of the morality and lifestyle choices of Guardian readers.

Not only is this pointless, it is also actively dangerous. It is pointless because even if every single one of the 1,205,000 Guardian readers had moved to Copenhagen for the weekend it wouldn't have made any difference to the 46% of Britons who either don't believe that global warming is happening or don't believe that global warming is caused by mankind.

The fact that such a large proportion of the British public believe a scientific theory to be false is of course irrelevant to the actual state of the universe, but it does raise the question of *why* so many people believe that GW or AGW are false.

Part of the problem must be that thus far well-meaning environmentalists like George Monbiot have made out that global warming is something that requires us to adopt a particular set of moral standards, and have let it be known that anyone who falls short of those standards is a sinner.

And this is why Monbiot's stance is actively dangerous, as it turns what ought to be a sober, rational, quantitative (and probably rather boring) debate about a known fault in our industrial infrastructure into a passion-infused row about ideology and lifestyle-choices.

So here, in a nutshell, we have everything that is wrong with the modern, Monbiot-ist environmental movement. We have:

1) The idea that political change could be affected, if only we have enough people show up to protest.

2) The idea that, in the context of the environment, individual choices of ordinary people matter more than the collective actions of powerful elites.

3) The idea that you can get people to agree with you by repeatedly telling them that they are bastards and should be jolly ashamed of themselves.

If the international public response to the Iraq War teaches us anything it is that the number of protesters against a particular action is irrelevant. What matters are the decisions of elites. The idea that you can change the world by protesting in the streets is one that I just don't agree with, and it would seem the majority of Guardian readers agree with me and disagree with Monbiot on this one.

In the context of the environment small, individual actions really don't matter. If everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little. I don't buy into the narrative of climate change that implies everything would be OK if only we all suddenly decided to change our behaviour 'cos George Monbiot says we ought to. People respond to incentives. Large groups of people will only make major changes in their lifestyle if they have a big incentive to do so. So, again, slagging off Guardian readers for having the good sense to avoid wasting their time is pointless and counterproductive.

Monbiot has misunderstood his relationship with his audience. Guardian readers are either 1) people he is trying to influence, and win round to his way of looking at the world[1] or 2) people who already basically agree with his political programme. So why is he slagging them off? When trying to influence people it is better not to criticize, condemn or complain. It makes Guardian readers ever so slightly less likely to give a toss what George, and by extension every other environmentalist, has to say about anything.

I, of course, have no positive suggestions (for most of the reasons described here) as to what to do about global warming or what an appropriate response to climate change might look like. All I know is that George Monbiot is making things worse, because my immediate thought on reading his article was not "I'd better do something about climate change" but rather "the fuck did I do?". If I, a typical sort of middle-of-the-road chap, respond as such then imagine how someone who is more generally sceptical of global warming might respond.

So, practically speaking, Monbiot and his brand of hair-shirted eco-puritanism are a liability to the environmental movement.

{Incidentally: This is all described rather more articulately by Charles Stross here}

[1] It could be argued that Monbiot agrees with the observation that people do not read newspapers to be informed, but rather to have their existing predjudices confirmed. But in being so unjustifiably critical of Guardian readers he is undermining both of the potential uses of newspapers.

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