Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obligatory new year post

2009 has been a pretty good year. I got back into university, and it is going rather well this time.

All in all I don't care much for the naughties.

Here's hoping the teens will be better.

[Note to self: fill this out with some more stuff as and when it occurs.]

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.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kettle (again)

This latest article by Martin Kettle pretty much summarises the problem with his entire political outlook:

My argument with other liberals does not depend on the view that Obama is right to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, that Rowan Williams is sensible to try to keep the church together, that the Blair government was actually rather a good one, that limited agreements at Copenhagen are better than none at all, or that the Iraq inquiry is doing a pretty useful job in spite of some of the Vicars of Bray who have turned up to give evidence at it – although as it happens I believe all these things.

The problem is that Kettle confuses being self-consciously "mature" and "grown up" with accepting second best. F'sure be willing to accept that in the Real World things won't turn out exactly as we would want them to, but don't pretend that an appropriate response to this is acceptance.

What those immature "liberals"[1] that Kettle is decrying are doing is massively more helpful than what Kettle is doing. The liberals attack politicians for falling short. Kettle praises politicians for being mediocre. If we want a general improvement in the standards of our political culture then it is important and necessary that politicians are attacked for falling short. Politicians are powerful people, by and large, and as such need to be reminded as frequently as possible that when they behave badly they have behaved badly and when they have failed they have failed.

Suppose Kettle were to get his wish, and for everyone who has criticised Blair over the Iraq War or Obama over remaining in Afghanistan to recant and state that it is entirely understandable that these things should happen, and that you can't make a pancake without breaking eggs etc. Then what would happen? Politicians would suddenly discover that they can get away with anything. All thanks to the strength of Kettle's arguments.

So what is Kettle good for? If he is wrong, then he is wrong and not particularly interesting with it. And if he is right, then politicians should be allowed to be venal and corrupt, which would be pretty crap.

To reiterate: *I* understand that politics is a messy business, but then so is caring for the elderly, but you don't get journalists advocating lower standards of care-home cleanliness just *because* caring for the elderly is a messy business. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So yeah.

Where does Kettle get off saying things that are quite clearly bad and stupid?

Politicians are neither bad nor stupid. They are wrestling with difficulties.

Everyone is wrestling with difficulties. I'm wrestling with difficulties. Kettle, Lord help him, is probably wrestling with difficulties. That's the human condition! *Some* politicians are undeniably bad *and* stupid. That this may be true of a minority is beside the point. Politicians are sufficiently powerful that it is good SOP to give them a kicking when there is even the whiff of wrongdoing.

PS: Howard Jacobson does the same thing in The Independent, in the middle of an article slagging off the Coen brothers:

You don't have to like anybody. Men/ women, straights/gays, God/the devil – in art you can hate the lot. But there is something retarded at the heart of not liking when it targets the obvious. Living in this country at the height of Blair-baiting was like living in one giant fourth form. Listening to atheists is the same. It isn't that they're wrong, it's that they haven't moved on from the disillusionments of adolescence. Politicians lie, God isn't very nice. Get away!

The problem here is the same: the accusations of immaturity against those doing the right and necessary thing and having a go at powerful bastards. It's not as if Kettle or Jacobson advocate a more pro-active approach over just having a go. They actually seem to be saying that doing the political equivalent of growing a goatee and hanging out in dimly lit bars (i.e. playing the Kettle "too mature for manure" card) is preferable to the political equivalent of getting a job and just getting on with life (i.e. treating politicians as a class with contempt and occasionally having a go at powerful bastards).

In summary: Kettle thinks giving politicians the benefit of the doubt because they are powerful is a good idea. I disagree. Politicians should not be given the benefit of the doubt precisely *because* they are powerful.

[1]: I have a vague sense of who Kettle is referring to when he talks about "liberals" in this context, but I would prefer it if Kettle made it clear.