Persuading people to take action over climate change is a huge task and one that may require a fundamental change in human nature, as described by the likes of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writes Alastair Stewart.
Extinction Rebellion protestors and environmental activists like Greta Thunberg have made climate change an ethical debate. Of course, there have been protests before, but they’ve moved for being fashionable opt-ins to controversial opt-outs. Now it’s morally uncouth and commercially taboo to avoid corporate and social responsibility. It’s just not the done thing.
It’s been a sudden shift, and there’s a marathon to go yet. When I studied international relations at university, environmental politics was a sub-topic of geopolitical analysis. Now it seems that we should very much respond to ecological damage with the same spirit as we would an attack from a foreign power.
When the Somerset floods hit, then Prime Minister David Cameron chaired a Cobra meeting to discuss a full-scale response. Military support was deployed with soldiers sandbagging homes and evacuating citizens.
Tony Benn in his poignant book ‘Letters To My Grandchildren’ made the point that during the Second World War there was full-employment. The machinery of government was mobilised, whatever the cost and the entire social and economic force of the country was marshalled to fight for its survival.
His argument might seem statist in peacetime, but the much-vaunted wartime ‘national spirit’, even if over-sentimentalised, needs to retake hold of the public. The problem is there are no enemies at the gate, and it’s never been possible to fight increasingly long summers.
But fighting ecological catastrophe should be, as a matter of fact, possible. There’s general agreement about tackling cancer or HIV or poverty and hunger. Food scarcity and weather change are factors which have evolved into ‘the usual’ problems, but they should be dealt with as plainly, decisively and unapologetically as we deal with enemies of the state. Only when we see the faces and hear the suffering of people does it form the humanity and conscience that evokes action and change and progress.
There are curious similarities to supposed ’taming’ of nature in the US and former Soviet Union. Stalin’s plan for the transformation of nature ultimately decimated the Aral Sea after decades of over-irrigation. The Wild West and the American Frontier destroyed Bison herds, and over-farming caused the disastrous Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. Both incited innumerable works of literature about the human cost of the disasters and are still read today – yet the parallels aren’t made often enough.
In Scotland alone, we seem to accept winter will mean deaths on the scale of a natural disaster (which is precisely what it is). Winter deaths, particularly in those over 65, are an established and absurdly accepted reality. There were 7,552 deaths in January 2018 – 2,018 more than the average number of deaths in January over the previous five years.
Empathy and indifference
We need leaders that can do for global survival what Churchill did for wartime Britain: eloquent, powerful gut-stirring stuff that takes us beyond sharing pictures on Facebook and into the realm and mentality of fighting to survive and evoking a shared feeling of action. We’re not there yet.
Endless studies have tried to account for the bizarre inconsistency in human nature in caring for our fellow Homo sapiens. If we see our fellow man in pain or struggling nearby, we’re likely to help or, at least, feel empathy.
But, generally, we’re indifferent to suffering across the world if it’s out of our line of sight (even in the 24-hour news cycle).
This is the crux of the issue in organising a global response to environmental disaster. The nation-state is still in charge of devising a response to international affairs, but social media has helped to make people affected by ecological disaster more real. And yet, the response is spurious.
The 19th-century political theorist William Lecky wrote that human concern is an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and “soon the circle… includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world”.
Saving a drowning child
In his famous 1972 essay, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Peter Singer made like the case that proximity, distance, and national limitations make no difference to our duty to help others in need.
He gives the example that if you can jump into a shallow pond to save a drowning child, with little personal cost and no risk to your safety, but choose not to, you’re making an unethical decision.
The geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper does not reduce the latter’s moral obligations as the principle remains the same.
As Thomas Hobbes said “the condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”. That insight, perhaps more than any other, hinders environmental cooperation. Military threats still seem to be at the top of the agenda.
And yet people are losing their homes, their livelihoods and some are losing their lives to ecological damage. Perhaps raising awareness of climate change has transformed into an entrenched cognitive dissonance; a reluctance to see what’s happening and instead we’re all just taking it as the new norm.
What we’re faced with is the most exceptional public relations question of all time. How do you make a world so interconnected, but which cannot feel beyond its line of sight, save a planet?
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes regular features on politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart