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Why the Greens should stop playing God Realistic thinking about the state of the planet is almost extinct

Extinction rebellion in London. Credit: Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Extinction rebellion in London. Credit: Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

June 3, 2019   7 mins

The state of the planet is forcing itself into the centre of the human mind. For increasing numbers of people, climate change is a palpable fact. Island communities and coastal cities are suffering the effects of rising sea levels, and all of us experience extreme weather and disjointed seasons.

Centre-ground politicians have accepted that some kind of action, more radical than any that has been implemented so far, has become urgently necessary. Everyone but the most stubborn climate denialists realises that an unprecedented change is taking place in the world that humans have inhabited throughout their history.

At the same time, as T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and thinking on the subject is increasingly delusional. A by-product of worldwide industrialisation based on fossil fuels, the shift that is underway was set in motion by human beings. It does not follow however that humans can stop it.

As climate scientists have pointed out, global warming will continue for hundreds or thousands of years after its proximate causes have been removed. The demands made by Extinction Rebellion – net zero carbon emissions for the UK by 2025, for example – are impossibly draconian. But even if they could be enforced, they would make little impact on greenhouse gases worldwide, or prevent the climate disruption that is already baked into the system. Green movements at the present time are expressions of magical thinking – attempts to ignore and escape reality, rather than understand and adapt to it.

One of the realities Green thinking passes over is geopolitics. Consider the fashionable idea that the world – or at least the capitalist West – should stop burning fossil fuels. From an environmental point of view, this may be highly desirable — even though it will not arrest disruptive climate change. In geopolitical terms, it is a recipe for global upheaval. Some of the world’s most pivotal states depend on fossil fuels for their existence. Saudi Arabia would collapse without the revenues the kingdom receives from the oil market. Iran and Russia rely on high oil prices for much of their national income. For all of these countries, abruptly ending the consumption of fossil fuels would mean a massive drop in living standards and large-scale political disruption. All the better, Greens may say – these are hardly desirable regimes.

But it would be folly to assume that what emerged would be any better. The Saudi kingdom would fragment or be replaced by a more radical Islamist regime. An impoverished Russia could well be more belligerent and adventurist in its foreign and defence policies. With Iran starved of income from fossil fuels and no prospect of revenues being resumed, any prospect of democratic transformation in the country would diminish not increase. Regime change induced by Green policies is no more likely to work than regime change imposed by military force.

Another reality disregarded in Green thinking is 20th-century history. Climate protests such as Extinction Rebellion are spin-offs from the anti-globalisation movements of a decade or so ago, and like them they believe contemporary western capitalism is dysfunctional and headed for history’s scrap heap. In this they are right. A global free market was always a fanciful project, and the rickety structure of debt-financed asset prices and escalating trade rivalries is fragile. Another credit crunch on the scale of that in 2007-8 would most likely destroy it.

That does not mean a socialist economy will do any better in protecting the environment. The worst ecological catastrophes of the last century occurred in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China, where – under the influence of a Marxian ideology in which the natural world must be “humanised” – the natural world was damaged and degraded more than in any western country.

Among these assaults on the environment was one of the fastest decimations of another animal species in history. Fifty years ago, around 180,000 whales disappeared from the waters around the Soviet Union. In an extraordinary environmental rampage that was covered up at the time and for decades later, the Soviet whaling industry killed off the mammals simply in order to meet production targets required by the five-year plans.

Barely 30% of the whales that were slaughtered were put to any economic use. Ships would regularly return with rotting whales that could not be used for food. Meeting the five-year plan depended only on how many whales were killed. Crews that failed to meet the quotas were punished with demotions and firings, while those that exceeded what the plan demanded received bonuses. Other than crews that met or surpassed the quotas, no one profited from the massacre. Some types of whale were driven to the edge of extinction, and the effects of the system on whale populations continue today.

Of course, Greens will tell you they want an economic system different from a state socialist command economy. But how this new system would work has never been made clear, and in practice their demands amount to little more than what they call ‘sustainable development’. The trouble is that Green proposals involve a drop in material living standards for large numbers of people, and any such fall will be unsustainable in political terms.

Macron’s tax on petrol fuelled the rise of the gilets jaunes in France, while the principal beneficiary of Hilary Clinton’s election pledge to shut down the coal industry has been Donald Trump. When Green policies impose heavy costs on the poor and the working majority – as they often do – the result is a popular blowback.

In theoretical terms, the solution to the environmental crisis is what John Stuart Mill in his prescient Principles of Political Economy (1848) called a stationary-state economy – one in which technical progress is used not to expand production and consumption but to increase leisure and the quality of life. The trouble is that a zero-growth economy is politically impossible. Populist backlash and geopolitical upheaval will derail any transition to a stationary state.

Lying behind these obstacles is another reality that has been excluded from current thinking. Despite much talk about declining fertility in many countries, human population growth continues to be the root cause of the mass extinction that is in progress. Species are vanishing on a vast scale because their habitats are disappearing, and the chief reason for this is human expansion. It may be true that population growth will level off later this century somewhere around nine or 10 billion. By that point, however, the biosphere will have been gutted. If human numbers then fall, it will be in a world that has been hideously impoverished.

Interestingly, Mill foresaw this prospect when he envisioned the stationary state in the book. There is “not much satisfaction”, he wrote:

…in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up; all quadrupeds or birds not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population must extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of a larger but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it”.

Over 170 years later, there is no prospect of anyone being content to be stationary. Nothing in the current climate of ideas is as unpopular as Mill’s neo-Malthusianism. True, he linked it with female emancipation, even spending a night in prison for the crime of distributing pamphlets on birth-control to working-class women. But for liberals today that hardly excuses what they condemn as Mill’s dark misanthropy in preferring a world with a small population and large tracts of wilderness over one choked and desolated by billions of struggling human beings.

It is at this point that the extinction crisis looms into view. The industrial economy will not accept limits on growth because the civilisation it serves has rejected any constraints on what it can achieve. The fact that an objective is impossible to realise is, according to current attitudes, no reason not to attempt it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Impossible dreams – so we are told by countless secular sermonisers – are what make humans unique and special. In this modern religion, accepting any final limits on human power is the worst sin. As a corollary, magical thinking – which rests on a belief in the omnipotence of the human will – is obligatory.

Surviving the climate crisis is not an inherently unrealisable goal. What it requires is not sustainable development but something more like what James Lovelock in his book A Rough Ride to the Future (2014) has called “sustainable retreat”. Using the most advanced technologies, including nuclear as well as solar energy, and abandoning farming in favour of synthetic means of food production, the still growing human population could be fed without making further intolerable demands on the planet. High-intensity urban living could enable rewilding of land that had been vacated. Resources would be focused on building defences against the shift in climate that will occur whatever now humans do. Hubristic dreams of “saving the planet” would be replaced by thinking how to adapt to living with a planet that humans have destabilised. If humans do not adjust, the planet will reduce them to smaller numbers or consign them to extinction.

A programme of this kind is the opposite of that proposed by Greens. It is also profoundly uncongenial to the prevailing culture. A consequence of the decline of religion is a parallel decline in the idea that the natural world imposes any limits on human will. Rather than humans being seen as one animal among many, the dominant species at the present time but like all others in having no secure tenure on the Earth, they have been encouraged to see themselves as having the power over nature of the God in which they no longer believe. If God did not make the world, humankind can – and should – remake it in its own image. That is the basis on which our supposedly secular civilisation stands, and it is also the ultimate source of the extinction crisis.

In these circumstances, any programme based on the fact that humans face unstoppable climate change will be condemned as despairing fatalism. For a civilisation that prides itself on its devotion to science this is a curious attitude. Science aims to formulate universal laws that are independent of human beliefs and values. If these laws deflate our hopes and ambitions, so be it. If the point of the exercise is objective truth, subjective emotions must be set aside. So must faith, religious or otherwise. If we are to believe its ideologues, science is an inquiry into the natural world of which the human animal is an integral part. In fact, science has become a channel for the belief – inherited from monotheism –  that humankind can transcend the natural world.

The paradox of today’s Green movements is that they promote this anthropocentric religion. The extinction crisis can be mitigated only by turning our minds to deal with reality. But realistic thinking is almost extinct.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.

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David Bouvier
David Bouvier
3 years ago

Interesting. Thankyou.

One point that occurs to me re population and ‘steady state’. The population transition in Europe and elsewhere is strong associated with increased opportunity for each child.

Pre-transition, someone with more children is “richer”. Under a fixed-income (per capital) situation, an extended family with more people in it is richer.

Transition occurs in large part when increased investment per capita in fewer children is a better strategy for families.

Of course this is a narrow perspective but the underlying dynamics are realistic. A steady state economy is likley to reverse the demographic transition and create a worse population crisis.

Stan Glib
Stan Glib
3 years ago

A penetrating article by Gray which dissects some of ‘agency’ problems of progressive environmentalists, while fully acknowledging the bleak reality. A peculiar lack of comments here – is this because Unherd had a smaller readership back then? Or is it simply too clear-eyed to bear?