One morning a few months ago, while running on the network of footpaths that riddles my local countryside, I watched a herd of deer gallop across the hollow way in front of me. Three of them were pure white. Encountering such creatures in the wild provokes something ancient. It’s a reminder that a domain of myth still hums beneath England’s busy modern surface.
Only days later, another of these creatures from Arthurian legend wandered into the post-industrial landscape of suburban Liverpool. Having failed to capture it, police shot it.
Their actions were couched in the language of safety, procedure and reason. “There was no option to let the deer wander as it could be a danger to motorists and members of the public,” said a Merseyside Police spokesperson. “As a result a decision was made in the early evening to euthanise the deer.”
All very reasonable and understandable, from the perspective of a body of public servants whose task is acting as the “thin blue line” that maintains our rational public order. The general public, though, was outraged. Responses were clearly powered by a sense that a crime had been committed at some symbolic level. A creature of legend had been destroyed by “health and safety”. Liverpool-based writer Nina Antonia called it “a very bad omen”.
In folklore, the white hart often appears to signal the presence of the uncanny. And the death of this white hart lent a note of deep weirdness to an already-brittle mood at this year’s party conference season, which kicked off the same day. The combined effect was of a political class determinedly bickering over trivia while dangling over a howling pit of monsters.
First, we witnessed the hijacking of Keir Starmer’s sublimely bland 14,000-word effort to reboot the Labour Party by a bitter religious dispute. Forget the future of public services, is it blasphemous to say only women have cervices? This argument, at heart a metaphysical one concerning the true relation between material and spiritual planes, almost entirely drowned out the usual business of shouting about neoliberalism and insulting the Tories.
For the party of government, meanwhile, it has been less metaphysics, more apocalypse. A conference crowd less than half the size of 2019’s applauded the launch of this or that paper, to widespread indifference save among politics junkies. Meanwhile, outside, the country devolved into fist fights and knife threats at petrol stations, and British farmers faced the prospect of a million-pig sacrifice to the god of self-correcting labour markets.
The Remainer class lurched out of their sarcophagi to say they told us so, and that leaving the single market was an irrational thing to do. This is of course true, but rather misses the point that a core question in the Brexit debate was whether or not, from a holistic perspective, the “rational” policy is always the right one. And sometimes “rational” and “right” are as incommensurable as police safety procedures and a beast out of legend. Do we want higher wages or cheaper goods? Are pig culls and lorry driver shortages an acceptable short-term price of correction or evidence of terminal decline?
Further back, the “rational” arguments for offshoring industry had political tradeoffs, as did the “rational” arguments that took us into the EU. Those social classes who didn’t win out used Brexit to make their protest known at the concatenating political effects of our supposedly technocratic, post-political regime.
Today, though, as the technocratic mode of politics limps on, it seems an ever feebler vehicle for stark political choices made against a backdrop of increasingly existential dread. And whether thanks to the pandemic, climate change or the global fracturing of supply chains that once seemed seamless, such decisions are now everywhere: cancer victims or flattening the curve? Young people’s need for affordable homes and a fair tax burden, or social care funding and the preferences of Green Belt Tory voters? And no one wants to think about the prospects for the welfare state if (or when) growth stalls permanently, or if birth rates continue to crater.
And if climate catastrophe looks grim, so does climate mitigation. It was rising fuel prices which triggered France’s “gilets jaunes” riots in 2018; they’re still ongoing. And the global tilt toward “clean power” has prompted what Bloomberg predicts will be the first of many energy crises, plunging many UK families unexpectedly into fuel poverty.
To compound the mood of apocalypse, an offshoot of the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, sought to raise awareness of such thorny questions by glueing themselves to the M25. As a result, an elderly woman suffering a stroke was delayed for six hours on the way to hospital, and is now permanently paralysed. In a sense, the group’s fanatical willingness to risk literal paralysis in elderly women, in order to make a point about political paralysis in climate policy, serves as an eloquent metaphor for the ugly reality of climate-policy tradeoffs.
And we continue to not talk about who will bear the brunt. As George Monbiot pointed out, the only real way to reduce our carbon footprint is less of everything. Who takes the hit? There will never be enough batteries to make electric cars as widely-available as the internal combustion variety. Who goes back to walking? There will never be enough renewable energy for us all to leave the lights on: who has to sit in the dark? No one has yet worked out how to power an aeroplane on electricity; who, then, still gets to fly? Our meat consumption is unsustainable; who makes the swap to bugs?
Greens usually gesture vaguely at “redistributing wealth” while also curbing it. But those with the greatest power to coordinate international climate policy are the world’s 2,000-odd billionaires – who are also the ones sitting on most of that wealth. This rarefied group may be as motivated as the rest of us to avoid climate catastrophe, but if doing so means someone has to take a financial hit, they’re unlikely to volunteer themselves.
Instead, among the rarefied echelons of bodies such as the WEF, papers and videos are published by more technocrats who discuss the pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bed in permanent changes in the name of climate mitigation. Perhaps the masses can be persuaded to buy and travel less; to own nothing and be happy. Perhaps one more Economist article about eating insects will persuade someone other than Sam Bowman to give these crunchy delicacies a try.
Further down the food chain, despite omens and outbreaks of gender theology, our political class is still grimly reluctant to set down the comfort blankets of data, technocracy and “growth”. Nor are they keen to talk frankly about political choices; even about how on earth “net zero” squares with waving through expansion plans at every major UK airport.
The exasperated result has been a growing minority of Britons abandoning reason altogether as a viable register in which to debate anything, instead forming what Clive Martin recently called “Radical Normal”. This increasingly vocal protest cohort coalesces into placard-waving flash-mobs, with grievances ranging from masks to Pfizer, 5G masts, adrenochrome and the New World Order.
From a technocratic perspective it’s easy to dismiss such people as crazies. But while people as a whole may be largely uninterested in politics, that’s not the same thing as being stupid. And having lived through all the rational arguments for de-industrialisation, and the “rational” case for EU membership, the public is now seeing the same woefully inadequate “rational” mindset being turned to climate policy. Meanwhile the painful political trade-offs involved both in doing something and in not doing something become increasingly evident.
In a sense, reverting to the language of omens is a perfectly sane thing to do, when the world has become so complicatedly unpredictable that an everyday person might as well read the auguries as try and master it through data.
Eric McLuhan, son of Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan wrote that “Our New World of chaos and complexity is too volatile, too precarious, too important to be left in the hands of the merely practical administrator.” The uncanny white deer often warns of change and danger — or perhaps now, of a future running too menacingly wild for mere technical management. In seeing this message clearly, the people of Britain have been quicker than their rulers to read the omens.