August 23, 2023 - 10:00am

“Not being able to govern affairs, I govern myself.” That was the view taken by the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who lived at a time when France was wracked by civil war. He was unable to influence what was going on in politics, he reasoned, but he could cultivate his own character and intellect.

I thought immediately of Montaigne’s aphorism when I read reports of a Norwegian study purporting to find that people who became angry at news of climate change were vastly more likely to become activists. Feelings of fear and guilt were associated with supporting policies to tackle climate change, with the link to activism seven times stronger for anger than for hope. Norwegians are obviously disinclined to take the view that becoming a better person is a more productive use of their energies than attempting to fix the problems of the world. 

The findings support an intuition that I have long had about climate change activism: that for many adherents, it is not entirely about the issue itself, but instead derives from deeper antagonisms, frustrations and dissatisfactions. This could be “capitalism”, their own backgrounds or what they perceive as the vulgarity and trivia of their own societies. 

There is something very eerie about the blank-eyed fanaticism of Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil protesters, for example. To remain impassive in the face of someone who is begging you to let them get their child to hospital suggests a frightening level of deliberate detachment from normal human sympathy and solidarity. Such detachment — such nihilism — suggests to me that there are personal resentments bubbling under the surface.  

These kind of actions are usually defended on the grounds that it is for the greater good of humanity, but that is not really how morality works. Moral action is about how individual persons are treated, and whose welfare and interests are within your control. We should be wary of people who can disregard the welfare and needs of the people in front of them in favour of complex abstractions. Humanity as an abstraction conveniently makes no specific, difficult or concrete demands on us, unlike those annoying, messy, imperfect human beings. 

It’s also very clear that a lot of climate activists relish the performative aspects of the protests rather than having any clear alternative to the current slow but steady decarbonisation of the global economy. When they are asked for specific policy prescriptions, they very often either babble incoherently or make the most absurd utopian demands like “We need to stop using all fossil fuels immediately”, an act which would probably kill tens of millions of people. They often seem totally unaware of the steps that are already being taken by governments. 

Similarly, the persistent activist hostility to nuclear energy, often on the most absurd grounds, suggests that what animates them is not seeking practical alternatives to fossil fuels which would enable the global free economy to keep chugging on as before, but rather a total reconfiguration of our way of life. It is political and personal neuroses about “capitalism”, society or man’s wealth-generating mastery of nature that are really bothering them.

We are all guilty to some degree of letting our personal experiences, backgrounds and impulses drive our political views. But in the case of climate activism, which seeks such sweeping and dramatic changes with such terrifying rhetoric, it is especially important to remind people that personal frustrations and miseries are just that: personal. As Dr Johnson said: “How small, of all that human hearts endure/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.