The Secret of Herding Cats

Granted, it was the season for giving, but I’m not at all sure that justifies the extraordinary Christmas present Dr. David Shearman has given the climate change denialist movement. Readers of mine who haven’t yet heard of Shearman need not worry; they will be hearing far too much about him in the months and years ahead.

Shearman, for those who haven’t encountered his name yet, is an Australian scientist who has a long string of publications in the field of global warming to his credit, and who had an active role in the Third and Fourth Assessments issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body tasked with sorting out just what our tailpipes and smokestacks are doing to the Earth’s climate. He is also the co-author of a recent book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. In this book, he argues that democracy is incapable of dealing with the global climate change crisis, and therefore needs to be replaced by an authoritarian world government with the power to force people to do what Shearman thinks they ought to do.

Those of my readers familiar with the long and inglorious love affair betweeen a certain class of Western intellectual and the totalitarian end of the political spectrum already know what to expect from Shearman’s book, and they will not be disappointed. Shearman and his co-author Joseph Wayne Smith argue that “authoritarianism is the natural state of humanity” (p. xvi) and that people who agree with their views ought to form “an elite warrior leadership” to “battle for the future of the earth” (ibid). They propose the manufacture of a new eco-religion out of the green movement and New Age movement in order to “provide social glue for the masses” (p. 127), and spend a chapter discussing the training of “natural elites” to provide his imagined regime with “ecowarriors to do battle against the enemies of life” (p. 134). It’s all laid out in quite some detail; very nearly the only thing Shearman and Smith fail to mention is what symbol will go on their warrior elite’s armbands.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the publication of Shearman’s book, or the fact that the Pell Foundation sponsored its publication. The craving for unearned power that has afflicted intellectual idealists since Plato’s time has cropped up tolerably often in the last few decades of green activism; the substantial popularity of David Korten’s profoundly antidemocratic The Great Turning is only one sign among many. Still, there’s a difference of some importance. It takes a careful reading of Korten’s book to notice how his division of humanity into “developmental stages,” which just happen to equate to political opinions, morphs into a claim that political power ought to be monopolized by those who share Korten’s own background and views. Equally, The Great Turning is as coy about the methods Korten’s would-be elite will use to enforce their power as it is about the reasons why giving that elite unchecked authority will solve the world’s problems. Shearman and Smith have no such qualms; their totalitarian daydream is right out there in the open.

That in itself points straight to the false logic at the core of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. What failed was not democracy but climate change activism, and the stunning political cluelessness on display in Shearman’s and Smith’s book is a central reason why.

One wonders what on Earth Shearman was thinking when he sent the manuscript to the publisher. Did it never occur to him that people who disagree with his views would read the book, and make abundant political hay out of it? They have, dear reader, and it’s a safe bet that they will, as hostile reviews of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy are already showing up on conservative websites. To be fair, it would demand superhuman forbearance for them to steer clear of what is, all things considered, a climate denialist’s wet dream: a book in which a significant figure on the other side ‘fesses up to an authoritarian agenda extreme enough to support even the wildest accusations of the far right. Climate change activism is already reeling from a nearly unbroken sequence of body blows in the political arena, and an even more serious loss of public support; by the time the climate denialists finish working it over, using Shearman’s book as a conveniently blunt instrument, there may not be much left of it.

It’s worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks notwithstanding, the movement to limit CO2 emissions could have become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I think, the result primarily of three factors.

The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. All through the last decade, that movement has allowed its opponents to define the terms of public debate, execute a series of efficient end runs around even the most telling points made by climate science, and tar the movement in ever more imaginative ways, without taking any meaningful steps to counter these moves or even showing any overt interest in learning from its failures. Partly this unfolds from the fixation of the American left on the experiences of the 1960s, a fixation that has seen one movement after another blindly following a set of strategies that have not actually worked since the end of the Vietnam war; partly, I suspect, it’s rooted in the background of most of the leading figures in the climate change movement, who are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.

This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.

Part of the problem here is the gap between the face institutional science presents to its practitioners and the face it shows to the general public. In the 1970s, for example, the public consensus among climate scientists was that the Earth faced a new ice age sometime in the not too distant future. This was actually only one of several competing views aired privately among scientists at the time, and there were spirited debates on the subject in climatological conferences and journals, but you wouldn’t have learned that from the books and TV programs, many of the former written by qualified scientists and most of the latter featuring them, that announced an imminent ice age to the world at large. It’s become fashionable in some circles just now to insist that that never happened, but the relics of that time are still to be found on library shelves and in museums. When I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC a year ago, for example, the exhibit on ice age mammals had a fine example: an illuminated display, prominently located, explaining that scientists expected a new ice age sometime in the next millennium or so. An embarrassed staff member had taped up a makeshift sign next to it announcing that current scientific opinion no longer supported that claim, and the display would be replaced sometime soon.

The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit. Notice, though, that the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge didn’t prevent the passage of the Endangered Species Act or a baker’s dozen of other environmental initiatives in the Seventies; in fact, the scientific community was far more divided over ecological issues at that time than it is about climate change today. That was arguably a benefit, because it forced proponents of environmental protection to approach it as a political issue, to get down into the mud wrestling pit with their opponents, and to address the hopes, fears, and concerns of the general public head on, in terms the public could understand and accept. By and large, climate change activists have not done this, and this is an important reason why they have been so thoroughly thrashed by the other side.

Still, I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism, and bids fair to imitate those old legends of California’s future and dump the entire movement into the sea.

In order to cut CO2 emissions to the levels that would be necessary to prevent drastic climate change, many details of the modern American lifestyle have to change – not sometime off in the future, but right now. The automobile needs to become much less pervasive than it is today; even an electric car has to get its electricity from somewhere, and for the time being, that “somewhere” is going to be a power plant that burns coal or natural gas. Air travel needs to become a very occasional luxury at most. The McMansion with its cathedral ceilings and blind disregard for energy efficiency needs to give way to much more modest structures. Energy efficiency needs to become at least as central to daily life as it was during the last round of energy crises.

None of these changes were in any way out of reach. The American people accepted equivalent shifts with tolerably good grace in the Second World War, and then again in the Seventies. The crucial factor in both these previous cases, though, was that the people who were advocating them were generally also doing them themselves. Simple as it seems, that’s the secret of effective leadership; people will respond to “come with me” a lot more readily and enthusiastically than they will to “go that way.”

That’s also the secret of herding cats. I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a #10 can of tuna and an electric can opener. The moment the cats hear the whirr of the can opener and smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.

That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.

All these points are profoundly relevant to the core project of this blog, for many of the weaknesses I’ve traced out are also found in the peak oil movement. That movement has no shortage of political naivete, and it has plenty of spokespeople who mistakenly assume that their professional expertise – significant as that very often is – can be cashed in at par for influence on public debate. It also has its share of leaders who are perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn’t dream of going to the next ASPO conference by train. These are serious weaknesses; unchecked, they could be fatal.

Of course there are other, critical reasons why a certain degree of political sophistication, a recognition that expertise is not enough to carry public debates, and a willingness to embrace the lifestyles one proposes for others – and especially the last of these – are essential just now. The most important of those reasons is that in terms of industrial civilization’s energy future, it’s very late in the day. It’s late enough, in fact, that it’s possible to start talking about the specific point in time when catabolic collapse begins in earnest here in the United States. I’ll be discussing that in next week’s post.