I came across a news report about Jeremy Clarkson firing a broadside at climate activist, Greta Thunberg. He labelled her dangerous, and it's not the first time he's taken a punt at her. Now, I think a gas-guzzling baby boomer calling millennials spoilt and privileged is a bit rich. As a cynical Gen-Xer, I shake my head at both generations -- for much the same reasons. If boomers and millennials represent our past and future as a species, then we're better off letting the extinction happen.
Clarkson is wrong in one fundamental aspect, and it's not the intergenerational bickering about entitlement and privilege. Clarkson believes that kids should shut up, go back to school and learn science so they can fix climate change. I think this is a massive problem of perception and one that is pervasive and very dangerous.
Climate change isn't a problem for science — scientists overwhelmingly agree that 1. we have a serious, potentially existential, crisis, and 2. they know how to fix it. Climate change is not an issue out of which we can engineer ourselves. There's no switch someone will flick to make the problem go away. No future invention1 will magically remove carbon from the atmosphere, and acid from the oceans. Climate change won't have its iPhone moment where a guy in a turtle-neck sweater gets on a stage in California and changes the world with a slick marketing presentation.
Climate change is about politics and economics — power and money — and in that respect, Greta Thunberg has every right lambast the UN and the rest of the world's useless political classes. Here in Australia, climate change is a fiercely contested political issue between the Left and Right. It's also highly toxic, contributing to our 10-year drama of revolving door Prime Ministers. The reasons are simple — we in Australia supply the world with a lot of coal, and coal has contributed to the country's prosperity.
Similar patterns abound the world over — oil, coal, iron ore, beef and drag-netted fish, you name it. The world is voraciously consuming resources, unfathomable amounts of imaginary money are changing hands. Political power rests with the establishment, and the establishment is economically invested in the industrial and agricultural systems. Systems still dependent on burning fossil fuels to drive turbines and engines and feed 6 billion people. Credit, growth, debt, recession — repeat and repeat and repeat…
Our political and economic systems are fundamentally flawed. Neither politics or economics is a science; they are branches of moral philosophy — Aristotle understood this 2500 years ago. Economics is not subject to the scientific method. Modern economic practice blindly holds to beliefs that are demonstrably unscientific and damaging.
Neoclassical and Keynesian economics — the two prevailing economic theories — both ascribe the natural world and its resources as merely an extension of human capital. They also believe infinite growth within a finite system is not only possible but necessary. The first principle contravenes Adam Smith's thesis and is grossly anthropocentric. The second principle violates Newton's Laws and any biologists understanding of natural ecosystems. Furthermore, economics doesn't even use accepted methods of scientific inquiry — observe, measure, hypothesis, experiment — and doing so isn't even possible at the kind of scales that could be applied nationally, much less globally. Economics is system theory at best, and it’s messy, complicated and just about every economic model ever created is grossly simplified and inadequate.
Our economic system has organically grown over thousands of years. It has done so for one reason, and one reason only — to allow humans to thrive in the natural world. For much of our history, this was based on trial and error, cause and effect, and was always subject to natural forces — those things modern economists brush away as externalities.
However, along the way, humans as humans do have subverted that fundamental need of our species into something that serves far fewer people for personal greed and political power.
Since the enlightenment, economists have taken this essential element our species fundamental survival strategy, in isolation, and attempted to abstract it into a theoretical model. At first, this was done out of the desire to rationalise knowledge, and perhaps even help society. Now it’s become an instrument to achieve one objective alone: growth.
Economics has become the all-pervasive glue of society. Debt and consumerism keep us in bondage, tying us to established systems, practices and industries that have developed over decades and centuries. Economics is so entangled with politics, like a ball of spaghetti, that it's impossible to pull them apart without fundamentally altering their structure, even in modern democracies which claim to do so.
I suspect this is why deep down, many of us hope for that magic bullet, something that can make all our problems go away while letting us continue as we are. Human beings don't like change, we don't want it, we fear it, and it's much easier for us now in 2019 to kick the can down the road and hope the next generation fix it.
Science has already provided the answers, but we don't like what they are saying. We want other people to sacrifice, we want other people to change, we want someone else to fix our problems — and politicians are no different. Even those who are prepared to accept climate change are either hobbled by partisan squabbles or are dreaming for that same magic bullet -- or while propping up the same growth-driven narrative as the other guys.
So, Clarkson is wrong, and Thunberg is right — or, at least half right. Yes, we can shout at politicians and demand change, but unless we change collectively and fundamentally alter our culture — and nothing short of an economic and political revolution will work — we are pissing in the wind. The cynic in me thinks we're already too late.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Why bother when we have the humble tree? ↩