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Tuesday 7 November 2006

Brendan O’Neill

A march of middle-class miserabilists


Strip away the singing and dancing, and Saturday's climate change demo was a demand for less debate and more authoritarianism.

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‘Trees don’t rape.’ Daubed in a red scrawl on a green placard, and held aloft by someone marching behind a giant papier mâché hare (under the banner ‘Hare today, gone tomorrow…’), this protest slogan captured the tenor of Saturday’s march in central London against climate change chaos.

It summed up the anti-human bent to the whole thing. The sledgehammer-subtle implication of a slogan like ‘trees don’t rape’ is that humans do; unlike trees, we rape, both literally (women) and metaphorically (nature). It also encapsulated the marchers’ childlike, Disney-esque love for all things natural: celebrating an insensate object like a tree because it ‘doesn’t rape’ is enough to make those annoying anthropomorphists of the animal rights lobby look almost progressive by comparison. And it captured the kneejerk moralism driving the demonstration. This was no political march backed up by scientific facts, but an outburst of shrill middle-class disgust with the greedy masses and their bad habits.


The march was organised by the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, who estimate that 20,000 people turned up. It kicked off with a rally outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to demand that the Bush administration ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Here, the demonstrators followed in the footsteps of that other well-known progressive Osama bin Laden (and numerous others, of course) who in a ‘Letter to America’ in 2002 accused it of having ‘destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history, [yet] you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries’ (1). This was almost the exact same argument made by most of the demonstrators, though I’m pleased to report that there was no ‘Al-Qaeda against climate change’ contingent.

The demo fizzled out with a ‘star-studded’ line-up of pop performers in Trafalgar Square. By ‘star-studded’, they meant Razorlight and KT Tunstall. The latter’s contribution to this ‘historic march’ was to declare: ‘I’m here today because of the situation with the environment. We are screwing it up.’

The march was, in the words of one of the marchers, ‘the most middle-class demo I’ve ever been on’. It was a mix of mums and dads coaching their cute, floppy-haired kids to chant ‘Cut carbon emissions now!’, well-to-do students on bicycles with placards saying ‘Cars suck!’ (never have I been so irritated by self-righteous bike-riders as I was on Saturday, as they bashed into people left, right and centre with their greasy, staining wheels), and a smattering of dreadlocked grungies. From certain viewpoints it looked like a gathering of the Women’s Institute, perhaps demanding knitting rights; from others it looked like a reunion of those Swampy-style anti-roads protesters of the Nineties.


What united them all, however, was a petty authoritarianism. Strip away the dashes of colour, the dancing, the hymn-singing (seriously) and the big bright animals (there was a papier mâché rhinoceros as well as a hare), and this was in essence a demo demanding less debate and more stringent measures outlining what people can do and consume. I’ve been on a lot of marches in my time – some good, some bad, some loud, some lame – but this was the first demo I’ve seen that effectively called on the authorities to punish us; not that they should leave us alone or give us more jobs, rights, welfare, whatever, but that they should actively intervene in our lives and stop us from driving too much, holidaying too much, eating too much and living it up too much. It was summed up in the chant: ‘What do we want?’ ‘Carbon taxes!’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Now!’ That was said with real passion, believe it or not. My favourite placard of the day had a picture of Tony Blair and the words: ‘Action to match the rhetoric! Yearly enforceable emissions reductions targets of three per cent at least! Nothing less will do!’ Strewth.

It was a contemporary display of self-flagellation – the Islingtonian equivalent of those Shia parades in Iraq where they whip themselves on the back with bicycle chains. So it was fitting that one of the speakers in Grosvenor Square was the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, who bemoaned man’s ‘god delusion’ and reminded the attendees that there is only one God and we should respect his planet. That actually got a cheer. There was quite a bit of eerie crossover between obscurantist Christian thinking and contemporary climate change campaigning. One student who had travelled from Exeter to attend the demo said: ‘It’s written all over God’s word that we are meant to be stewards looking after creation. I have bought energy-saving light bulbs and I try to walk or use as much public transport as I can.’ Here, the old religion meets the new. If anything, though, the new one is worse. At least the Christians said ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth’; today the slogan is more like: ‘The meek shall leave the Earth well alone and stop “screwing it up”!’


There was a curiously censorious atmosphere at the demo. Debate was actively frowned upon. I had spent the day before brushing up on the latest scientific discussions of global warming and what is causing it, and the various political and environmentalist programmes for how to deal with or alleviate it. But no one wanted to talk about that. The speakers said this is not a political issue, something that can be tossed around between various parties or individuals; it is a ‘purely moral’ issue which requires action from above. George Monbiot – the Guardian’s green-fingered columnist and star speaker at the demo – equated debate with ‘denial’, with those ‘climate change deniers’ in scientific think tanks who apparently accept black gold to undermine the consensus on global warming. He argued that the ‘time is over for argument, discussion or debate’ and now we must have ‘action and action alone’. He called on the protesters to ‘create an atmosphere’ where everyone is geared towards reducing Britain’s carbon emissions and no one is allowed to ‘stand in the way’. We need ‘mobilisation, mobilisation, mobilisation’, he said.

In short, manmade climate change is too pure and correct a thesis to submit for public discussion. John Stuart Mill attacked this kind of subtle shutting down of debate in his pamphlet On Liberty, published in 1859. He described his era as one also ‘terrified at scepticism’, in which ‘people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them’: ‘The claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs so useful, not to say indispensable to wellbeing, that it is [the] duty of governments to uphold those beliefs…. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what such men would wish to practise.’ (2)

Global warming has achieved this status of ‘received opinion’, where debate is discouraged and the ‘bad men’ who question it are renounced. Increasingly, claims of scientific authority and certainty (even though some scientists are still hotly debating the causes and likely extent of global warming) are used to shut down what ought to be a political discussion of people’s needs and desires and ambitions, and how they can best be met as climate and weather change. As Mill reminds us in his stance against the tyranny of received opinion, ‘even the usefulness of an opinion is itself a matter of opinion…’ (3).

So, what was the ‘action from above’ demanded by the protesters? There were clues in the placards. One banner flapping in the wind said ‘Jail climate criminals for crimes against the planet’. Another said ‘Take action now or our kids pay later’, using emotional blackmail to try to force people to consume less. A man wore a hat that said ‘Rationing’ along the brim. One placard simply stated ‘CO2 bastards!’


Looking around the demo, it was clear who these ‘CO2 bastards’ are – they are corporations and the working classes. The protest was a mixed-bag attack on big companies for allegedly ‘poisoning the planet’ and everyday consumers for driving big cars or taking too many holidays. The young, earnest and impeccably middle-class members of Plane Stupid – an anti-airport, anti-flying outfit – lambasted those who take ‘cheap flights for unnecessary holidays’. We need higher taxes on air fuel, they said, in order to make holidays more expensive and thus less desirable (4). The demo demanded authoritarian measures – new taxes or possible jail sentences for repeat CO2 offenders – to make the accumulation of stuff and wealth more difficult for the mass of the population. It was effectively a call for the state to lower the horizons of working people – those apparently greedy and garish individuals who don’t ride bikes or eat lentils or have protesting children called Tarquin – in the name of saving the planet from humanity.

It was ironic, then, that one anti-American protester was dressed as the statue of liberty with a placard saying ‘The statue of TAKING liberties’ – because this demo showed that environmentalists are at the cutting edge of closing down debate and demanding state intervention into our lives these days.

One of the speakers described the audience as ‘the last great hope for humanity’. What, these middle-class miserabilists? If they were the last hope for humanity, we really would be doomed.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

The use and abuse of the poor, by Sadhavi Sharma

One of the striking things about the climate change rally was its use of the developing world as a prop for the West’s own renunciation of progress and ambition. Campaigners argued that high-carbon lifestyles in the North lead to hunger, poverty and disaster in the South. This cause-and-effect analysis came complete with doom-laden rhetoric to justify why we in the West should change our lifestyles and why they in the developing world shouldn’t aspire to our living standards.

The website of the Campaign Against Climate Change has a picture of a despairing man carrying a young child while wading in chest-high water. It complements much of the rhetoric at the rally, which said that our extravagance is punishing the poor. A Bishop said we must ‘do something’ about carbon emissions in order to save the ‘poorest and the most vulnerable’. Philip Thornhill, coordinator of the demo, declared that, ‘Heating in London can lead to drowning in Bangladesh.’


Among the demonstrators, one placard read ‘Stop Climate Change: the poorest will be hit the hardest’. Another showed a map of Africa with the words, ‘It’s getting hot in here’. Apparently, disease, floods and famines in the developing world are a direct consequence of 4x4s on British motorways and the scramble for seats on low budget airlines.

One leaflet sought to explain why people in the South remain poor and hungry: ‘Hunger kills one child every five seconds – five million a year. Environmentalists predict famine on an unprecedented scale. The West’s addiction to meat is one of the reasons.’ The leaflet urged people to go vegan in order to stop Africans from going hungry. This is the contemporary equivalent of sin, where our allegedly wicked actions – eating meat or driving cars – are said to have a pernicious impact on people in the Third World. It completely lets off the hook our social and economic systems, and instead blames widespread poverty in the South on individual behaviour in the North.

The all-purpose and patronising use of developing countries for the benefit of Western campaigning on the environment has the effect of stifling real debate about the causes of underdevelopment in Third World countries. Instead, every problem – poverty, famine, the fact that people are still at the mercy of nature – is re-interpreted to fit Western campaigners’ agendas. A group of women held a banner saying ‘Global Women’s Strike’. They told me they were campaigning for social and economic recognition for unwaged care workers. What were they doing at a rally against global warming, then? Apparently, the female asylum seekers they work with have usually fled destruction caused by climate change. Everything is connected.

At the rally, discussion of real development was off the agenda. Instead, we were called upon to assume responsibility – or guilt, rather – for the fate of the hapless and the poor. This is not real solidarity with people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, but more like guilt-tripping pity that does little to help people in the developing world devise solutions to their problems. In blindly attributing the consequences of underdevelopment to lifestyles in the West, these protesters explicitly abandon ideas of progress and helping the Third World to push forward so that it can, for example, ride out natural disasters like many in America do every year. ‘Global equality’ has been redefined to mean sharing out the misery – lowering aspirations in the West rather than demanding the best for all, both in the developed and the developing worlds.

Sadhavi Sharma is a volunteer with the youth education charity WORLDwrite.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Environment

(1) Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, Verso, 2005

(2) Plane Stupid website

 


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