The EC’s message to the people of Europe: make do and mend

The latest European campaign on climate change is driven by killjoy arguments for rationing and restraint.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

The European Commission campaign You Control Climate Change is the latest high-profile initiative aimed at tackling global warming through modifying our personal behaviour. The campaign slogan, now emblazoned across an enormous poster next to the EC’s main building in Brussels, is: ‘Turn down. Switch off. Recycle. Walk.’ (1)

That perfectly encapsulates the message behind popular climate change initiatives, which are always urging us to scale down our ambitions. We’re forever being asked to temper our desire to live life in the most convenient and enjoyable way possible, and are asked instead to keep a constant eye on our natural environment and its future.

The EC’s message is similar in essence to the poor housewife’s proverbs ‘make do and mend’ and ‘waste not want not’, which were traditionally used to encourage people to conserve materials during wartime shortages and rations. So, the green slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ asks us always to be mindful of the bigger picture and yet modest in our own pursuits. Rather than reining in our behaviour for the sake of any war effort, today we are asked to ration ourselves in the service of something more intangible – the alleged needs of the planet and of future generations.

Since neither the planet nor future generations can speak for themselves, environmentalists and others have a blank cheque to babble on their behalf, and to assume the moral high ground in the process. In truth, neither planets nor the unborn are capable of having interests since neither of these entities is capable of formulating interests, much less pursuing them. It is only we who live in the present who can determine our interests and shape our future accordingly. And whether our interests are best served by defining ourselves as Environmentally Responsible is highly dubious.

When challenged about their tendency to revere nature at the expense of the needs of humanity, environmentalists tend to adopt the fallback position of appealing to our desire for self-preservation. Never mind the tree-hugging, they say, what about the continued existence of the human race? However, merely continuing our existence is hardly the highest goal one can think of. Human history is a history of progress – of forging ahead and improving our lot by changing our circumstances, not accommodating to them.

Today, in the absence of big ideas and political dynamism, we have become acutely aware of what seem like the natural parameters within which we live and work. Indeed, we fret about such natural factors prematurely, going out of our way to defer to them even before they can impose themselves upon us.

Take fossil fuel. Doubtless fossil fuel is not the greatest means of generating industrial, domestic or locomotive power that humanity will ever devise, and work on developing viable alternatives is ongoing. But this resource has benefited us immeasurably, remains useful to us in the here and now, and still stands to improve the quality of life for millions in the developing world. However, these facts barely get a look-in in current debates, instead being subordinated to concerns over the environmental impact of fuel emissions and how we might fare if and when the fuel runs out.

If our first instinct is always to project from our present capabilities and cower at daunting scenarios ahead, we will never be able to grapple fruitfully with the challenges presented by nature. ‘Nature’s revenge’ is a popular theme in today’s discussion of the climate – but why would nature need to exert her revenge, when we seem so keen on devising and enacting it on her behalf?

None of this is to deny the importance of forward planning based on expert knowledge. Those global warming ‘sceptics’ who claim that we can never fully understand nor hope to influence the climate are as misguided in their own way as the doom-mongering greens. But to present the complexities of climate change as a brute set of geophysical facts, the only sensible response to which is to scale down the way we live now, does an immense disservice to humans’ ability to devise solutions and shape the world around them.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept all of the premises of climate change orthodoxy and all of the worst-case scenarios that follow, there remains a strong element of bad faith in the idea that the best solution to these challenges is for individuals to modify their behaviour. If the collective impact of all of us ‘turning down, switching off, recycling and walking’ really could make the difference between humanity prevailing or being extinguished, what kind of fool would wager their future on hoping that everyone decides to behave in the approved manner?

Inasmuch as climate change poses us with a challenge, it needs to be met with the most ambitious and innovative solutions that our finest minds can muster. Wagging the finger at us for enjoying the hard-won conveniences of modern life, and telling us to be more austere, does not constitute any kind of solution. In fact, that stance has little to do with taking a scientific approach to the climate, and is more about those in authority forging a new morality for which the climate is a useful pretext.

Lacking any grand political vision that might engage us, the European authorities resort instead to issuing high-handed advice on our habits and lifestyles. According to EC president José Manuel Barroso, the You Control Climate Change campaign ‘makes clear to which extent we all are responsible for climate change and what individuals can and need to do to limit this threat’. Holding us responsible for climate change in this way is like the Church of yesteryear holding us responsible for averting the wrath of God – an invocation of a phantasmagoric higher power, which dulls our passions and underlines our subservience to the ruling order.

The message ‘You Control Climate Change’ suggests that the most significant control we can exercise over our circumstances is the reduction of our impact upon the natural environment. In political terms, we may as well be told ‘you control nothing’. Fortunately, some of us aspire to greater freedom and a better future in the dynamic, open-ended world of human affairs, not the dismal cul de sac of natural facts misrepresented as political scripture.

A good first step in asserting real control of our world would be to tell Mr Barroso where he can stick his climate change campaign.

(1) You Control Climate Change website

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Topics Science & Tech


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