Let’s make the ‘human footprint’ even bigger

In a speech in Gothenburg, spiked’s editor called for a rebellion against the ethics of environmentalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

spiked’s editor Brendan O’Neill was invited to the Gothenburg Book Fair on 24 September to speak about the ‘human footprint’. An edited version of his speech is published below.

For me, the most striking thing about climate-change activism is that it doesn’t seem very interested in preventing climate change. Green activists present pollution and climate impact as the worst things in the world – worse even than the Holocaust, according to one British environmentalist – but then they tell us that nothing can really be done to bring these problems to an end. Instead they can only be managed, forever, through encouraging people to change their daily behaviour and lower their expectations.

Indeed, environmentalists tend to save their most venomous polemics for those who dare to suggest that mankind might be able to halt climate change. They will label you as stupid and naive if you suggest that geoengineering, for example, might one day be used to offset the worst of man’s impacts on the climate. One green-leaning writer recently argued that geoengineering – carried out by crazy ‘rainmakers, rain fakers, weather warriors and climate engineers’ – is ‘dangerous beyond belief’.

I find this very interesting, not because I’m a massive fan of geoengineering or believe it is the solution to every problem, but because green hostility to the idea of fixing climate change really reveals that environmentalism is not a practical campaign but a moral crusade. It is not about putting forward technical solutions to the discrete problem of climate impact, but is about pressuring people to restrain their behaviour. It rejects something like geoengineering because it is more interested in social engineering: transforming how people behave, what they expect from life, and even how they think.

In essence, the doctrine of environmentalism is a new form of conservatism, which deploys the politics of fear to control or at least sway how people behave. What’s really happened is that the practical problem of pollution has been moralised – super-moralised, in fact. What should be treated as a specific problem in need of a few solutions – whether that be going nuclear, investigating renewables or reshaping our climate – is instead turned into a new organising principle of politics and morality.

Virtually every aspect of human behaviour is now judged by how much carbon it produces. If you have a baby, that’s 10 tonnes of carbon every year for the next 80-odd years. If you fly to Australia on holiday, that’s another five tonnes of carbon. If you eat a steak, you are supposed to think about how much forest area was cleared to allow the cow to graze, how much methane the cow expelled while it was alive, how many ‘food miles’ it took to get the steak to your plate, and – bam! – it all adds up to another four tonnes of carbon.

Eating, drinking, playing, procreating – everything is carbon-calculated, everything is carbonised. These carbon-calculations really represent a moral judgement on our lives. They make everything into a potential sin, a crime against the planet. They send the very powerful message that to live, to travel, to breed, to immerse yourself in every human experience is bad – whereas to stay still, to stay put, to be meek, to be quiet, to grow your own is good. Experimentation and experience are potentially polluting; restraint is pure. This is a pseudo-scientific updating of the old religious morality about the ‘meek inheriting the Earth’ – except we won’t even inherit the Earth in return for living eco-meekly, because as any good green will tell you, the Earth is not ours to inherit.

This new eco-morality which promotes restraint and demonises abandon is best summed up in the concept of the ‘human footprint’, the idea that mankind has left a big, dirty footprint on the planet and that the task of all of us should be to make it smaller and eventually erase it altogether.

This is a striking development because throughout history mankind has consciously or semi-consciously sought to make an impact on the planet, whether by taming nature, expelling certain beasts from certain lands or building cities in deserts. From the Book of Genesis, which said mankind had ‘dominion over the fish of the seas and the birds of the air and over every living creature’, to the thinkers of the Enlightenment period, who wanted to put ‘nature on the rack’ in order to extract her secrets, our aim was always to better understand our surroundings, to conquer them, to humanise them.

Today, we see such humanisation as something destructive, as a footprint. We are all encouraged to work out how big our human footprint is and to endeavour to shrink it, by changing how we travel, how we live, what we eat, how many kids we have, and fundamentally how we conceive of ourselves. Just as Catholics were once told that they carried with them an ‘original sin’, so everyone is now told that they lug around a metaphorical ‘footprint’, which they must work hard to scrub away.

So-called climate-change activism is really a new kind of moralism, a new ethics. But it is not an ethical approach focused on working out what is a Good Life and how each individual might achieve that Good Life; instead it is an ethical approach which presents all facets of human life, whether it’s having a baby or taking crack cocaine imported from Latin America (think of the ‘crack miles’!), as potentially destructive. It induces guilt about everything we do. It is an ethics which simply preaches restraint, restraint, restraint, telling us that the less impact we make, the smaller the footprint we leave behind, then the better everything will be… not for us, but for the ecosystem.

The idea of the ‘human footprint’ really speaks to our discomfort with human history-making itself and with the idea of leaving an impression on the world. The campaign to shrink the human footprint is really a campaign to erase all evidence of human breakthroughs, where everything from our development of agriculture to our conquering of the oceans to our splitting of the atom is now retrospectively judged to have been a potential folly which caused environmental destruction in the long run. The demand that people leave less of an impact is a demand that humankind make no real, lasting, game-changing impression on his surroundings. This is not about filtering out the pollution caused by our activities, whether it’s our everyday activities or our more meaningful and historic ones; rather it is about calling into question the worth and purpose of those activities in the first place.

Some critics of climate-change alarmism compare it to religion. After all, environmentalism has the idea of penance (where you can offset your carbon-use by planting a tree), lots of guilt, fearmongering about the End of Days, and so on. But this is far worse than the old religions. At least the old faiths came with ideas such as transcendence and redemption. Environmentalism, far from encouraging us to transcend the everyday, tells us to rummage around in our dustbins or to tot up how much carbon we used while driving to the shops; it implores us to obsess over everyday shit and nonsense. And it offers no redemption whatsoever, no promise of a better life in return for recycling our rubbish and never flying abroad. Instead, you live, you pollute, you try to pollute less, and then you die. And when you die, you carry on polluting, according to the misanthropes, through the toxins you emit while being cremated or buried in the earth.

Environmentalism surely adds up to one of the most depressing and misanthropic creeds in recent history. If you are a humanist, a wannabe history-maker, an adventurer, a thrill-seeker or just someone who wants a Good Life, then don’t shrink your ‘human footprint’. Instead, rebel, refuse to be meek, make your footprint as big and all-encompassing as you possibly can. Or as we used to say: ‘Leave your mark on the world.’

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Gothenburg Book Fair on 24 September

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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