We need to take back control of the environment debate

Climate alarmism goes hand in hand with supranational technocracy. That’s no way to solve our problems.

Tom Brooksbank

‘There will be a time when we will look back and ask ourselves what we did right now. How do we want to be remembered? This is an emergency. People are already suffering and dying from the consequences… but it will get worse.’

So said Greta Thunburg recently in Bristol. The emergency she was referring to was, of course, climate change. Although this has now been overtaken by the far more imminent threat posed by Covid19.

One reason the virus has spread so far, so fast is because the modern world is so interconnected. Globalised supply chains have been disrupted and non-essential travel has been curtailed. The largest ever experiment in remote working is also now underway.

Many environmental campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion activists, have welcomed the lower levels of CO2 emissions that have resulted from the steep drop in industrial production, shipping and air travel. It is fair to assume that a return of Extinction Rebellion’s disruptive, melodramatic tactics in the near future would exhaust the public’s tolerance for any further unnecessary disruption to normal life.

Besides, the climate catastrophism championed by Greta and Extinction Rebellion is actually not much concerned with stewardship and conservation of the natural world. The promotion of these alarmist figures by politicians, business leaders and the media largely acts as a fig-leaf behind which an anti-democratic and increasingly paranoid establishment is trying to cling on to political relevance after being gut-punched by the two populist revolts of 2016: the votes for Brexit and Trump.

The illiberalism of the demands makes this clear. Millions of people care about the natural world. But to be a true climate ‘rebel’ you must accept that aspects of your private life – such as your diet, mode of transportation and even the size of your family – have to be drastically altered and curtailed. Rebels are also strongly urged to trust ‘The Science’. The Science declares humans to be the malefactors in the imminent destruction of earth’s biosphere. And if push should ever come to shove, we are told we must be prepared to sacrifice our democratic agency for the cause. According to Greta, the situation is now so urgent that it is ‘beyond party politics’. The desire to put the climate ‘beyond party politics’ is the biggest red flag of all.

Donald Trump, although he often comes across as a hammy troll, is absolutely right to resist the push for ever-more stringent international agreements on carbon emissions. Not because it is wrong to reduce emissions per se. But the inevitable upshot of these regulations is the advance of unaccountable technocratic power over democratically elected governments.

The link between the fever pitch of Greta and Extinction Rebellion’s environmentalism and technocratic managerialism has a longer history than many might expect. It goes back to 1986, to the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and the publication of Risk Society by German sociologist Ulrich Beck.

Beck’s influential thesis was that ‘large-scale risks cut through the self-sufficiency of cultures, languages, religions and systems as much as the national and international agenda of politics’. And that the ‘anticipation of catastrophe’ had superseded class conflict as the dynamic agent of progressive, even revolutionary, change.

The type of catastrophes Beck had in mind were nuclear disasters, weapons of mass destruction, financial crises and environmental degradation. These crises are all man-made and their consequences are unconstrained by national borders. And while several such events have taken place since the book was published, Beck’s emphasis was not on actual crises themselves, but the anticipation of crisis. For him, the ever-present risk of catastrophe was no longer one of many facts of life — it had become the fact of life. And this had created a new type of society: the risk society.

Beck portrayed humanity as being ‘trapped in a shared global space of threat without exit’. As a result, the nation state – alongside the political adversarialism inherent to national democratic life – was deemed to be no longer capable of negotiating the risks of transnational catastrophe. To replace the nation, Beck envisaged a ‘cosmopolitan moment’ and ‘the creation of a dense network of transnational interdependency’ to bring together ‘people who otherwise do not want to have anything to do with one another’.

Beck’s observations have been used as a pretext for a Faustian bargain – sacrifice democracy and the nation state in exchange for post-democratic cosmopolitanism. His thesis has aided and abetted the advancement of a globalist agenda ever since.

This proposition entered the British mainstream in 1997 when New Labour adopted it as part of its Third Way framework. Internationally, it has influenced how politicians justify supranational, technocratic bodies like the EU. Guy Verhofstadt’s speech during the rubber-stamping of Britain’s departure from the EU demonstrates the bloc’s continuing reliance on Risk Society tropes to justify itself:

‘In a world where we have to challenge transnational problems like climate change and digital supremacy… the cruel reality that we have to consider today in this debate is that European countries have lost their sovereignty already a long time ago and that [the EU] is just the way to regain that sovereignty in the coming years. ’

The cosmopolitan moment never quite acquired the political capital to make itself truly hegemonic. The off-shoring of sovereignty (and consequent hollowing-out of national democratic institutions) was conducted largely by stealth rather than by popular consent. European citizens still have the right to vote, even if they have been offered little in the way of substantive choice at the ballot box over the past few decades. So when the British electorate was invited to vote on a binary issue of direct and immediate consequence – whether to leave or remain in the EU – it was as though a long forgotten trapdoor, deep below Ulrich Beck’s towering Risk Society edifice, had been unbolted.

By challenging the elitist catastrophising of Project Fear, British voters kickstarted the process of reclaiming their own political agency from distant and unaccountable centres of power and reasserted the critical role that the nation plays as the crucible of democracy. The individual voter, rather than the technocrat’s impending crisis, is now back as the agent of political change.

I grew up in the northern countryside and take pride in the fact that the often overlooked, sometimes maligned and regularly misunderstood voters from the northern regions, along with most other non-metropolitan parts of the United Kingdom, laid one right between the eyes of an out-of-touch establishment in 2016.

I also feel a deep affinity for the northern landscape with its rugged expanses, intimate corners, its rivers, trees, animals and farmland. This is not a sentimental feeling about declining hedgerows or the overuse of inorganic pesticides. It is because the English countryside represents freedom and solitude. And anyone who has ever pulled on a pair of wellies and taken their dog for a walk at dusk, or on the moors in the driving rain, or beside a river on a cold February morning, knows what I mean.

Now that Britain is rediscovering itself as an independent democratic nation, a new type of debate about protecting the environment can also emerge. This means ditching the elitist agenda behind Greta’s catastrophism. Instead, we need to accommodate the millions of people who instinctively care about the British countryside but who do not wish to be brow-beaten or coerced into doing so. It also means placing responsibility for the future wellbeing of the natural world in the hands of voters, rather than off-shoring it to centralised bureaucracies.

Brexit has reactivated democracy. The unfolding Covid-19 crisis is showing that technocrats have no greater right to be in charge of events than the rest of us. The same is true for the environment and the climate. We need to take back control of the environmental debate – from the grassroots up.

Tom Brooksbank is a writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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