The Irish Government’s mooted plan to slaughter some 200,000 cattle has been getting a great deal of attention this week. It is said, implausibly, that doing so will help save the planet from global warming, although prominent commentators, such as Jordan Peterson and Elon Musk, have been quick to point out that, as policy measures go, it looks, well, quite mad.
Sudden urges to slaughter herds of cattle are, however, not without historical precedent. In 19th-century South Africa, a child prophetess named Nongqawuse persuaded her people, the Xhosa, that if they slaughtered all their livestock and burnt down their granaries everything would be miraculously replaced. Of course, when they tested her claims out, the reality was very different and, cattle being the basis of their economy, the policy resulted in the utter destruction of their society. Ireland beware!
The story of the cattle killings is told in The Grip of Culture, a new book that will soon be published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (full disclosure: I am the book’s editor). Its central theme is that, like the Xhosa, our society is now being directed by what is known as a ‘cultural entity’ (or ‘a culture’ for short); the term covers both religions and extreme political movements – secular religions, if you like. The culture we are facing is, of course, climate catastrophism.
The book explains that cultures are a function of our subconscious and evolved alongside our genes as a way to bind groups of human beings together. They are an entirely natural feature of the human condition; they affect all of us. At the centre of each is a narrative of doom and redemption. Remarkably, this is always false, and indeed it is often scarcely even plausible. However, most adherents have never even read the core texts around which their culture has formed: this is as true of Extinction Rebellion supporters’ suppositions about the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as it was of a medieval peasant’s trust in the truth of the Latin Bible, or a Red Guard’s faith in the Das Kapital. A statement of belief in the climate catastrophe narrative is therefore not a rational, considered opinion; it is simply a way of signalling to other people that you are a member of the climate ‘club’.
The behaviours that make cultures so effective are seen across history. Demonisation of opponents is one obvious example; accusations of heresy have done their work from time immemorial. Those within the culture are warned not to stray from orthodoxy, and those outside it are invited to join up and win the group benefits (or to face the consequences). The terminology may have changed – ‘denier’ is the current term of art – but the intent, to silence dissent and to prevent questioning of the narrative, is the same.
Similarly, cultures have always sought to get at children, to infect them with the mind virus while their parents’ backs are turned; a glance at the curriculum shows that climate catastrophism is now dominant in schools, although jostling for position with some of the other new cultures that are on the scene. Children, and particularly girls, also turn up in cultures in the role of prophets, their perceived innocence helping to protect them from criticism; Greta Thunberg is only the latest in a long line that stretches back far beyond Nongqawuse.
Perhaps the most important feature of cultures is that they operate subconsciously, and therefore entirely irrationally. Once we understand this, the apparent madness of the last 20 years starts to make a kind of sense. So yes, those who merely question the wisdom of Net Zero are demonised and cancelled; as we have seen, that’s what cultures do. And when we see politicians fawning over the scatterbrained utterances of a teenage truant, we can now understand why. Similarly, if rationality ruled, we would not be closing down nuclear power, or importing (high-emissions) fossil fuels rather than getting them from the North Sea. But rationality is in retreat, so that is what we are doing.
Because they bind societies so tightly together, cultures are extraordinarily powerful forces. They have been responsible for the rise of great civilisations and the construction of great monuments, from the waterworks of Ur and Babylon to the pyramids and beyond. But because they are irrational, they can just as often be a force for societal self-destruction, as the 19th-century Xhosa and the 20th-century Germans found out to their cost. It’s hard to say whether a culture will take a constructive or a destructive path, but it’s fair to say that a disastrous end is more likely when you have a millenarian culture – one that aims to tear down the fabric of society and start again. Unfortunately, that’s what we appear to be facing today. Gripped by the culture of climate catastrophism, society seems hell-bent on ripping up the energy system that is the foundation of our civilisation with only the vaguest idea of what might replace it. The Xhosa would recognise the tendency.
To that end, we have embarked on a process of decarbonisation, but – and extraordinarily – without knowing what we will do when the wind is not blowing. This can in no way be rational, but is perfectly comprehensible when you recognise that we are being driven by a culture. At the centre of the book is a remarkable series of measurements showing that national religiosity is an excellent predictor of otherwise incomprehensible public attitudes to climate change, including enthusiasm for renewables. Similarly, pursuing this course when the costs are known to be much higher than the benefits looks like insanity. But, once more, it’s the kind of thing that happens when a cultural entity is at work. The culture does what is good for the culture, not what is good for mankind.
There is no end of crazy climate policies: electric cars, travel restrictions, 15-minute cities, veganism and insect-based diets are just a few off the top of my head. Climate catastrophists’ calls for such measures are only statements of faith, a signal to others. They are not meant to be taken literally – that’s why so many Extinction Rebellion supporters are frequent flyers and enjoy their holidays in the sun just as much as the rest of us. But society responds to the calls for ever more windfarms as if they were, and we are left worrying whether the lights will stay on this winter.
A cultural analysis, of the kind set out in The Grip of Culture, can explain the suicidal course taken by Western societies. Its message, that the true threat to our civilisation comes, not from the weather or the climate, but from the culture of catastrophism that has weaponised those issues is profoundly disturbing. Those of us who are fond of living in a free and rational society need to understand what we are facing, and soon.
Andrew Montford is Director of Net Zero Watch.