My new book, The Grip of Culture, shows, through an analysis of the (outwardly) contradictory public attitudes to global warming, that our society is now dominated by what amounts to a new religion of climate catastrophism. Our civilisation is therefore under threat. This extract looks at what we might do with that knowledge.
The decline of established religions, particularly Christianity, has left other cultural entities – from age-old nationalism, to elderly communism and fascism, to adolescent climate catastrophism and the unruly children of Critical Race Theory and Extreme Trans Rights – to fill the gap. It seems that we are unable to live without cultural entities; the group identity they enable is too deeply etched into our brain architecture to be simply set aside, to say nothing of the benefits that group behaviours can bring.
If we cannot live without cultures then, given the risks, it would seem prudent to encourage them to become more benign; to tame them, so to speak. That is better than destroying them entirely; if we managed to do so, we would have no idea what might spring up instead, and whether it would be better or worse.
But understanding how to tame a culture is not straightforward. We need to work towards an end in which the culture continues to bind society together, with all the benefits that brings, while avoiding most of the potential costs. Examples from history may guide us, but measuring net benefits and even determining the requisite timescales is very difficult. For instance, how do we weigh up the huge death tolls of communism against its lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and illiteracy?
Climate catastrophism is no easier to assess. It seems harmful at present. The irrational policies and squandering of resources it demands are increasing humanity’s vulnerability to real disasters: tsunamis or wars or pandemics, and the damage to vital supply chains that result. Still, if it were tamed, the instinctive sense of stewardship that it fosters could conceivably deliver far better care for nature than rational institutions have done, no small gain in an age of huge technological power and minimal public understanding of complex environmental impacts. First though, the culture and its adherents would have to concede, just as the mainstream faiths once did, that sackcloth and ashes for everyone is not an approach that has much of a future.
Whether we attempt to break the culture of climate catastrophism or tame it, how would we go about it anyway? The first step to putting science and public policy back on a rational path is simply to recognise that the culture of climate catastrophism exists. This ought in principle to be easy, now that my book has shown that its dominant influence on public attitudes and policy can be measured. However, the beliefs and biases that the culture has engendered in people’s minds will be hard to overcome. The false idea of global climate catastrophe is now so entrenched in the lives and worldviews of members of the public they will find it hard to give up. They will believe – honestly but unfortunately not rationally – that any attempt to point out that the ‘catastrophe’ is cultural, not real, must be some kind of denialist ruse. In short, climate catastrophism has a tight grip on society; in the near term, reason is unlikely to prevail.
So, if straightforward rationality is unlikely to make an impact on climate catastrophism, what else might work? The belief in eugenics and the wider culture of which it formed a part were doomed once films of the Nazi concentration camps began to circulate widely. Although it took a generation to fizzle out, the culture was essentially shamed to death. So, could climate catastrophism be shamed to death too? Or at least shamed into tamer modes of operation? Its negative impacts on humanity and the environment provide plenty of shameful material, if not on the same emotive scale as the heaps of dead bodies in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Currently, much of the support for the culture seems impervious to shame; critics, whether internal or external, are censored or smeared, or simply waved aside. Michael Moore’s heretical film Planet of the Humans is a case in point. Soon after its release, there were widespread calls for it to be banned and these were almost entirely effective; it ended up having little effect on the culture or the narrative of salvation through renewable energy.
But if some adherents of the climate culture are shameless, others may not be. Climate catastrophism globally is hugely dependent on its relationship with the mainstream faiths: the majority of belief across nations comes from this relationship, although it is only shallow virtue-signalling. However, as the harms associated with the headlong pursuit of Net Zero become more apparent, the relationship with climate catastrophism could become damaging to religious leaderships and a source of much discontent in their flocks. Hence, although it seems unlikely at the moment, it is at least possible that the unpleasant results, along with resultant embarrassment and shame, could permanently collapse the support of religious publics.
However, the best hope that climate catastrophism will be tamed comes, unhappily, in the shape of adversity. My book shows that cultural entities yield in proportion to increasingly hard realities. The crash Net Zero programme has already created plenty of those, and they will only become more numerous and onerous in future. Meanwhile, the war in the Ukraine and the energy crisis have, in the space of just a few short months, exacerbated this situation dramatically. Rationality is not yet in charge, but the culture is giving a little ground, and will almost certainly give more as these crises continue. We do not want more adversity, self-imposed or otherwise, but it could be the only thing that will relax the grip of this culture.