Biblical miserabilism disguised as science
No wonder Andrew Simms and other greens are always fantasising about Earth’s end: they can't stand Earth’s inhabitants.
Environmentalist Andrew Simms, author of the posh grocers’ bible, Tescopoly, has a bit of a problem. And it is not just the nauseating, name-dropping self-obsession so evident in his new book, Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity. (Of his changing perception of aeroplanes after 9/11, he writes: ‘Contrails behind disappearing jet engines meant something different also after a conversation I had with the author Philip Pullman, but I’ll come to that later.’ The tease.) No, Simms’ other problem is one that he shares with many other current environmentalists: an apocalypticism in want of an apocalypse, an environmentalist End of Days in want of a devastated, I-told-you-so terminus.
It’s getting ridiculous now. For the best part of a decade, prominent environmental types have been blithely telling us the end is nigh if we don’t change our producing and consuming ways. But have we listened to the terrifying drenched-then-scorched rhetoric? Have we met carbon-emissions targets? Have we stopped using aeroplanes, once handily likened by the Guardian’s leading environmental columnist to ‘child abuse’? Have we started to shun those Meccas of pre-packaged convenience, supermarkets, in favour of growing our own? Have we hell. And yet despite our unrepentant behaviour, despite our unwillingness to change our producing and consuming ways, we are still waiting for Gaia’s punishment, still awaiting the end which ought to be nigh.
You wouldn’t have thought it was possible given the kinds of headlines and commentaries that appeared routinely throughout the mid-Noughties. ‘”Almost too late” to stop a global catastrophe’, warned one UK broadsheet in 2006. An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily Inquirer struck a similar dread note. ‘Now, the warning about the end of the world may yet become a grim and horrible reality, if not in our generation, then in our children’s or grandchildren’s generation.’ This, remember, was the era of ‘tipping points’, when climate change looked set to become ‘irreversible’ and ‘runaway’ unless WE ACT. NOW. Simms himself even started up a campaign in August 2008 with a rather specific deadline: ‘100 months to save the world.’
But 56 months down the line, things have changed somewhat. The apocalypticism, the catastrophism, so marked in recent environmentalist discourse, is losing what little real purchase it had. Doomsday increasingly looks like it has been postponed.
Even the scientific white noise is no longer providing a suitable soundtrack for the environmentalist disaster movie. For example, the UK’s official weather forecasters, the Met Office, released a forecast in December suggesting that global temperatures have not risen for over a decade and are unlikely to rise significantly in the period up to 2017. NASA’s James Hansen, the Godfather of contemporary greens, noted recently that the ‘five-year-mean global temperature has been flat for the last decade, which we interpret as a combination of natural variability and a slowdown in the growth rate of net climate forcing’. Which is bad news for the Panglooms out there.
All of this ought to leave Simms & Co looking like the boys who cried climate catastrophe. Yet somehow, as Cancel the Apocalypse shows, they are continuing, unabashed, to preach environmental doom despite its palpable absence. In fact, the hyper-pessimism has even been ramped up a bit. ‘The horsemen are galloping and there are more than four of them’, Simms chirrups. ‘Climate change, financial meltdown, the global peak and decline of oil production, a mass extinction event of plant and animal species, overuse of fresh water supplies, soil loss, economic infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to external shocks – it’s the age of the complex super disaster.’ It seems devastating climate change is no longer enough for Simms; he wants to solicit a whole host of other unrelated, and highly debatable, phenomena for his narrative of woe. Cancelled? No way, Simms chortles: the apocalypse is back on.
So how is Simms able to maintain his unshakeable belief in our imminent destruction? What makes him and his tweedy, right-on puritan mates different to, say, William Miller, founder of the Second Adventists (later to become the Seventh Day Adventists), who, as Simms tells us, believed the day of reckoning would fall in 1843, 1845, 1846, 1849, 1851, 1874 and 1999?
The ostensible answer is that whereas previous doomsayers derived their predictions from ‘gobbledygook floating up from patterns of words and numbers dimly discerned in books about faith and belief’, Simms and his followers rely upon ‘verifiable scientific experiment’. Of course, The Science.
Which is funny, because Cancel the Apocalypse does not contain much in the way of ‘verifiable scientific experiment’. What it does feature, though, is a scientistic use of the authority of science to justify a whole range of dubious assertions. In Simms’ hands, science is no longer science. It is a metaphor, an authority-bolstering gloss, allowing him to talk, for example, of socio-historical phenomena such as the economy in terms of the laws of nature: ‘Just as physical laws constrain the maximum efficiency of a heat engine’, he writes, so ‘economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of our planet’s natural resources, the variable but ultimately bounded biocapacity of its oceans, fields, geology and atmosphere’; and later on, ‘the laws of physics mean it is not possible to create the order of such [economic] exchanges without a little something being lost [Simms is referring to the biosphere]’.
Now, aside from the reheated neo-Malthusian nonsense about the finitude of natural resources – history has repeatedly shown that there is nothing finite or natural about resources – what is striking is the function science performs in Cancel the Apocalypse. Simms effectively dresses up a moral-political vision of how we should live – informed by an essentially Romantic-Aristocratic rejection of modernity – in the garb of science. Moral-political demands that we change our behaviour, that we become content with less, that we stop seeking to better ourselves materially (a staple of left-wing aspiration for two centuries), are passed off as scientifically backed statements. If we don’t change our behaviour, if we don’t become content with less, if we don’t stop seeking to better ourselves materially, then we’re not just challenging Simms’ vision of the not-so Good Life – we’re defying the laws of nature. Likewise, the scientifically verifiable apocalypse – which is actually neither scientific nor verifiable – performs the same function: it turns the political demand that we live differently into a science-backed imperative. An argument that effectively devolves upon an ‘or else’.
The difficulty for Simms and pals is that the vast majority of the globe actually wants the gains of modernity – political, social and material. And right now, with the economy continuing to flatline, I’m pretty sure most of us in the UK would also like quite a bit of the economic growth that Simms and his cohort of wellbeing-spouting plonkers think is so spiritually deleterious. And this is Simms’ other big problem: environmentalism is not only profoundly unpopular – its demands are pitted against the people.
Hence, the ultimate objects of environmentalist change – us and and our behaviour – receive such damning portraits in Cancel the Apocalypse. At one point we are teenagers who, despite the ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of the mess our rooms are in, continue to ‘deny to the point of forcible eviction by health-and-safety inspectors that it is i) a problem, and ii) our problem’. At others, we are too ‘locked’ into the promises of consumption to see the deforested wood for the devastated trees.
So as well as trying to corral us into line with The Science, and terrify us into contrition with The Envirocalypse, Simms also wants to brainwash us into the correct behavioural patterns with a system of ‘public commissioning in the media’ in which journalists and researchers are paid by the state to work ‘in the public interest’ – as opposed, presumably, to working in the commercial interest. And advertising of products with ‘negative social and environmental consequences’ (ie, things he doesn’t like) ought to be heavily taxed, just for good measure.
This is not only a thoroughly miserable book, bloated to 400 pages with long-winded, pretentious digression on anything from Greek myth to John Stuart Mill’s liking for Romantic poetry, it is also profoundly opposed to people, to their desires, needs, and to their autonomy. At least this explains why Simms is so drawn to the end of the world: he can’t stand its inhabitants.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.