No Apologies from Me

I enjoy George Monbiot‘s columns. He is incisive, informed and, even if I don’t agree with some of his views, the world needs people like him to be a thorn in the side of the complacent. But his most recent post pissed me off. Framed as an apology from my generation and his (born in the 60s and 70s) to younger generations, he shoulders the blame for first failing to spot the coming environmental (and other) apocalypse(s) and, when we did, for despairing rather than acting.

What bollocks. Firstly, he wasn’t and isn’t the only one out there who recognised the science early on and tried to do something about it. Second, the science we had in the 1990s, when it was starting to register that we were damaging our home, the planet, is nowhere near as good as the science we have now (ditto for the food crisis and, though to a much lesser extent, soil erosion), so we had less of an idea of the urgency of the problem and the scale of the solution. But third, and most of all, to quote Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They don’t mean to but they do”: the generation on whose behalf George Monbiot takes it upon himself to apologise may have fucked up, but we didn’t mean to.

Elder generations have been fucking things up for younger ones, without meaning to, since the dawn of time. My father’s generation bequeathed my generation a world on the edge of a nuclear holocaust, so my generation walked the streets and agitated until we got nukes under control. My generation inherited a world in which over 50% lived in dire poverty, so we spread the money around and dire poverty is now down to about 10% – still 10% too many, but an improvement. Going back in time, my father’s generation inherited a world of infant mortality and colonialism; his father’s generation inherited a world turning to fascism, and their children’s generations turned those around. Those evils, of nuclear proliferation, poverty, avoidable infant diseases and fascism were not planted there as a trap or a test of manhood by one generation for the next; they were unintended consequences of the solutions the previous generation deployed to solve problems they themselves had inherited. Each generation must fix the ills the last unintentionally bequeathed it, and invents the tools needed to do so.

And this is one of the many areas in which Monbiot’s dismal column falls short. Yes, vested interests have held back the introduction of cleaner technologies; yes, the oligarchs who run the planet are babbling about green this and sustainable that from the cocoons of their gas-guzzling private jets; yes, global corporations have subverted democracies and purchased autocracies. But when in history haven’t they? That’s why we have politics.

But Monbiot also misses a bigger picture. I rolled my eyes when I heard Trump boast – as he did in his State of the Union speech – that America is producing more oil than ever, as if that’s a good thing; I was angry when Bolsonaro turned control of the Amazon over to the agribusiness that will clear cut it; when the US, Russia, Saudi and Kuwait used procedural niceties to torpedo the latest set of climate talks. But, when I hear these boasts, I remind myself change has never come from incumbents. Apple was a (failing) PC manufacturer when it invented the smartphone, pushing Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson to the edge of bankruptcy; Nokia in turn was a timber company when it produced the world’s first mega-cheap mobile phone. Trump and his backers have the money and the political power to switch off fossil fuels and switch on solar, switch off the internal combustion engine and switch on the brushless AC motor, switch off mono-cultural farming and switch on food that tastes like food. But they won’t. Because they know no other way.

And that’s when I stop being depressed and laugh. Trump exemplifies the people who brag about how “smart” they are yet, rather than take advantage of the massive opportunity cleaner technologies bring, position themselves to be squashed by history’s juggernaut. Solar and other renewables are coming whether Trump and his backers like it or not; electric (and probably ownerless) vehicles are coming whether the automotive industry wants it or not, farming is set to transform whether Bolsonaro’s ranching buddy’s like it or not. Even if the first investors in these technologies invested for ideological reasons, the reason fossil fuels, electric cars and sustainable food are coming is not ideological, it is because these new technologies do things better.

We know today how to harvest today’s free sunlight straight from source, for a fraction of the cost of extracting fossil fuels; anyone still extracting yesterday’s buried sunlight from a deep hole in the ground will join the dinosaurs in that hole. We know today how to build cars with a couple of dozen moving parts (four wheels, the four motors that power them, the steering train and the doors); anyone still building cars from thousands of moving parts is going to be sitting on a scrapheap surrounded by them. We are rapidly finding out how to use much less ground, fertiliser and pesticide to produce far more – and tastier and healthier – food; anyone producing food the old way is sitting on compost. Incumbents are nearly always the losers when new technologies come along, and there’s little indication that this round of technological innovation will be any different. When there’s better product for less money, we change our behavior, fast.

Very fast. In 1915, New York city was debating the traffic arrangements to keep cars and horses separate; by 1925, nothing remained to debate – no horse-drawn carriages were left. I was one of the first buyers of a CD player in 1984; by 1994, although there was a nostalgia for vinyl ,no one spun ’45s. In the 1990s, entire countries leapfrogged over fixed-line phone systems and went from nothing to mobile networks. The then incumbents fell by the wayside. Monbiot’s guilt and pessimism is misplaced.

That is not to say that the technology we use to get climate change under control will have its own unexpected and nasty consequences, and – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – we’ll leave those consequences to the next generation. This is the human condition.

But Monbiot’s apology is meant not as such, but as a call to arms: I get it. But the tone is so self-righteous that it borders on the obnoxious, and the language is so steeped in Marxist rhetoric – rise-up-ye-masses – that it will likely repel more than it attracts. This is a shame because, despite the allusions, he is onto something that matters. It is all very well saying – hoping – that better products and technology will save the day, but incumbents are protecting their interests, the lengths to which the current global incumbents are going are dangerous. That these lengths are an expression of desperation is neither here nor there: these guys will go down fighting, and if that means taking us with them, along with the natural world and this beautiful planet we call home, that’s a price they seem willing – if not determined – to pay.

Political movements are part of the solution. But so is understanding the problem. The examples I cited above, of new technologies shoving old ones to the side, are well-known and often quoted by the rah-rah technology crowd. But while technologies come and go, what cherry-picked examples can obscure is that there are underlying systems of incumbency that are far more difficult to disrupt. And here lies the deep problem. It isn’t only about oil, cars and food. It’s about a way of conducting our affairs. And here, the need is not merely for innovation – which is a constant of human endeavour – but for a paradigm shift in the way we deploy them.

Let me draw an analogy. There are two big voices in the philosophy of science: the first is Karl Popper and the second, Thomas Kuhn. Popper characterised science as being a long series of incremental, very minor advances, each building on what had gone before, mostly by trying to replicate what had gone before, but replicating it a little better. Kuhn characterised science as being a series of “paradigm shifts” – think Newton, Einstein and Hawkings in physics. Spectacular as smartphones have been, I believe such innovations are in fact minor advances of the type Popper writes about. The spectacular technological innovations are systemic, not incremental. Democracy is a technology; so are political and civil rights. Urbanisation is another one; real-time communications one more – and I don’t mean the smartphone.

These changes were systemic, sweeping and societal. Much blood was spilt in achieving some of them; many lives were saved or made possible in others. If we are to rise to challenge of saving our planet, we need to understand how these societal and political paradigm shifts have worked in the past in order that we can at least prevent the next from being bloody, and perhaps even tailor one that makes the future brighter.

So, between the top of this post and here, I’ve decided that this will be the first of a series of posts, spread over many months, that will look at some of those paradigm shifts and see what lies for their futures. It won’t be as easy as slagging off the Great Confusicator and holding my head in my hands with despair at the antics of the Tin Lady, but it may perhaps be more useful.