From climate to coronavirus, medieval thinking has triggered a crisis of self-loathing
We must all have been transported backwards in our sleep, because we seem to have woken up in the Middle Ages - to a world of child saints and plague towns and apocalyptic helplessness. To push the medieval analogy to its logical end, we could end up attributing both the coronavirus and what is now inevitably described as a “climate emergency” to divine retribution: punishment for the sins of globalisation and the pursuit of mass prosperity.
Surely, the soothsayers will conclude, people were not meant to travel so far and so frequently from their place of birth. Nor should the goods that they produce be shipped to all corners of the earth to be consumed in alien lands. In the quest for ever-greater wealth, we have lost touch with our roots and our sacred places. This terrible End of Days is a warning…
Well, perhaps it hasn’t quite reached this point of absurdity but give it another few weeks. (In fact, the most extreme form of climate activism already talks like this.) What is truly alarming about the response to this phenomenon in its varied forms - floods, virus, whatever - is its failure to allude to the obvious: the remarkable capacity of human intelligence for invention, adaptation and co-operation. Instead of emphasising the virtues that have permitted the most ingenious species of life ever to inhabit the planet to alter and affect the conditions in which it can survive, this bizarre cult of guilt demands endless remorse.
Instead of hope through rational progress, the message is overwhelmingly of blame. Even while demanding positive change, Extinction Rebellion manages to sound as if it loathes everybody (or maybe just everybody in the Western world since it oddly fails to stage any protests at the Chinese embassy) and will be satisfied with nothing less than total self-abnegation. Indeed, some climate emergency spokesmen openly long for a radical reduction in the world’s population - so maybe the advent of coronavirus suits them quite well.
The most extreme interpretations of data are presented as objective fact. The most terrifyingly tendentious projections dominate the public discourse so aggressively that any expression of doubt appears irresponsible. But the encouragement of panic is the very opposite of responsibility: it is conducive to hasty, unsound decisions as desperation replaces reasoned argument.
No one can deny that the floods that have caused such havoc in the English regions are genuinely tragic for those whose homes and businesses have been destroyed. But to count as evidence of an imminent and inevitable change in the climate, they have to beat the 1990 February rainfall record of 193.4 mm. As of 25 February, this year’s total was 179.3 mm.
You may say that even if the “climate emergency” talk is overblown, it can do no harm to behave as if it were literally accurate and take the precautions that might mitigate the damage. This may be true but only if it does not distract from what might be a more practically remedial problem: many experts, including some eminently well-informed letter writers to this newspaper, have suggested that the management of rivers is the more immediate cause of the current flooding. If that is the case, then evangelical climate activism with its insistence that the only possible remedies involve drastic restrictions on economic growth, could actually be a hindrance to finding an effective solution.
This alternative view of the twin crises that are currently dominating the news cycle - climate and coronavirus - was put into interesting perspective by Mark Carney in his last interview as Governor of the Bank of England. What he told Sky News was that (contrary to the rabble rousing XR rhetoric) the need to deal with the new dilemmas could eventually accelerate economic growth: research, discovery and innovation would create more opportunities for employment and investment. That is how free market societies have generally seen the need for change - as an open field for opportunity, not an excuse for contraction. To put it even more baldly: that is the difference between rationality and superstition.
Something has gone badly wrong when the world passively accepts flagellation from a teenage girl who was, by her own and her parents’ admission, suffering from serious mental disturbance before finding a miraculous deliverance through leadership of her climate campaign. I have all the sympathy in the world for the kind of psychological breakdown which so many adolescent girls experience as they encounter the shock of female puberty. But I draw the line at sacrificing the prosperity and security of the populations of the world (including parts of it which have, until very recently, lived in poverty) for the sake of providing therapy.
Of course, there is ambivalence among the governing classes over this public mood. Having the population’s consciousness focused on what seem to be acts of God (virus epidemics) or events of such cosmic enormity that they appear to dwarf the power of individual states (climate change) could be quite useful. It takes people’s minds off of the day-to-day business which elected leaders are expected to handle. But when the markets begin to crash and real incomes - both in earnings and profits - are threatened, it then becomes very hard to restore morale. This is what wartime governments have always known: don’t ever let despair get the upper hand.
So can we just remind ourselves that human beings are not dinosaurs? They are not dumb galumphing creatures, incapable of understanding and adapting to circumstances, fated to be swept away by incomprehensible events. With their outsize brains and opposable thumbs, they have triumphed over adversity and challenge many times. They will invent their way out of climate change without sending us all back to pre-industrial subsistence, and somebody will discover (probably quite soon) a way to vaccinate against this latest virus outbreak.
But for now we must deal with the epidemic of self-loathing. Time for the grown-ups to get a grip.