Message: 9
Date: Thu, 20 Jan 2011 07:20:12 +0900
From: Bill Totten <>
Subject: [A-List] The Secret of Herding Cats
Message-ID: <>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8

by ?John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (January 12 2010)

?Granted, it was the season for giving, but I'm not at all sure that
justifies the extraordinary Christmas present Dr David Shearman has given
the climate change denialist movement. Readers of mine who haven't yet
heard of Shearman need not worry; they will be hearing far too much about
him in the months and years ahead.

Shearman, for those who haven't encountered his name yet, is an Australian
scientist who has a long string of publications in the field of global
warming to his credit, and who had an active role in the Third and Fourth
Assessments issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), the international scientific body tasked with sorting out just
what our tailpipes and smokestacks are doing to the Earth's climate. He is
also the co-author of a recent book, The Climate Change Challenge and the
Failure of Democracy (2007).

In this book, he argues that democracy is incapable of dealing with the
global climate change crisis, and therefore needs to be replaced by an
authoritarian world government with the power to force people to do what
Shearman thinks they ought to do.

Those of my readers familiar with the long and inglorious love affair
betweeen a certain class of Western intellectual and the totalitarian end
of the political spectrum already know what to expect from Shearman's
book, and they will not be disappointed. Shearman and his co-author Joseph
Wayne Smith argue that "authoritarianism is the natural state of
humanity" (page xvi) and that people who agree with their views ought to
form "an elite warrior leadership" to "battle for the future of the
earth" (ibid). They propose the manufacture of a new eco-religion out of
the green movement and New Age movement in order to "provide social glue
for the masses" (page 127), and spend a chapter discussing the training of
"natural elites" to provide his imagined regime with "ecowarriors to do
battle against the enemies of life" (page 134). It's all laid out in quite
some detail; very nearly the only thing Shearman and Smith fail to mention
is what symbol will go on their warrior elite's armbands.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the publication of Shearman's book,
or the fact that the Pell Foundation sponsored its publication. The
craving for unearned power that has afflicted intellectual idealists since
Plato's time has cropped up tolerably often in the last few decades of
green activism; the substantial popularity of David Korten's profoundly
antidemocratic The Great Turning (2006) is only one sign among many.
Still, there's a difference of some importance. It takes a careful reading
of Korten's book to notice how his division of humanity into
"developmental stages", which just happen to equate to political opinions,
morphs into a claim that political power ought to be monopolized by those
who share Korten's own background and views. Equally, The Great Turning is
as coy about the methods Korten's would-be elite will use to enforce their
power as it is about the reasons why giving that elite unchecked authority
will solve the world's problems. Shearman and Smith have no such qualms;
their totalitarian daydream is right out there in the open.

That in itself points straight to the false logic at the core of The
Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy.

What failed was not democracy but climate change activism, and the
stunning political cluelessness on display in Shearman's and Smith's book
is a central reason why.

One wonders what on Earth Shearman was thinking when he sent the
manuscript to the publisher. Did it never occur to him that people who
disagree with his views would read the book, and make abundant political
hay out of it? They have, dear reader, and it's a safe bet that they will,
as hostile reviews of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of
Democracy are already showing up on conservative websites. To be fair, it
would demand superhuman forbearance for them to steer clear of what is,
all things considered, a climate denialist's wet dream: a book in which a
significant figure on the other side 'fesses up to an authoritarian agenda
extreme enough to support even the wildest accusations of the far right.
Climate change activism is already reeling from a nearly unbroken sequence
of body blows in the political arena, and an even more serious loss of
public support; by the time the climate denialists finish working it over,
using Shearman's book as a conveniently blunt instrument, there may not be
much left of it.

It's worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the
way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change
activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from
business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in
the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like
a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks
notwithstanding, the movement to limit carbon dioxide emissions could have
become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act
and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative
Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I
think, the result primarily of three factors.

The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change
movement. All through the last decade, that movement has allowed its
opponents to define the terms of public debate, execute a series of
efficient end runs around even the most telling points made by climate
science, and tar the movement in ever more imaginative ways, without
taking any meaningful steps to counter these moves or even showing any
overt interest in learning from its failures. Partly this unfolds from the
fixation of the American left on the experiences of the 1960s, a fixation
that has seen one movement after another blindly following a set of
strategies that have not actually worked since the end of the Vietnam war;
partly, I suspect, it's rooted in the background of most of the leading
figures in the climate change movement, who are used to the very different
culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the
very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their

This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the
climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on
the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has
undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the
expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought
and sold for a price that these days isn't always discreetly disguised as
grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that
the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the
discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from
medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated
fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying
that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol
are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of
scientists goes out the window.

Part of the problem here is the gap between the face institutional science
presents to its practitioners and the face it shows to the general public.
In the 1970s, for example, the public consensus among climate scientists
was that the Earth faced a new ice age sometime in the not too distant
future. This was actually only one of several competing views aired
privately among scientists at the time, and there were spirited debates on
the subject in climatological conferences and journals, but you wouldn't
have learned that from the books and TV programs, many of the former
written by qualified scientists and most of the latter featuring them,
that announced an imminent ice age to the world at large. It's become
fashionable in some circles just now to insist that that never happened,
but the relics of that time are still to be found on library shelves and
in museums. When I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC
a year ago, for example, the exhibit on ice age mammals had a fine
example: an illuminated display, prominently located, explaining that
scientists expected a new ice age sometime in the next millennium or so.
An embarrassed staff member had taped up a makeshift sign next to it
announcing that current scientific opinion no longer supported that claim,
and the display would be replaced sometime soon.

The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each
one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally
deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism
than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit. Notice,
though, that the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge didn't prevent
the passage of the Endangered Species Act or a baker's dozen of other
environmental initiatives in the Seventies; in fact, the scientific
community was far more divided over ecological issues at that time than it
is about climate change today. That was arguably a benefit, because it
forced proponents of environmental protection to approach it as a
political issue, to get down into the mud wrestling pit with their
opponents, and to address the hopes, fears, and concerns of the general
public head on, in terms the public could understand and accept. By and
large, climate change activists have not done this, and this is an
important reason why they have been so thoroughly thrashed by the other

Still, I've come to think that a third factor has played at least as
important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the
pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that
movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that
they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on
this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a
lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he
exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism,
and bids fair to imitate those old legends of California's future and dump
the entire movement into the sea.

In order to cut carbon dioxide emissions to the levels that would be
necessary to prevent drastic climate change, many details of the modern
American lifestyle have to change - not sometime off in the future, but
right now. The automobile needs to become much less pervasive than it is
today; even an electric car has to get its electricity from somewhere, and
for the time being, that "somewhere" is going to be a power plant that
burns coal or natural gas. Air travel needs to become a very occasional
luxury at most. The McMansion with its cathedral ceilings and blind
disregard for energy efficiency needs to give way to much more modest
structures. Energy efficiency needs to become at least as central to daily
life as it was during the last round of energy crises.

None of these changes were in any way out of reach. The American people
accepted equivalent shifts with tolerably good grace in the Second World
War, and then again in the Seventies. The crucial factor in both these
previous cases, though, was that the people who were advocating them were
generally also doing them themselves. Simple as it seems, that's the
secret of effective leadership; people will respond to "come with me" a
lot more readily and enthusiastically than they will to "go that way".

That's also the secret of herding cats. I long ago lost track of the
number of times I've heard people in one or another corner of the activist
scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing
people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd
cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the
world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go,
carrying with you a #10 can of tuna and an electric can opener. The moment
the cats hear the whirr of the can opener and smell the fragrance of the
tuna, they'll come at a run, and you'll have your herd exactly where you
want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that
you're willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also
assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.

That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the
climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a
lifestyle that the movement's own leaders have shown no willingness to
adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the
benefit of others. That's left the movement wide open to accusations that
it means its policies to apply only to other people - accusations that
have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US
very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as
possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don't have to
spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman's cheerleading
for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people's
carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others'.

All these points are profoundly relevant to the core project of this blog,
for many of the weaknesses I've traced out are also found in the peak oil
movement. That movement has no shortage of political naivete, and it has
plenty of spokespeople who mistakenly assume that their professional
expertise - significant as that very often is - can be cashed in at par
for influence on public debate. It also has its share of leaders who are
perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch
their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need
their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn't dream of going to the
next ASPO conference by train. These are serious weaknesses; unchecked,
they could be fatal.

Of course there are other, critical reasons why a certain degree of
political sophistication, a recognition that expertise is not enough to
carry public debates, and a willingness to embrace the lifestyles one
proposes for others - and especially the last of these - are essential
just now. The most important of those reasons is that in terms of
industrial civilization's energy future, it's very late in the day. It's
late enough, in fact, that it's possible to start talking about the
specific point in time when catabolic collapse begins in earnest here in
the United States. I'll be discussing that in next week's post.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {1} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of
subjects, including The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the
Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World
(2009), and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival
Mattered. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in
the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star's Reach,
his blog/novel of the deindustrial future {2}. Set four centuries after
the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative
fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our
descendants tomorrow.




Marxism-Thaxis mailing list
To change your options or unsubscribe go to:

Reply via email to