Books: A Point of View: Conclusion |
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Three years, a long time in an individual life, is no time at all in the eye of history: scarcely time for a fashion to have its reign. Afterwards, the period of its supremacy is remembered as a mere moment, if it is remembered at all. Then it melts as mysteriously as it took shape. Even when it shakes the world for decades on end, the incontestable belief will fade away without having to be contested, as if the capacity to be forgotten had been part of what made it memorable in the first place. Sometimes the belief will leave millions of corpses behind it when it retreats. It won’t go without putting up a fight. But almost always it goes without putting up an argument. When Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945, the occupying Allies couldn’t find any Nazis. It turned out that there had never been any. Apart from the few prominent fanatics who committed suicide or stubbornly continued to proclaim the dominance of the master race even as they sat without belts and shoelaces in their jail cells, nobody had ever really believed all that stuff. Reasonable people had worn Party buttons in their lapels only so that they would be allowed to conduct orchestras, like Herbert von Karajan. A pity about the Jews, but really they had died by accident.

Throughout 2010, the year after my brief career as a radio preacher, the mainstream media in the English-speaking countries continued to leave the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming thesis unquestioned. (Though the best of the German commentariat had already got out of the whole business after a key article in Der Spiegel, and the Chinese and the Indians had never got into it, the Anglosphere can still be depressingly provincial in its tendency to think of itself as the whole world.) But journalists who had built their careers on the theory had begun to intercalate their articles about the approaching disaster with other articles about how not enough people were listening to them, and this second category of articles had the merit of being demonstrably true. The assurance was ebbing from the belief, and it became possible to suggest that some of those who had been most noisily assured had never believed at all. Al Gore fell silent, or as close to silent as he ever gets. For my generation he had never been a very persuasive figure. After World War II we were brought up to question the wisdom of buying anything being sold from the back of a truck by a large, loud American called Al. But those less blessed with wisdom, or at any rate less crippled with arthritis, had found Al more plausible on the subject than his slim scientific credentials might normally have permitted. Now, finally, he had ceased to proclaim the crack of doom, and it became necessary to ask whether he had ever believed it. Why had he had so large a carbon footprint, flown so often by jet, bought a house at sea level when ‘sea level rise’ was one of the factors ensuring, according to the United Nations University, that there would be ‘fifty million environmental refugees’ by 2010? The nominated year having been and gone, it was time for the newspapers to notice that the number of environmental refugees was zero.

They didn’t, of course; or if they did they said nothing. But the silence was stentorian. For the media, indeed, the silence was the message. This was equally true for politics. In Australia, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was removed from office by his own party, it soon became fashionable for the reporters to say that his polling figures had sunk because he had gone silent on his own cherished Emissions Trading Scheme, and was therefore being punished by voters of a Green persuasion. But there weren’t that many people of a Green persuasion and it seemed much more likely that he was being punished by potential voters of every stamp, simply because his sudden silence on the subject of ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’ was an indicator that he had never really believed in its existence. Admittedly, for having said that time was running out and then later deciding that there was plenty of time after all, Rudd was unusual in being called to account. Before the make-or-break, do-or-die climate crisis international get-together in Copenhagen, Gordon Brown of Britain had said, with the aid of the Independent newspaper and other megaphones, that there were only fifty days left to save the world. When, after fifty days, it transpired that the day of decision could be put off indefinitely, he was not called upon to explain why he had ever promoted such a load of millenarian flapdoodle. He lost an election, but for other reasons. Nor has Prince Charles yet been punished for having said, in March 2009, that there were only a hundred months left to save the world. It was more time than Brown had allowed, but it was still a measurably short span, and after it expires, people might well say something.

They have said nothing yet. Personally, as someone who feels that Prince Charles will make a good king, I hope that he will get rid of any among his environmental advisers who encourage him in the belief that, should he ever decide to run his Aston-Martin on biofuel, he can do so without damaging the rainforest. But he should start by firing the writers who sent him in front of the television cameras with a speech contending that there were only so many months left to decide against the green planet’s certain death. This contention, which started off sounding inflated and is bound, well before the stated number of months runs out, to end sounding hollow, could have no business except to rouse a rabble: not, normally, the proper concern of a monarch in waiting. The business of the future king is to be a pillar of reason, not a focus for panic. Prince Charles, ever the thoughtful student of the heritage in which he operates, might care to look at the passage in Clarendon where London catches fire and the desperate population, thinking that there must be a malicious cause, pick on all the resident French, Dutch and Catholics. Many members of these target groups were assaulted or locked up even as the flames leapt from street to street. Properly more disturbed by the persecutions than by the fire, the King sent his men to all parts of the city, telling the people that there was no blame to be placed.

In the three years I was broadcasting, there was a similarly widespread belief that anyone who did not think the climate was in crisis must be in the pay of an oil company. Being sceptical about the alarmist version of global warming was not only held to be the product of a general scepticism against science itself, it was thought to be explicable only as the result of a devious initiative by big business. Even quite late into 2010, Judith Curry, the climate scientist who has done the best job of reminding her erstwhile colleagues that they were supposed to be pursuing critical enquiry and not propaganda, held to the notion that any questioning of the theory earlier on — i.e. before she herself finally realized that too many of her fellow researchers had gone into showbusiness — had been made possible only by the surreptitious support of Big Oil. If only: I, for one, could have used the money. BBC radio pays peanuts, which have some oil in them, but not a lot.

During this period it was no fun watching, even from a distance, my first homeland turn itself into a burlesque house. Luckily the rest of the world wasn’t paying attention — which is the real fear of the Australian intelligentsia whatever the subject — but if you were Australian yourself it was embarrassing to log on and be deafened by the clatter of slap-sticks and the yelp of clowns with their loose tights on fire. The joke was intensified by the lingering inability of Australia’s literate classes to realize that they were being led by a character out of Molière. Enunciated with unblinking urgency during the course of three long and shameful years, Kevin Rudd’s brain fever on the subject of the oncoming climatic menace should have been readily detectable from how he always left out the crucial fact that Australia produced somewhere between 1.4 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the world’s emissions. That was the only number anyone needed to know. Knowing that number, you knew that Australia’s part in resolving the putative crisis could only be symbolic.

But symbolism mattered, to the point where it infected the facts. In whatever field — not just climate but in any area of the human story, so long as the focus lay in the future — it was as if no fact could any longer exist without the context of a belief. In Oxford a new academic boondoggle got started which called itself post-normal science, an expansive non-discipline which held, if it held anything, that a projection could be a correct ‘narrative’ whether the ascertainable facts fitted it or not. Post-normality made great play with rubber figures, a device by which any figure cited in favour of your own argument could be infinitely flexible, whereas any figure cited in favour of the opposite argument could be ignored. When cooking up a figure, it was always useful to talk in millions if you could, but for the sake of plausibility it helped to add an increment which made it sound as if a careful audit had been taken. Whether talking about square miles of melting ice or the number of African children per day currently dying because of excessive Western consumption of carbohydrates, one and a quarter million will sound even better than two million, because it will sound a bit less as if you made it up. Swift, the first man to study the mind-set of the Projectors, was also the first to spot the utility of the precise-sounding increment to the purveyor of rubber figures. Thus, in Laputa, the celestial students engaged in plotting the course of the comet whose perihelion could destroy the earth have established that it carries ‘a blazing tail ten hundred thousand and fourteen miles long’.

Ten hundred thousand and fourteen: it not only sounds a lot, it sounds precise. In sounding precise lies the whole art of post-normal science, to whose fruits Oxford is welcome. One says so in the hope that Cambridge keeps itself free of such developments. I myself got part of my education in Cambridge, and I still live there. Though I never fully understood what had gone on in the Cavendish Laboratory, I always had a pretty clear picture of the likelihood that it had had to do with real atoms, and not narratives. But for all I know, post-normal science might be the way ahead. To the layman, it could scarcely be more incomprehensible than string theory, although we should never lose sight of the fact that there is a difference between the difficult and the vacuous. Quantum mechanics, for example, is not a field that most of us can understand, but we had better understand that by now there is a connection between quantum mechanics and almost every machine in the house more complicated than a kettle. Whichever way science goes, however, it would clearly be fatal for journalism if it continued to allow itself the dubious liberties of treating the merely conjectural as beyond objection. It would clearly be fatal because it has nearly been fatal already.

Some of the most famous newspapers in the English-speaking world are convinced that their circulations are threatened by the Web. But their circulations are also threatened by their declining authority, the vestiges of which, in this period, further declined until you could barely see them. In journalism, authority depends on the power of analysis. To parrot a fashion won’t do the trick. There was a day when the best journalists could puncture a fashion early in its career because they were sensitive to bogus language. But from the 1960s onwards, pseudo-science got such a grip that it infected every field. (The climate change craze is an example of pseudo-science finally invading science itself.) The largely nonsensical procedures of literary theory and cultural studies should have been rumbled at the start, simply from the double-talk in which they were expressed. Significantly, they were swallowed whole and faithfully revered, ruining the education of countless innocent students until a couple of academics wrote a spoof. The spoof having become news, the matter was finally up for discussion. It shouldn’t have taken the spoof to do it. Similarly, it shouldn’t have taken the Wikileaks revelations of late 2010 to demonstrate that the figure for war-related deaths in Iraq was more like 175,000 people than the 655,000 (note that precise-sounding extra five thousand) previously promoted by the Lancet and faithfully adhered to in the Western mainstream media for years on end. The first figure was still a lot of people, but the second figure had not only been made up out of ‘models’ (projections), it had been wolfed down by the very people who should have been first to question it: journalists.

The deep story of this period was that journalists had become the last people to question anything. One can only hope that they will return to their traditional role of critical enquiry — i.e. scepticism — while printed newspapers still exist to be written for. I did my time in Fleet Street and I loved my craft, but it could just be that its time is up. Time will tell, and probably sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, in whatever medium, the best way to sound human when writing is to cleave as closely as possible to the spoken voice. When Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed out, the first thing the common people wanted to do was just to look at her. After that, they wanted to hear her. And I was all wrong in my projections about the future career of Susan Boyle. People wanted to hear her too. Against all the odds, Subo flourished, rather like the human race.