New World Same Humans #6
Climate change, culture wars, and politics inside the Anthropocene.
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter by TrendWatching’s Global Head of Trends and Insights, David Mattin.
After last week’s excursion, a more typical instalment of New World Same Humans this week.
We’ve just published a report on the search for a more ethical and sustainable consumerism. And I went to the launch of a wide-ranging global survey on attitudes and values.
It all got me thinking about climate change, culture wars, and politics inside the Anthropocene.
The next culture war is a climate culture war
The UK has just been hit by its third named storm in less than a month. Storm Jorge brought winds of 70mph, and flooding to parts of Wales and northern England that are already under water thanks to extreme rainfall associated with Storm Dennis, which hit mid-February, and storm Ciara, which struck earlier in the month. Some communities in Wales have seen the worst flooding in a generation, with six dead and hundreds forced to abandon their homes.
On the whole, and certainly as a collective, human beings are fairly averse to abstraction. They care about things they can see, and ideas that correspond readily to some aspect of their observable world. It’s always been obvious that part of the challenge posed by climate change is that so far – for most people – it has been intangible. Graphs of rising CO2 levels move only a tiny minority to change their lives.
But in the first months of 2020, it feels as though the UK is starting on a new moment of tangible global heating. British scientists say events like storm Jorge are going to become more frequent. And it’s not just the UK that’s colliding with the reality of all this. See Australia’s series of massive wildfires this January, for example.
This week I went to the launch of the Ipsos Global Trends 2020 report. Every three years the research firm conducts a vast survey that sees them interrogate the changing values and attitudes of 22,000 people across 33 countries. Their most arresting finding this time around? Climate emergency is now the most strongly-held common value among people across the globe. A full 80% of people around the world believe ‘we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly.’ The largest rise in those expecting disaster has occurred in the UK, up from 59% in 2013 to 78% now.
These are momentous findings. Hear them and one thought comes to mind: it’s happening. Climate change – once a matter of headlines and scientific papers – is finally becoming what we knew it must: an era-defining political and practical question for billions around the world. It’s a conclusion that also fuels our new Future of Purpose report, on the search for a more ethical and sustainable consumerism. After all, when you see an airline running a campaign that asks consumers to fly less, then – however self-serving the motives – you know something is afoot.
But the Ipsos data adds an additional and fascinating dimension to all this. Ipsos bundles the set of values they’ve identified on this issue under the heading Climate Antagonism. Yes, rising numbers of people say they’re concerned about the planet. But rising numbers can also be found saying they are ‘tired of the fuss that’s being made about the environment’ – a statement that 37% of respondents agreed to.
More people who fear climate disaster and more people who are ‘tired of the fuss’. And some of them are the same people. No one said humans had to be consistent.
Break the data down further, and one dividing line becomes clear: age. A full 39% of 16 to 24-year-olds agree ‘even the scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about on environmental issues’. If you think that’s disappointingly high, compare it to the 53% of 60 to 74-year-olds who agree.
Meanwhile, the Ipsos data also gives us a window on how values and attitudes on a range of subjects tend to cluster together. Map all this out and you see where ‘tired of environmentalism’ lies. It’s not, as you might expect, closest to the values we associate most with post-2008 populism: values such as ‘fear of the future’, ‘left behind’ and ‘nostalgia’. Rather, it’s clustered with a set of more conventional conservative political and lifestyle values such as ‘traditional nationalism’, ‘traditional gender roles’ and ‘real-world shopping’.
So what does all this mean? I have two thoughts. The first is about a coming culture war.
At the event, Ipsos MORI CEO Ben Page talked about how this survey helps reveal the existence of an often-overlooked group when it comes to climate change. Not the loud agitators for change nor the loud deniers, but a significant minority who just don’t want to think about it much, and quietly wish it would go away.
The trouble is, it’s not going away. Credible opinion can vary on where we’re likely to end up, but there are good reasons to think it’s already unlikely we’ll limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Two degrees of warming means some coastal cities would eventually be lost underwater, some small island nations would become uninhabitable, and must else besides. It’s unavoidable that the story of the 21st-century will be one of human adaptation to a new, warmer world. That means a painful process of social adjustment comparable to the one that accompanied industrialisation in the west in the 19th and early 20th-centuries.
In the Ipsos trends data, we see the battle lines emerging for the socio-political conflict that lies ahead. On one side you have those who are convinced we must act, and who are also more likely to believe in greater wealth distribution, and the need to regulate Big Tech. They tend to be young. On the other you have a contingent, mainly older people, who are wearied by the environmental movement, believe in personal achievement and material advancement, and don’t want to sacrifice their weekly trip to Westfield.
It’s shaping up to be a culture war of a kind that will make Brexit or Trump seem a gentle opening act. The mass protest movements arising now, including Extinction Rebellion and Global Strike for Climate, are surely only a glimpse of what is to come. And in recent months we’ve seen the other side start to gather themselves for a new push into the culture. See Naomi Seibt, the 19-year-old ‘anti-Greta’ who says ‘climate change science really is not science at all.’ Meanwhile, last month a columnist in the UK’s right-leaning Daily Telegraph called for a referendum on the UK’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. Sure that’s a fringe, even oddball, idea; then again, they used to say that about the movement for a referendum on EU membership.
Second, a thought about traditional political categories and their redundancy in the 21st-century.
Ipsos plot the values they’ve measured on a line that runs from ‘Conserve’ at one end to ‘Change’ at the other. ‘Tired of environmentalism’ sits, as discussed, alongside other ‘conservative’ values such as ‘traditional nationalism’.
That’s what we’d expect. But see these values mapped out on a single page in this way, and you’re struck by the way climate change explodes the fundamental division that has structured political thinking inside modernity. That is, the division between conservative and progressive, or tradition and change.
The idea that we shouldn’t act on climate change is typically called conservative. Sure enough, it’s most often found among those who hold other conservative values. And sure enough, taking action to prevent serious global heating means making radical changes to our collective lives, which is something conservatism, by definition, is meant to oppose.
But all this fails to take account of the fact that we’re in a different world from the Enlightenment-era context in which these political categories – conservative vs progressive – arose. In 2020, we’re neck deep in a global economic and social system continually wreaking massive change on the world around us, and to not act, to do nothing, is to allow that process of change to continue.
Specifically, not to act on climate change means to allow a process of human-made warming to usher us into a set of environmental, social and economic circumstances that are vastly different to those we inhabit today. If you want to enact massive damage to the historical inheritance conservatives are supposed to love – traditional nations, familiar social and family structures, secure property rights, not to mention the natural environment humans have inhabited for the thousands of years – then there’s probably no faster route right now than to stand by and let 4+ degrees of warming do its work. By contrast, it’s by taking radical action on climate change that we’re most likely to conserve that historical inheritance and maintain a collective life that bears close resemblance to the one we enjoy today.
To take radical action is to conserve; to maintain the status quo means massive and destructive change. Our old political poles, conservative vs progressive, no longer make sense.
This isn’t a new idea; the English political philosopher John Gray wrote about it back in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, we see something of the disintegration of old categories in the turbulence of the last few years: Trump, Brexit, the gilet jaunes, and more. But it’s increasingly apparent that climate change is the issue that finally breaks the dichotomy that has structured modern political thinking. If we’re going make political sense of the Anthropocene we’re going to need new categories, a new language, and new ways of thinking about our collective lives.
In Post-Liberalism, John Gray suggests a new conservatism as one way forward. One that accepts its defeat when it comes to the traditional forms of life it was established to defend, and instead seeks to conserve the historical liberal (i.e. progressive) inheritance of democracy, human rights and pluralism. Add to this a necessarily related determination to conserve the planet, and perhaps you have the makings of a 21st-century ideology, and a new coalition of citizens.
Guilty feet have got no rhythm
That was intense.
So here is a video that makes it look as though an otter is using a phone to play the saxophone solo from Careless Whisper.
Ten million merits
That’s enough from me. Let’s hope our politicians spend this week, and many weeks after, pondering on how to build a new coalition to deal with climate change.
Democracy doesn’t make any of this easy. Some of the changes needed won’t be popular. We’ll need leadership capable of viewing politics as more than just a means for turning Likes into power. As the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke noted:
When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.
Go in peace, and be the legislator of your own destiny this week,
P.S: in a recent global survey, 100% of respondents agreed that Nikki Ritmeijer deserves massive kudos for the illustrations in this email.