It is remarkable how little debate there has been about two of the themes that dominate British cultural and political life: sustainability and recycling, and climate change. Historically there are few, if any, examples of important ideas gaining widespread support without real debate -- and often political violence. Political movements from the abolition of the Corn Laws to the combination of labour, anti-imperialism to equal rights, all experienced great hostility and were the subject of much debate -- hard as that may be to believe decades or centuries after these debates and conflicts were resolved.
Debates around sustainability and recycling, and climate change, were almost non-existent. Although the proponents of these world views affect to be valiant underdogs, they have won the argument (such as it was) and the underdog image they cultivate is more of a mask for their lack of a strategy for society.
While the political, media and academic classes has been been almost wholly uncritical of the philosophy and politics of these movements, a few recent exceptions are worthy of note.
In an aural essay on A Point of View (BBC Radio 4, 2 February 2007), Clive James took over from the often wise Brian Walden to reflect on peer group pressure to conform to climate change attitudes. He took on the self-regarding and morally superior aspects of sustainability when he noted that:
"Bio-degradble packaging in general is clearly a welcome and necessary step, well worth paying for if you've got the money. The fact that only a very small proportion of the total human race has got the money we can leave aside for now, because this is really about us, the people who can afford to do the right thing... A world nearer to a bone strewn cave is one to which some in the green movement would like us to return. I can say at this point that the eco-wiseacre who has just been elected Ausralian of the Year forsees an ideal population of Australia of less than a third of the population it has now, but he doesn't say whether he includes himself and his family among the total of those to be subtracted."
His key points, however, addressed what makes us human, and how humans relate to nature:
"There are good reasons for clearing up the mess we make, but finally it is what we make that makes us an advanced culture, and only a highly developed industry knows how to keep itself clean... We aren't civilised by the extent to which we return to nature, only by the extent that we overcome it. [My italics.]"
Start the Week (BBC Radio 4, 5 February 2007) featured a number of discussions about the environment. Michael Portillo, who now seems like a political giant compared to the current population of the House of Commons, noted the illogical conflation of science, politics and religion (22m):
"Environmentalism has already come dangerously close to being a religion, without being pushed any further.. the idea of declaring flying a sin absolutely appalls me.... The idea of restraining demand is one way of addressing the problem. Another of course is to go for nuclear power, which doesn't emit. So... if you just substitute the words 'It is a sin not to campaign for nuclear power' I think you begin to reveal the essence of this, which is that it is not a religious problem, it is a political question. The extent to which people should be restrained from doing what they wish to do, the extent to which we should provide subsidies for new technologies, these are not religious questions, these are political issues."
Roman Catholic Mark Dowd, maker of the documentary 'God is Green' responded with some very anti-democratic remarks -- that went unremarked upon. Key excerpts are bookmarked on Ma.gnolia.
In the US the comedians Penn and Teller have been doing what comedians are supposed to do but in the UK, almost without exception, fail to do: question received wisdom and force people to reflect on their irrationality and hypocrisy. In their 30 minute show 'Penn and Teller: Bullshit! Recycling' they quote the New York Times contention that:
"Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America. A waste of time and money. A waste of human and natural resources."
They also note that Government subsidy hides the cost of recycling; the energy involved in recycling tends to be much greater than that used in dumping rubbish; and they send up the idea of 'virgin forests'. Professor Daniel Benjamin of Clemson University is brought in to comment that:
"Most of the virgin pulp that goes into paper is grown on tree farms, and those tree farms wouldn't exist unless we used that virgin pulp to make paper... Recycling does not save trees."
They also address the lack of near-term limits to landfill and the idea of enforced recycling. Benjamin claims that the trend is to tell people:
"'You need to do this instead of throwing your trash out, you need to pray to the Garbage Gods, and spend your time sorting through egg shells and coffee grounds, instead of doing more productive things with your life [my italics]'."
|Penn and Teller critique the cultural and moral obsession with recycling|