This is a (light) expansion of this Twitter thread, about an article on the Guardian website by one of their environment reporters, Fiona Harvey. Ms Harvey is anticipating (plausibly – tomorrow we shall see if she is right) that the latest Working Group 3 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will sink without trace in the media.
What troubles me is that there is no historical awareness of this pattern. That’s understandable (if still irritating) in a news report – journalists have limited time, limited word count. What is more irritating, though still understandable – I guess – is the historical amnesia/ignorance of the climate “movement” (take the scare quotes as given if I use the word movement again in this rant).
So, will tackle the following
- The existence of a “Groundhog Day” component to this
- The reasons behind it – topic-based, individual, media structure, social movement structure
- What are social movements for?
- What “we” do about it (warning, this bit is not uplifty, hopey-changey or written with any expectation of success. Tone-police me and I will block you/ignore you).
The latest “window” of attention to climate opened fully in late 2018, with the release of another IPCC report – the one about 1.5 degrees (the IPCC had been asked to do it at Paris, in 2015, as part of the deal to get poor nations to sign). I for one was staggered that it gained such traction – it was not really saying anything many other similar reports had not. It came down, I guess, not to anything in the report itself, but situational factors – timing is everything.
I could go on and on. Suffice to say I used to play what I called “the 1990 game” – in that an article from 1990 could be repeated in any year since then with the names of individuals changed and nobody would notice. The article goes like this –
“A new report by [insert name of scientists/group] warns that climate change will unfold/is unfolding faster than previous estimates, and that urgent action is required.
The [Science/Climate/Industry] Minister welcomed the report and said the government was already taking appropriate steps on the matter, but nonetheless would study its findings carefully.
The shadow minister [insert name] accused the Government of complacency. “The [Greenhouse Effect/Global Warming/Climate Change] represents an enormous threat to our [nation/economy/civilisation], and the Government is not doing nearly enough to combat it, and indeed to take advantage of the opportunities that would be available for [the poor/business/whoever] in terms of energy efficiency/economic development.”
A spokesperson for [Friends of the Earth/Greenpeace/Save The Polar Bears And Also The Humans] said “neither the Government nor the opposition is taking the issue seriously enough. As our recent report demonstrates, we need a crash programme of [electrification/energy efficiency/innovation].
A business representative cautiously welcomed the report, and pointed to a recent pledge by a trade association to [hold a conference/engage in greenwashing/set up a working group/do some minor voluntary work to fend off legislation]. “The risk is that intemperate action by the Government will harm the economy, without which we cannot have a nice planet.”
The scientist(s) said “As our report shows….”
Every year, basically, for the last 32 years. And for the next however long, until The End.
Why is it so?
To quote myself “The boom and bust cycle of attention/pressure/activity is not JUST the fault of Murdoch, the denialists, the CIA, Mark Zuckerberg, Big Oil, the Lizard People, Big Green or any combo thereof”
A few obvious pointers –
- we don’t like looking at, talking about failure, in general. We are not taught to do it in school (or even, we are taught not to do it in school). It makes us feel like losers (unless we are rubbernecking the pratfalls of people we don’t like, in which case, schadenfreude)
- we ESPECIALLY don’t like looking at/talking about failure by people “like us” and on issues that we care about, that “matter”
- we even more especially don’t like looking at/talking about failure by social movements that we WERE part of, or should have been part of (but were too ignorant/idle/busy/whatever to be involved in).
So we don’t. We either
- ignore it (memory holes are a thing) or
- blame the Lizard People etc.
And the likelihood that we will learn anything shrinks faster than the Arctic ice cap. So it goes.
And then, even if you accept not just that “mistakes were made” but actually “we made mistakes” you then have to believe that you can do better next time, and also cope with/manage/change all the people who don’t like that you’re talking about “their” failures (no matter how much praise sandwich you put it all in), and who are getting social gains from the status quo (blah blah “sick role”).
Every step on the way acts as a filter, until you’re left with very very few people who “get” it and are able to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, the engine of distraction is humming away. Adrian Chiles had a nice short piece on this, also in the Grauniad – When the same awful thing happens often enough, it ceases to be newsworthy – and that is a big problem.
The beast needs novelty. We KNOW about the “issue attention cycle”, about the fickleness of mass media. We have known for decades. But still we act surprised when it unfolds…
In terms of social movements falling prey to this. Yeah, look, I am sick of typing the words smugosphere and emotacycle. The tl:dr is that we keep thinking in terms of magical “wake up” moments, or magical resolutions of a declaration, or a citizens assembly or whatever the latest magical sociofix is.
What are social movements “for”?
There was a time when social movements were seen as more than just lobbying/pressuring the government or the Evil Corporations, but were about cognitive liberation (a fancy way of saying “helping people see through the lies and mystifications.”)
There was a time. All gone now, I think, at least in my necks of the woods.
And in the absence of functioning social movement organisations and social movements, why do we expect people to keep paying attention to painful painful things that they (feel they) can do nothing about? Why on earth would they look into the abyss, since it is gonna look right back into them?
In the absence of functioning social movement organisations, why do we expected atomised anomic confused depressed overworked lonely people to be functioning citizens? Why?
What is to be done?
Yeah, look, idk, or rather, I do know, but I simply don’t believe it CAN be done. Possibly at all, ever, but certainly not at the speed and scale needed.
We don’t have it in us. We’d need to escape the smugosphere, eschew the emotacycle and do all the out-of-comfort-zone things that we haven’t done over the last 50 years. But why would we do that? Psychologically speaking? Sociologically speaking? Who are the agents of change? Who are these mythical beings who can forego the pleasures of the smugosphere, the siren-call of ego-foddering etc etc.
These beautiful ones have not been born.
There is, as Walt Benjamin said, all those years ago, a storm comin’…