‘We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians and painters in plenty; but no longer have a citizen among us.’
Increasingly, now, we do have citizens among us: scientists – particularly, climate scientists – who are awakening from their ‘mainstream’ slumber to the reality that they are citizens of a decaying society on a dying planet.
Gone are the lofty dismissals and bemused indifference that traditionally greeted the savant guard – professors Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn and others – who challenged the supposed primacy of academic ‘objectivity’. Zinn said it best in 1997:
‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train… the world is already moving in certain directions – many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.’ (Howard Zinn, ‘The Zinn Reader’, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.17)
Then, Zinn’s words did not have the power to penetrate rationalisations protecting privileged careers from the dread threat of ‘controversy’ provoked by ‘polemicists’. Now, many specialist scientists know exactly what Zinn meant. They have opened their generalist eyes to behold a political landscape far stranger, far more alien and bewildering than anything they had imagined.
To be fair, even veteran activists are asking themselves: ‘In what kind of world have we actually been living all along?’ For when it comes to anything other than maximising profit for corporations and pacifying the public, there appears to be no-one piloting the ship of state. We have criticised ‘the government’ for decades; but has there ever really been a government? It appears to have been some kind of illusion. We have intellectually stormed the castle ramparts only to find the castle empty.
Peter Kalmus is a courageous NASA climate scientist who was among a group of scientists arrested after they chained themselves to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles to protest the bank’s financing of fossil fuels. Dramatic footage showed a tearful Kalmus pleading with the world to listen:
‘We’re going to lose everything. And we’re not joking, we’re not lying, we’re not exaggerating.’
Kalmus said recently:
‘It’s incredible to me how many people aren’t yet terrified by the climate emergency’
The point being, as he has also said:
‘there is no way to escape a heat wave, if it’s bad enough.’
Kalmus tweeted a few days later:
‘I’m amazed by how prevalent climate denial still is. Even at 1.3°C of global heating in 2022, with the world burning and melting all around us. If everyone agreed this was an emergency, we’d halt it in a few years.’
Julia Steinberger, professor in social ecology and ecological economics at the University of Lausanne, shares Kalmus’ frustration and alarm:
‘I can’t stand how fast we are putting ourselves into danger. I can’t stand people casually driving around, in big cars, flying to conferences or on holiday, eating meat. I can’t stand it. We are doing this to ourselves, to each other.’
Hitting The Alarm – The Suprahuman Character Of Authority
The confusion and outrage are understandable. But why is climate denial still so prevalent? Why are so many people behaving as if there is no crisis?
The reason is that we live in a society where the public is trained to respond to loud, shocking alarms punched by politicians in positions of authority backed to the hilt by powerful media.
Be in no doubt that authority is a very big deal indeed for modern men and women – we are relentlessly trained to defer to people in power. Psychologist Stanley Milgram commented:
‘Authority tends to be seen as something larger than the individual. The individual often views authority as an impersonal force, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire. Those in authority acquire, for some, a suprahuman character.’ (Stanley Milgram, ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’, Harper Perennial, 2004, p.162)
When ‘suprahuman’ people with authority hit alarm buttons, which ring loud and clear across the society and globe – across every newspaper, every website and TV channel – the public listens and reacts.
On Twitter, writer and climate activist, Dave Rhody, supplied the usual, wistful, climate red herring:
‘galvanizing fear into action is a tall order for most people. Looking away is the most common reaction, unfortunately’.
This just isn’t true. State-corporate interests generate and galvanise public fear into action with great efficiency when they want to. We need only think of World Wars I and II when millions of people were mobilised to kill and be killed to defend ‘democracy’, the ‘Fatherland’, the ‘Motherland’. After 1945, public fear and outrage were similarly brought to fever pitch by ‘red scares’ insisting that ‘The Russians are coming!’ As Zinn noted, the alarm was also rung to devastating effect in 1990 at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait:
‘The American population was bombarded the way the Iraqi population was bombarded. It was a war against us, a war of lies and disinformation and omission of history.’ (Howard Zinn, ‘Power, History and Warfare’, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No. 8, 1991, p.12)
The same was true at the time of Nato’s assault on Serbia in 1999, also in 2003 when Iraq was invaded and conquered, in 2011 when the Libyan government was overthrown, and when the same attempt was made in Syria.
What does it look like when mass media punch the alarm? On 27 May 2012, in response to the massacre of 108 people, including 49 children in Houla, Syria, the Independent on Sunday’s stark front cover demanded outrage and action. The banner headline read:
THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY.
The text beneath:
‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire,
‘which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores.
‘And the international community? It just averts its gaze.
‘Will you do the same?
‘Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’ (Independent on Sunday, 27 May 2012)
This is why there is no sense of climate crisis, of emergency. It has nothing to do with human indifference; it has to do with people with authority and power – interests fanatically committed to expanding profits – NOT producing banner, front-page headlines of this kind:
‘CLIMATE COLLAPSE: THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY. WILL YOU? OR WILL YOU BECOME VERY, VERY ANGRY?’
‘FOSSIL FUEL INTERESTS ARE KILLING US FOR SHORT-TERM PROFIT: THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY. WILL YOU? OR WILL YOU BECOME VERY, VERY ANGRY?’
Far from alarming us, front page headlines are still literally celebrating indications of looming climate collapse. On January 2, the Sunday Telegraph front page featured a smiling, costumed performer at London’s New Year’s Day parade, under the headline:
‘Warmest New Year’s Day on record’
The text beneath the happy picture read:
‘Performers at London’s New Year’s Day parade enjoyed the warmest first day of the year on record… The reading trounces the previous temperature record of 15.6C (60F) which was set in Bude, Cornwall, way back in 1936. The average temperature at the beginning of January is around 7C.’
A recent, high-profile Daily Mail headline read:
‘Enjoy it while it lasts! Fryday sun-lovers bask in 33C heat on the third hottest day of 2022 in a row with tomorrow set for 27C…’
That’s 33 degrees, in Britain, in mid-June! The article opined:
‘Britons basked in the hottest day of the year for the third day in a row today with the mercury hitting 32C (90F) as sunseekers packed beaches and parks ahead of Atlantic storm warnings over the weekend.
‘Up to 50,000 beachgoers hit the seafront at Bournemouth which turned into a sea of umbrellas and deckchairs…
‘People in the capital were pictured eating ice creams as early as 10am…’
The Mail added:
‘There are also hopes of a glorious Saturday for many parts of the UK.’
We tweeted a screenshot from the BBC website of two young children happily playing with spades on a beach over the words:
‘Hottest day of year in UK with temperatures to rise…. People flock to enjoy the weather outdoors.’
Over this picture, we emphasised that this is ‘Why there is no sense of crisis.’
Volcanologist, climate scientist and broadcaster Bill McGuire commented on our tweet:
‘When your children look back from later this century and wish they could have nice cool weather like this, they will also ask why you did not act to stop climate collapse.’
The front page of the Daily Star showed a smiling young woman in sunglasses eating an ice cream over jovial, tabloid wordplay:
Even when the impacts of climate change are not being celebrated, they are still being questioned. A BBC article asked:
‘Are soaring temperatures linked to climate change?’
How, in 2022, with everything we know, can this even be a question? By contrast, during ‘red scares’ and ‘the war on terror’, often bogus ‘threats’ were shrieked out as undisputed and utterly terrifying. Any expressions of doubt were reviled as genocide-denying treachery.
When 2050 Happens In 2022
This surreal combination of celebration and denial is being produced in the context of devastating weather extremes that are only going to get much, much worse. On 15 June, the Guardian reported:
‘More than 100 million Americans have been advised to stay indoors amid record-breaking heat, with experts warning that such temperatures could become the norm amid the climate crisis.
‘By Wednesday as many as 107.5 million people, more than a third of the US population, had been warned to stay inside, as a potentially lethal combination of extreme heat and humidity settled over much of the country.’
Meteorologist Matt Beitscher told CNN:
‘This is a day where not only folks who are susceptible to heat-related illnesses, but really just about anybody that’s going to be outside for an extended period of time is at risk for heat-related illnesses.’
More than 20 US states were experiencing dangerously hot temperatures impacting nearly 100 million Americans as grim footage was shared of thousands of cattle killed by dangerous temperatures, raising the much-feared spectre of global food shortages as temperatures continue to rise.
The BBC reported:
‘Outdoor public events have been banned in an area of France as a record breaking heatwave sweeps across Europe…
‘On Thursday, parts of France hit 40C earlier in the year than ever before, with temperatures expected to peak on Saturday.
‘Scientists say periods of intense heat are becoming more frequent and longer lasting as a result of global warming.
Spain, Italy and the UK are also experiencing high temperatures.’
Indeed, the Guardian reported nesting Spanish swifts were cooking to death in extreme heat in Spanish cities like Seville and Cordoba, and noodle prices were soaring in China due to crop damage by extreme floods. Was the Guardian ringing the climate alarm here? Incredibly, no. As Donnachadh McCarthy, climate columnist at the Independent, commented:
‘ZERO mention of climate crisis in either story.’
It is reported that the current drought in Italy threatens more than 30% of national agricultural production. In Sydney, 50,000 people have been urged to evacuate their homes as floods hit Australia’s largest city for the third time this year. One resident who moved to his home in Sydney last year was told major flood events were supposed to be ‘one in 25 years, one in 50 years or whatever it was’. ‘Now it has been three in 2022,’ he said.
Climate scientists are warning that ‘every heatwave occurring today is more intense due to climate change.’ Heatwaves linked to climate change reportedly killed 157,000 people worldwide between 2000 and 2020, with four-fifths of those deaths during the 2003 European heatwave and 2010 Russia heatwave. But this figure:
‘is almost certainly an underestimate due to many parts of the world having no monitoring of heatwaves and often no definition of one.’
A deeply disturbing observation on Twitter brought the dire state of the emergency home:
‘In 2014, this French weather presenter announced the forecast for August 18, 2050 as part of a campaign to alert to the reality of climate change. Now her forecast that day is the actual forecast for the coming 4 or 5 days, in mid-June 2022.’
The forecast showed temperatures in 2050 reaching the higher thirties, 40 and even 43. The forecast for Saturday, June 18, 2022 closely matched the fictional forecast 28 years and two months early. In fact, at 41, Bordeaux 2022 was one degree higher than the predicted temperature for 2050.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, has been scathing in his denunciations of the fossil fuel industry and their political backers. Addressing a climate conference organised by the White House, he warned:
‘We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has invested heavily in pseudoscience and public relations – with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.’
‘They exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before. Like tobacco interests, fossil fuel interests and their financial accomplices must not escape responsibility.’
‘Nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion. Even in the short-term, fossil fuels don’t make political or economic sense.’
Conclusion – The Art Of Waking Up
Late in the day, scientists are now indeed becoming citizens among us. Kalmus tweeted recently:
‘If you think about it, every problem in society, including Earth breakdown, comes down to the ultra rich controlling everything and making self-dealing decisions.’
Scientists like Kalmus are now pleading with the corporate media to drop the denialism and phony ‘balance’, and hit the alarm button with full force:
‘The single biggest media failure of all time is how the media still isn’t treating global heating as an emergency.’
‘Climate journalists, the climate emergency just isn’t a normal thing to report. There need to be new rules/norms/practices when our entire planet is at stake. It’s a singular story.’
‘You’re not just reporting a story, in other words. You are literally a key group in the fight to save Earth and humanity’s future. I’m not sure exactly what this means for journalistic norms and practices… but I hope you’re discussing this intensely.’
But how can messages calling on the corporate media to behave like something other than a corporate propaganda system maximising profits reach journalists and the public when that propaganda system is preventing the messages from being seen and heard? Born in 1928, Noam Chomsky commented recently on the war in Ukraine:
‘By now, censorship in the United States has reached such a level beyond anything in my lifetime. Such a level that you are not permitted to read the Russian position. Literally. Americans are not allowed to know what the Russians are saying… I have never seen a level of censorship like this.’
How to escape state-corporate control of the means of mass communication?
It is a problem no-one has yet managed to solve. But a powerful step in the right direction must be for scientists to radicalise and mobilise – to look deeply and understand the true nature of corporate politics and corporate media – and to act together to demand public insurrection, rebellion and revolutionary change.