Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Climate change, hot air and God

I rather enjoyed President Obama's inaugural speech yesterday - a masterpiece of liberal rhetoric designed to tickle the political G-spots of American bourgeois lefties from start to finish. I can confidently predict that it will all be downhill from here, of course. Yes, Barack wants to be nice to women, gays, ethnic minorities etc – and I'm all in favour. But being a proper lefty, I was listening out for what we Marxists call the 'structure'. Culture wars are part of the 'superstructure': the social characteristics that stem from a society's economic structure. Did we hear anything about replacing the failed capitalist system? Absolutely not. The point of all this identity politics stuff is that however welcome it is, it distracts from economic inequality and destruction, and it doesn't challenge capitalism iin the slightest. You only have to look at the Stonewall guide to 'good' employers, or take a walk down Canal Street to realise that capitalism loves liberation: whole new markets are opened up, appropriated, co-opted and tamed.

We also didn't hear anything about the United States's ongoing and illegal war against Afghan wedding parties, Pakistani teenagers and anyone else hit by a drone strike authorised personally by the President and executed by some gum-chewing schmuck operating a PS3 controller in Rat's Ass, Arizona. In case you missed it, the US has decided that any male of combat age in a strike zone can be assumed to be an enemy combatant – which means that you don't have to declare any civilian casualties whenever you drop a drone. If your village is a 'strike zone' (don't expect a postcard letting you know), then you're automatically a militant.  Which strikes me as utterly immoral as well as illegal. But then the US is bombing Pakistan, with which it isn't at war, so we shouldn't expect too much.

Supposed liberal Presidents (and Prime Ministers) like nothing more than to drop high explosives on distant brown people. It reassures wavering voters that they're Tough: Tough on Terror, Tough on National Defence, Tough on Complicated Arguments About Why We Might Want To Think Twice Before Bombing Another Poor Country. They want to belong, surrounded as they are by chaps in uniform and other persuasive chaps from Acronymic Agencies (MI5, CIA etc) who promise them induction into their Hermeneutic Secrets. You're nobody until (as the UK PM has to do on his/her first day) you've sat down and written out fresh instructions to nuclear submarine commanders.

But the bit that caught my attention was Obama's reference to climate change. Obviously he's contradicting a large section of his electorate and an even larger section of the political class by stating that climate change exists. Good for him. But the way he framed it was really interesting. He said this:
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," "That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared," Obama said.
Interesting. It hints at a US equivalent of the Big Society, except with meaning because so many Americans are practising religious types that it's conceivable that an appeal to them on religious grounds - making an 'end run' around the vested interests of politicians and lobbyists - might work. Certainly here in the UK the mainstream churches accept climate science as accurate and at least don't oppose mitigation action. There are even some modest attempts to promote ecological health on C of E land, like the Caring for God's Acre network.

But I'm not convinced that Obama's call for faith-based environmentalism works. The religious debate about how to see the environment is split between those who think God gave the care of the planet into our hands ('wise stewardship'), and those who say he gave the use of it to us. 'Go forth and multiply', he allegedly said: not a warning against over-enthusiastic multiplying and the consequent draining of resources.

There are plenty of Godly types who see the bit about 'dominion' over the earth and endorsement of whatever foul things we do to the planet. You only have to look at Robinson Crusoe, a seminal book in the development of Protestant Capitalism to see how rape and pillage becomes a religious duty. In it, Robinson is marooned on a desert island (the earth) and carefully records in his diary (Protestants were encouraged to examine their spiritual development in diaries) what he's got and what he does with it. Everything on the island is at his disposal – including Man Friday who lacking the grace of Christianity, is fair game, just another resource. The theory is that if you don't use what's lying around – oil, mercury, coltan, blood diamonds – you're wasting the resources God put there for your use. If you get stressy about the damage done by use or overuse of these resources, you Lack Faith. God won't let us all perish: he'll turn up to save us from ourselves. Again. (This only works if you believe in the New Testament nice God: Old Testament Angry God seemed to quite enjoy a bit of nationwide Smiting).

And if that's not dumb enough, there are the Christians who accept that climate change is destroying the world, and think it's a sin to interfere. You'll find quite a lot of them in the United States's odder denominations. Rapture-ready churches aren't exactly new, there were plenty around in Medieval Europe and later, but they're only a major force in the US. They hold that the End Times are imminent. Destructive climate change is one of the ways in which this world will end, they say. It's God's plan. If you reduce CO2, or plant trees, or drive a Prius, you are Working For Satan by opposing God's plan (apparently Star Trek IV is particularly guilty for promoting 'environmental Pantheism').

Will Obama's sneaky attempt to get the god-botherers onside work? That depends on the strength and effort the God's Acre Christians put in, the opposition of the Rapturists and of course political will. My guess is that it won't. When the Americans stop thinking that the answer to climate change is to turn up the air conditioning, then something will happen. And that means basically never.

1 comment:

Artog said...

I've seen mention before (I forget where) of Robinson Crusoe's exploitation of Friday and as far as I can remember it doesn't tally with my reading of the book. By the time he rescues Friday all the hard work on the island has been done and his value to Crusoe is in his company, that of another human being after so many years of isolation.

It's true that Crusoe takes it upon himself to tutor Friday in the ways of the Lord, but this is handled quite humorously, with Friday innocently asking questions that Crusoe struggles to answer (why doesn't Jesus just kill Satan? is the one that springs to mind).

One of the things that most endears Robinson Crusoe to me is how often he's overcome by despair in the face of his plight, I don't really see how he can be portrayed as some paragon of capitalism. His fortune in the end is the result of a chance investment made many years before and which has been tended in his long absence by near strangers who, luckily, turn out to be men of good faith and hand over to Crusoe his fair share.

Minor points overall perhaps, but I'm very fond of that story.