Wednesday 25 March 2015

Tolstoy's lesson for climate change

1812 Moscow fire during Napoleon invasion
If all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, as they say, I have been wondering whether all politics might be footnotes to Tolstoy.  I've been reading War and Peace - at the age of 56, I thought it was about time - and I've been struck by his perceptive attitudes to human behaviour.

Take this for example, as Napoleon drew near to the gates of Moscow in 1812:

With the enemy's approach to Moscow, the Moscovites' view of their situation did not grow more serious but on the contrary became even more frivolous, as always happens with people who see a great danger approaching. At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second. So it was now with the inhabitants of Moscow. It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year...

Now I've been excited by the stance of the Guardian to disinvestment in fossil fuels, taking on the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust at once, in order to force them to disinvest.  I'm sure they will succeed.

I am equally sure that removing investment from the richest philanthropists in fossil fuels may well be the quickest way to make change happen.

Until now, people have felt that the extraordinary double-think that our leaders have managed - both that it is urgent to tackle climate change and that we must have more airport capacity - is evidence that maybe we none of us need to take the threat seriously.

I know that, in the deep recesses of my heart, I draw some comfort from this myself, and it seems to me that Tolstoy nails the phenomenon.  But I also believe what I'm told by scientists - though we shouldn't accept it all without question - and they say that Napoleon is at the gate.

I find the case espoused by Matt Ridley pretty unconvincing.  Yes, I'm aware that often the disasters don't actually befall.  But that is often because of the warnings, not despite them.  Society acts, we think ahead, we avert disaster.  As Tolstoy reminds us, if climate change was taking place in the most dangerous way, what we would expect is an increasingly frenetic turning away from the problem by those who lead us - a determined concentration on what is irrelevant.  

As we hurtle to disaster, without taking action, we might say - as Tolstoy did of 1812 - that "it was long since people had been as gay in London as that year".

My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that we will act - the climate will change, but disaster will be averted - simply because we invest our money more effectively in new, renewable technologies.  As we do so, we will find the right wing critics of green energy split on this very issue, as they have been in Australia and the USA - because solar technology provides a kind of economic independence which people crave.

For a while, the critics will bluster and the old model will respond by taxing solar panels to pay for nuclear waste - or some similar horror - but, in the end, we will turn the corner.

But not because we always do.  It is because we stop partying at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and start taking action.

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