Earlier this week, John Gray visited the UnHerd Club. Below is an edited excerpt from his interview with Freddie Sayers.
I’m not a climate sceptic. I’m a disciple in that regard of a great friend who died recently, James Lovelock. He used to say that climate science is inexact, but if it has a bias, it’s probably towards underestimating the speed of climate change. He thought that climate change would consist of sudden jumps and it could transform things quite quickly, in a couple of decades. We might be in the middle of it. That’s my view — I’m not a climate sceptic.
What I am very sceptical about is net zero, and the kind of conventional green policies that are being launched. Firstly, they were launched before the infrastructure was there — before the technology was developed that could make them work. No consideration was given to the fact that many of the raw materials that were needed for the inputs, the batteries and so on, were now substantially or even largely controlled by China in Africa and elsewhere. It’s in Africa that the Great Game of the 19th century is being refought.
Now, they might be found in other countries; in Sweden and America, various deposits have been found. But they are not easily developed. And in the meantime, these programmes can’t go ahead. Nor were the economic costs of these green programmes properly assessed. There was a constant insistence that they would be job-creative. Even in America, they haven’t been that job-creative. And remember, America is very big, and can throw very large amounts of money at these things — the Green New Deal is largely a protectionist scheme. We can’t do that because we’re too small; we’re too exposed to flows of international capital. The idea that in Britain or in Europe these programmes could ever possibly work — it’s a bit like suffering from cancer and using candle therapy.
Some people might say: “But we’ve got to, we’ve got to show that we’re on the right side, we’ve got to accomplish it, even if other people don’t do it.” I think that’s the politics of narcissism: “I want to feel good.” But in the meantime, you’re wasting resources and you’re wasting time. There is a serious possibility that we’re now in the early stages of runaway climate change. We should be focusing everything we’ve got — not on having an infinitesimal impact on global carbon levels, which would be the case even if the whole net-zero programme was implemented, but on policies of adaptation. And adaptation is not going to be easy. Remember, most climate scientists agree that once human-induced climate change is in the works, it goes on for decades or even centuries. You can’t just stop it. There’s a general idea among environmentalists that we started this so we can stop it. They are wrong. We started it, probably, but we can’t stop it.
I’ve said previously we’re living in an age of tragedy. I’m not too sure about that anymore. I think we’ve advanced further than tragedy. We’re entering an age of absurdity. Consider German climate policy. Germany, as we keep hearing, is incomparably more adult, more advanced, more modern, and in every way superior to bungling Britain. But in Germany, the result of their closing down of nuclear and going for renewables has been an increased reliance on the dirtiest kind of coal. Well, this is tragic, but it’s even more than tragic. It is completely absurd.
And it’s difficult to put these arguments forward because people start shouting at you or they start crying or they say they can’t get up in the morning. I rather brutally suggest: “Well don’t. Stay in bed until you get a better reason for getting up. And if you don’t, well, there we are. Progress always has casualties.”
One of the great books of the last century in English was by the American scholar, Philip Rieff, called Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. He quotes a wonderful letter of Freud’s, in which he describes how his aim in therapy was not to enable people to realise themselves or to achieve happiness — his aim was to change hysterical misery into the everyday suffering of normal human life. Today, that’s been somehow forgotten.
Rieff later wrote a book called The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he said that a therapeutic model of behaviour was spreading through every part of society. Rather than using moral terms or even political terms, people started using psychoanalytical terms. “What do you want out of this? I want closure.” Well, the thing about Freud is there’s never any closure. Closure is impossible for Freud. We bear the scars as well as the good things from infancy, whatever we do. I think conventional climate policy is for therapeutic people to feel good. They don’t want to feel powerless, so they deceive themselves.
But with these policies, there is also the question of political legitimacy. And what’s being discovered now is that there are limits to political legitimacy for policies that severely disrupt the practical lives and incomes of large numbers of people in society. So, if you impose a Ulez scheme in an area where there’s practically no public transport, that has a severe impact on people trying to get to work. And there’s also the subjective feeling, which is very important, of being imprisoned in one of these 15-minute cities — of somebody doing something to you which you resist.
In London, there are reports of people going round and smashing or disabling Ulez cameras. What will happen is that these numbers will build and either the policy will eventually be overturned or you’ll have a period of anarchy. I remember when Thatcher, having tried and failed to impose the poll tax in Scotland, introduced it in England. And this happens to all leaders, whether they are liberals or not. They tend to become anti-empirical. They double down instead of learning from their mistakes. For Thatcher, this resulted in riots and her being toppled. And something similar could happen with these green policies — because not only is it a huge blow to the worldview of the technocratic elites who support it, but also to our perception of their competence.
So what’s the solution? In Britain, I have a tiny sliver of hope. I’m hoping for a hung parliament, which might not happen because Labour has been rejuvenated in Scotland. But if it doesn’t get a working majority, there is a realistic chance of electoral reform. The only way you can really have any new ideas filtering into politics is by creating new incentives, which involves the destruction of the existing party framework. And the parties would split immediately. Perhaps two or three parts of Labour will split: you could have a real socialist party (hopefully non-Corbynite); you could have a green party but not not a not a conventional green party; you could have a liberal party; you could have a libertarian party. You could have a variety of parties, and that would be a much healthier situation. I think that’s still possible. There’s a sliver of hope.
The full discussion with John Gray will be available shortly on UnHerd’s YouTube channel. John Gray’s new book, The New Leviathans, is published by Penguin.
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