By Nick Lyth.
This is the question I am asked more often than any other…
It should not surprise me – it doesn’t surprise me. My job is to encourage people to join Green Angel Syndicate in the fight against climate change. In order to do that, I need to know as much as possible about climate change. I read extensively on the subject, covering dystopian and sometimes bleak accounts of the various aspects of climate change and how it affects us. Books as various as Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn, and Collapse by Jared Diamond (actually these two books are quite closely connected), both of which deal with the extreme consequences of human mismanagement of our habitat. I keep up a daily scrutiny of news and reports published online describing the problem.
Apocalyptic news analysis
This is material of the most challenging kind. The literature I am studying is entirely concerned with what is going wrong. It differs only in shade. Some are more disturbing, more pessimistic; some are less disturbing, less pessimistic. But none of it is cheerful, or optimistic, or suggests that we are all worrying needlessly and can ignore climate change. This morning was characteristic. One of the first emails I opened was a weekly bulletin from Medium, called Collapse Catch-up. The title should warn you what to expect. But this week’s went out of its way to be especially scary. Introduced as “a weekly newsletter that catches you up on the latest signs that we are living through the collapse of global industrial civilization,” this week’s bulletin followed up with: “This week we have news about brutal heatwaves in Asia and Europe, record high CO2 levels, the rapid spread of bird flu, an imminent recession, civil war in Sudan, tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, and much more.”
Cheery? I don’t think so.
But I am not immersing myself in this spectrum of apocalyptic analysis and commentary for my own benefit, I am making myself fluent in the subject in order to talk to others about it. I want to create a sense of urgency, a recognition of the importance of the mission, in order to encourage people to help us do something about it. So I end up talking on a daily basis to people in and out of the investment business for which I work; I talk on podcasts, panels and webinars; I talk at meetings internally with our own staff and externally with other companies; and I talk at conferences and events, when sometimes I am even put on the podium as the keynote speaker.
Some are more disturbing, more pessimistic; some are less disturbing, less pessimistic. But none of it is cheerful, or optimistic, or suggests that we are all worrying needlessly and can ignore climate change.
Disaster is inevitable: why fear it?
Is it then any surprise that, when the subject of my conversations and speeches is itself so frightening, that I am asked whether I myself am frightened? Of course it’s not. Nor is it any surprise that my answer is always designed to encourage my audience to find reassurance in the work of Green Angel Syndicate, and other people who are specialising in the development of innovations that will help us to defeat climate change. That’s my job.
But then I talk to people outside work, friends and acquaintances. And they ask the same question, when explanations and encouragements concerning my work are inappropriate. The sub-text to their question is always just that. “Forgetting about your work, Nick, really, are you frightened about climate change?” And the unspoken part of the question: “…or are you just pretending?” (What other kinds of people get this question, I wonder? Do politicians get asked: “no, but Rishi, are you really a Conservative?” Or priests: “you’re not saying that you actually believe in God, are you Justin?” Do they all get it, or is this question something to do with Climate Change?)
My answer is always the same, whether I am asked in a working forum or a private context.
I am most certainly not frightened of it. This has nothing to do with my belief or otherwise that climate change is happening – it is. Nor has it anything to do with the scale I perceive, or my ability to avoid its worst effects – I expect both to be severe. It has everything to do with the inevitability of disaster. Disaster, like death, is inevitable. Why fear it?
The history of disaster
We are calibrated for disaster. We can look at any period in history and either we find that disaster is happening to its inhabitants; or they are in a lull between disasters and the next one is not far round the corner. Disaster is inevitable. The most extreme example of this is the first half of the 20th century. 1900-1913, disaster looming. 1914-1918, disaster happening. 1919, after a short pause, even more disaster (Spanish Flu). 1920-1929 disaster looming. 1930-31 disaster strikes again (the Great Depression). 1932-1938 disaster looming. 1939-1945 disaster happening.
And so on. History teaches us much about ourselves. One of its lessons, which is not taught, is that we stumble from disaster to disaster, sometimes with longer interruptions, sometimes with shorter interruptions, but the human state on Earth is characterised by approaching or existing disaster. But because we are not taught about this, there is another strange phenomenon. We have not learned the lessons it should teach us if we did study them. We have not learned to avoid disaster, we have not even learned to prepare for disaster, even though a child could tell us we should.
We can look at any period in history and either we find that disaster is happening to its inhabitants; or they are in a lull between disasters and the next one is not far round the corner. Disaster is inevitable.
The First World War and Climate Change response parallels
I have written before about Barbara Tuchmann’s concept encapsulated in The March of Folly, of Governments which choose paths of national self-destruction when alternative choices are available. She draws out a parallel phenomenon in her account of the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August, when she describes how Germany, France, Russia and Britain started to develop their war plans from 1902 onwards, in recognition of the expansionist ambitions of the German Government, and the decades-old arguments concerning France’s Eastern borders. Both sides created plans predicated on a swift and overwhelming assault on the enemy which would result in a short, and decisive war.
All expert commentary and analysis during the period between 1902 and 1914, when war finally broke out, postulated quite clearly that any war between these powers using the weaponry developed since the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 would be long-drawn out, and immensely destructive in human, social and economic terms. This commentary gathered weight and evidence in support as the years passed, so much so that there was almost no-one in disagreement. The political and military leaders of the day agreed. But they did not change their plans. In 1914, when war finally broke out, both sides had planned, raised, equipped and provided for a war lasting no more than three months.
This is precisely what has happened and is happening with climate change. We have known about the impending disaster threatened for as long as four decades. We have spent a considerable amount of time arguing about it. Even as late as 2016, Donald Trump still felt able to contradict the science and say it was not happening. In the last five years, however, most of the world, and certainly its leaders and Governments, have accepted climate change as an established fact. But these same leaders and Governments have not fundamentally changed their plans. They are still planning national policies and strategies as if climate change is not an immediate problem, and when it becomes more urgent, that it is not overwhelmingly serious.
All expert commentary and analysis during the period between 1902 and 1914, when war finally broke out, postulated quite clearly that any war between these powers…would be long-drawn out, and immensely destructive in human, social and economic terms. The political and military leaders of the day agreed. But they did not change their plans.
In the last five years…most of the world, and certainly its leaders and Governments, have accepted climate change as an established fact. But these same leaders and Governments have not fundamentally changed their plans.
Will we survive?
This is why I think disaster is inevitable. I would go a stage further and say disaster is already happening, whether or not you believe it is a result of climate change. You might argue the earthquake on the border of Turkey and Syria is no more a result of climate change than the war in Sudan. I would argue that both are the embedded consequences of the changing conditions in our world, precipitated by us.
Disaster is here. All the weekly Collapse Catch-up does is fill in the details that are not being reported in the mainstream news.
Why, then, am I not frightened? Because I think we will survive. Just as we are calibrated to stumble from disaster to disaster, we are also calibrated to survive them. They cause, as climate change already has done, terrible suffering among those caught in the disaster. I would not wish this suffering on anyone, and feel acute pain for the starving, the maimed, the homeless, the suffering already triggered by climate change. I have no expectation of being immune to the suffering myself. I am unlikely to be caught in wildfires, drought or famine. But the next pandemic might come for me. I have had two bouts of Covid, luckily both relatively harmless, although my Father died either from it, or with it, in the month following lockdown in 2020.
I am not immune. Neither are you. None of us is immune to Climate Change and its consequences. But it is another disaster in a long line of disasters that characterise the reality of human life. It may be greater than most. It may be more widespread than most. It may be more threatening than most. But we will not survive it and beat it if we are frightened by it.
Instead, we have to do what we can, to work at what we can see will make a difference, to accept and take responsibility for our actions in our working lives and to do our utmost to make the work we do contribute to the improvement of our chances in the face of the impending, if not actual, disaster.
None of us is immune to Climate Change and its consequences. But it is another disaster in a long line of disasters that characterise the reality of human life…we will not survive it and beat it if we are frightened by it.
Can our world leaders lead us to safety?
Let’s face it with a steady nerve, and – please – the intelligence born of recognition. Can our world leaders escape from the March of Folly, and do something about it? Instead of setting targets of Net Zero by 2050, can they consider what they should do now? Of course they can. We know that Governments the whole world over can turn on a sixpence. Overnight they can transform the conditions and circumstances in which we all live. They can enforce immediate and drastic changes on the entire global population. This is what they did in the early months of 2020 when the Covid pandemic struck.
They did it because they identified Covid as an immediate and chronic threat that required urgent and radical action. Overnight. So that is what they produced. It’s what Governments do in time of war. They force their entire populations to do things which none of us wants to do. Could you imagine anyone deliberately choosing rationing as a way of life?
Governments will make this transformation again once they recognise climate change to be the overwhelming and immediate danger to our world. Only then will they do anything with the sense of urgency that would have helped two or three decades ago, that would help now, and that would actually answer the problem. But when they do, it will take on the task and address it.
‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’
That’s why I am not frightened. I don’t necessarily know that I will escape the suffering and pain which disaster will inevitably inflict. Why should I? But I do know that we will survive, adapted and reformed, perhaps, but alive, and ready for the next disaster that no-one saw coming. We would do well to remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words at his inaugural address in 1933: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”