Prophesy from Orwell to Ehrlich

When I was a student (about half a century ago) I once hitched a lift with a lorry driver who asked me what I was studying. “Philosophy”, I said. He held out his hand and said: “Read my palm”.

My first job was in market research. Turning the responses to questionnaires into tables of percentages involved transferring the results on to punch cards, and hopping on a number 73 bus to take them down to the IBM office off Oxford Street to be processed on London’s sole commercial computer. You booked your time on the machine, and waited beside the humming monster the half an hour or so it took to transform the holes in the punch cards into tables of results comprehensible to the client. You could do it by hand, of course (and often we did) but IBM was marginally quicker.

Market researchers, like philosophers, are accredited with a certain limited ability to read the future – for instance when it comes to forecasting election results. Not unreasonably, the public associates wisdom with prophesy. After all, information nowadays is available to everyone who possesses the skill to access it; and so those who live by their wits (journalists, market researchers, academics, climate scientists) can only justify their superiority over the crowd by their skill in interpreting the information available to all. And mostly that means interpreting its significance for the future – the only unknown unknown.

Back then in the sixties I’d guess we were about 5% of the population – those who knew how to use a library catalogue and annotate a text, and – in extreme circumstances – access the services of IBM. Certain professions (lawyers, doctors, university professors) had been doing it for centuries. Now a new generation of university graduates were all doing it, and the skills of information processing had passed to a whole new range of professions, including business executives, advertising men, politicians, officers of the armed services, climatologists, and (of course) all the experts who write books on every subject under the sun.

If access to university education was one of the defining characteristics of the sixties, another was access to knowledge of all kinds via cheap paperbacks. No-one under the age of forty can imagine a world without Wikipaedia, a world in which ownership of a stock of Pelicans was a necessary bastion against ignorance. Of course it wasn’t infallible. There were Pelicans which would assure you that Mao’s China was the path to the future, and others that asserted the same thing about traditional Indian wisdom, or Zen Buddhism. And others that spoke of a new scientific discipline that combined the wisdom of traditonal societies with the discoveries of modern science – Ecology.

Small is Beautiful. Limits to Growth. The Population Bomb.The End of Affluence. These books – or rather the titles of these books – formed a generation. No need to have read them or to have absorbed the ideas therein. It was enough to have belonged to a generation which ascribed vaguely to certain ideas: that we live on a fragile planet; that resources are limited; that mankind is threatened, and at the same time dangerous. Anyone who ascribes to these ideas immediately becomes a seer, someone who foresees the future, who can read your palm.

And those who ascribed to these ideas were not a random sample of bods, but a clearly defined social class – the “classless” university educated middle class that emerged around the sixties and seventies and rapidly took over the levers of power in the media and in the political parties. If only David Cameron were a typical class product of the Eton- educated élite. If only Ed Miliband were a prisoner of the trade unions who elected him. Then we might have a dialogue, a debate. But their ideologies are identical. They belong to the same social class – the same computer savvy nerd culture which is proud to know that the world is round and not flat – and therefore thinks it can be summarised in a pie chart.

And those who live by the computer-produced graph must envisage dying by it – hence the necessity of computer-induced tragedy – hence the need for climate science and for the two catastrophic civilisation-destroying degrees.

Two degrees. They were forecasting 16°C here in the south of France yesterday and it was 26°C. If only I’d planted my tomatoes last month! The Méteo was 10°C out. Will I die? Will I f*ck. (Well of course I will, eventually. Another of the facts our consensus culture is designed to deny.)

Foreseeing the future is not a gift given to all. George Orwell, in “1984”, failed totally to

predict the world as it would be 36 years on. But he got so much right, by seeing (not foreseeing) that the marketing methods of capitalism, the moral fervour of communism, and the discipline of fascism were not fundamentally opposed, but could be combined to construct the worst of all possible worlds – forever.

Orwell expressed his pessimistic vision in the image of a jackboot grinding down liberty eternally. We can hope for something less soul-destroying. Perhaps a chorus of Ed Davey, Sir Paul Nurse and George Monbiot telling us to mend our ways, cut our consumption,and consider the lilies of the field (they toil not, nor do they emit much CO2) until the publication of the next IPCC report in 2018.

I’m not happy with that prospect. Of course, it’s not so drastic compared with the prospect facing your average Ukrainian; or the 50% of the young unemployed Greeks Italians or Spaniards.But it’s something worth combatting.

But how?

 

 

 

About these ads
This entry was posted in Paul Ehrlich FRS, Sociology of Climate Change and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Prophesy from Orwell to Ehrlich

  1. nofixedaddress says:

    Dear Geoff,

    Perhaps part of the ‘but how?’ is doing what you have just done in this article.

    Your ‘thumbnail sketch’ of the ’60’s and ’70’s and “the “classless” university educated middle class that emerged” nearly made me weep because I recognised it.

    And the “saddest” thing I find about George Orwell’s “1984” is that he created a narrative around the world as he then perceived it existed.

    Please ‘keep on keeping on’ as best you can.

    I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Lewis Deane says:

    Geoff, I tend to avoid anxiety, like a drunk leaning against the wall, sliding up and down and trying to make sense of it. “Orwellian” is a kind of joke we people make with ourselves. A kind of avoidance of politics. If the world is so bad, change it.

  3. Lewis Deane says:

    There is a happiness in the world
    That will not sleep: A laughter
    Breaking up old houses and old smiles.
    When the sunshine hits the parquet floor
    And, when I had to laugh and know
    It must be a merely temporary misalliance
    Of a not thinking about a not world.
    That ‘world’ of not-bullying and Bennite debate
    Either in Liverpool or Highgate, meant
    Disarming myself of all my rage. Silly billy
    I misunderstood mortality, how long
    People live. They live too long. Sliding
    Down the banisters of our fugitive world
    The voices of punishment have dissapeared.
    We try to resurrect them from nothing.
    Ex nihil, pro nihil. From out of darkness.

  4. Scott Allen says:

    Got to your site from your post at retraction watch.
    Nice to see that post, which pretty much lays out the incestious world of university research and peer reviewed papers and the value of most research nowadays.
    I too am a child of the 60’s and am now in my recovery phase from that. Your site is interesting reading and well written, and of course brings back memories of what we or I was indoctrinated with in college.
    Keep up the good fight

  5. johanna says:

    Well spotted, Geoff.

    It is worth noting also, the absence of context that living in the cyber-world accentuates. For example, to derive meaning from one of those Penguin or Pelican books, one had to read it. Today (and I do this too), one just looks up something on Wiki or elsewhere to ascertain or verify facts, but those few paragraphs are nothing like reading a whole book in terms of understanding what you are talking about.

    Pedantic niggle – one does not “ascribe” to a view, one might, however, “subscribe” to one.

    Cheers, and thanks for your work – J

  6. Dear host, I only read this after, and as a result of, being led astray by your solemn interpretation of the spooftastic Marcus Toynboyalé. Was groupthink ever more embarrassing, even in a group of two?

    I now compound the error by finding this piece awesome. Cutting to the last two questions (the first implicit): Yes, it is worth combating. How? Here’s one thought. We need to understand prophesy and the role of the prophet better. This is the category that that troubling guy in the first century was put into by his contemporaries – some of course prefixing with false- for good measure. They all had very definite ideas – and contradictory ones – of what a prophet would be like. My favourite example is captured in one short story of forgiveness. Here’s the bottom line for now: Orwell’s clarity about the world in which he found himself comes far closer to the ideal than the other chap. (Why bother mentioning his name. Too much already.)

  7. Thanks for the encouraging comments (and thanks Johanna for the pedantic niggle. I’ve been living in France for 32 years and bits of my native language are dropping off, I’m afraid). And Lewis Deane, you’re right; using words like “Orwellian” is not only a way of avoiding political action but also of avoiding critical thought. Poets and other linguistic fusspots are there to pull us up on errors like that.

    The difficulty with writing this kind of pop-sociological musing is not to sound as if you’re simply harking back to the good old days. Looking stuff up on Wikipaedia is a totally different experience from reading a book; cheap data processing makes the rise of expert datavores with their think tanks, Clubs of Rome etc inevitable. There’s no point in railing against it. But speculating on how changes in one area can affect other areas of social action which seem far removed – that seems to me a useful thing to do in trying to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism.

  8. We’re not simply harking back to the good old days. We rightly harking back to something though, every one of us, whether it’s an ideal of science untroubled by politics or governance of truth and honest compromise, not nihilistic cynicism. You’ve introduced for me prophesy such as Orwell and Dickens offered in the last two centuries. I’d see Wesley as a key such figure in the Enlightenment of the one before, as Gertrude Himmelfarb does. But for now we can hold lightly to the names. Where I may agree with Geoff is that we die for sure without this last category – or if it’s subverted by too much attention for the non-prophets like the Paul, recently honoured by Royal Society’s, who wouldn’t know a Damascus moment if it hit him the face, as it might have done every decade his doom-laden prognostications bit the dust and humanity improved its lot to stupendous degrees.

  9. johanna says:

    Re forgetting English – don’t worry, Geoff, it’s only going to be a temporary problem. As you may have noticed, old folks tend to revert to their native language, no matter how long they have been speaking another one! ;)

    Do you speak perfect idiomatic French, BTW? Or do you reveal your Pomminess as soon as you open your mouth? I am curious, because there is a lot of variation in people’s ability to lose their accent – some seem to be able to do it quite easily, while others never lose it no matter how long they live outside their native country.

  10. I revert to English when speaking to babies and small animals. Apparently it’s normal, though the neighbour’s dog doesn’t appear to think so.
    I speak idiomatic French, though not perfectly. I’ve heard too many people (French and English) who make too great an effort, and end up sounding artificial. Listen to Lewandowsky in his various audio spots. My Italian teacher said I speak Italian like “Olio” – (Olver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy). But twice in Italy people asked me if I was French. How can I speak Italian with a French accent? I can’t even speak French with a French accent.

  11. johanna says:

    Heh.

    My first langauge is Dutch, but since we came to Australia when I was three years old, it was quickly superseded by English (Aussie version). Apparently I now speak Dutch – to the limited extent that I still can – with an Aussie accent, which must sound bloody awful.

    My father learned to speak English fluently while serving with a Yank outfit in the Korean War, and the American twang has never gone away.

    I am always impressed by actors who can do accents convincingly, but there aren’t many of them. Done badly, they are excruciating to the listeners they are trying to imitate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s