Picture credit: Martin Pope/Getty Images

Children of the apocalypse

When you tell young people that the end of the world is coming, what do you expect them to do?

Artillery Row

The reaction to last week’s desecration of Stonehenge by members of Just Stop Oil has been more visceral, even among fellow travellers in the environmental movement, than that following any of the notable incidents in their steadily intensifying campaign against priceless works of art and historical artefacts over the last year. Since largely having abandoned their tactic of blocking roads, the group has concentrated its ire on targets dear to the fusty, patrician old establishment, and as a consequence they’ve generally got away with the journalistic and judicial equivalents of a raised eyebrow from the current establishment in the media and the courts. But Stonehenge is somehow different; it feels obscene at a far more primitive level. Surely, this time they’ve gone too far; this must be the crescendo? 

Unfortunately, this is to misunderstand the nature of the rod that the new establishment has made for its own back — and the depth of the anger, fear and confusion that they have bred into younger generations about the climate, and the future of life on earth. To put in bluntly, anybody born since about 1986 has been told by every single credible authority figure in their entire lives (with the possible exception of their parents) that the future of mankind, of the habitability of the planet itself, is at grave risk within the period of their own expected lifespans, and that this is categorically a result of human activity. These authority figures include their teachers, figures in the media, and at least three Conservative prime ministers. None of these figures actually believed what they were saying; they weren’t necessarily being deliberately untruthful, but they were playing an adult game of social positioning and messaging to an audience of children and adolescents who take things literally. 

There is a range of informed scientific opinion about the severity of the likely consequences of man-made climate change in different scenarios, and these are set out in the IPCC reports. To be very clear here, the idea that humanity faces an extinction level threat from anthropogenic global warming this century or two is not supported by any voice in mainstream climate science, even the more alarmist ones, given the likely trajectory of global population and carbon emissions. However, this hasn’t stopped it becoming a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to claim to believe in polite or progressive circles. This belief doesn’t require one to alter one’s lifestyle in any way to reflect the impending apocalypse; you still pay into a pension, have children, put the best years’ of one’s life into slowly rising up through a given profession, and investing any profits into property in the belief that it will rise in value over the decades — all of which require a least some faith that things in the medium to long term are going to continue roughly as they are.  

This view can be seen in the wild here from noted Twitter KC and windmill dweller Jo Maugham, who casually suggests that there won’t be any future generations (presumably of humans) unless we stop emitting carbon soon: 

I’m pretty sure that Maugham doesn’t actually believe that the literal end of human life is imminent; certainly, many of his earthly fixations would seem a little prosaic if he did. But, like almost every prominent British progressive, he clearly sees no harm in evoking this possibility as part of his routine political posturing.  

Of course, many if not all of these people do genuinely believe that climate change will bring serious long-term consequences that will cost a great deal. Their espousal of an apocalyptic view of man-made climate change is an affirmation of that view, and a rejection of the sceptical position; the deniers, the Bad People. This is particularly the case for public figures on the Centre Right to distance themselves from the lunatic fringe and reassure establishment progressives — Boris Johnson being the most obvious example.  And what harm can there be, they reason, in adding a little more egg to the cake, if it motivates the younger generation to seek change in their lifetimes? Indeed, for most people who have grown up in this era, it doesn’t do too much harm, as they become adults and understand the game of social positioning and sending the right messages to their peers. 

But what of those souls who never quite come to grips with adult semantics? Whenever JSO, or Extinction Rebellion, or whoever launches one of their stunts, there often follows some amusement over their plummy accents, and their whimsical names; one can always imagine the parents. However what is always equally obvious, if less remarked on, is their odd intensity, and obvious sincerity. It would be very interesting to investigate the prevalence of individuals on the autism/aspergers spectrum among those prosecuted (or not, as the case may be) for this type of offence. In the years since the better universities transformed into dating agencies for the cognitive elite, the number of children born with both parents of high intelligence and motivation has surely increased compared to the days when matches were made through chance, locality and family connections. It will be no surprise to find a growing number of young people with a particular intensity about them, and a literal interpretation of the things they were taught as children.

So what does a person do who sincerely believes that our world is going to end due to mankind’s folly, and that this could be averted if only the Western world were shocked out of its complacency, greed and sin, and the evil punished? We know exactly what the human responses to this are from other belief systems that have thought the same in the past (and in some cases, still do); some will evangelise to win as many others round to their truth as possible; others may give up hope and resign themselves to that fact that nothing they do matters in the long term, as all is already lost. And there will be some who will resort to random, shocking acts of violence. For my own part, I think that we have been extraordinarily lucky not to have seen the latter yet, or at least not at any scale. Perhaps this is because the environmental movement is still led by an older generation with a gentler tradition of the politics of protest, and who almost always have children of their own. But soon enough, leadership will pass to a very different generation. 

What can be done? Is there anything that we can do to wind the dial back and stop another generation being brought up with a belief in a hopeless future? Is it possible to turn a 21 year old who really does believe that the world is going to be physically too hot for human life by 2060, into a sort of Johnsonian optimist who thinks it’s all jolly serious, but if we just build a few more wind turbines (creating Green Jobs in the process!) that it will all be just fine in the end, and try not to worry too much about what the Chinese and the Indians are doing?  

Personally, I don’t think it is, and I think we are going to need a real battle to take back the entire climate agenda from the cadre of professional “climate communicators” who have been allowed to act as gatekeepers between what mainstream science is actually saying, and what is being told to the public, to policy makers, and especially to children. Sure, there are issues within mainstream science itself, but it would be a hell of an improvement from where we are now. The cautious, measured use of language of the IPCC reports (the reports themselves; not the summaries for policy makers and educators that the activists have got hold of) shows us a proper way to consider the evidence at hand, even if it does turn out that the preponderance of scientific opinion has been overestimating the impact of human carbon emissions on the earth’s climate. This is of course, part of the same issue around public communication of science, particularly when it comes to expressing relative risk and probability, that we struggled with during the pandemic.  

But it is remarkable that an establishment that has become so paranoid about misinformation driving extremism among disaffected young people has such a blind-spot when it comes to a millenarian apocalypse narrative becoming a staple part of modern discourse. The potential consequences are chilling.

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