Guest post by Tony Brown
Addendum: March 12th 2020
This article about the ‘Climate emergency’ was written several weeks ago, before the Corona virus (Covid 19) really hit the headlines. Just today, President Trump banned travel from the European mainland to the U.S., the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled, Tom Hanks and his wife are in quarantine in that country and the virus has just been labelled a pandemic. Stock markets have plunged. All perhaps illustrating that we never quite know what is just around the corner, and how one panic can quickly supplant another.
The article originally written with the concerns over the ‘Climate Emergency’ in mind, has therefore taken on a different dimension, as for the first time we have some of those sceptical over the science of the ‘Climate Emergency’ accepting the science behind the consequences of the Covid 19 outbreak. Consequently, perhaps those alarmed about Covid 19 but not the climate, can, for the first time, understand the depths of concern and alarm of those who feel that a Climate Armageddon is upon us.
Climate activists demanding immediate action fervently believe that the world needs to wake up and take drastic steps to recover a situation that they think is out of control and therefore is every bit as urgent as tackling Covid 19. They have climate related concerns so real that it has affected the mental health of a whole generation and created a situation whereby even small children are being encouraged by schools to worry obsessively and take action.
So when reading the article, perhaps readers would bear this additional background in mind and step into the shoes of those believing in a ‘Climate emergency’ and who place it on a par with Covid 19 and comment accordingly. Do you understand their concerns and sometimes radical and disruptive actions better? Do you believe the science about one crisis but remain sceptical about the science of the other? Do you remain unconcerned by both issues?
James Thurber’s 1913 story ‘The Day the Dam broke’ is an account of human irrationality enabling us to draw lessons on how things can quickly spiral out of control when false information is knowingly, or innocently, spread.
This can quickly lead to panic or, in the case of climate, a rapid escalation to the apocalyptic sounding ‘Climate Emergency’. This is an extreme climate condition which some find difficult to discern, but is fervently believed in by many others, especially when current events such as bushfires, storms and flooding are heavily promoted in the media, with limited historical context. With far more people around compared to the past to observe or experience great weather extremes of the modern era and project pictures of them instantly round the world, this lack of context is unsurprising. Dusty historical accounts of extreme weather-statistically likely to be only a fraction of those that occurred then observed, recorded, preserved and recovered – cannot compete with vivid pictures of tragedies as they happen. This lack of context will only reinforce the notion that such modern events are without precedent, or more frequent. As L P Hartley said; ‘The past is a Foreign country-they do things differently there ’ and young people in particular –often the most concerned over perceived radical climate change- tend to have limited historical references on which to test their concerns and invariably look to the future, rather than the past.
The initial panic Thurber describes in ‘The Day the Dam broke’ was based on fear and concern over a genuine incident, the great Easter flood of 1913 “when a monumental storm system, tornadoes and floods covered much of the US, creating devastation from Nebraska to the Atlantic seaboard and down to the Mississippi,” claimed to be that country’s most widespread natural disaster, linked here. 1)
Thurber’s actual incident is described; ‘Like a flash, business on High street was paralyzed, the whole city was thrown into a panic, rescue work in the flood district was hurriedly abandoned, the river’s east brink for a mile was cleared of humanity, when, at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, someone shouted: “The storage dam has burst….Never before in the history of Columbus was there such a scene of panic, even consternation. Through alleys, down street, down stairways, out of windows, people hurried, tumbled ran, shouted and fairly fought each other in their almost mad rush. . . .” 2)
Thurber’s story is based on his life as a young boy living near the Ohio river, and relates the experiences of his Aunt Edith Taylor and his own youthful recollection about the “Great Run” of the afternoon in Columbus city, which illustrates the mob mentality very well. The following is my own summary of the relevant parts of the tale, with some small snippets from the story itself;
“After very heavy rain (see 1) on March 12, 1913 a rumour spread that the River Ohio was in flood and the water would rush towards the city as the dam had broken. Thurber describes someone running, probably because they were late. One or two others joined the runner for their own reasons. Other people heard the noise and came out on to the High Street to see what was happening. Perhaps already aware of the rumour, upon seeing the runner, yet more townsfolk started running towards the East for safety. As more people did so, yet more followed, and shouts of ‘the Dam has broken”’ could be heard. In the market place people heard the commotion and joined them, and soon, upwards of two thousand citizens were running, to save their lives from the flood.
Thurber’s Aunt Edith Taylor was attending a movie theatre and joined the mob;
“When I reached Grant Avenue, I was so spent that Dr. H.P Mallory passed me, there was a boy behind him on roller-skates and Dr. Mallory mistook the swishing of the skates for the sound of rushing water. He eventually reached the Columbus School for Girls where he collapsed.”
Food was left on the hob and front doors left open, as the people ran to escape the rushing waters of the Dam they were sure had collapsed, a notion reinforced by thousands of others of a like mind.
The militia drove through the city announcing the news was false, but still the mob ran up to 12 miles in order to save their lives. Eventually when it became clear that flood water was not pursuing them, the mob mentality began to ease. Slowly people returned to their homes realising that even the most sober and moderate of citizens had lost their heads over an unsubstantiated rumour, reinforced by the actions of a runner unconnected with the matter.
Thurber no doubt embellished the story somewhat for comic effect; ‘Still, as Harrison Kinney relates in his biography, there was enough truth about mass hysteria in Thurber’s account of the Afternoon of the Great Run of 1913 to impress at least one important reader. General William M. Hoge, who experienced the ill effects of rumour and panic during the Battle of the Bulge, read “The Day the Dam Broke” shortly afterward and “required every member of his staff to do the same,” as is related in link 2)
That this herd mentality is not new can be seen in writings over the centuries;
“Stuffing the ear with false report….Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,’ Henry iv Part 4- William Shakespeare
“’ How much pain have cost us the evils that have never happened.” This comes from Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. President. Many more ‘running with the crowd’ quotes in reference 3)
Human phycology is richly observed in Thurber’s story, in as much that men and women can lose all sense of proportion and common sense when a panic starts. The various quotes illustrate that this human weakness to believe exaggerated tales, whether likely or not, has occurred throughout history, and this human failing has been acutely observed by many.
More recently author Douglas Murray has taken up the theme in his 2019 book ‘The Madness of Crowds. Gender, Race and Identity,’ setting out numerous modern day examples 4). This in turn is echoing ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ an early study of crowd psychology by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, first published in 1841. In this he initially discusses economic bubbles, including the South Sea bubble and Tulip Mania and European fervour for causes such as the Medieval Crusades. Modern commentators have included the Chinese stock bubble of 2007 as examples of this mass hysteria 5)
Two quotes stand out from Mackay’s book;
‘Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
‘We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
Very many people believe ‘The Dam has Broken’ as regards the climate, with relentless media attention serving to reinforce this belief, with dire warnings of imminent apocalypse. It is a theme taken up by green activists and politicians, who for genuine environmental reasons, or for political purposes, want the story to be true and fashion their narrative accordingly. The “Climate Emergency” bears a close relationship to many panics of the past, real or imagined, but what is different this time is that due to modern means of communication the messages of doom are spread rapidly internationally. In a modern democracy, governments feel obliged to accept the verdict of the vociferous leaders amongst the voting crowds and enact their own officially sanctioned responses in response.
This departure from rational thought can be seen by anyone in the UK listening to the recent announcements by the UK govt. that, within a decade or so, we can substitute tens of millions of gas boilers with something as yet not spelt out or priced, can suddenly build tens of millions of electric cars with charging points, and somehow magic up vast amounts of reliable electricity from other than current means, in order to power the Brave new world. “Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is described as a ‘dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley, written in 1931 and published in 1932. Largely set in a futuristic World State, inhabited by genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning. “ 6)
This particular Brave New World, where the “Climate Emergency” is a central feature, has consequences. The depth of the upheaval to modern civilisation in order to achieve the aims they claim to desire appears to have passed by those swept up in the panic, if not by those actually manipulating it.
Many older readers will remember their relatively deprived childhoods around the 1950’s and 60’s and be surprised at University and school strikes apparently intended to voluntarily take us back to the lower living standards of those times, or even much earlier, depending on how quickly zero emissions are demanded and implemented.
In retrospect, we can recognise that our childhoods in those decades were low energy, with no computers and smart phones, internet or social media, limited amounts of consumer goods, hot baths were often rationed, but unwelcome anyway in often freezing houses. Central heating -if installed-was often kept turned down. We generally walked to school, would not expect to be transported everywhere by parents, had one small black and white TV, took one modest holiday a year, usually in our own country and had limited access to imported exotic food, or food out of season.
As striking Students are not yet integrated into the economy, they perhaps do not fully appreciate the consequences of their stated objectives, whose effects will permanently derail their comfortable, modern, warm and energy guzzling lifestyles.
It is estimated that we need 50% more energy by 2050. It is reasonable to ask that, in the absence of fossil fuels, where the constant base power for a modern 24/7 interconnected society is coming from? Whilst many believe renewable energy will come to the rescue, renewables, primarily wind turbines and solar panels (and also devices such as smartphones/computers) often utilise minerals requiring environmentally damaging mining, processing and shipping and physically challenging and often morally dubious working conditions. Estimates show there are not enough of the required materials in the world to meet projected demand from a rapidly rising global population demanding the latest modern comforts, fashioned by impeccably ‘green’ methods.
The late Professor Mackay, Chief Scientist of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, said trying to power the UK economy with weather dependent renewable Energy was “an appalling delusion” which only takes trivial “back of the envelope” calculations to prove. The David Mackay book updated 2015 can be downloaded here, with the calculations 7)
Likely sacrifices that will need to be taken by all in order to avoid the perceived ‘Climate Emergency’ might encompass the following lifestyle changes;
Assuming journeys are necessary in the first place, travel only by bus, cycling, walking or train. No parents taxi service. No flying except in an emergency. No spring water in plastic bottles, No imported food or food out of season when there is a local alternative. Little meat, dairy or fish, no hot daily showers, an embargo on throw away fashion clothes, no cotton. Infrequent washing of clothes in tepid water and no artificial drying. Drastic reductions of energy guzzling internet and social media, with smart phones and computers rationed to one a household and kept for years, and used infrequently, and a considerable reduction in purchases of consumer goods, especially those that are non-essential. Curtailment of new entertainment, such as films, documentaries and TV, where extensive travel was necessary in their making. Minimal home and work place heating. Expect regular power cuts. Curtail vegan foods which have achieved mythical status on their ability to save the planet. Many vegan ingredients come from all over the world, often by air and have huge carbon footprints.
Only weekly cups of habitat destroying coffee and foregoing endless home deliveries of everything from fast food to shoes. No attendance at festivals or sporting events, especially overseas, or those that need to use floodlights and aren’t near public transport.
These measures are ‘low hanging fruit’. Other changes in lifestyle will become apparent, but students (and adults) endorsing the ‘Climate Emergency’ will need to make considerable sacrifices and adopt more frugal lifestyles and not just during school years when passions and certainties burn brightest.
As can be seen, the list of modern comforts, currently taken for granted almost as a ‘human right,’ that might need to be scaled back or discarded entirely, are substantial.
In short, if you believe in the need to take drastic action to avert a ‘Climate Emergency’ then the simple answer is to stop living your modern lifestyle and revert to that of your grandparents much more frugal lifestyles or, if you really want to don hair shirts and get to zero emissions almost immediately, that of your many times great grandparents in order to revert to pre 1750 ‘pre industrial’ times. The IPCC uses this date from which to measure man’s effect on the climate, when lives were often brutal, short, poor and un-healthy. Several books are listed under ref 8) that illustrate that the depths of the hardships of those living in the pre industrial past are beyond modern imagining in the West, but still all too familiar to undeveloped countries seeking to raise their lifestyles by using fossil fuels.
Are people willing to make these individual sacrifices or do they expect to carry on much as they are, perhaps recycling a bit more or cutting back a little on overseas holidays, in the belief that some means will be found to supply unlimited cheap and clean energy? This ‘no consequences’ belief that one way of life can be effortlessly and seamlessly exchanged for another, without huge costs and disruption, does not stand close scrutiny. But when you are running in panic to escape the broken Dam, reality has already gone out of the window.
Humanity is fickle. Interest passes and fixates on something else. There are many very worthy causes that warrant man’s attention and interest and consequently perhaps something else perceived to be even more terrible than a ‘Climate Emergency’ will take centre stage.*
(*See the note at the head of this article concerning Covid 19-corona basis
The way we treat our environment is a different issue and should be separated from the climate change hysteria, and whether or not fossil fuels will continue to be the best solution man can devise for our energy needs, as we proceed further into the 21st century, is another discussion. A discussion much better held when those pressing for alternative solutions are not in a panic.
Tony Brown February 2020
8) Books that illustrate the harsh lifestyles of ordinary people in earlier centuries.
a) The fictional ‘Shardlake’ series by C J Sansom set around the 1540’s b) ‘The Third Horseman’ William Rosen set in the 14th century c) ‘The Time Travellers guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer
also set in the 14th century d) “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, also set in the 14th Century