Maybe this is it. Tumultuous turning points in history are often scarcely noted as they happen because the changes are so incremental and mundane that they do not seem to be much more than little local difficulties. But perhaps we are living through the dying moments of what will one day be seen as a golden age of mass prosperity and individual freedom that is destined to become mythic in the eyes of later generations. What are the tiny steps that might be harbingers of this great collapse of the Age of Affluence with its expectations of self-determination and mobility? Has your energy supplier doubled your charges, or gone bust and handed you over to one of the small number of monopolistic corporations that will now control delivery of the most essential commodity in modern life? Well, you say, that could just be a consequence of global gas shortages. But hasn’t the running down of gas supplies been a deliberate climate policy, without any proper thought being given to how inadequate the alternatives to gas might be? (Windmills are useless when the wind doesn’t blow. Who knew?) Isn’t the Government now preparing to decree, in unprecedented statutory detail, precisely how you will be permitted to access the essential life-sustaining heating and fuel that your household requires? And will this effectively mean that the supply will take so much of your income that your consumption (and hence your lifestyle choices) will have to be sharply reduced? Is the government quite deliberately proposing to make what have become the standards of living that ordinary people expect, so expensive and problematic that they will, once again, become the province of the rich and powerful?
Perhaps you think it fanciful to talk of the end of an era in terms of fuel bills or private transport. But what is significant about these deprivations is their inexorable direction and the callousness with which they are proposed. Boris Johnson, doing his bizarre Marie Antoinette impersonation at the UN, seemed to have no understanding whatever of the hardship that his unthought-out, uncosted, unaccountable gallop to a green heaven would impose on huge swathes of the population who had come to think of themselves as free agents in an economically advanced, liberal society. There is a very serious misalignment here between what are still (just) the political assumptions on which we understand our modern governing priorities to rest, and what is coming to be taken as an incontrovertible truth that cannot be resisted: a messianic recipe for saving the world which is so apocalyptic that it must not be delayed or mitigated even by what was once our most sacred social principle – that governments should not enact measures which will inevitably damage the quality of life of people who are already disadvantaged. In other words, policies which disproportionately hurt the less well-off.
The chief objective of twentieth century democracy was to equalise the living conditions and economic opportunities of entire populations. Whatever your view of the urgency of climate change, it is critically important to recognise that many of the steps now being proposed (in some cases, enshrined in law) to deal with what is considered to be a global emergency are designed precisely to reverse that progress. The quite explicit message, not only of the lunatics who block motorways but of the wider environmental movement, is that too many people can now afford too much. This is the real force of the new incarnation of anti-capitalism: far too great a proportion of the population can now spend money in ways that are potentially dangerous to the environment, and it is free market economics which made this possible. The “planet” (always spoken of as if it were a sentient being in danger of “dying”) is suffering the consequences of their self-indulgence and profligacy. Answer: make sure, by strategy or edict, that either they are unable to afford their irresponsible behaviour or are actually banned from doing so. Make no mistake, this is the moral core of the militant environmental cause: there is too much wealth, too much “waste”, too much choice and too many people living too long. (Since the pandemic cut a swathe through the elderly population of the West, they have gone rather quiet on this last point.)
A damaging confusion at the heart of this doctrine is the role that capitalism and the industrial revolution – its twin evil in the eyes of the environment lobby – played in the lives of the great mass of the population. The current version of Marxist mythology casts them as being the joint causes of the victimisation of the poor. Marx himself did not see it this simplistically: he understood that industrialisation not only created more diversified wealth (which was previously tied to the ownership of land) but liberated the rural population from what was effectively agrarian serfdom. But that message does not suit the self-flagellating version of the fable which seems in a rather inchoate way to long for some purer form of existence, not just pre-industrial but even pre-agricultural, at one with the Earth (in its role as spiritual companion) and Nature (whose own ruthless imperatives are never explored). This odd mix of childlike sentimentality and economic illiteracy makes no room for the obvious truth: that industrialisation and market economics transformed the nasty, brutal and short lives of most people into something that at least approached the comfort and security that were once the sole property of those who were the inheritors of privilege. This is the quite shamelessly blatant refrain of the most aggressive elements of the climate change lobby. Insulate Britain says, in no uncertain terms, that it is happy to prevent people from pursuing their livelihoods since commerce itself is the enemy. You may well believe that climate change is urgent enough to justify virtually any step that is taken to address it. But be quite sure about what you are endorsing and the sacrifices it will involve – for you and for people less well off than you. This campaign, as it stands, is opposed to mass prosperity, to self-determination and ultimately to social equality. Gas bills are just the start.