I enjoyed Peter Foster’s editorial “The madness of eco-crowds” on the Comment page of the Financial Post section of the National Post today (May 23, 2007). I have excerpted it below. Personally, I support people taking steps to protect the environment, including the relatively “easy” climate mitigation stuff (as a precaurionary measure, and besides, some of it makes sense from an energy efficiency standpoint). But I share Foster’s loathing of the self-righteous busybodies keeping an eye on one another in the English town described below. Very amusing.
Here’s the excerpt:
One of my favourite books has always been Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Written more than 150 years ago by a gentleman named Charles Mackay, it provides a necessary reminder of mankind’s periodic tendency to go collectively off its rocker.
I was reminded of the book while listening to a CBC report that featured some earnest soul suggesting that the recent plummeting of a piece of marble from Toronto’s First Canadian Place might be due to climate change. Such a belief would surely fit into Mackay’s category of “the most remarkable instances of … moral epidemics [that] show … how imitative and gregarious men are.”
That is, we tend to think in herds, and the herd frequently launches itself off a cliff. “In reading the history of nations,” writes Mackay, “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.”
Extraordinary Delusions is filled with accounts of great public manias, from the South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania to widespread belief in witches and apocalyptic prophesies. Which brings us to current apocalyptic environmental forecasts and the almost universal call for centrally directed global mobilization to “do something.” Now.
It is not that climate change is not a fact of life, or that humans may not be having a marginal impact upon it. It is not even that the science is far more uncertain than radicals claim. It is that these beliefs have come to be considered an all-consuming “truth.” Everything is suddenly seen through a climate change prism. This perspective warps the view from the highest levels of government to the smallest of local communities.
With regards the latter, another report on the CBC last week focused on a small rural English village, Ashton Hayes, which is attempting to become “carbon neutral” to fight climate change. When I heard the report, my mind went to another British reference, this time the recent British comedy Hot Fuzz. In the movie, a hotshot policeman — who is so good at his job that he makes his colleagues look bad — is dispatched for that reason to an allegedly sleepy, crime-free village that does, however, have an extraordinary number of “accidents.”
It emerges that a cabal of influential villagers — obsessed with winning the award for prettiest village in England — are not above murdering anybody who might threaten their village’s picturesque status!
Similarly, Ashton Hayes — which has become a point of pilgrimage for eco-warriers/worriers (and described by the Financial Times of London as being like a “green-tinged Lourdes”) — doesn’t sound admirable so much as creepy, with roaming teams of eco-auditors, and the application of social pressures to stop such wasteful practices as sending individual Christmas cards.
Again according to the Financial Times: “Refuse recycling rates have replaced village cricket as the jealously fought competitive sport between rival villages.” When it comes to real sport, meanwhile, the village has a carbonneutral soccer team.
Sounds like a nightmare to me, although organizers claim that there is no “finger pointing” at anybody who refuses to sign on to the eco-moralization of virtually every form of activity, from leaving on the coffee machine to taking holiday flights.
Apparently, more than 30 other British communities have joined Ashton Hayes on the Via Dolorosa to carbon neutrality. One would love to hear what the half of the village that hasn’t signed on to this mania thinks of it, and what kind of pressures they feel from their puritan neighbours.
There have been myriad examples of manias and delusions since Mackay’s book. Marxism-Leninism was perhaps the bloodiest delusion in history. It came strapped to the recurring belief that capitalism was always about to self-destruct (which makes it, not coincidentally, analogous to current apocalyptic environmental theories).
Similarly, Malthusian delusions of resource depletion and widespread starvation have raised their head with astonishing regularity in the past century and a half. Not long after Mackay wrote, there was concern that the Industrial Revolution might grind to a halt for want of coal. Petroleum has been confidently predicted to be on the point of exhaustion virtually since its first discovery. Meanwhile there have always been seers and charlatans around to point the way to salvation. Significantly, however, some of the most truly apocalyptic events of the past 150 years have been linked to following their advice.
Although believing that climate change is causing pieces of marble to fall off buildings is perhaps at the outer limits of mania, global warming is widely believed to be behind every extreme weather event, from Parisian heat waves to Hurricane Katrina.
“Men, it has been well said,” wrote Mackay, “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 have been here before.