Genealogy: Extinction Rebellion and climate change
As noted ad nauseam ad infinitum at this point, “wokeness” is not new—it’s old. As also noted beyond sickness and infinity, it is not really possible to trace leftist ideas to a single source. We could as well blame the current situation on Locke, who held that education is 9/10s of what makes a person, as Adorno or Marx.
After all, Locke is foundational to America, as is his proposition that we don’t have innate ideas—everything can be programmed into us; so said the son of a Parliamentary officer in the English Civil War—which is about the same as what the son of a Red Army officer in the Russian Civil War might have thought about man’s nature in the 1940s if he had become a philosopher (i.e. it’s totally malleable). Plus ça change.
However, that isn’t to say that we can’t trace the “genealogy of woke”, dig up a core sample here and there, and see how it has progressed over the decades. That’s why I’ve stuck the above quotation here. It’s from GTW Patrick, a scholar of Heraclitus whom I quite like—he was active from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. He’s not some revelation, is nothing special—I just quite like him (i.e. this is not a suggestion that to read him will “change your life”).
Anyway, the quote above is from a standard “introduction to philosophy” textbook Patrick put out in 1934—it was aimed at college undergraduates and the educated general reader, so at that time that meant about 5% to 8% of the country’s population (still does, really). What interests me about it is that you can see what we call “environmentalism” today right there on the page—the whole section about the need to conserve resources. It could almost come from an Extinction Rebellion “Penguin Modern Classics” book today, I think—with a few suitable adjustments to the language.
Obviously, what Patrick lacks here is the dramatic “apocalypse event” to hang his concern on. He is aware that resources can run out—logical inference for the philosophy professor to make. But he can’t tell you, per Greta (now aged, replaceable), that we have “seven years to save the planet” (or however long we have to save it now, supposedly). Yet it’s there, it’s about what environmentalists say today—resources precarious, used up too quickly.
If you dip into books by men like Patrick from the 1950s to the 1970s the same idea is there—yet not really attached to a particular issue. It sometimes settles on food, sometimes climate—nuclear war proved a great parallel issue for it, right up until 1989. What it looks like to me is an idea in search of a problem—a general notion that must be true in the broadest sense, that seems to owe something to that very Protestant injunction that used to hang over the tray stacks at my school dinner hall: “Have you finished your food? Remember: people in the third world would be glad of it.”
In a way, that’s all it amounts to—just the general sensation that all these cars, factories, games, gadgets, and, basically, “stuff” must at some level amount to waste; and that this “waste” is, as we say today, “unsustainable”—and unjust when there are people starving in the world. Patrick doesn’t say it’s “unsustainable”, but if the concept were about I’m sure he would have leapt on it—he certainly talks about “our democratic society”, another concept that is older than you might suspect.
Patrick even mentions “how we are now becoming aware of the unity of generations”—again, it sounds like an Extinction Rebellion activist, plonked on Wimbledon Centre Court in protest, who says, “I’m doing this so my grandchild can say, ‘My grandpa did something, he didn’t just sit around while the planet burned’.” The sentiment could come from any environmentalist propaganda from the last 30 years or so—“Our generation is just one in a link that goes back to the savannahs of Africa and, if we want to carry our legacy forward, we have to start thinking in a serious way about the way we treat our planet…”
Notable, of course, is that Patrick says that we should conserve our “racial resources”—now this is unacceptable today; and there’s a type of American Christian, the Alex Jones type, who will spring on the mention of “racial resources” and say “liberal eugenicists advocate abortion to kill black babies—the secret Nazi government has been in place for years, Klaus Schwab’s grandfather was Hitler’s bootblack (or that was the cover story, anyway). Liberals are the real Nazis, they were always for eugenics; just look what they said in the 1930s!!!! They’re just hiding it now, the plan is almost complete!!!!”.
Patrick uses “race” here to mean “human race”, not “Aryan race”—a point of confusion is that for a long time, until the 1960s, “race” was used in a very broad way almost synonymous with “type”. So that you might say, “He’s from that race of Appalachian mountain-men so little seen in these parts today.” In our times, Patrick would probably say, “Conserve human health and well-being.”
At the end, we also have a nice little encomium to education—beloved by progressives since Locke at least, up to Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” speech, and into President Biden’s doddery concern for student debt. Patrick, as a professional educator, had an interest—and was apt, as people often are, to suggest that their field is critical for the future of the human race. Nevertheless, it shows that the general attitude—“education, education, education”—was entrenched before WWII. It was already common knowledge among, well, among educated people that education could remake man.
And yet, there’s more genealogy—in this book’s first chapter the prospective philosopher is…a young girl. Patrick uses a little girl who asks her mother nagging questions as the paradigm for the philosopher to be. “Are those people outside the window really real?” asks the little girl. “Why, I don’t rightly know,” replies the mother, circa 1934. So it’s feminist—right there in 1934 female aspirations are raised. This makes feminist complaints about “exclusion” from elite courses and subjects seem farcical—the establishment has made efforts to accommodate them for over a century now.
As stated, this is not an opportunity to start a campaign to blame GTW Patrick for “wokeness” (the mild-mannered college professor who ruined generations—the truth revealed at last), but it does highlight quite how entrenched these ideas are—and how we live in a later iteration of the ideas Patrick outlines here, and how these ideas must have just seemed like common sense for a professional about 90 years ago (and, with minor adjustments, are not so different from what a professional would think today).
Naturally, it makes me sceptical as regards all “environmental-apocalyptic” thought, because here is the same program as Extinction Rebellion long before they had a hat (planet-sized, straw-boater) to hang it on—and I’ve seen the same “conservation” argument crop up in books from the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s; and each time it looks more and more like what “climate change activists” have said for 30 years now—it’s like a political program in search for a justification; or, perhaps, not a program but just a general moral sentiment—and it has its own “rightist” variations (does anyone remember the “peak oil” craze of the 2000s?).
I think it was Gregory Bateson who managed to combine, in a cybernetic circle perhaps, this long-standing Protestant moral concern about “waste” and natural resources with an actual scientific apocalypse. I read a speech Bateson gave at a famous event held in 1968 at Camden’s Roundhouse theatre—it was called The Dialectics of Liberation. Present: Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael, RD Laing—and just about any hip and happenin’ figure on the New Left (Allen Ginsberg in the audience, naturellement—bobbing and weaving and chanting OM! OM! OM!).
In his brief address, Bateson talks about how the planet’s equilibrium is maintained through feedback loops—and how those feedback loops might now be misbalanced due to industrial society. He speaks about the need to, you guessed it, conserve resources—because as an educated man, educated when Patrick published his introduction to philosophy, Bateson thought like every other educated person. And it’s the way these ideas precede climate change that is so suspicious—Bateson thought “the planet’s equilibrium is disturbed” before anyone suggested the climate in particular was not in equilibrium (again hat, hung on it).
So put together “Earth’s cybernetic equilibrium”, “natural resource conservation”, and “the climate science” and you have, well, the plot found in multiple Disney films (not to mention James Cameron’s Avatar) where industrial civilisation disturbs the equilibrium of Mother Nature. Contra Nick Land, perhaps the left can do cybernetics—both Bateson and Laing, these New Left figures, were cyberneticians.
Indeed, the whole idea that “Mother Earth is out of balance”, far from being some spiritual idea, originates in Bateson’s cybernetic assessment as regards our “global system” (think local, act global—as above, so below; everything is connected in the cybernetic unus mundus). Well, cybernetics shades into the occult, but we can only do so much esoterica in one day, so I’ll leave that thought to tantalise you.
Bateson went on to lecture about what would come to be called “climate change” to people like the group behind the peculiar Biosphere 2 project—a curious giant greenhouse, rather like the ships in the film Silent Running, constructed to simulate a self-regulating, self-sustaining closed environment in Arizona. Presented as a scientific experiment, this early 90s jamboree was, if you look into it, as with so many things, more like an experimental theatre project than a scientific experiment (the vague suspicion lurks that “climate change activism” is itself an experimental theatre project turned feral).
That’s a slight digression—meant as an insight as to how things that masquerade as “science” are often media projects, but the general point stands: the basic ideas behind, say, Extinction Rebellion existed long before anybody thought “climate change” was a problem—which means, even if it’s real (and I think it is, though not in an urgent sense), the proposed solutions are unlikely to have anything to do with it, just being ideas that have been around for decades (the ur-idea being that you should clean your plate before you get any dessert, like a good boy).