Colossal Crisis of conscience and climate

February 23, 2007

If Bert Fry, the last true countryman of The Archers, had been given a chance to comment, he would surely have something pungent to say on the matter. Instead, the best one hears about climate change is "it's all a bit of a muddle" or, altogether more incongruously on those days when winter temperatures soar, "isn't it glorious?" But 100 years ago, when there were plenty of Bert Frys, Britain would have been agog with countrymen's dire warnings. Go back another 100, when the majority of folk were still living cheek by jowl with the natural world, and the farmers' almanacs would have been brimming over with portents of calamities.

But even if we can trace the beginnings of anthropogenic climate change's growing momentum to the industrial revolution, responsibility for its accelerating surge is entirely a consequence of the now. With the great paradox that today the majority of us are so out of tune with our surroundings, in our centrally heated bubbles from which we can barely distinguish one season from the next, that we have lost what should be an innate ability to recognise catastrophe when it stares us in the face.J How dare I intone "catastrophe", you cry. And indeed I was recently slapped down at an interdisciplinary meeting with the reminder that scientists do not use such value-laden terms. Put aside the lame defence that I am just a historian and so have a weakness for using my ps and qs rather freely, but actually, I was under the impression that the word is rather to the fore in current parlance. Just a few weeks ago, the Royal Society hosted a conference of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists where their famous Doomsday Clock was returned to its five minutes to midnight position. It was not just the threat of nuclear apocalypse that moved the minute hand forward - foreclosure on the human saga could equally come from global warming. Then the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published, just as gloomy as had been predicted, unequivocally confirming that unless we get a handle on global carbon emissions the outlook will be catastrophic.

If the scientists have wrapped up the prognosis, what do the rest of us in the academic community do now? Get on with our work as if nothing has changed? Stop meddling in areas best left to the experts? Part of the problem with this convenient let-out is that it assumes university scientists are better placed than the rest of us to offer policy solutions on what are, after all, human-induced and societal impacts that are not in themselves scientifically governable. More starkly, all of us - scientists and non-scientists - operate within institutional parameters, not to say epistemologies, that may themselves be part of the problem.

One has to ask the question: why are we in this mess? To which the answer, on one level, is wretchedly simple. Global warming, in its crudest crystallisation, is a consequence of our economic-political system: or, bluntly put, of a runaway, unregulated, asset-stripping, globalised capitalism. Only by dissecting how we arrived at this condition do we have any hope of unravelling the way out of our cul-de-sac. Alongside, that is, recovering wisdoms embedded in the entirety of recorded human experience - intuit, prescience and hard-won native wit included - that have always been central components of our survival in times of scarcity and adversity.

The dilemma for academe at this juncture is that to acknowledge the necessity of such a course would be to in effect expose the institutional schizophrenia, not to say straitjacket, that it shares with its political masters: on the one hand, a desire to find some (preferably technical and hence unattainable) fix to climate change, on the other, a refusal to abandon the very market-driven imperatives in which it has so totally and irresponsibly invested.

That certainly leaves the rest of us as mere cogs in the wheel with a dilemma. Do we sit tight and hope that our mandarinate might between them have some Damascene vision and start moving mountains in support of the direction in which we must now travel? Or do we, the grass roots, declare our own state of emergency and start looking to our own devices to demonstrate our sense of shared responsibility to and with the commonweal?

Rescue! History, which sets out to do just that, is not the first self-initiated group of its kind. Indeed, it arose out of Crisis Forum, a freethinking network that seeks to bring academics and activists together to meet the epochal challenges before us. Rescue! History's unique purpose, however, is to understand how we arrived at this point of potential endgame and thus what needs to be learnt from past and present in order to break free from that dread verdict.

PS: Since writing this, Nigel Pargetter has become The Archers's climate champion.

Mark Levene is a reader in history at Southampton University. For the Rescue!History statement of intent, visit: http:///

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