The Greatest Lie Ever Told

Apart from a hat-tip in the direction of one of the most epic films ever made (i.e. The Greatest Story Ever Told [1965]), and my wishing all readers a Happy Easter (or to be entirely politically-correct, a ‘joyous Spring Equinox festival of renewal’), this post has very little to do with Christianity… In centuries long past, if you upset someone in China they might well have cursed you by saying, “May you live in interesting times” and to be sure, today, we do indeed live in interesting times. These are Strange Days on Planet Earth (National Geographic). 600 years ago it was the Church of Rome that was doing all the lying and obfuscation and, if books had then been invented, they would have been burning them. Then along came the Enlightenment, seeking to rid humanity of mysticism and supposedly-irrational explanations for anything; and instead to explain everything in scientific terms. Of course the great irony of this was that, building on the wisdom of ancient Greek and Chinese thinkers – and the amazing early maths of medieval Muslim scholars – the success of this anti-irrational crusade was facilitated by the Christian belief in a rational God and, therefore, a rational Universe. Thus, although we have much for which we should be grateful to the Enlightenment, this does not include the fact that it bequeathed to posterity the belief that human beings are superior to nature (rather than being part of it). Was this the greatest lie ever told? I think not; and for two reasons: It was not a lie; and it was never told. It was an erroneous consequence of an intellectual assumption about the way the World is: It was an error in reasoning; a fallacy. History is full of fallacies. Take the various fallacies built upon the work of Charles Darwin: Darwin is one of the most influential scientists that ever lived; and his life’s work – to explain the consequences of his thinking about his observations of nature for our understanding of our place in it – has been misrepresented in many different ways: As well as being vilified by those that felt threatened by him, Darwin’s ideas have been abused and misused to justify all sorts of bad ideas from Marxism to Fascism; and from the Meritocracy of modern-day USA to global laissez-faire Capitalism. But, are any of these things the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so… In the second half of the 20th Century, humans seemed to finally realise that killing people in large numbers (as part of military conflict) was probably best avoided; and so was founded the United Nations and what would later become the European Union. By virtuous pursuit of international co-operation, may be now global peace and security could be realised? Unfortunately, global laissez-faire Capitalism, which John Gray has suggested was “[a]lways a utopian project” (i.e. in False Dawn: The delusions of global capitalism, [2009: xiv]), was doomed to failure because of the fallacious thinking it inherited from the Enlightenment: This allowed money fetishism to take hold and, with profit elevated from a means-to-an-end up to an-end-in-itself, human beings were bound to exploit nature without mercy (i.e. “mistake nature’s capital for a source of income” [E. F. Schumacher]; and/or “treat the Earth as a business in liquidation” [Herman E. Daly]); and to refuse to listen to anyone that said it has inherent or intrinsic value – let alone anyone that says nature has a right to exist… Were the fallacies identified by Schumacher or Daly the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so… However, the greatest lie ever told has a strong pedigree; a bit like the British Empire: Here in the UK, the BBC recently screened a 5-part series on the latter presented by Jeremy Paxman. As he tends to do when interviewing people, Paxman pulled no punches with our Imperialist past either; privateering (i.e. government-sanctioned piracy and theft); the slave trade, the opium wars, the suppression of any and all opposition to British rule – it was all recounted in excruciating detail… The British Empire undoubtedly did a lot of good to an awful lot of people; but it also abused its position and ultimately outlived its usefulness: Thus, we had to be forced to relinquish it, piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit. So, was “Britannia Rules the Waves” the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so. However, driven by greed – and the idolisation of the notion of free trade – the British Empire became the greatest exponent of corporate lies, hypocrisy, and double-standards the World had seen and – as such – I would argue has been the inspiration for all multi-national businesses that have since copied its modus operandi. As a result, in the service of their god of profit, we have been lied to by these business people repeatedly for over 100 years and been variously told that: Heroin addiction is socially acceptable. Smoking cigarettes is sophisticated. The Titanic is unsinkable. The War will be over by Christmas. Things can only get better. Hitler is not dangerous. Smoking is not harmful. Organic pesticides are more effective than natural predators. You’ve never had it so good. Organic pesticides are safe. Population growth is not a problem. Famine and starvation are a thing of the past. Limits to growth do not exist. Mutually assured destruction is a sensible military strategy. Smoking does not cause cancer. The hole in the ozone layer is not there. CFCs aren’t causing the hole in the ozone layer. Acid rain does not exist. We are not causing acid rain. We can’t afford to prevent acid rain. Passive smoking is not dangerous. But are any of these the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, and the disintegration of the former USSR, it was then that the lie was forced upon the public consciousness with single-minded determination. Although conceived as a reaction to supposedly “liberal-minded nonsense” spouted in the late sixties and early seventies by supposedly subversive academics (even those whose work was funded by plutocrats like The Club of Rome), it suddenly became possible to convince people, in the absence of any other enemy, that those who espouse concern for the environment are Communists in disguise (or “Watermelons” as James Delingpole likes to call them) – this is the greatest lie ever told. However, this lie is rarely explicitly stated: Far more often it is dressed-up and/or made to seem more reasonable by claims that humanity is too insignificant to affect our climate; the climate will not change faster than we can adapt to it; we are not causing the climate to change; we cannot afford to prevent climate change; and/or climate change has stopped. In effect, all such claims can be replaced with one: Environmental “alarmists” are just “crying wolf”. In the face of complex science and supposedly-conflicting truth claims, this is a very seductive reason for doing nothing: It is a very convenient and facile argument used by those whose sole aim is to prevent effective action being taken to regulate their business activities – those who prioritise their freedom to make a short-term profit over the long-term interests of the Environment; and what is in the interests of the long-term habitability of planet Earth. However, with my thanks to Jules B. for pointing this out to me, to accept this one must forget that, in the fairy-tale, the wolf eventually turns up! —————————- See also: To all those who say [CAGW/ACD] is junk science (4 October 2011).

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Economics, Environment, James Delingpole, Money Fetishism, Politics, Scepticism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Greatest Lie Ever Told

  1. Rick, very powerful essay! Well done. Just to make it clear that the link to Learning from Dogs that you included in your second paragraph is a link to only Part One. The four Nat Geo films are as follows: Reading Planet Earth, part One. is here http://learningfromdogs.com/2012/03/13/reading-planet-earth-part-one/ Part Two is here http://learningfromdogs.com/2012/03/14/reading-planet-earth-part-two/ Part Three is here http://learningfromdogs.com/2012/03/15/reading-planet-earth-part-three/ The final Part Four is here http://learningfromdogs.com/2012/03/16/reading-planet-earth-part-four/ And if you are in the mood for more after those four hours, then the 90-minute film HOME by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is not to be missed. Link to that film is here http://www.youtube.com/movie?v=jqxENMKaeCU&feature=plcp

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Paul. I linked to your blog (rather than the actual videos on You Tube) in the hope that people would read the comments that have been posted there too. However, I must admit that I just assumed people would pick up on the fact that there are four programmes in the National Geographic’s TV series. Therefore, thank you for this clarification and, for those with time on their hands, suggested additional viewing…

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  2. Christine says:

    Excellent summary, Rick. With regard to language, and the right-wing/Republican ability to frame issues in their own way, are you familiar with “Don’t Think of an Elephant?” by George Lakoff? It’s an excellent book that very concisely (100 pages) discusses the push by the far right to frame issues to suit their own agenda, and the Altman of response by progressives/Democrats. A very important book to read, as it offers solutions as well as analysis.

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    • Good on Yah, Christine, I shall certainly look it up, the methods of the far right have always concerned me as it seems to me a least like they have no love for democracy … Question – Is there are difference between a communist and a republican, if so what is it? Just asking 🙂

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Christine. If Lakoff’s book looks at the self-evident failings at both ends of the political spectrum, presumably the title is an allusion to the metaphor of the “elephant in the room”…?

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      • Christine says:

        Perhaps, although Lakoff is more obviously referring to the far right’s manipulation of language to set the tone for public debate on a whole range of issues, from climate change (more recently) to gay marriage, tax cuts, etc. Lakoff comes at this issue as a linguist. What happens when you tell someone not to think of an elephant? They immediately think of an elephant, although you can insist that you never told them to think of an elephant; in fact, you can argue that you did the exact opposite. Clever yet totally misleading. Like the GOP’s influence on public debate.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Oh, right… What I mean to say is, “OK, now I get it!”

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  3. I think the biggest lie ever told to the world is the one which says Aussies do not rule the world … a blatant manufactured lie, that is all I can say, we rule, we just do it quietly, it’s the way of all good kings. 🙂

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Although there is little or no evidence to support this hypothesis, I would be willing to admit I sometimes think Australians are trying to take over Hollywood…

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      • We keep a quiet kingdom, lest ol’ Betty realizes we just keep her on for appearances sake, wouldn’t do to have the old dear feeling let down by the antipodeans like Queen Victoria once did when she had no choice but to give us independence before we all went to England and drunk all your pubs dry and laid waste to your women. 🙂

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      • You’ve obviously not spent any time in Earl’s Court, London!

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      • I don’t drink with Earls, Dukes or higher only 🙂

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      • Rick Altman says:

        I must admit, I had always assumed Australian Independence came after WW2 (i.e. when Australian Passports were first issued). But you appear to be correct, Independence was granted by QV in 1901. However, if so, why was everyone not issued with Australian Passports from that time onwards?

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      • The Australian Government first started issuing passports in 1901 following the federation of the colonies. Australia’s first federal passport regulations were not introduced until 3 September 1912. And it was another three years before the Australian Government introduced a mandatory passport system for the first time, mainly for manpower and security reasons. Many people at the time saw this as a temporary wartime measure, to be rescinded after World War I. But by the mid-1920s, it was clear that an international system of travel documentation was here to stay. Normally Aussies only rely on the presentation of a can of VB or a sausage roll to prove their identity 🙂 https://www.passports.gov.au/Web/HistoryOfPassports/PassportEvolution.aspx

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Thanks for the very interesting history lesson. My Dad was born to Australian missionaries in China and travelled about a great deal during the first 20 years of his life (apart from 4 years of enforced Japanese inhospitality in China during WW2). It has always been my understanding that, if he had any passport at all it was a British one… Meanwhile, my Mum sailed from the UK to Australia in 1946 and, it was only after they got married that, both of them acquired Australian passports (and then came to the UK)…

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      • So that if you should ever want to leave Britain it would be wise for you to acquire a “Re-entry permit” otherwise you might find it very difficult to return there if you ever needed to …. best to check this out Rick.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Thanks for your concern, but, I am OK as I was born here and have a British Passport. Unless or until Dual Nationality is made illegal and I have to chose to relinquish one, I do not see how they could stop me coming back to my country of birth… Unless I become persona non grata as a result of serious criminal activity (e.g. by seeking elected public office), in which case I suppose I might eventually become “de-nationalised”

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  4. Whenever some discussion program is on either tv or radio (inevitably BBC 1 or Radio 4) I tend to be dismayed at both the answers and levels of applause: I loath soundbites, finger-pointing and the rather inane solutions on offer and, worse, I find support for such simplistic attitudes depressing. But I don’t think its more of a left-right issue (rather a reactionary or proactive one): The Right tends towards whipping-up the rabble rather discussing the issues with any depth, although the Left is not immune, nonetheless it is easy. A lazy mind can blame the EU, or poor people, or teachers, or morals, or whoever; yet if you ever confront people on just how ignorant and closed-minded they are (based on simple solutions like capital punishment) they would robustly defend their higher-than-average intelligence and critical mind. Critical thinking and philosophy at school would be a positive step, but I feel all is not lost, I attended the Hay Festival and a fringe event organised in conjunction with the Independent called ‘How the light gets in’, which was philosophical in nature and well attended, with Saint Stephen Fry – who commands respect in such popular programs as QI. A place no-doubt where bells would ring if you said the Titanic was unsinkable, an excuse apparently for keeping sleek design lines by not cluttering the superstructure with ugly lifeboats.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for those thoughts, Jules. Your mention of people’s general tendency to over-estimate their own intelligence and/or objectivity is a common gripe of mine – the rejection of respect for genuine expertise in favour of the lunacy of the marketplace of ideas… As for the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, many of the progammes being broadcast on the run-up to the centenary of the tragedy on Saturday have been genuinely fascinating. I intend to mark the event by blogging about it nearer the time but, suffice it to say, I have been shocked all over again to be reminded that: — the ship had life boat places for less than half the passengers it could carry and that half-empty lifeboats did not go back to help people in the water for fear that they would become over-loaded; — the wireless operator was too busy sending silly messages for the idle rich to take notice of incoming warnings of numerous sightings of icebergs; and — the ship would almost certainly have been able to avoid any iceberg if it had not been steaming at such reckless speed in waters where icebergs were to be expected…

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      • pendantry says:

        I’ve long considered The Titanic a classic example of the blind stupidity of human arrogance — and that when we refer to the event we rarely focus on that truth just proves the point. The 1997 film is a case in point. We seem completely incapable of learning from experience demonstrating that pride comes before a fall.

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  5. jpgreenword says:

    Wonderful post Rick. I wonder when (if ever) it will be generally accepted that the wellbeing of individual citizens, as well as society as a whole, depends on the health of ecosystems, and the quality of our air, water and soil.

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  6. Pingback: Why I am not a Capitalist « Anthropocene Reality

  7. Pingback: Breaking down environmental apartheid « Anthropocene Reality

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