I was one of the people who told you changing your light bulbs or buying organic couscous would save the world. I was wrong and I knew I was wrong at the time. I wrote the begging telesales scripts about the ‘successes’ of the global charities I worked for, when I knew full well that we were losing the natural world hand over fist.
I started working for my first major environmental organisation in 2003. I translated the serious scientific stuff the wildlife boffins were doing into the emotional blackmail people give money to. The boffins wanted to post out their Phd thesis with an invoice. The fundraisers wanted to send ransom notes with “give us the money or we mince the panda”. I wanted a proper job. I wanted to build myself a future. So I worked the middle ground.
I flew to the Amazon. I helped investigate a new road for trucking the rainforest out and turning it into toilet paper. I flew to Borneo. I visited the orang utan our donors could ‘adopt’. It wisely threw its own shit at me until I went away again. I racked up more CO2-emitting air miles doing stuff like this for environmental charities than for any other reason.
I moved house and got married. I became a consultant and wrote for magazines and newspapers. Everyone I worked for told me I shouldn’t “scare the horses”. I shouldn’t tell the full truth of the encroaching horrors I researched all day. Otherwise people might “give in”. In other words: stop sending money.
I complied. I wanted the money. And I’m sorry.
This is what most of the environmental movement has become. It is one of the major reasons it has failed. I am not about to bore you with page after page of evidence. It’s self-evident. Flick onto any news outlet with any kind of open-mindedness and honesty. It will show you, constantly updated with catastrophe after catastrophe.
Even now, being honest about this feels like heresy. That feeling should be a warning sign. When did reality become so unpalatable that we can’t even tell people about it? Since when did so many of us need to be shielded like children? Why do those of us who know about these things have to dissemble, distract or blatantly lie about the state of our world?
It feels good, opening up. It’s clear to me now that ‘not scaring the horses’ is as irresponsible as standing in a burning building selling wet napkins, instead of shouting fire.
The truth is, despite my career, I really don’t know that much that you don’t know already. It’s either deep down, or a continuous kind of mental tinnitus you only notice in quieter moments when you’re not drunk.
The Bible had four horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest, War, Famine and Death. What we are currently reading in our 24/7 news feeds looks more like the final Charge of the Apocalypse Brigade riding Harley Davidson’s with their exhausts sawn off. You have to have your fingers in your ears going ‘lalalalala’ to miss it.
Climate Change, Pandemics, Mass Extinction, Topsoil Loss, Antibiotic Resistant Disease, Water Pollution, Air Pollution, Nuclear Holocaust, Financial Collapse and more are joining the human hunt. They don’t look like the sort of characters who negotiate.
Prior to the pandemic it was the thundering onset of Climate Change that woke some of us from our slumber. The news on that is so stark it is the hardest to ignore. Despite the accusations of some, it’s also a real bugger to spin into optimistic fundraising material.
For example, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidance is a tricky sell. It translates as something like: “Within the next decade we just need to put aside all our differences and peacefully orchestrate a massive and abrupt slow down in the world’s economy without crashing it. Meanwhile we need to pull carbon out of the air with gadgets we haven’t invented yet, or the planet will kill most of us.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to make a living by campaigning on climate change. Anyone who follows the logic through realises we are actually campaigning against industrial civilisation. For anybody in the industrialised world this is the source of all our wealth. It’s what pays all our wages. Have fun sawing down the tree branch you’re sitting on.
I am not wildly successful or talented. But I’m white, male, middle-aged and middle class. This provides me with the means to feast better than a medieval king every day of the week. I can buy out of season exotic foods from all over the world, and then throw them away when I forget to eat them. I live and work in a Marie Antoinette society. We stuff our faces with cake, idly wondering what the scaffold outside is for.
The environmental movement was supposed to do something about that. But it lost its way.
We were blindsided by climate change, even though we had known about it for more than a century. The only way I can explain that is to quote a Sudanese farmer. When asked why the rich countries weren’t helping to relieve their famine he said: “You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”
All of us feasting on the carcass of a dying planet bear some responsibility. But those of us who got paid to know what was happening and failed to find a way to tell you have our own special blame to carry. And for that I am truly sorry.
From now on I will try to be a bit more honest.