I heard the BBC’s A Point of View on Radio 4 this morning, Sunday. It is a 10-minute talk for general edification, falling between the religious service and the current affairs programme. The pop philosopher Alain de Botton has tenure on the current run. He called today’s piece “The ecological sublime” – a strange name, since it was concerned not with the sense of awe but with the anxiety and even terror aroused by environmentalists. I recommend hearing this short piece (available for a week, I believe) for the sake of the picture he paints of the desperation promoted by the deep greens’ jeremiads: a state of mind in which, as he says, we cannot fly to Florence to view Titians, raise our eyes to the snows of Kilimanjaro, transport milk by lorry to supermarkets, or enjoy an unusually warm spring day, without immediately fearing that we are implicit in crimes more enormous and devastating than nuclear bombing, while we are more powerless than any footsoldier caught up in a war crime – powerless because “we need collective solutions” and they are near-impossible because they would require the cooperation of over six billion people. He talks of Armageddon, of species suicide. The natural world no longer evokes forces greater than ourselves but only suggests our own powers – and those powers are terrifying. The new environmental awareness threatens to drive us into despair.
De Botton is not pointing to these baleful effects in order to condemn the doom-mongers. He swallows the whole thing hook, line and sinker.
And what is his remedy? He does not offer any philosophical resistance. His first remarks on opening the talk are on the general irrelevance of his own vocation: we should be drinking up the solid science of the ecologists rather than bothering about philosophers like him. He thinks the philosophical job is done by sketching out the situation created by the new environmental awareness. He recommends that we turn to artists – those gullible groupies of the greens! – to give us heart.
De Botton has another suggestion: that we counter our megalomania by meditating daily on selected astronomical objects, driving home to ourselves how very big they are and how very far away. That will keep us in our place, he thinks; it is his secular alternative to religious meditation.
This sorry suggestion would not work for me. I have always been fascinated by astronomy and I know quite a few of its big numbers. They never made me feel humble.
Perhaps if de Botton thought philosophical thinking were more important than he does, he would think it important to investigate the environmentalists’ descriptions of reality, and think critically about their nostrums. He might conclude that environmental pessimism is a libel on the state of the human race: things are in good shape, they are looking good for the future, and, rather than feeling despondent, we can feel proud of ourselves.