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The eco-despair of Alain de Botton

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.

23 comments to The eco-despair of Alain de Botton

  • Paul Marks

    I heard the end of de Botton piece and I have heard the man before.

    Like so many “great intellectuals” his is, to use “vulgar” langauge, a tosser. For example, he suggested that we have special celebrations in the calender to celebrate certain stars.

    Why? Because they are very big and far away – that was the “argument” (hence the man is a tosser).

    Previously I have heard him (in all seriousness and without a trace of irony) say that the major problem of today is that people resist the government making them better people – i.e. that it is the role of the state to mold us into being better people (nicer, more complete……).

    This is so STUPID and IGNORANT (stupid in that it lacks even the most basic common sense, and ignorant as it shows a total lack of knowledge of previous government efforts to do this down the centuries) that it is difficult to know where to start.

    When I have seen him in the past he is usually filmed with books by Karl Marx in view on his booksheves. I doubt he actually is a Marxist (he is too woolly minded), but I doubt he understands that the basic doctrines of these books (labour theory of value and “exploitation”, the idea that new technolgy makes collectivism a good idea, and ……) are UTTERLY FALSE.

    As I say above, the man is a tosser. He is not just an idiot – he is an idiot who believes himself to be very wise and endlessly tells other people how they should live (and believes the state should use VIOLENCE to enforce his whims).

    Of course he is also a leading “public intellectual” held up as a great mind by the MSM.

    The whole thing should be in an Ayn Rand novel – indeed it basically is.

  • Pretty poor show from the guy who wrote a book called “The Consolations of Philosophy”.

  • will

    I’d like to hear alain’s philosophical approach to ethics that could justify the gigantic amounts of coercion that will inevitably be involved in these ‘collective solutions’.

  • Stephan

    I think the big take away point from this post is that we can now fairly well conclude that the need for religious self submission is an inherent human trait. Modern cosmopolitan liberal types have abandoned Christianity ahead of others and thought themselves enlightened for doing so, only to replace its fundamentals with a new, equally irrational belief system. The AGW/Green crowd has their rapture, their own version of original sin, and their own need to submit wholly to a greater being, they just couch them in more rational terms… mostly.

  • PeterT

    The only thing thinking about distant stars and planets made me want to do is strap myself to a bloody big carbon dioxide belching rocket and go have a better look at the shoulder of orion and what not. If De Botton wants to feel small he should look down rather than up. Sorry; couldn’t resist. I have to say I rather enjoyed Consolations of Philosophy though.

  • For example, he suggested that we have special celebrations in the calender to celebrate certain stars. Why? Because they are very big and far away – that was the “argument”

    You mean like Demis Roussos Day? Not a bad idea if you ask me.

  • Tedd

    I don’t know if I ever found the magnificence of the universe to be a good substitute for hubris. The awe-inspiring numbers of astronomy underscore the fact that human intelligence is unique throughout a very big chunk of space. It’s not too much of a stretch even to suggest that (at this moment in time) we might be unique in our entire galaxy. For me, that makes us seem awfully special.

  • OMG Endivio, you truly have a sick mind:-) I even went and googled it!

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Who needs philosophy when you’ve got Viagra?

  • alecm

    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.

    Well, they cured me of any last remnants of any kind of “god” a long time ago, which eases my mind and saves me, I sense, from yet another kind of collectivism; but I see no reason to meditate upon Betelgeuse, as AdB seemed to desire.

    Fantastic and pretty though it is, it’s not a deity, any more than our own Sun; we are better off looking to human concerns.

    A note for PaulT – proper space rockets tend not belch CO2, but water. It’s hard to get carbon based fuels to oxidise fast enough. On the shuttle there are also solid fuel boosters based on aluminium and ammonium perchlorate.

  • PeterT


    Its not ‘Paul’ but rather the other apostle beginning with P. Thanks for the lesson although I think you see what I was trying to do there.

    “Demis Roussos Day” . Is this safe to google from work?

  • So basically the good philosopher’s remedy is along the lines of:

    “Consider a walnut in Reading and a satsuma in Johannesburg”.


  • So basically the good philosopher’s remedy is along the lines of:

    “Consider a walnut in Reading and a satsuma in Johannesburg”.


  • Bod

    For those on this side of the pond or of a younger disposition, you could easily substitute Rosie O’Donnell or Beth Ditto for Demis Roussos from a dimensional standpoint.

    And yes, unless you use a VERY strange search engine, a search for Mr. Roussos is likely to be pretty safe. Not so sure about Rosie or Beth.

  • Paul Marks

    If people want to read “The Consolations of Philosophy” read the real one by Boethius.

    And if they want to read a history of philosophy since then – then read the work of Antony Flew (a great man who died only a few months ago).

    As for de Botton – he said that he discouraged his own children from reading, because reading messed people up.

    Again not a trace of irony when de Botton said this – I repeat, the man is a tosser.

  • Bod

    It’s rather sad, because for a number of years, I worked for de Botton pere, with a direct report to him.

    An intelligent, educated (and punctilious) man who held his staff to high standards and did not suffer fools gladly.

    Yeah, I liked the old man. I doubt I’d get on at all well with the current generation.

  • Paul Marks

    Was de Botton senior a businessman?

    If so de Botton would hold he was an “exploiter”.

    And if he was anything to do with publishing then he was in the business of making children unhappy and messing up their lives. By the terrible practice of encouraging reading.

    And all this from a man who writes (and sells) books.

    I know it violates the nonagression principle – but de Botton jr really needs a slap.

  • Bod

    de Botton senior was the founder and Chairman of Global Asset Management, a privately-owned investment management business.

    Formerly an executive with Rothschild’s in Switzerland, he was a very smart guy.

    The business was one of the pioneers in the fund-of-hedge-funds business and was sold to UBS in the late 90’s, after I left.

  • Paul Marks

    Many thanks Bod.

  • Kate

    Just posting one of my favorite posts from another environment blog:

    “Mother nature… will take care of the human infestation, and there aint a damn thing anyone will be able to do about it. Then she will heal her wounds, over time, and if anyone survives? They can start all over…………………… OOOOOH yes, it WILL happen.”

  • bruce k

    This “blog” is amazing, not a positive assessment. I find de Botton’s comments always interesting and thoughtful. Is everything he says worthy of carving into stone tablets … proably not, but it seems like any liberal in he United States de Botton attracts wackos and irrelevant attack by people who do not express their true aims other than by pretense to superiority and a fact-free appeal to their own dubious authority and even more dubious importance.

  • bruce k

    Oh … I see, you folks are right-wing nazis is that it ?

  • Lara Stein

    Oh … I see, you folks are right-wing nazis is that it ?

    Because anyone who disagrees with you is a nazi? And if you think the Nazi Party (short for national SOCIALIST) was a party of the “RIGHT” then you never read the Road to Serfdom (or if you did, you sure as hell didn’t understand it).