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The Big Cause

Jonathan Abbott, whom we have seen mentioned on Samizdata before, has a rumination on not so much on environmentalism’s excesses but the underpinning psychology.

There is a type of person that needs to be part of a Big Cause. They cannot seem to accept the probability that they live in unexceptional times, that they themselves are thoroughly ordinary and will leave no lasting mark behind when they are gone. The number of individuals that substantially affect the course of history is vanishingly small and the mass of real progress takes place in tiny steps carried out by anonymous individuals. It is usually only in the collective total of our uncoordinated efforts that mankind as a whole advances in any way.

Some Big Causes do greatly benefit mankind (such as the programme to eradicate smallpox) but most, however well-intentioned initially, result in great harm. Many of the most damaging ones, for example fascism and communism, require another Big Cause to end them. Adherents to a particular Cause will necessarily not see it as just another campaign for progress, but as THE Big Cause, the movement that will change the historical paradigm and catapult humanity into a dazzling future.

Carrying out the personal actions prescribed by The Cause marks them out as one of the elect, and from then on no matter how commonplace other aspects of their life may be, they will have made their mark. They mattered.

This sort of belief is terribly seductive. As noted above, I do not think that all Big Causes are harmful, and I am not suggesting that only a bunch of no-hope losers would sign up for a Big Cause. However, for the most popular Big Causes of the twentieth century, this sort of optimistic, wishful thinking turned out to be a mere fairy tale. Indeed, the brutal and violent nature of the Big Causes of the previous century meant that only a sentiment-based, appeal to emotion Cause such as Climate Alarmism could arise in their wake.

And now as the end-game of Climate Alarmism as a major political force comes into view, I find myself wondering what will be the effect on the mass of its adherents. Historical Big-Causers such as Robespierre, Mao and the majority of their followers went to their graves convinced they had been doing the right thing, never renouncing the horrific by-products of their dogmas. Once signed up to a Big Cause, few ever leave. Will it be the same for the Alarmists?

One of the things that I find hardest to swallow is that the political, NGO and civil service fools wasting vast quantities of public money in the name of Alarmism are told on a daily basis by their fellow travellers in the media that they are doing a Great Thing. They are resolutely building a better world for everyone, especially for the oft-invoked archetypal grandchildren. Most of these apparatchiks will go to their graves convinced they spent their lives helping their fellow humans.

Even if the science behind their beliefs becomes publicly as discredited as that which denigrated plate tectonics, they will excuse themselves as being the innocent and well-meaning victims of deception. Their ignorance is their shield.

For the hard core of true believers, the Alarmist Cause will never die and they will follow it resolutely into the sunset, becoming the Trotskyites and Eugenicists of the future. Irrelevance will swallow them. For the less resolute, who come to accept the fall of Alarmism (or at least realise it has become a waste of time), the banner of other Causes will be raised instead. The beginnings of these new Causes will even now be growing and are probably already visible, just not gathering much media attention. Yet.

My guess is that many of the Alarmists will deflect their anti-capitalist neo-ludditism into campaigns against genetic engineering and nanotechnology; nascent movements to oppose both are already growing. Inevitably they will once again claim unequivocally that the science is on their side, even as they shut down scientific debate and rail against genuine scientific progress.

Unfortunately, it will not be until long after the worst Alarmists are dead that they will finally be grouped with the Malthusians and Lysenkoists as they deserve.

29 comments to The Big Cause

  • Rob

    “The number of individuals that substantially affect the course of history is vanishingly small”

    And the number who do so in a positive way is even smaller.

  • bloke in spain

    Curious how the only beneficial “Big Cause” you’ve come up with is the eradication of smallpox. And I’ll bet you had to think long & hard for that one. At the root of all Big Causes lies a hoax. Religion, communism, fascism, eugenics, radical environmentalism… That they’re the One Answer to perceived ills. And what will the next one be?
    So, bearing in mind folk are so gullible, how about giving them one. Fly a space vehicle out to Oort cloud & once it’s a good long way away let it broadcast a signal back to earth. An invite to join the Peace Loving United Galactic Gommunity. But one catch. The acceptance has to be delivered, by hand in person, to Alpha Centauri.To prove we’re fit & proper shaved apes to join. That should keep the Big Causers occupied for a century or so & maybe generate a few benefits in the process. Give the rest of us a break.

  • steve

    Nah, genetic engineering and nanotechnology will seem like small potatoes to the failed alarmists. After all, alarmism gave them an excuse to push for socialist measures on a world scale. Of course they will oppose genetic engineering and nanotechnology but they will long for, and my guess is find, an excuse for world domination as good as alarmism.

  • Charles Pooter

    There’s nothing better for them than CAGW. It is the ultimate externality and example of “market failure”. They won’t let this cause die and you’re complacent if you think they are not still winning.

  • No they are not ‘winning’, they are most definitely on the defensive now… but that does not mean they are actually defeated… not by a long shot.

  • Chip

    We’re still spending trillions on carbon mitigation, nationalized healthcare and unfunded liabilities in general. Massive immigration of rural poor into the US where they will embrace entitlements and permanently elect the party that supports those entitlements is the next big cause.


    No. We will be lucky to come out of this. Personally I see it as a race between the law of accelerating returns and the statists.

    Not clear yet who will prevail.

  • For those that think the Alarmists still hold the whip hand, you only have to see how frantically the previously Mr Green Tax Ed Milliband is rowing back from the effects of Green energy taxes to understand how things have changed. Climate Alarmism is dead, but the corpse is so big it will take years to decay.

    As for anti-GM and nanotechnology, wait a few years until the spin merchants really get going. They will be screaming for global statist action soon enough.

  • Regional

    Man has four basic needs: water, food, shelter and security and seven higher needs one of which is to be involved in ‘big causes’ snollyguster exploit this to get their snouts in the trough and the power. If they were the righteous people they claim they are they wouldn’t draw benefits from the public purse.

  • Dom

    “They cannot seem to accept the probability that they live in unexceptional times …”

    I wonder though. Maybe what they can’t accept is that we live in miraculous times. Reading this blog on an iPad is a miracle, probably thought to be impossible just three decades ago. It is also a miracle that our environment is so good and getting better by leaps and bounds, in ways that they can not understand or accept. Email reduced the use of paper and increased communication, and did so at a time that they were trying to recycle paper and make us all poorer. The Big Cause gives them a ground to stand on.

  • Mr Ed

    Readers of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may recall how false alarmist tales were used to persuade the useless third of the population of the planet Golgafrincham to set off for what became Earth (the plan backfired).

    Should we have such a fleet prepared, we could load the Alarmists, welfare wastrels and many local government staff etc. off on, say, Mars.

  • jim west

    As some above have observed, there is nothing in prospect for these people that is anywhere near as good as the CAGW scam. It gives a blanket excuse for taking control over energy supplies, the absolute foundation of modern industrialized societies.

    For this reason, I believe that we will see more effort go into prolonging the same mad actions (taxing and/ or shutting down fossil fuel energy supplies) using different justifications. We already see this in the emerging “ocean acidification” bogey, as well as the renewed emphasis on arguing along resource depletion lines (“Oh, even if CAGW doesn’t happen, we still must move to clean, green, renewable energy supplies as the fossil fuels are running out, blah, blah, blah”)

  • veryretired

    While I generally agree with your post, with some reservations, the question that occurs to me is not, “What’s the next big deal going to be?”, but why do we so quickly assume, and surrender to, the idea that it will be some enormously dangerous and irrational crusade?

    The last century and more is not only an example of the failures of various collectivist variations, it is also a very painful example of how seemingly rational and empirical people could be so badly out debated and out maneuvered.

    The question is not, “What’s going to be the next irrational nonsense that consumes and damages our cultural development?”, but what are we going to do, and say, and accomplish, to make that “next new thing” be the primacy of the dignity and liberty of the individual.

    Of course there will be some new lunacy. Instead of trying to plan a holding action, why don’t we plan our campaign to go on the attack?

    We’ve had over 100 years of Gen. Maclellan, we need a century of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

  • Kevin B

    The next big cause will be the one that underlies the current one; overpopulation.

    Dig into the background of some of the main drivers, (political and scientific), of CAGW and you will find them railing against the ‘population explosion’ or talking of ‘optimum population’ levels. ‘Global Warming’, (and all its derivatives), is a convenient peg on which to hang measures which will result in the culling of the herd.

    The writer of this piece mentioned eugenics as a failed ‘big cause’ but the ideas behind eugenics are still very much alive and the statist elite are still very much enamoured of policies that they consider will see the planet ‘cleansed’ of ‘inferior’ specimens. Oh they won’t admit to being keen on mass slaughter and genocide, though some of the more outspoken will talk of mankind as a ‘virus’, (by which they usually mean the rest of mankind), but the desire for world government with the concommitant ablility to impose things like energy rationing on all of us, (especially the developing world), is their true goal.

    And they’re doing it all for our own good.

  • Classicist

    Another suitable aspect of AGW for adoption as a Great Socialist Cause is its ability to substitute for Faith, which many people started no neglect or reject in the decades preceding its emergence. AGW’s pseudo-religious qualities have been pointed out before.
    Christianity, however, is not at all a Great Cause, nor do other religions tend to be. The actions it urges on us are not great unified projects but individual virtuous ones, and salvation of one man cannot be entered into a pool with others engaged in the same great cause.
    Hence the Great Causes we have seen detested religion. I would also point out that the less wishy washy and more credible parts of the Churches have not embraced the AGW Cause.

  • Dishman

    I see this as being of two parts:
    1) Tribalism. People want to be part of a tribe, which does things and achieves things.
    2) How history is studied and taught. There is a lot of emphasis placed on big names and big movements, ignoring the underlying fabric that makes the big events possible.

    As for AGW, “It works on static electricity in solid-state like rain works in the atmosphere.”

  • I think that eugenics has been so discredited that it can now only be approached obliquely by it’s would-be practioners. Climate Alarmism was the perfect vehicle, and I do agree with the post above that population control will remain a definite goal for those so inclined, though rarely acknowledged as such.

  • Jim

    I disagree with those who say the Warmists as still winning. They may still be ahead (in terms of what they have pushed through in public policy) but the direction of travel has altered. The concept of making energy more and more expensive has finally hit the buffers of reality – modern life is predicated on huge amounts of energy use, so at some point the masses will push back, and thats where we are now. The concept of politicians complaining about the price of energy is huge. Yes they’re aiming at all the wrong targets (of course) but that’ll come later. Once they’ve accepted energy cannot become increasingly out of reach of ordinary people the rest of the ‘carbon reduction’ bollocks falls to one side. Yes they can rail against the energy companies for a bit, but that won’t solve the problem. Its a ‘stages of acceptance’ thing – we cannot expect politicians to have Damascene conversions, they are going to have to turn slowly to protect their own egos.

    It probably didn’t look like the Allied powers were winning WW2 in late 1942, not from within and at the time. But with hindsight they were and it was one way traffic by and large thereafter. Thats where we are now with the Warmists. We’re about halfway through. We’re past El Alamein (Copenhagen) and Stalingrad (‘The Pause’). By 2020 it will be obvious who is going to win, though victory will not have happened. By 2030 it will be all over and people will look back and wonder what we were all thinking from 1990 to 2010 to have behaved so madly.

  • pete

    I’m not convinced by the Big Cause theory.

    These days many people go to university and consider themselves educated.

    A significant minority of them feel the need to be seen to have some sort of intellectual competence.

  • Stuck-Record

    As realistic as I think the above piece is, I myself share no such optimism.

    Fifty years after Marxism was unambiguously shown to be a functional impossibility, it’s disciples control, almost uncontested, the MSM, the entire public education system, the civil service, all layers of govt, the arts, publicly funded science and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

    They’re not going anywhere.

    Scientific breakthrough could falsify CAGW tomorrow, with almost every mainstream scientist screaming its untruth, and the new establishment would simply switch into Homeopathy/GM/Marxist mode.

    This time it will only end when we start trying and imprisoning the guilty men and women.

  • Unfortunately I have to agree with Stuck-Record.

  • PaulM

    Reports of the death of climate alarmism have been greatly exaggerated.
    It’s alive and well in the media and in our 3 main political parties.

  • Jim

    No wavering in the ranks, Ladies and Gents. We have the equivalent of the Red Army behind us. Apollo. Helios. Ra. El Sol himself. The outcome is never in doubt now the Sun has decided to hibernate. By 2020 we will have had a number of particularly nasty winters and temperatures will be lower than today. Faith in AGW may be strong, but it dissipates in the cold. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there will be no AGW believers shivering in unheated houses.

  • JohnB

    becoming the Trotskyites and Eugenicists of the future.

    In purely ‘rational’ terms, what’s wrong with eugenics?

  • In purely ‘rational’ terms, what’s wrong with eugenics?

    Simple really. It is not possible to have a ‘rational’ public discussion on the subject. It should be, but the evidence is really overwhelmingly clear on that… it ain’t. Can’t be done.

    In the first half of the 20th century, its supporters were the pseudo-scientific irrational ones, resulting in some of the most grotesque atrocities in human history and placing eugenics beyond the pale for the next century or two. Since then, it has been the opponents of eugenics who have tended to be the irrational ones, which has resulted in some bizarre public policy… but by comparison, it is pretty clear which route has resulted in more horrors.

  • Mr Ed

    placing eugenics beyond the pale for the next century or two

    If only, but the Social Democrat types in Sweden kept the dark fires of eugenics burning until the mid-1970s.

    Collectivists may differ in their methods and aims, but at heart they differ only in their relative degree of vileness.

  • Midwesterner

    In purely ‘rational’ terms, what’s wrong with eugenics?

    If it is self inflicted, then nothing. It can even be a very sound moral choice as in the case of a couple I know of who found out, after having two profoundly mentally disabled children, that they both carried a very high probably of passing on bad DNA. They choose to remove their DNA from the gene pool by not having any more children and protecting their disabled daughters against any assault that could have resulted in children (the daughters were completely incapable of any form of consent).

    The problem with eugenics is that like all social engineering schemes, when collectivists do it, they always aim it at others, exempting themselves, and carry it out over the dead bodies of anybody who gets in the way of their utopian fantasies.

  • joel

    I have to sign on with the Tribalism and Big Cause theories combined with a very limited scientific education and an unearned high self-regard, coupled with a need to control others.

    Did I leave anything out?

    Oh,yes. A contempt for people who disagree combined with a complete lack of any logical thought to defend a point of view. Emotion and group think will suffice.

    Did I mention ignorance? Not just in science, but in history, where numerous examples of such madness can be studied for self-edification.

    Like Fascism, this movement will never die, merely mutant or go underground a while to survive.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Environmentalism is not quite the same sort of Big Cause. For one thing, there is no “opposition”. No one is in favor of pollution. There is resistance to environmentalist measures, sometimes because they are excessive or misguided, and sometimes because someone prefers to externalize costs. But no one argues that the problem shouldn’t be solved. And relatively few people are deeply involved in the Cause. For nearly all, it’s just a fashion item, not a way of life.

    The CAGW scam is less a Great Cause than an excuse for graft and a stalking horse for authoritarian agendas.

    Where the Great Cause syndrome seems most applicable to me is the ongoing hysteria about racism.

  • Rich Rostrom

    veryretired @ October 12, 2013 at 6:54 am: Instead of trying to plan a holding action, why don’t we plan our campaign to go on the attack?

    We’ve had over 100 years of Gen. Maclellan, we need a century of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

    McClellan’s great flaw was that he had a big army, but wouldn’t use it aggressively.

    Grant won because he fought hard without hesitation and he had more troops than Lee. If you want to be U.S. Grant, you need a big army.