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'Progressivism' Versus Progress
John O'Sullivan • 25 Feb, 2020 • 6 Min Read
A cry is going up across the world— in Cambridge England, in Germany, and above all in Canada. It’s the cry heard down the ages from the Common People, the Reasonable Person, the Over-burdened Taxpayer, the Forgotten Man, the Silent Majority, and whoever is feeling his shoes pinching and his belt tightening. That cry today is more puzzled and poignant than usual because it expresses bafflement as well as indignation.
That cry is: “What the hell’s going on?”
The note of inquiry is entirely justified. Last week some hooligans (in Newspeak: protesters) invaded Trinity College, Cambridge and dug up its famous lawn, carting off the soil and dumping it in Barclay’s Bank. They were activists from Extinction Rebellion, or XR, a group of Green extremists, who argue that since there is a “climate emergency” that will destroy humanity, civilization, and the world in about a decade, they will take direct action now to obstruct and punish companies and institutions that “profit from” the emergency.
Their justifications for this ecological vandalism—the Trinity lawn was itself a symbol of environmental stewardship over centuries—both vary and multiply.
In this case the protesters were angry both because Trinity has investments in “fossil fuel” companies and because it had sold land to the Port of Felixstowe which might be used for a car park. Half of Britain (and most of the world) depends on fossil fuels for their energy. Industry and individual car-owners depend on car parks in order to move goods and themselves around the country. All these activities are legal, and the government regulates them to ensure that, as far as possible, they don’t impose unwanted costs on third parties or the general public. XR’s vandalism, on the other hand, imposed quite serious costs on Trinity, Barclay’s, the people living in Cambridge, and not least the environment.
Two days later, while the public outrage was still fresh, the protesters added a new complaint: the university had sold land for developers to build housing. The project in question had been designed to be environmentally sustainable. The claim of sustainability did not save it, however, because it was to be sold at a unit price of £385,000 that could only be bought by wealthy people.
A quick check via Google shows that £385,000 is lower than the average price for a Cambridge house which is a little over £388,000. So, in principle, Extinction Rebellion is opposed to building sufficient housing in Cambridge for a rising population. If XR runs out of specific justifications for its vandalism, however, that won’t really handicap it. Any extended discussion of XR’s aims invariably climaxes with its call to end “capitalism” which in XR’s ideology is the cause of all environmental ills.
Yet even a brief glance at the history of the Soviet bloc would show that it had a far worse environmental record than any Western country. Two examples from its last days suggest the ecological consequences of replacing capitalism with “socialism”: the pollution of Lake Baikal so befouled with chemicals that it actually caught fire—and the breakdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (recorded in a brilliant dramatized HBO miniseries.) Chernobyl’s breakdown scattered nuclear fallout over a large region but it was concealed for a time by a managerial bureaucracy anxious to protect the good name of Soviet nuclear power. Such risks inevitably grow when a Politburo which manages industry consists of the same people who appoint the regulators and dictate coverage in the media.
If it makes you happier, by all means call them “the People.”
Nevertheless, the environmental history of socialism provides a very weak argument for getting rid of capitalism. Yet, it is where most solutions to the climate emergency end up and, not coincidentally, where they begin too.
XR’s multiplication of justifications for their hooliganism is explicable when you realize that their predictions of doom keep not happening. And when any particular doom doesn’t happen, the climate seer needs to invent another likely catastrophe to justify his activism. Dr. Madsen Pirie, founder of the Adam Smith Institute in London, gave a fairly comprehensive list of such predictions here.
1966: Oil will run out in ten years
1967: Famines by 1975
1968: Worldwide overpopulation
1970: World's natural resources run out
1970: Ice Age by 2000
1970: Water rationing in US by 1974, food rationing by 1980
1971: New ice age by 2020 or 2030
1974: Satellites show new ice age near
1976: Scientific consensus that Earth is cooling.
1978: 30-year cooling trend continues
1980: Acid rain kills life in lakes
1980: Peak oil in 2000
1988: Regional droughts by 1990s
1988: Maldives underwater by 2018
1989: Nations will be wiped out if nothing done by 2000
2000: Children won’t know what snow is
2002: Peak Oil in 2010
2002: Famine in 10 years unless we stop eating fish, meat, and dairy products
2004: Britain will be Siberia by 2020
2008: Arctic will be ice free by 2018
2008: Al Gore predicts ice-free Arctic by 2013
2009: Prince Charles says we have 96 months to save the world
2009: Gordon Brown says we have 50 days to "save the planet from catastrophe"
2013: Arctic ice-free by 2015
2014: Only 500 days before ‘climate chaos’
Of course, Pirie was writing in 2014; the list will be longer now. But however often the predictions are falsified, the soothsayers never admit error. Like the religious lunatics who assemble on a mountain to witness the Apocalypse in this Peter Cook sketch, their conclusion is always: “Okay, next week, same time, same place. We must get a winner some time.”
This combination of hooliganism and hysteria is happening not only in Cambridge. Similar protests erupted recently in Germany where the local XR activists were trying to halt the building of a factory that will manufacture electric cars. (Such are the contradictions of climate emergency ideology.) Parts of London have been repeatedly brought to a halt by XR demonstrators who have glued themselves to streets and police vehicles in recent months to demand a change in government energy policy from its current enthusiasm for carbon reduction to monomaniacal passion on the topic. And as readers of The Pipelineknow better than anyone, half of Canada has been effectively immobilized by protesters who block railroads and highways in a campaign of forceful obstruction to prevent a pipeline that has passed every legal, democratic, and indigenous test laid down by governments hostile to it.
All of these cases of activism, though described as “non-violent,” involve the use of force to prevent individuals and companies going about their lawful business or simply going about. This is worth pondering. If protesters leave others only a choice between using force of their own to overcome obstruction or abandoning their lawful business, it is false to describe the obstruction as non-violent. Obstruction is itself a kind of tame violence—which is why laws in every country prohibit it. And why the police are required by law to intervene, prevent the obstruction, and enable the general public to live their lives.
Which brings us to a curious aspect of these protests—namely, the passive (and sometimes active) cooperation of the police and governments with the protesters. In Cambridge the police discussed with XR protesters which roads should be closed; they were on hand to see that their obstructionism observed the agreement; and they stopped members of the general public from removing the obstacles erected (one of which forced an ambulance to turn back.) They took no action to prevent the digging up of the Trinity lawn. Nor does Trinity seem to have requested their intervention. And though they have since brought charges against people suspected of offenses in these cases, that was probably in reaction to the angry and widespread public criticism of their previous inaction.
Earlier that inaction had been defended by a police spokesman on the grounds that legislation gives police a duty to superintend political protests. That seems right. But commonsense suggests that it means they should regulate such protests rather than assist them to gain their objectives. Laws also require the police to enable ordinary citizens to go about their lawful business unhindered. Taking those two duties together, they require police to regulate protests in such a way as to enable citizens to go about their lawful business. If it comes to a choice between those two duties, helping members of the public should come ahead of enforcing the will of activists upon them.
In the case of Canada, an entire government has been wobbling nervously for more than a week in order to avoid enforcing public order on left-wing and environmentalist constituencies whose support it is reluctant to lose. Only when those defending the pipeline failed to surrender in a timely fashion did the Trudeau government move—still nervously—to require that the law and the democratic decision making process it supports be upheld. And as to that, we’ll see.
For the moment, these different but similar events illustrate the degree to which our political life throughout the West has been changed by the cultural conquest of our institutions by progressive ideas. Under progressive governments which sympathize with the protesters, of course, but also under conservative governments which fear to challenge a respectable orthodoxy even when it breaks the rules that are supposed to govern everyone.
That conquest, which had already taken over the HR departments of corporations, the media, and even the armed forces, has now spread to the police who seem to have imbibed the silliest sociological ideas of the last few decades. In these cases they apparently have decided that the police should, where any choice exists, side with the protesters against society—even when, as here, the protest movement is unusually “white”—against the respectable classes who bear the odium of keeping society’s rules, obeying the law, and seeking change only through democratic channels. It looks liberal, but it is really a form of anarchy. And an anarchic police force is not something to treat lightly. It is odd and perhaps sinister.
Which is why people say: “What the hell is going on?”
John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.