The Greatest Lie Ever Told
Apart from a hat-tip in the direction of one of the most epic films ever made (i.e. The Greatest Story Ever Told ), and my wishing all readers a Happy Easter (or to be entirely politically-correct, a ‘joyous Spring Equinox festival of renewal’), this post has very little to do with Christianity…
In centuries long past, if you upset someone in China they might well have cursed you by saying, “May you live in interesting times” and to be sure, today, we do indeed live in interesting times. These are Strange Days on Planet Earth (National Geographic).
600 years ago it was the Church of Rome that was doing all the lying and obfuscation and, if books had then been invented, they would have been burning them. Then along came the Enlightenment, seeking to rid humanity of mysticism and supposedly-irrational explanations for anything; and instead to explain everything in scientific terms. Of course the great irony of this was that, building on the wisdom of ancient Greek and Chinese thinkers – and the amazing early maths of medieval Muslim scholars – the success of this anti-irrational crusade was facilitated by the Christian belief in a rational God and, therefore, a rational Universe.
Thus, although we have much for which we should be grateful to the Enlightenment, this does not include the fact that it bequeathed to posterity the belief that human beings are superior to nature (rather than being part of it). Was this the greatest lie ever told? I think not; and for two reasons: It was not a lie; and it was never told. It was an erroneous consequence of an intellectual assumption about the way the World is: It was an error in reasoning; a fallacy.
History is full of fallacies. Take the various fallacies built upon the work of Charles Darwin: Darwin is one of the most influential scientists that ever lived; and his life’s work – to explain the consequences of his thinking about his observations of nature for our understanding of our place in it – has been misrepresented in many different ways: As well as being vilified by those that felt threatened by him, Darwin’s ideas have been abused and misused to justify all sorts of bad ideas from Marxism to Fascism; and from the Meritocracy of modern-day USA to global laissez-faire Capitalism. But, are any of these things the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so…
In the second half of the 20th Century, humans seemed to finally realise that killing people in large numbers (as part of military conflict) was probably best avoided; and so was founded the United Nations and what would later become the European Union. By virtuous pursuit of international co-operation, may be now global peace and security could be realised? Unfortunately, global laissez-faire Capitalism, which John Gray has suggested was “[a]lways a utopian project” (i.e. in False Dawn: The delusions of global capitalism, [2009: xiv]), was doomed to failure because of the fallacious thinking it inherited from the Enlightenment: This allowed money fetishism to take hold and, with profit elevated from a means-to-an-end up to an-end-in-itself, human beings were bound to exploit nature without mercy (i.e. “mistake nature’s capital for a source of income” [E. F. Schumacher]; and/or “treat the Earth as a business in liquidation” [Herman E. Daly]); and to refuse to listen to anyone that said it has inherent or intrinsic value – let alone anyone that says nature has a right to exist… Were the fallacies identified by Schumacher or Daly the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so…
However, the greatest lie ever told has a strong pedigree; a bit like the British Empire: Here in the UK, the BBC recently screened a 5-part series on the latter presented by Jeremy Paxman. As he tends to do when interviewing people, Paxman pulled no punches with our Imperialist past either; privateering (i.e. government-sanctioned piracy and theft); the slave trade, the opium wars, the suppression of any and all opposition to British rule – it was all recounted in excruciating detail… The British Empire undoubtedly did a lot of good to an awful lot of people; but it also abused its position and ultimately outlived its usefulness: Thus, we had to be forced to relinquish it, piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit. So, was “Britannia Rules the Waves” the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so.
However, driven by greed – and the idolisation of the notion of free trade – the British Empire became the greatest exponent of corporate lies, hypocrisy, and double-standards the World had seen and – as such – I would argue has been the inspiration for all multi-national businesses that have since copied its modus operandi. As a result, in the service of their god of profit, we have been lied to by these business people repeatedly for over 100 years and been variously told that:
Heroin addiction is socially acceptable.
Smoking cigarettes is sophisticated.
The Titanic is unsinkable.
The War will be over by Christmas.
Things can only get better.
Hitler is not dangerous.
Smoking is not harmful.
Organic pesticides are more effective than natural predators.
You’ve never had it so good.
Organic pesticides are safe.
Population growth is not a problem.
Famine and starvation are a thing of the past.
Limits to growth do not exist.
Mutually assured destruction is a sensible military strategy.
Smoking does not cause cancer.
The hole in the ozone layer is not there.
CFCs aren’t causing the hole in the ozone layer.
Acid rain does not exist.
We are not causing acid rain.
We can’t afford to prevent acid rain.
Passive smoking is not dangerous.
But are any of these the greatest lie ever told? No, I don’t think so.
However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, and the disintegration of the former USSR, it was then that the lie was forced upon the public consciousness with single-minded determination. Although conceived as a reaction to supposedly “liberal-minded nonsense” spouted in the late sixties and early seventies by supposedly subversive academics (even those whose work was funded by plutocrats like The Club of Rome), it suddenly became possible to convince people, in the absence of any other enemy, that those who espouse concern for the environment are Communists in disguise (or “Watermelons” as James Delingpole likes to call them) – this is the greatest lie ever told.
However, this lie is rarely explicitly stated: Far more often it is dressed-up and/or made to seem more reasonable by claims that humanity is too insignificant to affect our climate; the climate will not change faster than we can adapt to it; we are not causing the climate to change; we cannot afford to prevent climate change; and/or climate change has stopped.
In effect, all such claims can be replaced with one: Environmental “alarmists” are just “crying wolf”. In the face of complex science and supposedly-conflicting truth claims, this is a very seductive reason for doing nothing: It is a very convenient and facile argument used by those whose sole aim is to prevent effective action being taken to regulate their business activities – those who prioritise their freedom to make a short-term profit over the long-term interests of the Environment; and what is in the interests of the long-term habitability of planet Earth. However, with my thanks to Jules B. for pointing this out to me, to accept this one must forget that, in the fairy-tale, the wolf eventually turns up!