She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas

‘Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books.’

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, and it is quite disappointing. There is little by way of intellectual excitement, sense of discovery or curiosity to be had from the book. Yes, it contains lots of facts and figures, but they can mostly be googled if you need them. And yes, there is also an argument, but if you’ve read any of her earlier work, you somehow know what it is before you start reading. You get the feeling that Klein possessed all the relevant answers before she sat down to write, and she disposes of a small army of researchers working for her, providing the data she needs to connect the dots that she has already drawn up. After the initial, enlightening documentation of entanglements between politicians, resource companies and large environmental organisations, the book quickly becomes predictable, regularly showing that the answer to most questions you’d care to ask about climate change and inequality is that capitalism is bad and some form of socialism, or at least local autonomy, is the only solution. It is not a stupid or evil thought, but it is not exactly original, to put it mildly. For example, this is pretty much what we used to say in the environmental movement of the 1970s. Like Klein, we had a soft spot for indigenous groups then. But we soon understood that although the nature management of some indigenous groups could be inspiring, they could never provide a blueprint for a global, urban civilization which was committed to a division of labour entailing that most people no longer knew the details of food production.

Modernity, in a word, has to solve the problems it has created without regressing or abdicating. The moment you see this complexity, you are already entangled in paradoxes. And you come to understand that there is no solution, no master plan, no button to press, just better and worse ways of muddling through. Years ago, as a board member of the Sophie Prize, I co-organised a one-day event entitled ‘From know-how to do now’. Notwithstanding the rickety pun, our starting point was that knowledge about environmental degradation and climate change is easily available and has been so for many years, but very little is actually being done, and realistic solutions are hard to come by. Little came out of this conference as well, but at least it left us, the organisers, with the realisation that it is necessary to try out a variety of options, from campaigning for renewable energy to promoting new forms of consumption and production. What is needed is not a grand plan or a new theory of human nature, but political imagination.

Of course, it is excellent news that a smart, earnest left-wing campaigner and journalist like Klein, with her global readership and wide-ranging influence, has come to realise that you have to take the environment and climate seriously in order to act upon global social injustice. She writes in a fluid and accessible style, makes sure to get her facts right, and believes in knowledge as a means to change politics.

Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books. She doesn’t seem to have learnt a single lesson from the failed utopian ideologies and experiments of the last two centuries. She seems oblivious of the complexity of human nature, and appears to be unaware of how a struggling liberation movement overnight tends to change into an oppressive dictatorship. She seems to have forgotten the deep disillusion that invariably sets in soon after a successful revolution.

As politically engaged teenagers, we used to joke, inspired by a May ’68 slogan, that ‘when the last capitalist is hanged with the guts of the last bureaucrat, humanity will finally be free’. Yet, having read Orwell’s Animal Farm and skimmed a bit of Nietzsche and Foucault, we knew that the desire for power and the impulse of selfishness is just as integral a part of human nature as solidarity and sharing. So when the last capitalist was finally disposed of by the struggling and heroic revolutionary forces, new forms of power and oppression would soon emerge. Nothing in human history tells us otherwise. This is why power must never be centralised, and why state socialism is not a recipe for liberation. (Klein is aware of the latter, but seems overly optimistic about the ability of social movements to transform the world system.)

There are villains and heroes in Klein’s narrative about climate change. The villains are, in descending order of magnitude, greedy capitalists, power-hungry or stupid politicians, green, but still profit-seeking capitalists, and large environmental organisations which all too readily get into bed with capitalists and politicians. The message is that green capitalism will never save the planet, and so a different kind of economic system is needed. Klein sees hope, in particular, in popular uprisings against environmental destruction, but also in local resistance movements worldwide, from Cree in Alberta to farmers in Australia.

What Klein fails to recognise is that the people rising up against environmental destruction nearly invariably have a vested interest in doing so. They may be indigenous peoples used to hunting and fishing in their local forest, or farmers who see their livelihood threatened by the encroaching gas wells, or people involved in a local tourist business which depends on pristine surroundings. Those who appear to be independent tend to be people like myself – middle-class, bookish, cappuccino-sipping do-gooders – or professional NGO workers, whose salaries depend on their efforts for the global environment. In other words, discarding enlightened self-interest as a fundamental source of motivation for people around the world, no matter their culture or material circumstances, would be denying a fundamental feature of human nature.

Rather than refusing to accept that competition and selfishness inevitably bubble to the surface in every society – albeit to varying degrees, and with great variation between individuals – what needs to be put into place are policies from above and cultural changes from below that make sustainability a rational option, even in situations when we humans are driven by competitive or selfish desires. Severe green taxes might be an option, that is, not only making the polluter pay (which remains important), but also making the consumer pay: Whenever I took my car somewhere, it would cost a substantial sum, but taking the tram would be free. Eating local lamb, which has actually grazed outdoors, would be really good value, whereas pork fed by soy pellets from Brazil would be almost prohibitive.

At the same time, a change in mentality is necessary, and it may be under way in some of the richer corners of the world. The term affluenza was coined some years ago, referring to the now well documented fact that extreme affluence does not make people happier. (I wrote a book about this in Norwegian some years ago.) Consumerism works fine for most of us up to a point, but it is not sufficient; it is not fulfilling in the same way as religion used to be. Humans need something more enduring; and seeing yourself in a global context, as an integral part of Gaia (a metaphor, coined by James Lovelock at a suggestion from his friend William Golding, depicting the planet as an organism), may well be the kind of religiosity is needed in this secularised, consumerist, individualising world, where the old religions have little to contribute except complacency, regression and conflict.

Naomi Klein has no faith in such measures. She seems to envision a world where the profit-seeking motive (or selfishness, or the competitive drive) has been abolished or at least brought under control. But two centuries of utopian political thinking has led to nothing but tragedy and disillusion, and no comparative anthropology worthy of its credentials can point to a society where solidarity and mutual aid are the only social forces. Yes, it is true that we humans like to cooperate, and we like to be liked by others. But we also like to win and to be admired by others. Creating a decent society is not done once and for all; it is an ongoing project, and it entails hard work. And the serpent is never far away.

In recent decades, the traditional left has failed in two major areas, namely diversity (including multiculturalism) and environmentalism (including climate change). The left – mainly Marxism and its permutations – simply wasn’t made for these issues. It excelled in promoting equal rights and equal benefits, but soon proved incompetent in dealing with cultural diversity (which has a complicated relationship to equality) and environmental crises (which cannot easily be reconciled with traditional demands for equality, which have historically presupposed economic growth).

However much I sympathise with Klein’s views, I feel an almost constant urge to contradict her. There is something profoundly irritating about her knack for simple just-so stories about the evils of corporations and the virtues of common folk, stories which ultimately come across as repetitive with a hint of smugness. She is one of those people who always has a ready answer. There is not much by way of complexity or ambivalence in her writings. She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas. For example, she rarely zooms in on people who actually work in the fossil fuel industry – perhaps, a decade ago, she would have portrayed them as potential socialists and working-class heroes – and when she finally does write about the foot soldiers of the fossil fuel industry, all she has to say concerns their high divorce rates, substance abuse and thwarted dreams of early retirement. People I know in Australia tell different stories. Surely, they recognise the problems Klein mentions. Fly-in-fly-out work is disruptive of family life and disturbs the rhythms of civil society. But at the same time, thousands of people make good money and have a reasonably harmonious life as workers in the fossil fuel world. Imagine yourself a school leaver in Central Queensland. You are just seventeen, and you are thoroughly fed up with school, so higher education is out of the question. Luckily, you can get a job as an apprentice with the local alumina factory. After a few years, you can begin to pay down the mortgage on a house. Still a few years later, you earn more money than a university professor. And you’re then supposed to listen when some middle-class people from the big city come and lecture you about climate change and the need to close down your workplace? The truth is that in many countries – Norway, Canada, Australia, Russia – working in extractive or energy-intensive industries can be a blessing for poorly educated members of the working class. I’m sure that Klein wants to educate them, but I’m not so certain that they will want to listen to her.

Klein must be commended for her engagement and conscientious search for statistics and stories that demonstrate the need to think radically differently about the future of the species and the planet, and which show that the economic and political elites cannot be counted on as the instigators of change. And, to repeat, it is really good news that a leftist campaigner of her stature has discovered the importance of environmental questions. Her critique of the naïve faith in technological solutions, exemplified through visionary capitalists like Richard Branson and dangerous, megalomaniac ideas about geoengineering, is also important and pertinent. Yet, the feeling lingers that Klein proposes 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. In fact, there is no historical subject in the narrative about global climate change, unlike in the stories about social reforms and radical working classes. We are all in this together, and every effort counts. There is a real danger that while Klein and her allies are busy fighting corporate greed, business elites are being alienated, politicians align (as they tend to) with the economically powerful, and the little guy with a green engagement is left with few options left other than sorting his rubbish and taking his bike to work. As if that would make a difference in the effort to save Antarctica and the Maldives.

No holier-than-thou rhetoric will do the trick. It is necessary for greens of all shades to get their hands dirty and jump into bed at the first convenient moment with whichever strange bedfellows are at hand to offer their services.

Whatever happened to prog?

Progressive rock can be seen as a barometer of the Zeitgeist of its time. Not only was there optimism, but there was also a widespread belief that it was possible to do things differently. All sorts of things, really.

Last night, I watched ‘Prog Rock Britannia’, a BBC documentary about progressive rock. Mainly focusing on a handful of groups starting in the late 1960s and reaching their creative zenith before the mid-1970s, the film has insights to offer about cultural change, group identities and even the political, and this does not just apply to those who happen to be fans of prog rock. The period starting with the Summer of Love (1967) and fizzling out during the recession of the late seventies, which would soon bring Thatcher and Reagan to power, represented a window of opportunity which was unprecedented and has, so far, not been replicated. It was as if the future were wide open, essentially benign and open for experimentation. The music scene was part of this generous, undogmatic, freewheeling spirit (that of ’67 rather than ’68). You could play in a 15/8 rhythm and still stay in decent hotels when on tour. You could produce concept albums with 23-minute songs and impenetrable lyrics vaguely based on ancient Tibetan scrolls, and the world was at your feet. You could search for unusual chords and unheard voicings, you could compose dauntingly complicated pieces of music merging influences from Stravinsky, Bo Diddley and West African drum patterns, and your work would still be filed under ‘popular’. There was an extraordinary creativity in popular music, with its epicentre in Britain, from around 1967 to around 1976, which closely paralleled the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time.

The optimism and creativity of this time is long gone, but perhaps it is time to revisit it. Indeed, it is possible to read both mistakes, dead ends, lost opportunities and genuinely useful visions into the history of prog rock. Let’s have a look.

The first, tricky question, still discussed regularly by aficionados on internet forums and over beers, concerns the boundaries of the category of prog. Now, the first law of group theory states that there must be criteria for group membership. Groucho Marx famously quipped that he’d be loath to join a club that wanted him as a member, and group membership is often assigned, from the outside, to people who would rather be someone else. In an influential text on ethnicity, the anthropologist Fredrik Barth delineates ethnic identity as a function of self-ascription and the ascription by others. I cannot reasonably claim that I am a Chinese, even if I should feel Chinese all the way down, unless a critical number of significant others accept my Chineseness. Otherwise, I’d just make a fool of myself by trying to lay claim to a Chinese identity.

Belonging to a group confers and presupposes both meaning and utility: It has to make sense in the broader context of my self-understanding, and it has to provide me with some kind of resource, material or immaterial. As a rule, smaller groups have clearer and stricter principles of membership than larger groups, and are more acutely aware of their identity. As a minority, you are continuously confronted with your minority identity, while members of a majority are far more rarely reminded of the fact that they are a majority.

Minorities, acutely aware of the necessity of boundary-work, tend to bifurcate. In Life of Brian, the Judean Liberation Front gets into trouble with the rivalling Liberation Front of Judea, and in the world of prog, classifiers, such as the people responsible for the excellent Progarchives website, have a field day applying labels, sub-labels and, in rare instances, sub-sub-labels. For example, there is Kraut (Can, Faust, Guru Guru and Amon Düül, not to forget Amon Düül II); there is Canterbury of course (Hatfield & The North, Caravan, Soft Machine), and, naturally, Zeuhl (Magma and its permutations). And then, obviously, there are all the others.

Yet – as any student of social identity soon comes to realise – quite a few people, not least artists, have such a strong minority identity (or perhaps it’s just their individualism) that they eschew any label at all. (James Joyce, for one, famously declared himself a sovereign nation.) So Peter Hammill, whose career spanning over four decades has been extraordinarily brilliant and prolific, has always tried to wriggle out of the straitjacket ‘prog’, although he is widely seen as a quintessential progressive artist, an icon even. To take another example, Pink Floyd are seen as a prog band by many outsiders and casual listeners, but prog fans tend to be ambivalent: Although Floyd were an innovative band in their first decade, creating new soundscapes and dreamlike atmospheres reminiscent of the kinds of things progressive bands did, their music is actually quite mainstream in the sense that it is mostly based on twelve-bar blues, and with conventional instrumentation. I should say that it is mostly not prog, but with strong prog elements until ‘The Wall’. Zappa? He was a universe in himself. File not under prog, but under Frank.

* * *

The BBC documentary didn’t quite manage to convey this diversity, and yet it is important for the wider implications – cultural as well as political – of prog. The general narrative of the film is credible enough, even if simplistic. It starts around 1967. The focus is exclusively on the UK, which is fair enough. When The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, by far their most sophisticated record up to then, in terms of composition, instrumentation and sound, they showed the world that the language of pop and rock could be extended in all sorts of directions, and that there were in principle no limits.

Around the same time, young bands such as The Nice, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and Soft Machine were, in their own ways, extending the language of pop and rock, introducing lengthy improvisations, unexpected chord changes, real musicianship and/or unconventional instruments. Their slightly younger cousins were inspired and began to experiment on their own. So by 1970, lots of people had formed bands aiming to extend and experiment and develop rhythmic music in new directions – Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Caravan, ELP and so on. At the outset, record companies and audiences (typically great-coated art school students or precocious sixth-formers, nearly exclusively male) were thrilled. This new, more complex, adventurous music – scarcely dancable, but fresh and exciting – gave expression to a belief in a future which was as malleable as it was mostly good. The American philosopher and prog musician Bill Martin accordingly titled his book on prog rock Listening to the Future.

But then, the standard narrative continues, routine set in, the most successful bands became musically self-indulgent and were in the grip of megalomania when designing their stage shows; as the concert venues grew and visual effects proliferated, they lost contact with their audiences, they got jaded and began to show off their skills for the sake of it; and when the punk rock revolution came in 1976–77, fuelled by visceral rage, it spelled the end of the pretentious dinosaurs of prog. Good riddance to them, as it were.

It is necessary to revise this version of history, if only because it is wrong. OK, there were some prog groups that morphed into pretentious, pompous stadium rockers in the mid-1970s. But they were not typical. Emerson, Lake and Palmer is the most obvious example, but Yes were not far behind. Genesis, for their part, made a conscious decision to make ‘more accessible music’ in the late 1970s, reinventing themselves as a straightforward pop group with an occasional nod to their more complex and less danceable past. But what about everybody else? — Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant more or less went bankrupt and had dissolved by the time Reagan became president. Camel and Caravan soldiered on, but with diminishing interest and income, playing in ever smaller venues. Some of the musically most exciting groups, such as Hatfield & The North and its successor National Health, never made it far beyond the university circuit, and were forced, largely for economic reasons, to throw in the towel anyway. Soft Machine split into smaller projects, mostly jazz, session musicianship and modern classical composition. Gong, which was not mentioned in the BBC documentary, has gone in and out of existence in different formats until the present day, with the aging Aussie beatnik Daevid Allen (bless him) as the only common denominator. Robert Fripp of King Crimson dissolved his group years ahead of the punk revolution, in 1974, but he has reformed the band on numerous later occasions, always updating the sound, the personnel and the approach. This music was not about gyrating hips, but nor was it about money and fame. Most of these people simply loved the music, and continued making it as long as they could.

Add to this the underground that remained underground, and had no intention of becoming mainstream. The loose alliance of avant garde rock groups called ‘Rock in opposition’ (RiO), formed at the initiative of the drummer and lyricist Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow and Art Bears) in the late 1970s, was largely unaffected by punk, new wave, Bruce Springsteen and reggae. They had never aimed for world domination in the first place, and were accustomed to staying in grotty hotels and depending on a variety of sources of income. Driven almost exclusively by musical agendas (and a bit of angry left-wing politics), and relying on the loyalty of a small circle of devoted listeners, they were effectively vaccinated against the twists and turns of mainstream fashions. There is a clear and strong continuity between Christian Vander’s work with Magma in 1971 and his present output; similarly, the most recent Univers Zéro album, Phosphorescent Dreams (2014) forms part of the same musical project as 1313 from 1977 – sombre chamber music with a thundering rhythm section which may just be sufficiently loud to qualify them as a rock ensemble.

There is another kind of difference, which partly overlaps with the contrast between the mainstream progressive bands and those that defined themselves as avant garde. (King Crimson, incidentally, is in an interesting intermediate position here. Fripp enjoys having fans, but they shouldn’t be too numerous.) And it concerns the relationship between the music and society.

Progressive rock around 1970 was a middle-class genre. Groups were typically formed at art schools or even at public schools (which, in the UK, are not public, but private). As the author Jonathan Coe says in the BBC documentary, prog rock groups were not particularly interested in society or politics. Their worlds were either quirky and eccentric, or Tolkienesque, or mythical, or all of the above. Tony Banks has explained that for him and his chums in Genesis, talking in a direct way about girls and sex, which the three-chord rockers did, would simply not be viable – it would feel vulgar and inauthentic; so instead, they drew on Greek myths and classical literature for inspiration. Gentle Giant based several of their songs on Rabelais, while Jon Anderson of Yes created lyrics which were sometimes powerful and evocative, sometimes meandering and vacuous, but at a safe distance from current affairs.

In the highly politicised and polarised Britain of the late 1970s, it would seem that progressive rock had become irrelevant, tasteless even. It spoke neither to the class struggle nor to the young man’s desire to bed young women. This is a valid point. There were nevertheless exceptions. Peter Hammill has written strong songs about such subjects as apartheid and nuclear meltdown. Peter Gabriel wrote the famous ‘Biko’. Even Jon Anderson wrote the lyrics for ‘Don’t kill the whale’, but by then (1978), the creative energy of Yes was almost gone. In general, there was no strong social engagement in prog, apart from the occasional hippie commune idealism for which Gong and Steve Hillage became famous. The main political voice of prog belongs to Robert Wyatt, the original singer and drummer of Soft Machine and later an important solo artist. Wyatt has been a communist for more than forty years, and his social engagement is evident in nearly everything he has done since the late 1970s.

In bridging the worlds of prog and the musical avant garde on the one hand and radical political engagement on the other hand, Wyatt illustrates the main shortcoming of most prog. It was not about proficiency or complexity; as long as musicians have something to say and are willing to communicate with their audience, most of us don’t mind a bit of complexity. Nor was it really about megalomania and excess. ELP were an exception in this respect; the vast majority of prog bands played at modest venues and hardly made any money at all. The downfall of progressive rock as a mainstream phenomenon in the latter half of the 1970s was mainly a result of its failure to engage with the burning issues of the day. Or, put more charitably, the dreams and visions conjured up by most prog bands were incompatible with the more bad-tempered, conflictual historical situation leading up to the Thatcher–Reagan era. As always, there are exceptions, and the aforementioned family of bands and projects emerging from the technically dazzling, musically daring and politically left-wing Henry Cow have continued to address political issues in radical and confrontational ways, but they have remained a well-kept secret to everyone but the initiates. I guess it somehow stands to reason that ‘The song of investment capital overseas’ never made it into the Top Ten.

The early demise of the visionary optimism and reckless displays of creativity characteristic of early prog rock is nothing to celebrate. That the crude brutality of punk and the banalities of partisan politics should replace the optimism, experimentation and playfulness characterising the music scene just a few years earlier was not a sign of progress, but of decline. As Mont Campbell (previously of Egg and National Health) puts it: The premature end of this movement could be compared to a three-year old suddenly dying. You learned to walk and to talk, but you never got the time to develop into something mature and enduring.

Some of you will disagree with this conclusion. But look. Granted, there is a contemporary prog movement, but although some of these groups are excellent and make some really good music, they do not have forty years of continuous musical development to build on. They continue to be inspired by albums made by Yes, King Crimson and Genesis in the first half of the 1970s. It is also true that many of the oldies regularly reunite and play their classics as well as a number of, invariably inferior, newer songs. Nice it may be, but innovative it ain’t.

Fossil addiction: Is there a road to recovery?

Published in Norwegian in Dagbladet, 30 October 2014

There is no shortage of knowledge about global environmental and climate problems. It is necessary, therefore, to ask: Why is nothing happening?

Recently, yet another climate report was launched, and it was of especial interest up here, as the Norwegian ex-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was among its 23 authors. The message from The New Climate Economy is upbeat: Economic growth and ecological sustainability are not, it argues, opposites. As a matter of fact, the authors claim, the transition to a climate-neutral economy may entail considerable global economic growth. By way of conclusion, the report lists ten general recommendations for the governments of the world, which show how their economies may be tweaked in a climate-friendly direction, if the politicians were only to do as the authors tell them to.

There is nothing in this report which has not been known for many years. For this reason, it is necessary to ask why so precious little has been done so far, and what makes the authors think that this particular publication will have practical consequences. The Kyoto agreement aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the materially rich countries, yet they increased by 58% between 1990 and 2012. At the same time, critical books and alarming reports on the climate crisis were published with increasing frequency. In other words, neither a lack of knowledge nor a lacking willingness to take part in large meetings about climate could be said to be the problem.

Around the same time as Stoltenberg launched The New Climate Economy in Oslo, the researcher Graham Turner in Melbourne published something far more thought-provoking than this catalogue of well-intentioned banalities. He had examined the predictions made in the 1972 report Limits to Growth, concluding that the authors of that report were by and large accurate in their assessments. His paper is called ‘Is global collapse imminent?’.

Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome foundation, warned against a coming global crisis resulting from population growth, resource depletion and environmental degradation. Climate change was only dealt with in passing, but it is worth noting that the authors did point out – more than forty years ago – that emissions of carbon dioxide might lead to a warming of the atmosphere. The report concluded that growth had to slow down, the world’s population had to be stabilised (preferably reduced); and that the production of necessities should be undertaken in an ecologically sustainable way.

Turner demonstrates that the growth rate in the main areas has been more or less as anticipated, including population, natural resource use, pollution and productivity in the agricultural and industrial sectors. All these indicators still point upwards, but according to Limits to Growth, they will reach their summit very soon. Owing to growing environmental problems and resource scarcities, productivity will decrease, which will in turn reduce the quality and availability of various services and contribute to a significant reduction of the global population over the coming decades.

Neither on the left nor on the right end of the political spectrum did the Club of Rome’s report generate much enthusiasm. Although they disagreed about lots of things, socialists, liberals and conservatives agreed that economic growth was good, and that population growth was not a problem as long as the economic growth rate was healthy. (This response, of course, echoes the standard Victorian riposte to Thomas Malthus and his dire predictions of overpopulation. Marx’ sharp criticism of Malthus was appropriate in the mid-19th century, but he did not anticipate global ecological crisis.)

So far, notwithstanding extreme weather events and financial crises, there have been few signs of the global economic collapse predicted by the Club of Rome; the authors of the report estimated that the turning point would come around 2015, while the figures from Melbourne suggest a slight delay.

A couple of things are nevertheless worth remarking. First, Limits to Growth predicted an ecological collapse without taking climate change into consideration. Secondly, they presented several possible scenarios and suggested policy changes that might improve chances for a viable future. This was in 1972. Although the findings of the report were well known at the time (I remember reading it as a schoolboy), the scenario the world has so far chosen to follow, is the one they label ‘business as usual’.

The question deserves repeating: On the basis of the very considerable knowledge possessed by the global elites about the unintended side-effects of growth, environmental deterioration and now climate change, it may be difficult to understand why so little has happened. Global energy use has been more than doubled since 1972, and the proportion of renewable energy remains almost negligible. In some countries, including Norway, it is a common view that natural gas is part of the solution. This is, perhaps, not so strange: Norwegian oil production peaked already in 2001, while gas production is still growing. But although natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, it does not solve the problems we are facing. Although natural gas, provided there are no leaks (a tall order), can be at least 25% cleaner than coal, that is not to say it is climate-neutral.

There are several possible answers as to why business as usual prevails.

First, the alliances between politicians and powerful resource companies are strong and sometimes invisible. The new chair of the Norwegian Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, has often spoken of the climate challenge since he took the reins last spring, but his party has shown no sign of abandoning its oil-friendly policies, in line with the interests of the oil companies. In Australia, which – like Norway – profits greatly from a boom in fossil fuel exports, the prime minister has simply declared that ‘Australia is open for business’, and in that country, normal democratic considerations are routinely brushed aside the moment big money is involved.

Secondly, the gap is too wide between people’s everyday lives and the abstract discourse about climate change. Why should I delude myself into believing that it might save the Greenlandic glaciers if only I make sure to compost my kitchen waste, eat lentils and take my bike to work? Without politicians who have the courage to implement policies making it rational to live sustainably, and who make certain that transportation, industry, food production and infrastructural construction take place in ecologically responsible ways, there are no sound reasons for you and me to lead our lives as ecological martyrs.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, contemporary world civilization is based on a deep addiction to fossil fuel. The industrial revolution depended crucially on the marriage of James Watt’s steam engine and the rich, shallow coal deposits of Wales and the Midlands. Since the Napoleonic wars, all economic growth, population growth, improved conditions of life, increased agricultural productivity and technological development have been intimately connected to increased energy use, which has usually been the increased use of fossil fuels. An insatiable appetite for coal, oil and gas have, in other words, been synonymous with growth and development.

On this background, it should come as no surprise that the aforementioned Jens Stoltenberg, while he was still CEO of Norway, Inc, did his best to ensure that the country should export as much fossil energy as possible; whereas, just a couple of months after his electoral defeat last year, he came out in Aftenposten, ashen with anxiety, explaining that we (that is humanity) had to find a way of dealing with the climate crisis immediately.

For the record, this is not meant to ridicule Stoltenberg, whose reputation as an honest, committed and genuinely democratic politician is probably deserved. What is interesting is that he comes across as a trueborn child of his time, a time which, for two hundred glorious years, gave humanity a sustained and unprecedented boon, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, thanks to the fossil energy. Alas, this era is now fast moving towards its end, and Stoltenberg’s dramatic ideological shift may indicate the presence of a more widespread anxiety, indeed that we may be approaching a momentous turning point, after which growth and fossil gluttony no longer are seen as tantamount to development and progress. In all likelihood, Stoltenberg has come to realise that we are about to undermine the conditions of our own existence, that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner; that the carbon offsets of which his government were famous will not do: Planting trees in the Amazon does not solve anything insofar as they are financed by petroleum exports.

The idea of green growth promoted in The New Climate Economy is, naturally, popular in the political and economic establishments. Most ecologically minded mainstream economists support it, and it is theoretically possible. However, if Graham Turner and the Limits to Growth authors are at least partly right, future growth is probably best located to the immaterial parts of the economy (e.g. board meetings, app development and slogan production), and should probably not be coupled with continued population growth.

An alternative to green growth might be to rethink progress and development. Rather than an economy measured by the profitability of enterprises or national GDP, one might imagine an economy driven by the overarching aim to satisfy human needs. Rather than policies which stimulate private consumption, one might establish a taxation system where the price of a commodity or service was linked to its ecological footprint. But it is not as if there is a single magic button to press. It will be necessary to change mentalities and activities simultaneously. To achieve this, we shall need politicians who are not firmly tied to existing economic practices.

It may hurt a bit to change, but not necessarily any more than it hurts to tear a strip of sticking plaster off a hairy leg. Of course, it is not merely necessary, but possible to change the present course. But it will not be feasible without a leadership which realises that you cannot offer a coat of paint when what the house needs is complete renovation.