In George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan it is 1429. The Archbishop of Rheims (“with nothing of the ecclesiastic about him”) tells the Lord Chamberlain (a “monstrous, arrogant” man) that he would like to seek peace of spirit with Aristotle and Pythagoras rather than with the saints and their miracles.
“Lord Chamberlain: And who the deuce was Pythagoras?
“Archbishop: A sage who held that the earth is round, and that it moves round the sun.
“Lord Chamberlain: What an utter fool! Couldn’t he use his eyes?”
Unfortunately, it takes humans a long time to accept things which are not immediately obvious to the senses, and even longer to accept evidence that runs contrary to them – centuries in the case of the spherical Earth.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was published in 1859. Five years later, despite the mounting evidence, Benjamin Disraeli, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Conservative Prime Minister said: “The question is this, Is man an ape or an angel? I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence the contrary view, which is, I believe, contrary to the conscience of mankind.”
It has taken 160 years and still many humans cannot accept evolution.
Earth going around the sun and evolution challenged the authority of religion, which resisted. It abused its position of power and influence to persuade people to believe untrue things, so it could keep that power and influence.
An even more powerful opponent to new ideas than religion, however, is the power of corporate wealth. Corporations have no conscience and have only one aim: to maximise profit for shareholders.
So when lung cancer went from being extremely rare to a more common cancer in the 1940s with the advent of cheap, mass-manufactured cigarettes which produced smoke that could be more easily taken into the lungs, cigarettes became first suspect and then the proven culprit.
The corporate cigarette producers did not merely use every propaganda trick in the book, they rewrote the book with techniques hitherto never used.
It was so successful that even as late as the 1960s a third of US doctors did not believe smoking was harmful. Advertising and propaganda were used to encourage people to smoke and to deny the effects on health so profits could continue to roll in. That 1.5 million died every year as a result of smoking mattered not.
It took decades after the link was shown for governments to act, and then they acted piecemeal and with reluctance.
And more than three-quarters of a century after the cancer-smoking link was established, people still smoke.
Same with sugar. The sugar industry hides the fact that sugar causes obesity, diabetes and heart disease and stymies every effort to inform people of the truth which has been known for decades. But the dangers of sugar are barely known outside the scientific and policy worlds. And governments are still dragging their feet.
It was also the same with the building industry riling against energy-efficiency measures despite irrefutable evidence that they paid for themselves many times over.
And for a long time the car industry opposed safety standards.
These are historic cases of the rich and powerful deliberately blocking out the evidence and deceiving the mass of people – perpetuating harm so they could keep their power, profits and riches.
They did great harm to a lot of people, but not all people.
People not duped by religion; who have not and do not smoke and who avoid sugar have remained relatively unharmed, though bear some of the economic costs of poorer health in others.
Our next case of denial and cover-up of the truth is different. It combines all of the worst attributes of the other historic cases but has, if allowed to continue, one catastrophic addition. It affects everyone on the planet.
The case, of course, is the determination of the fossil-fuel industries to sell for consumption as much fossil fuel as possible for as much profit as possible, irrespective of the irrefutable evidence of the harm is has done and will continue to cause the planet.
They have picked up all of tobacco’s propaganda tricks and added to them – the pursuit of profit over truth and well-being.
Further, we do not have the luxury of decades as was needed our historic cases. It suggests that we have to accept that a fairly large number of people will simply never be persuaded by evidence and science, and that those in power take far longer to act forcefully enough than the evidence should have demanded.
So the main source of hope must be in another very powerful force, which, ironically enough, is hope’s opposite: fear. And rather than hope for selflessness and for everyone to pitch in to help reduce emissions, another force (the opposite of selflessness) might be more effective: greed.
We have witnessed it in this year of drought and fire – fear of loss, whether economic or emotional and fear of unbearable cost.
The drought and fires have produced immediate costs, but the worst – the consequential cost – is yet come. Increases in the price of food will hurt and will shrink spending on other things. Insurance premium increases, might make some properties practically uninsurable, compounding the fear.
Further, these fires have advertised Australia’s hypocrisy, selfishness and stupidity worldwide.
They have caused other countries, particularly the Europeans, to demand Australia make a more concerted effort to reduce emissions, to pull our global weight. It is a demand backed by the force of imposing an extra tariff on Australian goods going in to Europe.
After all, why should Australia, having wheedled out of costs of emissions reduction, be allowed to pit its goods in competition against goods produced by countries which have done their bit and borne the costs of emissions reduction.
That will put a bit of fear among exporters.
As to greed, the pressure put on government by fossil-fuel industries is proportional to the existential threat emissions reduction poses to them. But before long, if not already, the combined damage that climate change will do to the corporate profits of industries outside fossil fuels will be greater than the fossil-fuel pressure.
And then there is the money to be made and costs to be saved from renewables.
Sad and cynical though it might be, the reaction to the, yes, unprecedented (but not unpredicted) 2019 drought and fires suggests that the Phoenix arising from them is that fear and greed are more likely to save us from global heating than hope and persuasion.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 28 December 2019.