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Extinction or progress? Visions of the future

Sunday 3 November, 16:00—17:15, Cinema 1

Dr Shahrar Ali

Gregory Claeys

Dr Ashley Frawley

Brendan O’Neill

Chair: Jacob Reynolds

Extinction or progress?

After the opening speeches from the four panel members Jacob Reynolds dryly noted, 'this is not one of those debates where I have to seek clarification on what each person thinks.' For the Chair it was enough for him to keep his sense of humour as the audience lapped up this delicious debate about climate change and the recent protests of Extinction Rebellion. Not quite everyone. One audience member, who it’s fair to say probably has sympathies with the Extinction Rebellion cause, left angrily (and rather publicly) as Brendan O’Neill calmly explained why Extinction Rebellion was an erroneous title (humanity is not facing extinction and there is nothing much rebellious about the movement behind the protests). As the objector stormed out of the auditorium it would be fair to say that O’Neill’s attitude was indifferent to his concerns. In an entertaining opening O’Neill reminded the audience of the Canning Town Station incident, in which hard-working commuters pointed out to Extinction Rebellion protesters (who at that point were on the train roof) that tube trains are relatively ‘green’ as travelling to work goes.

left angrily

Contrast that with the perspective of Gregory Claeys who finished his opening address by explicitly suggesting that human beings can expect to live underground unless drastic action is taken to protect the environment. I am not sure of the science behind this, whether we will need to protect ourselves from ultra violet rays (as a consequence of a damaged ozone layer) or whether lack of food will lead to a search for subterranean invertebrates. By 2050, Claeys claimed, 'the shit will hit the fan', as temperatures rise to four degree celsius and millions lose their lives. He outlined his ten point plan as his vision for the future: all fossil fuels will remain in the ground, a mass reforestation programme and an end (as we know it) to consumer culture (to name just three). It was bold and candid stuff.

Gregory Claeys outlines his case

Ashley Frawley had a little more faith in humanity. There is a problem of misanthropy: the reaction to climate change tends to reflect only upon the sins and folly of humans, instead of the ability for innovation in the face of conflict. In science fiction humans try to create a utopian world only to find that the machines are in charge. Remember Arnie in Terminator. In reality, there is no more sense in being dystopian about climate change as there is utopian. There is an opportunity to deal with the environmental problem and liberate human beings from labour. Frawley offered a Marxist insight, but the bit of Marx that saw humans as capable of innovation.

Shahrar Ali was a little more bleak (though not to the degree that Claeys’ was). The environmentalists, he claimed, are scientific. They have looked carefully and objectively at the climate change evidence, coming to the conclusion that it is too late unless something radical is done. Although Extinction Rebellion members are alarming, they are not alarmists, said Ali. He also noted that humans have a dysfunctional relationship with technology and that needed addressing if the climate change problem was to be overcome.

tried to feed five thousand speakers with two microphones

The audience took over as Jacob Reynolds tried to feed five thousand speakers with two microphones. You do realise that everything you see in this room is dependent on fossil fuels, pointed out one audience member, unless you can name one that isn’t. There are benign forms of nuclear energy that could be utilised, said another speaker, in a similar vein to O’Neill who pointed out the potential of much smaller amounts of uranium for modern energy needs.

Disagreement on the panel

Another point was that expressions such as, 'Africa is on fire', can easily be taken literally by young people involved in the protests. Meanwhile, such an expression starts to sound rather colonial if the implication is that, having enjoyed the benefits of economic growth, African countries may not have the same growth (through burning fossil fuels) because it damages ‘our planet’. Before setting about saving the environment, it turns out that some people do not have enough food to eat or clean water to drink.

Moreover, why is it, said an audience member that climate change protestors always shoehorn in anti-capitalist sentiment into their arguments? Are they trying to save the environment, or defeat capitalism? If it is the latter then defeating an economic system that might help to save the environment (in the name of protecting the environment) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater to say the least. Speaking of babies, there are many people not having children in the name of protecting the environment, which is reducing the supply of people who might actually find solutions to environmental problems. I can remember the Cold War crisis of the 1980s, which carried a prescient threat of nuclear strikes. Adults in that generation played the nuclear threat down: what would have been the point in frightening children? Instead children became obsessed with Star Wars and the other great escapist epics of the decade. But we never missed a day off school to watch sci fi. Ever.

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