Opinion: climate activism is the last best hope to expose Post-Truth as a calculated strategy to delegitimise science and democracy
"The concept of global warning was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive". No prizes for guessing who tweeted this in 2012, or this in 2014: "give me clean, beautiful and healthy air – not the same old climate change (global warming) bullshit! I am tired of hearing this nonsense". This is the age of Post-Truth, and Donald Trump is the undisputed high-priest of this ideology.
It is becoming virtually impossible to escape the incessant validation of Post-Truth, or the equally dismissive accusations of fake-news, by those who live their lives in the public eye, especially unscrupulous politicians. The term Post-Truth entered our everyday vocabulary as recently as 2016, the year Trump was elected president of the United States and the UK voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum. It is only appropriate that Post-Truth was declared the 2016 Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries.
Politicians are known to lie, as Bill Clinton spectacularly did in January 1998 looking straight into a television camera. We all know that bullshit is ubiquitous in politics, including the UK, a place that Boris Johnson hypocritically referred to as the "home of democracy" during his first speech as prime minister, even though devious and bogus claims were printed in large letters on a red bus prior to an historic referendum.
From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, an interview with Evan Davis, host of BBC's Newsnight and author of "Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit"
But Post-Truth is different from both lies and bullshit. Post-Truth represents a deliberate strategy aimed at creating an environment where all manners of truth, including scientific truth, is delegitimized and where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion. As the tweets by Trump testify, nothing is sacred in politics - and not even climate change is immune from the menace of Post-Truth,
It would be wrong to assume that Post-Truth is a new phenomenon as the concept is as old as politics itself. Writing in The New Yorker in February 1967, Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. In her essay "Truth & Politics", Arendt explains that "political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture" and modern politicians of a certain persuasion are engaged in the seamless reconstructions of reality.
The impact of totalitarianism on politics was what Arendt had in mind when she wrote this essay. Although the type of totalitarian regimes that Arendt experienced in her life as a German-born Jew are no longer present in the Europe, a different type of global totalitarianism has emerged. The only difference is that the perverse logic of totalitarianism today is being conveniently disguised under the bourgeois garments of neo-liberalism.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, a report on the huge increase in climate change-themed projects at the 2019 Young Scientist and Technology exhibition
Climate change deniers like Trump are not simply waging war on the science of climate change, but on truth itself. This fundamentally changes the way we must think of climate activism. The point of climate activism is not simply to inform us of a pending cataclysm, or to persuade those who are still unaware of it that we all have a moral responsibility towards the planet and its future inhabitants. Climate activism is the last best hope to expose Post-Truth as a calculated strategy to delegitimise science, democracy and egalitarian morality.
In an earlier seminal work, The Human Condition (1958), Arendt discusses the idea of vita activa (the active life), which she distinguishes from vita contemplativa. A key feature of vita activa for Arendt is "action", or political engagement. Action is the activity that stands at the heart of politics. It is through speech and action, performed in a public space, in concert with other fellow human beings, that we reveal the distinctiveness of who we are. That is why political activism is so important – apart from the specific political goals being pursued, activism is an existential requisite: in our words and deeds we disclose who we are, to ourselves and to the world.
Post-Truth wants to discredit the truth about climate change, which is why climate activism is indispensable to defeat Post-Truth. Arendt understood many years ago that it is the nature of the political realm to be at war with truth in all its forms. Those in power fear truth because truth is irreplaceable. That is why the current President of the United States, often referred to as the most powerful man on our planet, is afraid of a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, and afraid of a 29-year-old American politician and activist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest congresswoman in United States' history and the champion of the Green New Deal.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Dr Gillian Murphy from UCC on a new study which shows people may form false memories after seeing fabricated news stories
Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it. In that sense, as Arendt says, "truth carries within itself an element of coercion" and tyrants fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolise.
Climate activism can take different forms. One can go to marches, take to the streets, attend political meetings and organise protests. This is important, and necessary, since activism needs to occupy the public space to enter our political consciousness.
But there is also another form of activism, less visible, less spectacular, less sexy, but arguably even more effective. This is where we individually do a little bit every day, making small sacrifices. We should think twice before buying fruit that has travelled half the globe to land on the shelves in our supermarket. We can reduce the use of single use plastics if we want to.
Ultimately, we must shoulder our responsibilities. Blaming climate change exclusively on farting cows or the equally obnoxious hot air emanating from our politicians is too easy, too convenient and almost as ludicrous as blaming the Chinese for conjuring the climate-change hoax in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.
RTÉ Brainstorm is one of hundreds of worldwide news outlets taking part in Covering Climate Now, a project headed by the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation and The Guardian to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23rd.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ