News from Nowhere: Catastrophe Practice
Today, things may be looking pretty grim, but it’s not, as they say, the end of the world.
Last week, a right-wing friend of mine informed me that the crisis in Ukraine was all the fault of the environmentalists. I must admit I was intrigued. I knew I shouldn’t take the bait, but I was already hooked. Not without some trepidation, I invited him to elaborate.
‘This is why I blame the Greens,’ he’d explained. ‘What you don’t understand is that if they hadn’t stopped us fracking, we wouldn’t be so reliant on Russian gas, so they wouldn’t be able to get away with this.’
My friend reads the Daily Mail nearly every day. I avoided the obvious defence of eco-politics: that the UK should not for decades have been investing in a drilling technology which has been shown to cause localized earthquakes, but should have been using that time to develop forms of clean and renewable power generation. Or that we might even, God help us, have learnt to reduce our extravagant energy consumption. It’s sometimes not worth getting too deeply enmired in these conversations.
Later that same day, I found my friend scrambling across the roof of his house like Spider-Man. He is not a young man, and I expressed some concern for his safety. He assured me that he had done this a hundred times before, and that it hadn't killed him yet. That much was evident. Like many of those who deny the existence of man-made climate change, he likes to think that just because something has never happened before, it can never happen in the future. He is clearly unaware of Catastrophe Theory.
Catastrophe Theory is a branch of mathematics which emerged in the 1960s. It described how small (sometimes infinitesimal) changes in conditions can result in sudden and dramatic impacts. Systems can flip without warning; a tiny trickle of soil can catalyse a landslide. The slightest sound can trigger an avalanche. The status quo can be inverted; the established order of things is not set in stone. The most insignificant phenomena can overturn everything: the splitting of the nucleus of an atom or the emergence of a microscopic virus might, for example, transform the course of the history of the world.
It is the inherent unpredictability of these processes which makes brinkmanship such an extraordinarily dangerous pursuit. The outcomes of our most minor actions are virtually impossible to predict. Nobody ever intends to provoke the perfect storm.
Such minutiae can even prompt the existence of entire new cosmic realities. This is something which quantum physicists have known for quite some while, and which happens to be due to be explored in 2022 through a whole slew of Hollywood superhero movies, as Dr. Strange, the Flash and good old Spider-Man each separately come to confront the complexities of the multiverse. That cinematic confluence is not strictly relevant to this argument, except to demonstrate that patterns of apparent coincidence are perhaps more prevalent than one might at first have expected.
Meanwhile, back in our own reality, I stood in my friend’s garden, looking up. As he shouted down to me from his precarious perch atop his home, a trail of detritus cascaded through the air, shaken loose by the careless movement of his feet. Fortunately, I was no longer standing directly underneath. The pertinence of the poetry of that moment was not lost on me.
Regular readers may be starting to wonder if I may perhaps have invented this character, my conservative friend, insofar as his presence in these articles is remarkably convenient to the narrative flow of their arguments. He is not, however, I should stress, a contemporary version of those imaginary straw men set up by Plato to quail before the force of Socratic logic. I can assure you that my friend is very real.
He is in many ways a product of the media culture to which he subscribes as his primary source of information on the daily goings-on in the world. He takes the Telegraph on a Sunday, but is otherwise a dedicated Mail man. Both of those newspapers reflect the traditional Tory values of a typically patriotic Middle England. I cannot imagine my friend reading a paper that had ever opposed Brexit.
The imaginations and hyperbolic vocabularies of the British press – and, in particular, of the UK’s right-wing tabloid press – have so far this year been overwhelmed by the noise and fury of a series of absolutely massive stories. Each of these news narratives would in normal times singly dominate the headlines with their hype and hysteria for weeks, if not for months. In 2022, however, they have found themselves jostling for pole position.
The most recent story at the top of the UK’s news charts is of course the crisis in Ukraine, the twenty-first-century resurgence of military conflict in mainland Europe, a situation described by Boris Johnson as ‘a catastrophe for our continent’ – albeit one whose timing has proven remarkably convenient for him.
But British news cycles have also continued very heavily to feature a few other massive story strands. The first of these is the British government’s trashing of all Covid-19 safety measures in England, as of the last Thursday in February, a gigantic gamble with the country’s health. This policy shift has in turn been related to the ongoing precarity of the Prime Minister’s position, following continuing accusations of his multiple breaches his own coronavirus rules during his participation in an extensive sequence of ill-considered lockdown social events. In short, Boris Johnson hopes to distract and placate his critics through an act of absurdly unfounded optimism which ignores the science in a bid to make the electorate feel good about the state of the nation. At the same time, the Metropolitan Police have been investigating his behaviour, and ordinary British people are facing a cost-of-living crisis unprecedented for a generation.
Meanwhile, the UK's third major news strand encompasses the various issues that have been dogging Britain’s royal family at the start of the Queen’s platinum jubilee year. These include: her second son’s substantial cash pay-out to a woman who had accused him of sex crimes; allegations that a charity run by her eldest son had become embroiled in the criminal practice of selling knighthoods and citizenship; and her own infection with Covid, which she appears to have caught from that eldest son, the heir to the throne.
Any one of these threads would in a quieter season utterly consume the attention of the nation’s public, its politicians and its press. This year, however, the rapid convergence of these titanic narratives has afforded relatively little time for their proper contemplation – for their calm and measured consideration. That may come as a relief to some of those involved, and in particular to those who have been granted some degree of respite by these relentless torrents of breaking news – not least, Boris Johnson, Prince Andrew, Prince Charles, and indeed the omicron variant of coronavirus itself.
It seems ironic that such bastions of the British establishment as the Prime Minister and those two princes would be experiencing a temporary reprieve as a direct result of a geopolitical crisis unfolding on the far side of the continent. It seems particularly ironic that Mr. Johnson might suddenly try to exploit the strategies of an ostensible opponent overseas in a bid to redeem his own political fortunes. At a time of international crisis, his party’s members feel obliged to unite behind their leader, and Johnson's team have been shamelessly eager to take advantage of this forced show of loyalty.
Or perhaps this is not so ironic after all. The British Prime Minister’s current declarations of outrage have not (as his Foreign Secretary made clear in late February) convinced his party of the need to return the significant donations it has received from individuals associated with the nation and administration whose actions it has now condemned as inimical to British interests in Europe. It would appear that the sum of £2 million accepted by the Conservatives since Boris Johnson took office represents too high a price to pay to prove the practical application of the premier’s loudly purported principles.
Each of these controversies and crises seems literally catastrophic. The coincidence of their almost simultaneous eruption appears quite extraordinary. Yet there may be subtle threads which link these events. This is not a matter of intelligent design, but may be the product of a nexus of apparently arbitrary factors, a virtually invisible web.
Boris Johnson lifted his country’s Covid-19 restrictions in the last week of February in a brazen attempt to curry favour with his supporters at a time of unprecedented crisis in the standing and authority of his government. That much at least is clear. The Duke of York meanwhile chose to agree a substantial cash payment in order to settle a highly embarrassing case out of court. This decision was doubtless intended to prevent an ongoing series of damaging headlines marring the progress of his mother’s anniversary celebrations. His attempts to kill the story became especially urgent as rumours of the financial shenanigans surrounding the charitable activities of another senior royal were also threatening to emerge.
The announcement of Prince Andrew’s settlement was also well timed to minimise the length of its stay at the top of the news agenda. Those other major unfolding catastrophes knocked that royal scandal from the front pages and made it, as was once said, a good day to bury bad news. These events are therefore not entirely unconnected. Indeed, even the crisis in Ukraine, though politically valuable to the Prime Minister, has occurred at a point at which his own administration’s authority, both domestically and internationally, is so weak that any diplomatic intervention that Britain might have attempted would inevitably have proven to be of negligible impact or worth. Boris Johnson’s political weakness at home – like Joe Biden’s – made it impossible for him to broker any kind of deal that might have prevented this crisis; yet that weakness has also made him see the situation as an opportunity to score political points.
There seems something almost miraculous or fateful in this curious coincidence of events. Yet the skeins of causation which bind them one to another make their sequence seem almost mathematically inevitable. There is nothing preternatural in this. The confluence of these catastrophes may remind us of that common experience by which, in a similarly extraordinary circumstance of fate, three buses will tend to come along all at once after one has been waiting at a bus stop for what feels like ages. There is also a mathematical explanation for that latter phenomenon, although it is one which only transport companies’ logistics experts are able to understand.
William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet famously supposed that there’s a divinity that shapes our ends; but here it is events themselves that have conspired, at random and apparently independent of the influence of human or divine intent, to push us towards the catastrophic maelstrom in which we now find ourselves.
‘Welcome to Hell,’ ran the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror on 24 February. For many people, those words pretty much summed up the year so far.
I am nevertheless sure, despite my right-wing friend’s insistence, that this cannot all be the fault of the environmentalists. Indeed, following a month which saw some of the worst storms the UK has ever suffered, a catastrophic shift in the impacts of global climate change seems, from the perspective of this small island, most likely to herald the next – and far greatest – crisis the world will have to face. So, it may well, after all, be time to pay rather greater heed to my dear old friend’s damned Greens, and possibly even to hear the dire warnings issued by that nefarious doom-monger, Ms. Greta Thunberg herself.
The day after my friend’s peculiar pronouncement, while on a long train journey, I was obliged to listen as a zealous anti-vaxxer informed any fellow travellers within range of her voice that Bill Gates had conspired with Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and that infamous ‘fascist’ Justin Trudeau to engineer the pandemic in order to trick our species into a programme of vaccination which would covertly implant a substance to modify our genes, adapting our bodies to life in his computerised cities and transferring our minds into his machines. The poor long-suffering woman sitting closest to the conspiracy enthusiast, directly in the line of fire of that rambling rant, simply shook her head and muttered to herself, ‘Well, I suppose it is a bit of a worry.’
By comparison, I mused, perhaps my Tory friend wasn’t quite so crazy as I’d originally thought, in his attempt to blame all the woes of the world upon the villainous eco-warriors of the UK Green Party. There are, after all, far stranger and more perilously paranoid ideas out there just waiting to take root. Indeed, it is from such unthinkably improbable seeds that the deadly flowers of that final devastating madness that might one day engulf our planet may catastrophically bloom. If we are to avoid this terrible future, we must of course remain alert to its tiniest signs.
Today, things may be looking pretty grim, but it’s not, as they say, the end of the world. No, it’s not, not yet. No, not quite yet. Humankind is still practising for the big one.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once proposed that, in a world brimming with weapons of mass destruction, a fragile realm forever teetering on the brink of total global war, a small planet that’s always been crowded with little despots grappling for power, the function of philosophical enquiry was simply to keep people talking, because – to paraphrase a sentiment famously attributed to Winston Churchill – it was far better to sustain that dialogue than to descend into the unconscionable conflagration of military conflict. That is perhaps the best that we can ever hope to do: in Derrida's words, to ‘make the conversation last’ – and to strive to restore it when it fails.
This intellectual rigour challenges all positions; it makes us think again. At the height of hostilities and in the tumult of convergent crises, as so many lives rip apart, it might not seem like very much at all, but we can only pray that it may perhaps be just about enough – and that such dialogues may keep alive the hope and the possibility that one day reason, justice, peace and truth will prevail.