A UNIVERSITY in the middle of Texas is not where you would necessarily go to look for an environmental campaigner. “Fossil-fuel central” is how he describes his own environment; but then Timothy Morton is not your average environmental campaigner. He is a “philosopher-prophet of the Anthropocene”, and the thrust of The End of the World Has Already Happened (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) is not the environmental crisis itself, but how it makes us feel.
Environment anxiety is now a recognised pathology, characterised by a desire to curl up in the foetal position whenever you hear Greta Thunberg pronounce shame on humankind. Journalists are now adept at penning a swift 1500 words on some fresh eco-disaster, while their readers are paralysed either by fear or resentment.
It wasn’t clear exactly what is Morton’s antidote to this paralysis, having rejected technological solutions as fantasies of the white patriarchy; except to adopt the slogan of the French protesters of 1968: “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Perhaps episodes two and three will be more helpful.
Another way out is to take Fraser Nelson’s advice in A Small Matter of Hope
(Radio 4, Monday of last week). In the early 1990s, the newsreader Martyn Lewis was lampooned for suggesting that his BBC broadcasts might include some more upbeat material; and, when we hear Nelson proposing much the same to his staff at The Spectator, the magazine that he edits, he is met with similar derision. It is certainly the case that a depressing front cover sells more copies than a happy one.
Nelson has facts to support his optimism. Child mortality is down; female education is up; there is less malaria. By numerous metrics, we have just concluded the best decade in human history; and yet we are psychologically and perhaps even evolutionarily attuned to the negative.
The deputy editor of The Sunday Times, Sarah Baxter, did her best to fill in Nelson’s silver lining with some cloud. Investigative and campaigning journalism is powered by a sense of injustice; the world does not get better until the dark is brought to light. Add to that the fact that Nelson fails to mention the one area of Hans Rosling’s state-of-the-world survey which supports the pessimism of received wisdom: the global environment, and we might happily resume our new year in a state of familiar melancholy.
How then to engage with the black dogs? In Archive on 4: The virtues of vulnerability with Ed Balls (Radio 4, Saturday) Ed Balls called for honesty in weakness. As somebody who has recently ’fessed up to having a stutter, he talked to other public figures who have felt the benefit of confessing their flaws. Cynics have much to feast on here, not least the invitation to regard Balls as really very shy; but who would not warm to the BBC political editor Nick Robinson and the story of his recovering voice?