In October 1940, George Orwell sat down to write a furious call to arms. The Lion and the Unicorn opened with one of the most arresting sentences in the history of the English essay: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
I re-read the radical pamphlet on holiday last week and found it as angry and striking today as it was when Orwell’s molten words flowed more than 80 years ago. It’s not that he was necessarily right about the future in the way that his later novel Nineteen Eighty-Four can read like prophecy. But his skewering of that moment of history still has a raw, unflinching power.
“Anyone able to read a map knows that we are in deadly danger,” he wrote, barely six months after the humiliating retreat from Dunkirk.
“I do not mean that we are beaten or need be beaten… But at this moment we are in the soup, full fathom five, and we have been brought there by follies which we are still committing and which will drown us altogether if we do not mend our ways quickly.”
What were those follies? “After 1934 it was known that Germany was re-arming,” wrote Orwell. “After 1936 everyone with eyes in his head knew that war was coming. After Munich it was merely a question of how soon the war would begin. In September 1939 war broke out. Eight months later it was discovered that, so far as equipment went, the British army was barely beyond the standard of 1918.”
We had bayonets, they had Tommy guns.
He was scathing about the appeasers, those who were “merely unteachable” rather than wicked, and who had shut their eyes to the nature of fascism—“people utterly unable to grasp what age they are living in or what enemy they are fighting.”
Substitute “the nature of the climate crisis” for “the nature of fascism” and Orwell’s words still land with the force of a punch.
Today’s climate appeasers—in politics, in government, in the media, all over the internet—similarly appear utterly unable to grasp the starkest truth about the age we’re living in, and of what it’s going to take to mitigate the utterly foreseeable effects of rising temperatures.
Everyone with eyes in their heads knows what’s coming. And yet we’re in the soup, to echo Orwell’s wry colloquial understatement—and, boy, do we need to mend our ways quickly.
Orwell can’t resist reminding his readers that “year after year the Beaverbrook press assured us in huge headlines that there will be no war.” That beguiling promise from the Daily Express continued until three weeks before war was declared.
In similar vein today, a large swathe of the commentariat has settled on a consensus view that we should all calm down a little, and that whatever’s coming is not going to be as bad as woke zealots would have us believe.
The template for such arguments demands that we ridicule most forms of renewable energy as simply not up to the task. Heat pumps are a joke, don’t get me started on electric cars. Untried technologies (fill in speculative blue-sky project here) will probably come to our rescue. We’ll need plastics and oil even after net zero, so we mustn’t stop drilling. Voters will punish anyone who threatens to lower their living standards, so politicians must water down any commitments they may once have ill-advisedly made.
Net zero? Sure, but all in good time, what’s the hurry? Don’t get wound up by self-appointed climate change martyrs. And can we please talk about China instead? Deniers? No, we’re realists.
What’s lacking in these now-routine pronouncements is any sense of urgency, any feeling of true conviction and any positive workable alternative suggestions. The trick is to appear to accept the science while filing the whole problem under “too difficult”.
Doesn’t that remind you of Orwell’s dismissal of the appeasers in 1940: “They dealt with fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine guns—by ignoring it.”
Today, only by burying our heads in the sand can we fail to understand the consequences of delay. Numerous distinguished economists and scientists have over two decades or more spelled out the cost of inaction—in monetary and human terms.
It will be felt in disaster response, recovery and infrastructure repair; in health-care costs; in disruption to agriculture and food; in migration and conflict; in insurance costs; in global trade disruptions; in investor and business confidence; and in devastation to ecosystems, including water. Climate change will, in short, affect almost every aspect of the lives of billions of people—and still the shruggers and the yawners continue to shrug and yawn.
The 1930s appeasers were finally brought down by the famous Norway debate into the conduct of the war in May 1940. Lloyd George savaged the “leisureliness and inefficiency” of the government in preparing for an easily foreseeable conflict. “Will anybody tell me that he is satisfied with what we have done about aeroplanes, tanks, guns, especially anti-aircraft guns?”
Here Lloyd George paused: there was utter silence in the House.
“Nobody is satisfied. The whole world knows that. And here we are in the worst strategic position in which this country has ever been placed.”
It was the end for Chamberlain and the “Men of Munich”. It was the cue for Churchill, memorably described in Michael Foot’s book Guilty Men, published around the same time as Orwell’s essay, as “the dancing dervish of rearmament [who] had foamed and challenged and ranted with impatience at the delay.” We could do with a dancing dervish today.
Orwell was convinced—rightly, as it turned out—that the British people were ready for sacrifice in 1940: “It will mean cruel overwork, cold dull winters, uninteresting food, lack of amusements, prolonged bombing. It cannot but lower the general standard of living… The working class will have to suffer terrible things. And they will suffer them, almost indefinitely, provided that they know what they are fighting for… But they will want some kind of proof that a better life is ahead for themselves and their children.”
Today, the world is similarly going to need great leadership. Who is now our Churchill?