Huhne versus History

The great social question of our time, how to respond to climate change, poses us crucial historical questions. Indeed, it might be said that the cisis engendered by anthropogenic climate change is nothing but an historical question. Take Chris Huhne’s recent intervention in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (25 August 2014), for example. His second sentence invokes history (with an absent capital ‘H’). “For the first-time in history”, he claims, “we are growing richer while using less energy”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this claim is probably incorrect, and in any case unlikely to be verifiable, Huhne’s instant resort to historical argument and (lack of) historical evidence tells us something important about the terms of the climate change argument; something that should be taken on board by both historians and public alike.

The second paragraph of Huhne’s article really gets to grips with the historical. From the middle-ages, he argues, “living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage because forest absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small”. Again, leave aside the arguable historical claims here, though it is interesting that Huhne touches on an old socialist-inspired historical debate, now partly forgotten, on the fate of living standards in pre-industrial and industrial Europe. It is intriguing that Huhne commits perhaps one of the more disreputable sins (in the eyes of mainstream historical scholarship at least) of anachronism. Was your average feudal overlord concerned with ‘living standards’? To apply the term to the middle ages sounds bizarre, and its uncanny effect is a warning.

The key lesson of history, is one of constant surprise. Surprise at encountering the strange. Huhne take it as read that the middle ages were concerned with ‘living standards’, but the lesson of the unfamiliar is crucial here. For Huhne’s overall argument, that endless growth of energy usage is now technologically feasible, and with it ever expanding capitalist development and ‘prosperity’, is founded upon precisely leaving out the historical contingency of this mode of thinking about what constitutes wealth. For Huhne, a world in which living standards were of secondary concern, can barely enter into history proper .

After a brief bit of Hobbes on the social condition of England, we enter into history proper with industrialisation and the rise of real GDP, another age-old scene of historical argument among economic historians. We are assured that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw ‘real progress’ with the rise of male life expectancy. The ‘male’ here stands in for the seething undifferentiated mass of humanity as a whole. Reaching back into the dark depths of my undergraduate years, I recall enormous dispute among historians of medicine regarding the relative importance of nutrition versus public medical provision on the fall in mortality in this period.

All this leads finally to Huhne’s conclusion that prosperity and welfare are directly connected to the scale of energy consumption, and, in the recent past, to fossil fuel consumption.

In order to establish his key foundational claim, that energy use is the base of modern wealth and welfare, Huhne has had stumble through at least three major fields of historical debate. Yet at no time in his argument is history as a scholarly discipline even acknowledged.

As practitioners of a particular form of social critique, historians should be deeply worried by this. That historical claims can be made to found a political claim, in this case the necessity of intensive and extensive energy usage to modern well-being, is hardly a surprise. The fact that historical disciplines, arguments and, most importantly, uncertainties can be more or less excised from such an account is troubling. It points to a key component of modern ideology, the absence of a genuine sense of historical time and of historical ‘otherness’, the idea that things could have been, or will be different.

Yet, of course, Huhne’s article is written not to propose a particular response to climate change, or to debate the science. His argument, that the increasing rate of adoption of new ‘clean’ energy generating technologies is proceeding apace, is precisely intended to propose no change. That we can continue indefinitely with the structure of energy production and use that we have, and, more broadly, with the form of social reproduction with which we (in the global North) are familiar. It is history, of a kind, which allows him to pose and to structure this thought.

Immediate response to his argument from the left predictably, and quite correctly, pointed to the range of empirical mistakes and omissions Huhne made in his understanding of the potential impact of technological change. Andrew Dobson (Guardian, 28 August) provided a succinct demolition of Huhne’s failure to grasp that climate change demands the reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions in absolute, not relative, terms. Yet, Dobson does not acknowledge Huhne’s reliance on a very particular, and very uncertain, understanding of both concrete historical arguments about wealth and welfare, and a particular sense of historical time.

This latter is particularly concerning, and easily missed in focusing on empirical questions. For while Huhne relies on the past as a legitimation of the present, he fails to use it to think any alternative future. Huhne effectively deals in a non-past, he has no sense of the processes of historical change, just a binary opposition between some past, dimly remembered dark age, and our present age of light, wealth and universal well-being. But the difference between past and present is not of this nature, and in this case the nuances of historical thinking, even what we might call the ethics of the historical mindset, matter politically.

We are both more like, and more unlike, our ancestors than we care to admit. Huhne’s article effectively abandons any real sense of the historical as such. He has no conception of the causes of change, no notion of historical conflict or antagonism. He inhabits a mode of thought that truly believes in the progressive character of technology (historians of science take note!). Huhne ultimately inhabits a present without a past in any meaningful sense, without a history that could have been different. Huhne’s article stands as an exemplar of the fundamentally anti-historical mode of thinking that defines genuinely neo-liberal thought, the inability to tolerate any other way of being, in this case any historical ‘other’.

Here, I believe that we encounter the real political meaning of anthropogenic climate change. The discourse of climate change messes with our sense of historical time. It poses, in its most apocalyptic form, an ‘End of History’ scenario. Such an end, constitutes a traumatic encounter for neo-liberals, not simply because it poses the end of capitalism, but because it points to the inadequacy of the non-historical mode of thinking that founds their ideological claims.

History is riven with contingency, unintended consequence, bitter rivalries, the constant barrage of moments in which everything threatens to be radically different. Huhne’s ideas are not dangerous because they suggest to us that all will be well, that technology will rescue neo-liberal capitalism. They are dangerous because they falsely foreclose the contingency of historicity proper, the idea that we can make history beyond the impersonal forces of ‘progress’ and economics.

Anthropogenic climate change has reopened our sense of historical time as a key political battleground in the present.

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