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The Promethean Faith of BJ

Terrifyingly awful.

UK PM speaking at UN September 2021
UK PM speaking at UN General Assembly 22 September 2021 (Picture Source: UK Government Release)

Before flying back to the nation wrecked under his command, Prime Minister Johnson gave a speech at the UN. This was his ‘grow up’ speech citing both Kermit (the frog) and Sophocles.

His carefully prepared words will have both delighted and scared his supporters in almost equal measure. It was lauded by the right-leaning Press as an honest masterpiece of realism regarding climate perils — but was also uncomfortably shocking for a few disciples in denial. It was almost certainly designed as a promo for delegates briefing leaders ahead of COP26 in Glasgow. That event may already be dismissed by ardent activists as COPout26, but should we give credence to self-fulfilling prophecies?

Set aside mean accusations of hypocrisy. Just assume that pennies have indeed dropped, and this is the season of repentance for previously ill-founded convictions. Maybe the dawning of reality could no longer be denied. Or maybe writing the entire 2,169-word essay gave him and his team enormous satisfaction — a confection carefully crafted to appeal across all cultures, all degrees of intellect and, essentially, to confirm his supposed titanic talent.

Whatever. Having been submitted, the homework must now be assessed and graded. Even in these goalpost-shifting times, it is not sufficient to be taken at face value. This is no academic exercise. We are not here to rate poetic brevity or soaring rhetoric — we seek substance and meaningful intent. We seek signs of hope for humanity. If this is the leadership we must have, then we expect a great deal — not in the transactional sense, but in considered understanding of how we got the planet into this mess and how we might now adapt to the task of remediation.

This is not a new challenge. From ancients to present day, trust in leaders is rarely granted and often squandered. We might once have said, ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ but now, asked if all fairy stories begin, ‘Once Upon a Time’, Peanuts answers, ‘No. They often begin ‘If elected I promise . . .’.

Apparently, Johnson takes the long view. Humanity is, he suggests, just emerging from its teenage years, but must now ‘grow up’. This assumes an evolutionary cycle that conveniently excuses our relatively recent divergence from planetary care and a primary devotion to the accumulation of monetary riches. Johnson does not refute this but lauds the divergence as his assured hope for future wellbeing. “I am not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess. I don’t see the green movement as a pretext for a wholesale assault on capitalism.” And he goes further with his undoubted faith in technology. “. . . the way to fix the problem is through science and innovation, the breakthroughs and the investment that are made possible by capitalism and by free markets, and it is through our Promethean faith in new green technology that we are cutting emissions in the UK.”

He may, perhaps, have a point. It is not now possible to re-bottle the genie. But the assumption that repair and reform can only be achieved by harnessing (‘free market’) greed falls a long way short of understanding the forces of nature and assumes humanity has unfettered dominion over the planet. In making his case for capitalism, he invokes ‘Promethean faith’ — clearly alluding to a mythical Titan who contrived to use his (presumably admirable) brutish strength, to end up on the winning side with the Olympians. Prometheus, in legend, gave fire to humanity and thus, in Johnson’s view, is the enabler of technology. Citing Greek myths is not always advisable. Less classically-educated delegates at the UN may well have scrambled to Google to find out what he was on about — and might have discovered that this mighty Titan, Prometheus, was, supposedly, punished (tied to a stake for 35 years, by one account) and was reputed to be ‘The Supreme Trickster’.

Not content with his convenient borrowings from imagined Greek myths, Johnson also cited the less-mythical Sophocles. “Sophocles is often quoted as saying that there are many terrifying things in the world, but none is more terrifying than man, and it is certainly true that we are uniquely capable of our own destruction, and the destruction of everything around us. But what Sophocles actually said was that man is deinos and that means not just scary but awesome — and he was right.”

The last time, as I recall, that awesomeness was invoked as a virtue was at commencement of that woefully ill-informed ‘War on Terror’. You must imagine being big and mighty to make mighty big mistakes. There’s probably an ancient Greek word for it.

The desire to reduce responses to major issues into easily-communicated bite-sized solutions is understandable — but to place one’s trust in future hopefully-scalable innovations seems even more hazardous — no matter how damn-clever or ‘awesome’ any previous innovations may seem to have been.

Certainly, there will be some innovations that can scale to meet global challenges. But, in our well-connected world, planned adaptation to tomorrow’s climate will also demand urgent attention to mass revolts against inequalities and political/economic marginalisation at the very same time as an upsurge in population displacements — both between and within countries. The climate has unconstrained freedom of movement and humanity, naturally, strives to survive.



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