For the past week or so I’ve been intermittently reading Scared To Death, by Christopher Booker and Richard North, which was very kindly sent to me by Joe L as a belated 70th birthday present. The book is a compendium of health scares, mostly in the UK, over the past few decades. And since most of them were familiar to me, I’ve been skipping over most of the chapters, and only reading those in which I had the greatest interest.
And one of these, obviously, was Chapter 12: Smoke and Mirrors. How they turned “passive smoking” into a killer, 1950 – 2007. The authors were quite sure that the passive smoking scare was a scare no different from any of the other scares listed in the book. And in this they relied heavily on Enstrom & Kabat’s very large 2003 study, which found little or no danger in secondhand smoke.
The chapter would have been a lot more interesting if it had been titled Smoke and Mirrors. How they turned smoking into a killer, 1950 – 2007. For that is what actually happened after 1950. The passive smoking scare is actually a secondary scare that followed in the footsteps of the primary scare, which was about the effect of the firsthand smoke upon smokers when they inhaled, rather than the effects on others of their secondhand smoke. For Booker and North the secondhand smoking scare was the real scare, while the firsthand scare was in their view not a scare at all, even though the authors of the former were the same people who had come up with the latter. In this respect Booker and North belong in the alarmist mainstream of public opinion, firmly convinced that (firsthand) Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. (While I think that both the firsthand and the secondhand smoking scares are exactly that: scares.)
But in the last chapter, the authors consider all the necessary components of an effective scare – scientists, media, politicians, lobbyists, etc – and address the question of which of the many scares they had considered was the greatest scare of all. And their answer to this was unequivocal: the global warming scare was the greatest of them all.
What was quite different from all the rest was the fear of global warming. Here at last was a cosmic scenario that had found expression in almost all the religions of the world, from the Jewish legend of Noah and the Christian vision of the Apocalypse to the world-ending Ragnarok of the Norse sagas and the Teutonic Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods.
The appeal of the fear of global warming was that it fitted so neatly into the plot of a story with which everyone is familiar. Man in his selfish and reckless exploitation of the planet had committed a great and unpardonable sin, if not against God then certainly against Nature. Unless he repents and learns to mend his ways, he and all life on the planet will face unthinkable punishment. The seas will rise and flood the cities of the earth. Great storms will rage, on a scale never before known. Vast tracts of fertile land will be reduced to barren deserts. Nature itself will be stricken before the onslaught. Billions of human beings will die.
And all this will happen very soon. The end of the world is nigh. The Last Judgement is upon us – unless we repent and mend our ways by acting on the Kyoto Protocol.
For myself, I generally regard the greatest scare of all to be the smoking scare. It is, after all, what I’ve been writing about for the past 10 years. But it has to be admitted that the smoking scare is not accompanied by visions of flood and storm and desert and mass death. The smoking scare simply doesn’t have the same grand, cosmic scale as the global warming scare. The very worst that ever happens in the smoking scare is that smokers die slightly younger than non-smokers. By comparison with the epic vision of the global warming scare – with tidal waves engulfing cities -, the smoking scare is a damp squib.
And since I’ve got much more interested in Climate Change over the past 3 months, as a consequence of my new Theory of Ice Ages, I’m almost inclined to forget about trivial, unimportant smoking bans, and devote my attention to climate change.
Almost inclined. But not quite. For while I must agree that the global warming scare presents an apocalyptic vision of the near future, I still think that the smoking scare is a far greater and more insidious scare.
For in the first place the global warming scare has so far had few direct effects on the lives of most people. They have not been banned from driving CO2-belching cars. Nor have they been banned from lighting CO2-belching fires. The effects of the global warming scare have been largely institutional in character, with moves away from fossil fuels – coal, oil, gas – towards renewable fuels – solar and wind and tidal -.
And in the second place, the global warming scare has seen the rapid emergence of a powerful countervailing sceptical movement to combat global warming alarmism. And this counter-movement has been so successful that most people now don’t believe the global warming scare, if they ever did before. In opinion survey after opinion survey, people give global warming as the very least of their concerns. So much so that the global warming scare seems to have almost become as senescent as many other scares.
And in the third place, the global warming scare has not produced deep social divisions between alarmists and sceptics. While some people are worried, and some are not, it seldom results in the breakup of marriages or the termination of friendships.
And in these three respects the smoking scare has had, firstly, a very great direct effect on smokers who are now exiled to the outdoors on almost every continent in the world, and secondly it has failed to generated a powerful countervailing scepticism, and thirdly it has caused profound social divisions to open up in society. Smokers have no powerful allies in the world of science or politics or the media in the way that climate sceptics do. Everybody (and this includes Booker and North) believes all the claims made about firsthand smoke, even if they don’t believe those about secondhand smoke. And the relationships between smokers and non-smokers and antismokers have become profoundly poisoned: it is no longer possible for smokers and antismokers to co-exist in the same places. The smoking scare has fomented an incipient civil war within society eerily reminiscent of that last seen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, from which many people were forced to flee for their lives.
Yes, the smoking scare may not offer anything anywhere near as apocalyptic in scale as the global warming scare, but its affects upon society are far, far more profound, and far, far more destructive, and made all the worse for being almost entirely invisible.
And finally, the global warming scare is not a scare. It’s something that is already part of human experience. We’ve been through it before. And we have been through it many times. For some 12,000 years ago, the earth warmed up, and the glaciers retreated, and the sea levels rose 120 metres (see right). And when the seas rose, no doubt many people were drowned. And perhaps entire cities drowned too. And as the climate warmed, no doubt there were tremendous storms as well. The Apocalypse is not a prophecy: it’s a memory. It’s not the future: it’s the past.
And that’s why its memory is preserved in Judaism, Christianity, and the Norse and Teutonic sagas. And it may be that one reason why it is preserved in the Norse and Teutonic sagas is because the ice sheets once covered precisely those places. The global warming narrative ‘fits neatly’ into a story everyone knows precisely because it already is our story. It’s our history.
And Booker and North were well aware of this past episode of global warming:
But these [ice ages] have been punctuated by warmer, interglacial periods, lasting up to 20,000 years before the ice returns. It is in one of these ‘interglacial warmings’, that which began around 18,000 years ago, that we are living today.
Well, if the interglacial periods last ‘up to’ 20,000 years, and we’ve already had ‘around’ 18,000 years of our current one, doesn’t that rather suggest that we have only about 2,000 years before the ice returns, and sea levels fall, and crops fail, and billions of people die? What other conclusion can be drawn from the few lines quoted above? And why didn’t Booker and North draw that obvious conclusion? For fear of starting yet another scare?
Why is everyone gazing into the future, but seeing only the past?