Ideas come in waves. And they sweep the world.
Big ideas are like tsunamis. Little ideas are like ripples on a placid millpond. And like those ripples they spread in ever-widening circles, criss-crossing each other.
In the past, ideas travelled very slowly from one place to another. But these days they travel very quickly. News now travels around the world in minutes, when it once took months or years or centuries.
And we’re all caught up in these waves that sweep the world.
The great religions of the world are long, slow waves. Fashions and fads are ephemeral, short, fast waves. They all come, and they all go.
The 1960s was also a wave that swept the world. It was a wave in which I was myself caught up, and tossed around. It was, I think, a musical wave. It was a wave of new music and new sounds. It was a wave of electric music.
The idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is also a wave that has swept the world. It’s an idea that gathered momentum in the early years of the 20th century, and became a tidal wave sweeping the world by the end of the century.
The idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming is another wave that is currently sweeping the world. This wave only started gathering momentum in the 1970s.
These waves always meet with resistance, just like ocean waves sooner or later meet the shore.
I tend to resist all these waves. Raised as a Roman Catholic, I resisted Roman Catholicism. Caught up in the 1960s, I resisted that too. And now I resist both the idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer and the idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming. Both of them seem to me to be religious dogmas against which dissent is impermissible, and therefore against which dissent is imperative.
The British Empire was another wave in which I was briefly caught up. I was born a few years before its demise, which I date to the 1950s.
Ideas possess great power, just like music possesses great power. Victor Hugo:
Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Victor Hugo also wrote:
One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.
Was he right in either assertion? I’m not sure he was. Because it is actually possible to resist ideas. I’ve been doing it all my life. It isn’t actually necessary to believe everything you’re told. We aren’t all just leaves blowing in the wind. We can to some extent sail into the wind, not just simple run before it.
And what is an idea “whose time has come”? Is there some sort of historical inevitability to everything that happens? Was it historically inevitable that World War 1 would break out on 28 July 1914? Was it historically inevitable that the Titanic would strike an iceberg on the night of the 14th of April 1912? Was it historically inevitable that JFK would be assassinated on the 22nd of November 1963? And so on. The answer, surely, is that all these events could have been averted.
There I go again: contesting an idea.
The idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is actually a very strange idea. It’s like believing that spoons and forks cause tooth decay. They’re superficially attractive ideas, because smoke enters lungs, and forks enter mouths, and are therefore possible causes of lung cancer and tooth decay. And in fact it’s far more plausible that spoons and forks cause tooth decay than it is that smoking causes lung cancer, because the repeated impact of the metallic tines of forks on teeth can readily be understood to make small holes – cavities – in them. It’s not so obvious to see how warm and gentle tobacco smoke (and only tobacco smoke) can result in the development of lung cancer 30 or 40 years later. In fact it’s rather hard to see how anything can cause anything else to happen 30 or 40 years later.
The idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is actually a piece of magical thinking. And magical thinking is thinking in which the thread of reasoning is incomplete, and some sort of leap of faith must be made to get past the missing link. And in the case of smoking and lung cancer the leap of faith is to believe that, somehow or other, nobody knows how, the smoke is absorbed into the lung, and resides there quietly for 40 years before finally triggering cells to start multiplying rapidly as cancer tumours.
By contrast, there’s nothing magical about the idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming. It’s a well-understood physical phenomenon that carbon dioxide absorbs long wave radiation from the surface of the Earth. Fill up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and the atmosphere will get warmer. There’s no magic to it. What isn’t clear is how trace amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can cause large increases in air temperature. If there’s a missing link in the reasoning of the alarmist climate scientists it is in this: they don’t plausibly explain how this can happen. Or, to put it another way, it is perfectly true that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming, but it is not at all obvious that Carbon Dioxide Causes Catastrophic Global Warming.
The idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Catastrophic Global Warming is one that has met with powerful resistance. Lots of people don’t believe it. But the idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer seems to have met with remarkably little resistance. Everybody believes it. And yet the idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming is a rational, scientific idea, and the idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is not. But perhaps this explains the resistance and the lack of: Rational scientific ideas can be met with rational, scientific counter-arguments, but irrational magical thinking cannot. The belief that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is not the product of cool, rational enquiry, but instead the product of a noisy and repetitive propaganda campaign. The antismokers have simply shouted down the smokers. It’s perhaps not so much that everybody believes that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, but rather that nobody dares to contest the doctrine, because nobody knows how to contest non-rational ideas of this kind.
The EU is another idea that has developed into something of a tidal wave that has swept the whole of Europe. And this also is meeting mounting resistance. In fact, the wave of populism sweeping Europe is itself yet another New Wave.
There is perhaps a Buddhist or Taoist attitude that can be taken to all these waves – which might be to recognise that these waves are just waves of sound and light. They are all phantoms. They are all illusions. And they carry no real force at all.
After all, back in 1964, did the Kinks’ You Really Got Me have any real force to it?