From Covid to climate change: challenging the culture of fear

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


From the pandemic to the environment, housing to food supply, politicians and experts often tell us that our choices are limited. When Covid-19 took the world by surprise, governments around the world understandably took a blinkered view – opting to shut down society for fear of the worst. But even before the chaos of the last 19 months, the discussion about how to deal with challenges both political and viral have taken on a fatalistic tone.

The slogan There Is No Alternative might have been coined by Margaret Thatcher to defend the market economy, but a broader reliance on the TINA outlook has come to inform many aspects of modern politics. Politicians and commentators applauded climate activist Greta Thunberg when she accused them of robbing children of their futures. According to climate activists Extinction Rebellion: ‘We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.’ There are some climate activists who shun the idea of any progress at all – believing that it is too late to do anything to stop the damage humans have inflicted on the planet.

This defeatist feeling can be found elsewhere – the Brexit debate descended into banks, industries and politicians telling voters that a rejection of the EU would end in disaster (even world war). Campaigners for fighting racism or sexism argue that life for minorities has gotten worse, despite years of legal and social change. Cynicism among voting populations is common, with scepticism about how much governments do to change politics expressed at every election. Even debate about the end of the pandemic, and how to get back to normal life, has been routinely qualified with assertions that ‘normal’ can never really return. Some people express concerns about this but feel powerless to challenge it in what has become a fatalistic acceptance of the dominant narrative

But despite our penchant for doommongering, some point out that there is proof of what human beings can do when faced with adversity. While global temperatures are rising, this has occurred at a time of rising world population because people are living longer and incomes in most of the world are still expected to rise considerably in coming years. Some commentators point out that, far from a picture of gloom and despair, those of us alive today are the luckiest people in history when it comes to health, wealth, education, culture and more. The success of the vaccine rollout – or the ability for the government to get homeless people off the streets during the pandemic – shows that change can happen when a little bit of pressure is applied.

What happens to politics when we take a fatalistic outlook? Some argue that there is a difference between being doom-laden and telling it like it is – climate activists argue that those who won’t face how bad things have got are simply denying the problem. Where does agency fit into all of this – is action impossible with a modern TINA outlook? Is it right to believe that they are an existential threat to human beings or even life on Earth in general? If not, what explains the popularity of apocalyptic thinking today?

Sherelle Jacobs
columnist, Daily Telegraph

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
researcher; writer; associate fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research; co-author, Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown

Nikos Sotirakopoulos
lecturer in sociology, York St John University; author, Identity Politics and Tribalism: The New Culture Wars and The Rise of Lifestyle Activism

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum