Nearly thirty years on from the second heightened phase of the nuclear arms race, science is informing of us of a new self-induced threat to our very existence on this planet, this time through anthropogenic climate change. This article seeks to make a link between the two threats and the way they have been presented to a wider public by elite policy makers and opinion formers. Back in 1980 Sir Michael Howard, a leading war historian, proposed that if the nuclear (weapons) ante was to be upped, greater civil defence was its necessary corollary. In our present moment Sir David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to Her Majesty’s Government, has proposed a ‘solution’ to the upping of carbon emissions, through more ‘big’ technology, especially in the form of ‘nuclear’ power. In both instances it is significant that alternative ways of thinking – and with them lines of action – have been implicitly marginalized or ruled out of the equation, King going so far as to attack opponents to his position as Luddites. Deferring to ‘those who know best’ is the default position of modern society as it attempts to grapple with complex as well as frightening problems. But could looking at history, not least the history we associate with ‘Luddism’, offer us the basis for a lateral consideration of ‘the mess we are in’, indeed a critical and purposeful unravelling of how we arrived here? We propose our guide in this quest to be the late Edward (E. P.) Thompson, who would, we venture, were he today alive, have taken up the cudgels on behalf of grass-roots empowerment in the face of global warming, just as he did in his 1980 Protest and Survive riposte to Howard’s essential acceptance of the nuclear arms race. Underlying this argument are some basic questions which are fundamental to the future of home sapiens as we peer into a perilous future. Who decides how society should respond to crisis? Must we always defer to the scientific keepers of the keys to the kingdom or might we be better served by looking back into a recent and indeed deeper history to find autonomous ways of living which can genuinely create the basis for a long-term, less violent survivability and resilient sustainability of the human Oikumene? Fundamental to this argument is the premise that the post-Enlightenment mantras of those who remain wedded to a political economy of ‘business as usual’ can no longer suffice and that historians, and other students of the past, could have a significant role to play in offering alternatives from outside the conventional box. Whether this can be of benefit to policy makers needs discussion, always with a view to the needs of the commonweal. It is this which has motivated the creation of Rescue!History: http://rescue-history-from-climate-change.org/indexClassic.php

Fig. 1.

CND march against cruise missiles, London, 26 October 1980.

Fig. 1.

CND march against cruise missiles, London, 26 October 1980.


It's Saturday 26 October 1980. A lovely, bright autumnal day in central London. We’re here for the first national march against cruise missiles, organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It's the first big anti-nuclear weapons demo for many years. I’ve come from Oxford on one of several coaches brought down by Campaign Atom: the Campaign against the Oxfordshire Missiles, later Oxford CND. (At that time we thought some of the US missiles were going to be stationed at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, not Greenham, Berkshire.) I meet up with redoubtable peace campaigners Diana Shelley and Phil Jeffries. They have a strong historical sense of what this is all about. Phil thrusts into my hand one end of what seems like an enormous banner. In front of us are Edward and Dorothy Thompson. Edward has already spoken with his usual impassioned brilliance at both of Campaign Atom's first protest marches in Oxford and Heyford. It's now great having them march with the banner. I bawl my head off: ‘Come on, you Luddites’, ‘Come on, you Chartists’. We get a lot of smiles and applause not, of course, for my inanities but because the banner is so cool: ‘Historians for the Right to Work, We Demand a Continuing Supply of History’.

How do you combine wry humour with that sense of leaden foreboding that the end of the world is really nigh? In the early part of 1980 a lot of us in that burgeoning ‘second wave’ of the peace movement thought it truly was. Peace News was reporting all sorts of scary stories you didn’t get to hear in the ordinary media – blankets being delivered to schools and the like, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Cold War seemed about to go ballistic. The government pamphlet Protect and Survive was being distributed nationwide. We were being prepared for the worst. As for ourselves, we were busily showing – it seemed night after night – Peter Watkins's film, The War Game, to packed community halls. The 1965 docu-drama graphically charted the fate of Britain (more exactly Kent) and its people in the event of a thermonuclear exchange. It was, of course, banned by a BBC which had originally commissioned it.

Somehow despite what seemed then like some inevitable count-down to obliteration we kept on smiling It's there in the October demo picture by Elizabeth Daniel which I have thanks to Phil. There's me holding on to that banner, looking ridiculously young. And my redoubtable campaigning sister, Betty, who seems to have hardly changed at all in all these years. She's having a laugh too. Phil has his body turned, Diana is off camera. Alas, so too are Edward and Dorothy. But rest assured, they were there. And smiling.


It's Thursday 3 April 2008, all those years on from the demo and in my case just about half my life later. We’re still alive! Obviously we must have got something wrong: perhaps there's hope after all? Or is there? That same insistence that what we’re doing on this planet – or more exactly our dominant way of doing things – is going to bring about our demise, and soon, still remains to the fore.

But this time it's not the dissident nuclear-physics bods who are the bringers of the bad news. It's their colleagues across the block in earth sciences. If we go on burning up fossil fuels at the rate we’ve been doing over recent decades – and with all the data pointing to further radical acceleration – temperature rises will literally go through the atmospheric roof. The bio-sinks – our last line of defence – are already carbon- saturated, while the radiative forcing is having such profound effects on weather systems that the ice sheets in the Arctic and Greenland could disappear in a matter of decades, a strong body of scientific opinion now thinks. More immediately the increased energy in the atmosphere is already causing major shifts in rainfall patterns with potentially disastrous consequences, as combined with the earth's own feedback mechanisms the effects will almost certainly be self-reinforcing.1 What, for instance, will the climatic – and hence human – consequences of continued drought be in that key Amazon bio-sink? Certainly, at all turns, the scientific findings confirm that global warming is proceeding much faster than earlier anticipated. And because the effects of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are cumulative, however radical the cut in carbon emissions we achieve in the near future, attempting to slow down the process now may be a little like trying to stop a runaway train. In brief, all the key scientists with the guts to say it tell us that time is ‘running out’. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines we do not recognize.2 With those deadlines ‘determined by nature’, the notion that multilateral political negotiations can resolve the issue looks more and more like an exercise in human futility, or perhaps plain stupidity.

So why bother to have a cosy, historical conference on the matter, as some of us did in April 2008? Since the impetus came from something I wrote two and half years previously, I had better offer a brief explanation. The piece was rather portentously entitled: ‘A Manifesto for the Humanities in the Age of Climate Change’ and – unsurprisingly – recapitulates the same old gloom-and-doom message. But it was also a cry from the heart, addressed in the first instance to academic colleagues. The scientists have been on the case for years, so where are my fellow historians, archaeologists, philosophers and theologians? Where indeed are all the sociologists and international-studies experts, the anthropologists and cultural critics? This climate change thing, after all, is not any climate change (there has always been that): this is anthropogenic climate change – not just affecting us, but caused by us. And given that bald reality, are not all students of human polity, economy, religion, culture and society, especially those who look at these matters through the prism of the past, duty-bound individually and collectively to try and unravel how we arrived here? And from that attempt to offer some sensible recommendations, or even personal or institutional actions which might go some little way to doing something about it? So, if nothing else, we can have our ‘continuing supply of history’, or if we can’t manage that small feat, then at least write a suitable epitaph.

I proposed in the Manifesto that this mission impossible should be set up as a loose network called Rescue!History. And, as it turned out, there were some people, good and true, who answered my call. Not too many, mind: clearly the end of history is just too big (or daft) a notion for even the most cerebral of folk who inhabit humanities’ departments in the British Isles to consider. (Or maybe we failed to get the message out.) Even so, a small group convene at Warwick University, in late 2006, primarily thanks to the efforts of Rob Johnson. We agree on holding a small conference to see how we might explore our premise further. Brum historians Chris Callow and Jean-Francois (Jeff) Mouhot take the lead. We don’t get the mandarinate funding we ask for (let's not go there) but thanks to Southampton Humanities and Birmingham History our proposition to organize an event has purchase. Without irony we call our conference: ‘An End to History? Climate Change, the Past and the Future’. We set the date for 3 April 2008, the place the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

All we have to do is find a guest speaker. We work our way through a range of the great and good – and come up empty-handed. They all must be writing their end-of-history tomes, though actually, most seem to be away on guest speaking tours in distant foreign parts. (I thought we were being encouraged to cut our carbon emissions?) We unilaterally opt for a different route. We decide to do it ourselves. Or rather we ask friends, Stefan Skrimshire and Kate Prendergast, to help me and Jeff kick the discussion off. We call this first roundtable session of the conference: ‘What is Rescue!History? What is the point?’ – though rather more irreverently in my head is ‘what in heaven's name do we think we’re playing at?’ It turns out to be quite a buzzy affair. There are lots of different people in the audience, from diverse academic disciplines, plus plenty of activists, campaigners and students, all of them with good things to say. It all rather reminds me of a History Workshop I attended at Ruskin a long time ago. In the course of the day, we get down to a whole range of debates about history, archaeology, education and society, charting the past, interpreting the present, imagining the future.

This piece is a development of what I had to say in that opening roundtable. It doesn’t represent the position of Rescue!History – because there isn’t one as such – but the particular line of thinking I will be pursuing within the network's ongoing debates and evolution. It is above all composed as a homage to Edward (E. P.) Thompson whose presence among us, were he still alive, would surely have made him our leading mentor and guide. Correct or incorrect, I will both cherish his memory and hold on fast to what he had to say on the role of human agency in history and its relationship, above all its ethical relationship, to the present, which remains as an inspiration to what is now humanity's greatest challenge.


Faced with a phenomenon as all-embracing as global warming one inevitably begins with some rather knock-kneed questions. How bad is it, how much time do we have, where's the cavalry? Perhaps once we’ve faced up to the full potentiality of the situation – that this is for real we might ask something more pertinent: ‘Where exactly are we now, that is, in this moment of political and societal “time”, in relation to what is clearly before us? If the rate of greenhouse-gas emissions over a given time is the framework within which global warming either is held in check or accelerates beyond a point of irreversible no return (even putting aside the fact that curtailing carbon-dioxide emissions, the usual political focus, does not address the whole problem) then at any given moment we have to consider how close we are to that ‘end’ game. Again however, given that the subject under scrutiny is not ultimately the climate but ourselves, other critical questions must sit alongside this first one. What is the nature of this social organism whose carbon-addiction is so destabilizing its relationship to the biosphere that a Martian observer would deem it inherently suicidal? Moreover, can we actually speak of a single organism, or do we need to offer further, more detailed analysis of its morphology? Is the whole body infected with suicidal tendencies, or are some parts of it simply sick because they are in thrall to its hegemonic regions? So is it these controlling parts which are our essential problem? Or, alternatively, is the anthropathology, in Colin Feltham's term, all-pervasive, a ‘we’ which is truly global?3

Back in 1980, faced with the imminence of self-destruction, a localized ‘we’ – in this case the great British public – were faced with two apparent choices. One was the government pamphlet Protect and Survive. This confirmed that there was a serious danger of breakdown of the Cold War ‘system’, suitably and surreally, indeed thoroughly anthropathologically described at the time as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), and that plasterboard, sandbags and other DIY stuff to be conjured from the garden shed were desirable as a safeguard, just in case. Behind this line of precautionary reasoning were some rather pukka public personages. One was Sir Michael Howard, Chichele Professor of War at Oxford University, who seemed to think that in the event of a ‘limited’ Soviet nuclear strike a substantial part of the population would do well to get into their home-made bunkers. The other choice was offered by E. P. Thompson, also a historian but of an entirely different, radical and visionary bent, a thorn in the side of the establishment to which Howard was transparently party. Thompson's counter-blast, Protest and Survive, derided the notion that home-made civil defence was the appropriate adaptation to the prospect of nuclear war, proposing instead that it was a dead cert. recipe for annihilation. In its place Thompson proposed that the people eschew listening to their esteemed leaders and instead take matters into their own hand by creating a European counter-movement against the bomb.4

Looking back on that time, it is interesting to note how Thompson for all the adulation and applause he received from grass-roots campaigners also came in for some quite harsh criticism from fellow intellectuals. In a famous spat in the New Left Review, for instance, Raymond Williams charged Thompson with ‘technological determinism’ for his declaration that the nuclear arms race was like ‘an absurd, crazy and rudderless superpower roller coaster’. That, of course, was Thompson's exact point. We had entered into a seemingly ‘irreversible’ culture of exterminism, the consequences of which were that the world's people could be propelled towards ‘a theatre of the apocalypse’, mass extermination resulting even through accident or misadventure. Or, to return to the anthropathology metaphor, the disease had become so all-pervasive and far-reaching that even the organism's brain had lost control of its own actions, which had indeed become ‘an impersonal and uncontrollable force’.5

Thompson's Marxist grounding (like that of Williams) carried with it a repudiation in principle of the possibility that human actions, even obliterative ones, could ultimately be, or become, ‘irrational’. Thompson himself was uncomfortably aware that in predicting the end of the world it was almost as if he was taking on the mantle of some of the more colourful eighteenth-century millenarian prophets who had been subjects of his own studies. The fact that he had fully grasped an essential truth about the prospects for contemporary humanity was thus literally shocking. In warning of a point beyond which there could be no redemption, he was effectively overturning his own insistent optimistic conviction that ordinary people can both make their own history and be the agents of positive social and political change, even against the observable, materially-grounded odds.

The critical point was to resist the disease before it was too late. Being an observer, for Thompson, was never enough. The historian's responsibility, on the contrary, was certainly to think globally but also to act locally, in consonance with the needs and aspirations of the grass-roots. Tony Judt's recent put-down, that Thompson was a ‘sanctimonious, priggish Little Englander’,6 absurdly airbrushes out Thompson's extraordinary role as founder and visionary force behind European Nuclear Disarmament (END), not to mention that slew of historical writing in which loving attention to the social, political and cultural self-formation of the lives of English working people was always set against a comparative European and Asian – especially Indian – range.

The point here, however, is not to waste time on adversaries who should know better but to develop further the Thompsonian connection to Rescue!History. As a historically-grounded peace campaigner, Thompson alerted and inspired many of us to act against the advice of the political-military-corporate nexus and so resist the terminus towards which it was driving. Similarly, as a historian of English society in the run-up to industrialization, Thompson provides a way into lateral possibilities and potentialities for resisting the drive to climate disaster emanating from that same basic nexus.

Of course, there is more than a little which is paradoxical here. In spite of the implicit and sometimes explicit environmental voice in Thompson's work, it is only posthumously that his work may be read as a form of campaigning resistance to dominant discourses on climate change, just as Arnold Toynbee's valedictory work, Mankind and Mother Earth (from a very different perspective), made explicit warnings about the relationship between human greed and environmental catastrophe but came too soon to engage specifically with global warming.7 From a mainstream perspective, moreover, one might wish to repudiate any notion that contemporary policy makers have some active interest in seeking human obliteration.

On the contrary, their repeated (if somewhat belated) claim is that they are taking the issue with all seriousness and are intent on gearing up polity and economy towards meeting the challenge. Supported one might add, at ever increasing turns, not only by a battery of spokespeople within the corporate and indeed even military sectors but also by some of the sharpest minds within the scientific establishments.

So should we rest assured that the state and its adherents have the people's best interests at heart? Let's take one influential person who, like Michael Howard earlier, has been quite willing to lead the ‘official’ debate on the best methods for our – the public's – present-day protection. Sir David King was until recently chief scientific officer and a major champion of the urgency of climate change to the point where his persuasive efforts were clearly a key determinant in getting Tony Blair, then prime minister, to bring it to the top of the domestic and international agenda. To that extent King cannot be faulted. Nor can he be accused of sitting on his laurels. Since leaving office he has co-written a book, The Hot Topic, full of clear, incontrovertible evidence on the dangers of global warming and replete with practical advice on what, at the international, national and personal levels, can be done about it.8 It is significantly subtitled ‘How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on’. In a Guardian interview King went straight for the jugular when he proposed that there could only be one right direction for dealing with the problem: namely, through dirigiste, heavy-duty, capital-intensive technologies. To go along any other route was ‘utter hopelessness’. So who are the culprits sabotaging this necessary trajectory? King was unequivocal: modern-day green activists, who by opposing ‘technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century’ – in particular nuclear power – were behaving like ‘Luddites … actually keen to take us back to the eighteenth or even the seventeenth century’ [my emphasis] and in the process ‘setting back the fight against global warming’.9

Now this is an interesting accusation on two not quite related levels. The very fact that King rubbishes the one societal grouping which for decades has been trying to alert public and policy makers to the seriousness of climate change is itself evidence of a generation-old animosity which has existed (regardless of the reality of climate change or not) between the cultures of the capitalist-corporate, technologically-driven state and those who have doubted its sustainability from a grass-roots, ecologically-based perspective. However, what matters more here is that King's charge also seeks to defeat his green adversaries on the historical terrain of which Thompson remains, posthumously, the undoubted doyen.

Sir David, as far as I am aware, claims no expertise on the early nineteenth century. He is simply using Luddism as a suitable metaphor for what he assumes will be taken by today's wider public to be a commonsensical position. Thompson described such a position in an eighteenth-century context as ‘a limited horizon of moral norms and practical probabilities beyond which all must be blasphemous, seditious, insane or apocalyptic fantasy – a structure which serves to consolidate the existent social order, enforce its priorities, and which is itself enforced by rewards and penalties, by notions of “reputability” …’.10

King asks us to agree that greens in their alleged anti-technology position are like Luddites, and thus that their efforts, if successful, would lead us to the very environmental catastrophe against which they warn. With this, ironically, he confirms the abiding nature of Thompson's historical insight. Indeed, King's sledge-hammer approach ‘as to what is possible and what is not’11 is designed not only to close down any debate on ‘appropriate technology’ but further to eliminate inconvenient ‘greens’ from that debate altogether. I will return below to the question why we cannot afford to eschew that contemporary debate. But let us revisit the late eighteenth and even seventeenth centuries just for a moment, to suggest that what King takes to be a closed book might instead be reopened as a fruitful alternative line of enquiry of some relevance to where we are heading now.

Like King, I do not claim specific expertise on this period. For a certain type of historian that might be grounds for proposing that I should lay off this polemic, just as some might suggest that I keep my distance from climate change too – after all, where are my scientific credentials on that score either? To be sure, if Thompson were available to answer some of King's assertions on the past that would be so much the better. On the climate issue specifically my riposte would be that this is so much more than simply a scientific matter, is indeed so fundamentally the human and moral issue of our time that there is no ethical choice but to step outside one's given atomized box regardless of the consequences. Even if that means sticking one's head above the parapet to say things which are either outside one's exact disciplinary arena or do not accord with a conventional academic propriety.

But to the history. What is immediately apparent from our contemporary perspective is that the period of which Thompson most keenly wrote is also crucially significant in the history of anthropogenic climate change. Here is the moment when, as a result of the shift to coal-fired industrialization, primarily in Britain, carbon-dioxide concentrations, relatively stable for thousands of years until around 1750, started the long inexorable climb from 280 parts per million upwards to their present mark of 387 (half of which has occurred since the 1970s).12 King sees no reason in this to treat the Luddites as the lost rescuers of history. Why should he? All the benefits and comforts of our age derive from the industrial revolution, whose cornerstone was a form of technological innovation founded on an efficient use of ancient, sequestrated carbon deposits. By attempting to destroy the machinery of these innovations, early nineteenth-century Luddites were not only attempting to stand in the way of a normative modernity, but also mindlessly denying that promise to all the generations to come.

Yet what were Luddites actually doing? They were trying to defend specialized cottage industries which had kept large numbers of people in body and soul for centuries and were an adjunct to an essentially agricultural means of livelihood which had proved sustainable and largely sufficient for longer still.13 In King's assessment this is an irrelevance. It is the technology that matters, not the people. And this myopia on his part is indictable on two further counts. In the first place, these toiling common folk were hardly responsible through their occupational or social practice for anthropogenic climate change as we know it. Indeed, it would be interesting to attempt an assessment of the possible carbon footprint of an eighteenth-century Hampshire shepherd, Warwickshire cottager, or family of Nottinghamshire stockingers. Yet at the same time these communities managed usually to get by and lead their lives – sometimes to enjoy a rich independence of existence, economically founded on access to the commons and a limited, largely localized market-place. To be sure, they had to be incredibly resilient, self-reliant, resourceful and capable producers not simply within a largely pre-fossil-fuel economy – the use of coal and peat notwithstanding – but in the interstices of a social order controlled by others. Certainly, the sum total of all the skills and knowledge in their constrained habitus would have our consumer-based British society today reeling with incredulity or amazed applause. In short, King is peculiarly guilty, in that famous Thompsonian phrase, of ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’,14 not least because the effect is to close off from view the survival techniques and skilled resourcefulness of these English working people, and indeed the preceding generations of all our ancestors, right back to what we dismiss as the stone age.

But of course King does not want us to examine the interactions of homo sapiens in and with the natural world either in history or prehistory. To do so would be to undermine the mantra which states that only the epistemologies of the here and now, hence of modern ‘high’ science and technology, can provide the tools for us to punch our way out of climate change. This last sentence is intentionally shaped to signal the inbuilt violence implicit in the judgement.15 It is also a way of reminding us that the narrative of violence to which King referred in his interview involves turning the true nature and outcome of the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century struggles on their head. In brief, King can only dismiss the social interactions on the cusp of what Paul Crutzen has termed the anthropocene16 and separate them from their connection to present-day climate change by reading them through ‘the propaganda of the victors’.17 Here the villains are not the inventors of the smoke-stacks or the East India Company nabobs who financed them. They are the impoverished artisans and croppers who, as a consequence, were starved, marginalized, criminalized, press-ganged into the military, physically displaced or deported, forced to migrate or, in the worst cases, ended up on the gallows.

That King's anti-historical narrative is simply the same old historical account of the ‘victors’ should hardly surprise. Displacement instead becomes ‘improvement’, those who resist enclosure or factory are ‘wreckers’, ‘subversives’ or ‘barbarians’ while the small band who prophetically challenge the very sense of this trajectory – whether they are of the Joanna Southcott, Muggletonian or William Blake sort – are all dismissed as lunatics. After all, who could seriously object to the notion of an unimpeachably rationalized progress, whose Wealth of Nations goals promised an ultimate abundance for all?

So King's point is not really about technology as such. It is about system. A system, to be sure, in which, as a consequence of the forced shift towards a work-regimented, time-ordered, positivist discipline, the lights do go on. In this process a new technocratic elite emerged tasked with keeping them on for the benefit of an increasingly deskilled, denatured population around them, more and more accustomed to the norms of a consumer-based, fossil-fuel dependent, highly complex urban environment. Certainly the very way King portrays the issue of climate change as yet another ‘technologically given problem’18 is a testimony to both his high modernist educational upbringing and his overweening confidence in the abilities of a new generation of trained scientific problem-solvers to provide answers for the dependent many. But surely even King cannot believe that it was technology as such which brought us to this ultimate point of no return? Technology may have been the essential handmaiden, just as technocrats like King may have been its high priests, but it was the urge towards a particular form of political economy – an economy of profit – which was the driver towards the crisis of the commons which now confronts us. And this final, globalized culmination of predatory process reveals – through the reality of peak oil on the one hand, accelerated climate change as a consequence of the global carbon-addiction on the other – the seeds of the system's inevitable collapse.

What makes Thompson's consideration of English social and political economy on the eighteenth-century cusp of the new order so compelling, is thus his insistence, unlike King, that it did not inevitably have to produce this outcome. Founded on the bedrock of human agency, other paths could conceivably have been taken. This notion may explain why for the likes of King the eighteenth century is indeed anathema. For what Thompson infers here is the possibility of a communitarian self-formation which might have been innovative rather than mechanistic, heterarchic rather than hierarchic, diverse rather than monolithic. It might have created, out of the conflicts at the demise of the ancien regime, a framework of existence in which cotters and croppers, instead of becoming the dependent wage slaves of a factory workforce, held on to the integrity of their economic independence. They might have retained their habitus rather than paving the way for Tesco; and they might have reformulated a localized politics of human scale to defy the urges of laissez faire, whose by-products have been unmitigated, globalized social injustice, environmental destruction and untrammelled violence.

Moonshine? Well, perhaps. But then Thompson recognized that over and beyond infrastructural, political, economic and technological change, something more would be needed to carry the alternative through: ‘some utopian leap, some human rebirth, from Mystery to renewed imaginative life’.19 If this is Thompson himself speaking through the prophetic seer, Blake, from where we stand now this vision of history, founded at base on humanity's spiritual potential, has to be set against the Kingian mainstream. The latter in effect insists that those who got us into our current mess, namely the leaders of the state-corporate nexus, must be allowed to have another bite of the cherry, on the massive presumption that only they have the keys to the kingdom. And strangely, just as a generation ago, when Michael Howard was spokesperson for the establishment, more nuclear armaments were presented as the way out of the Cold War impasse, so now King's answer to climate change is nuclear power.

King's case for nuclear power, of course, might have some narrow validity if it could be shown that it could help to radically decelerate carbon emissions. But there's the rub. The time needed to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain is the best part of two decades. Even putting aside all the other problems associated with them (the most fundamental of which is the future thousands of years of ‘sustainable’ waste storage), those who remain wedded to a political economy of ‘business as usual’ have no serious formula for dealing with the accelerating carbon emissions of the here and now. What King is actually putting forward is a future world in which, as control of the environment – that is, of the biosphere – recedes, authoritarian control of people (via top-down control of energy supply) becomes more and more the norm. And the great tragedy that goes with this is that without historical awareness of how we arrived at this juncture few will be able to see that what is being preached is not some value-free, scientistic and hence depoliticized wisdom.20 On the contrary, King's Guardian remarks should be read as very political indeed, as a pre-emptive retaliation against a counter-culture which might attempt to disrupt the passage of the new planning laws, whose key purpose will be to deny any grass-roots democratic voice interfering with major government-sponsored public projects – with King's beloved nuclear power plants to the fore.21

As for the alternative camp, the political point is that greens were never against technology, nor political agreements on climate change, any more than Luddites were against radical political change, or labour-saving machinery which might sustain and improve their independent working lives. Today the greatest hope for humankind in the face of the crisis is Aubrey Meyer's ‘Contraction and Convergence’ framework. But to implement that would entail a process for arriving at a principled position of equal carbon entitlements for everyone on the planet.22 In other words, a path for humankind combining appropriate technology with a morally- derived political vision based on social justice.

The linked problem is that we have become so solipsistic in our obeisance to heavy-duty technology as the solution to all these problems that we have lost sight of who we are or what we are doing on this precious and beautiful planet. ‘Any intelligent fool’, said Albert Einstein, ‘can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It take a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction’.23 As the inexorable demands of the economy of profit collide with the carrying capacity of the planet no technological fix can make good the deficit. Only by unravelling our history, to understand the roots of the dysfunction, on the one hand, to learn from the paths not taken, on the other, can humans act as their own agents against this, our self-made downfall.

Groupings such as the Transition Towns movement,24 the most promising of today's grass-roots initiatives for a continuing supply of human existence, know this well. They equally know that the prevailing hegemonic discourse cannot and will not deliver redemption. What an academic-cum-activist network such as Rescue!History can offer to this rising tide is less the chartable history of human folly and hubris – necessary as that is – but more the knowledge, indeed celebration, of the alternative, socially-based, human histories, diverse epistemologies and practices – as well as a historically-based vocabulary of dissent. The choice now is very stark. We can grasp the nettle to consider how best we might yet create a world fit for human beings to live in harmony with each other and the natural order. Or we can submit to the wasteland.


For Phil Jeffries, activist historian, radical statistician, inveterate campaigner and wonderful human being. Tragically, on 14 December 2008 Phil died of cancer, diagnosed only months before.
See IPPC 4th assessment report (AR4), 2007 www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm for the current consensual scientific position on global warming. For a more radical systems dynamic approach with a consequently much more catastrophic forecast see David Wasdell, ‘Beyond the Tipping Point: Positive Feedback and the Acceleration of Climate Change’, ww.meridian.org.uk/Resources/global%20Dynamics/TippingPoint/index.htm. Thanks, too, to my colleague, David Cromwell in the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), Southampton, for discussion on the latest state of the science.
Lester Brown, Plan B 2.0, Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, New York and London, 2006, p. 5.
Colin Feltham, What's Wrong with us? The Anthropathology Thesis, Chester, 2007.
See E. P. Thompson ‘Protest and Survive’, in Protest and Survive, London, ed. E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, 1980, pp. 9-61. I possess a copy of Edward's original typewritten manuscript.
See Edward Thompson, ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilisation’, in Exterminism and Cold War, ed. New Left Review, London, 1982; Raymond Williams, ‘The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament’, in Exterminism, p. 68. For my own commentary, see Mark Levene, ‘Battling Demons or Banal Exterminism? Apocalypse and Statecraft in Modern Mass Murder’, Journal of Human Rights 3: 1, 2004, pp. 74-5.
Quoted in Paul Laity, ‘Uncomfortable Truths’, Guardian Weekend, 17 May 2008.
Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth: a Narrative History of the World, New York and Oxford, 1976.
Gabrielle Walker and David King, The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and still Keep the Lights On, London, 2008.
See Oliver Burkeman, ‘Science Chief: Greens Hurting Climate Fight’, reproduced as ‘The War on Hot Air’, 13 Jan. 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jan/12/climatechange.carbonemission.
E. P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, New York, 1993, pp. 108-9.
Thompson, Witness against the Beast, p.108.
Mayer Hillman, with Tina Fawcett, How We Can Save the Planet, London, 2004, p. 11; David Adam, ‘World Carbon Dioxide Levels Highest for 650,000 years, says US report’, Guardian, 13 May 2008.
See E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common, esp. ‘Customs, Law and Common Right’, London, 1993; Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, chap. 14, ‘An Army of Redressers’, London, 1963.
Making of the English Working Class, p. 13.
It is indeed to reiterate what I said in Mark Levene and David Cromwell, ‘Introduction: Survival Means Renewal’, in Surviving Climate Change: the Struggle to Avert Global Catastrophe, ed. Cromwell and Levene, London, 2007, p. 13.
The term was coined by the atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, to denote a new period of geological time as determined by major anthropogenic changes in the atmosphere beginning in the late eighteenth century. See www.mpch-mainz.mpg.de/∼air/anthropocene.
Thompson, Witness, p. xiv.
Burkeman, ‘War on Hot Air’.
Thompson, Witness, p. 193.
My thanks for the discussion with Colin Richmond for clarification on this point.
See Patrick Wintour, ‘Rebels Defeated on Planning Bill Reforms’, Guardian, 26 June 2008.
‘Contraction and convergence’ offers an international framework in which greenhouse-gas emissions world-wide can both ‘contract’ and ‘converge’. It operates, on the one hand, on the basis of the precautionary scientific principle as to what are safe limits on ghg emissions; on the other, on the principle of equity, that is, in terms of counting people's rights under these limits. For more see Aubrey Meyer, ‘The Case for Contraction and Convergence’, in Cromwell and Levene, Surviving; and www.gci.org.uk.
Quoted in Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Dartmouth, Devon, 2008, p. 17.