Who or what do you personally blame for the crisis? The twin problems of ecological and climate collapse now seem to overlap so profoundly with our many other issues, such as the cost of living and fuel crises, that many are just calling the whole entangled mess the polycrisis.
The finger definitely points at fossil fuels and the increased carbon in the atmosphere. That’s a no-brainer. Others would point to overpopulation and the understandable aspiration of many in the Global South to share the lifestyles of the North. Some gesture towards outdated value systems like Capitalism, Patriarchy, Colonialism and Neoliberalism. And still others widen the net to bring in ideas such as Wetiko, the grasping disease that the indigenous Americans identified in all the European invaders. Then there’s the American Dream. The Baby Boomer generation. And Humanity in general. But how about lies?
I’m not claiming that lies kick-started the climate and nature crises but I, and increasing numbers of others, think that lies have now formed an impenetrable block to the essential next stage in which we can at last see and begin to address the scale of the challenges we face.
I’m not just talking about the lies which extravagantly funded PR firms and advertisers do on behalf of the fossil fuel companies, though those are definitely a factor. This ‘respectable’ end of the misinformation machine makes sure that cars, flights, and motorways remain so seductive to so many.
But there are also the more hidden products of the misinformation machine. For example, the Tufton Street think tanks that regularly brief the right wing of the Conservative Party. They and their allies then disseminate their pernicious product into the influential right wing press – particularly The Telegraph and the Spectator.
These lies are repeated so often that their familiarity can be taken for truth: fossil fuels are not destroying our planetary system but are actually necessary to keep our citizens safe in a time of precarity due to the war in Europe. A coal mine in Cumbria could be carbon neutral. Green energy won’t work when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
Then there is also the miasma of misinformation that pollutes our social media in the same way that human excrement pollutes our seas and rivers. There are bots and companies – siblings to Cambridge Analytica – pumping out toxic filth into obscure corners of Facebook and X/Twitter where conspiracy theories lurk and that climate activists such as myself rarely see.
You could argue that we live in the age of the lie. We have witnessed an explosion of untruths: not just outright lies, but fake statistics, unjustified conclusions and deliberate omissions that distort the truth. Famously, certain political actors have chosen to become creative with dishonesty in a way that feels unprecedented. In the BBC series, State of Chaos, civil servants who worked closely with Boris Johnson when he was Prime Minister told Laura Kuenssberg that he seemed to believe his own lies so firmly that he was able to look straight down the barrel of a camera and shamelessly make false claims.
But even Johnson never achieved the trickster status of Trump, the genius of untruth. His Joker-ish playfulness is an invitation to become complicit, and to share the fun of his mendaciousness at your own expense. Every audacious truth-distorting statement is a high wire act; a kind of tawdry foreplay; an off-colour but compelling invitation to succumb to the past-it, dime-store Casanova with his crude patter and a candy-floss comb-over. Is it our own death-wish that Trump mobilises against us?
When I was young, stability ruled. Bank managers were local men with status who had relationships with their customers. I remember ours twinkling when he gave us our first mortgage. In those days, politics too felt managerial, and I longed for something more colourful. Now I am fiercely nostalgic for the wholesome dullness of those times
It’s the moment to call time on the age of untruth. We need to find common cause with others in society and to reach agreement on what needs addressing. We need to reinstate a public life with some agreed facts at the centre. Sadly, we won’t like many of those facts. The Earth is warming. Weather is becoming a wild card. Billions of people are threatened by heat, food and water shortages in the future. That instability threatens us all.
But the good news is that if we can just sanitise our public life enough to see those facts, we can begin to address the truths. And we won’t have to do it alone. We will all need to work hard and collaborate if we are to avert the worst of the disasters that could be coming down the line.
Lies isolate and confuse us. But as Christ famously said, the truth will set us free.
Jessica Townsend was the creator of the XR Podcast, on which she interviewed Margaret Atwood, Joanna Macy, Amitav Ghosh and others, and is a co-founder of Writers Rebel. She is now the co-founder and campaign lead for MP Watch: a network of over 70 constituency groups holding their MPs accountable for their honesty on climate and other issues. The network uses non-disruptive techniques and intends to make integrity a major issue in the next election.
CALL TO ACTION: To find out how you can help make your elected representative accountable, visit @MPWatchNetwork and www.mpwatch.org. or contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org