Following her appearance at The Big One on April 21st 2023, Zadie Smith has shared the definite text of her piercing speech with Writers Rebel. It is reproduced here exclusively.
Hello. I want to speak to you today about a man called Craig Mackinlay, MP. Craig campaigns against flagship green policies, and is presently accused of failing to declare the fact that two of his staffers have close ties to Net Zero Watch, a climate-sceptic lobbying group that operates out of offices right here, on Tufton Street. But that’s not actually how I know Craig. I first came across his name among the signatories of a letter to The Telegraph. It was penned by some Conservative Parliamentarians who called themselves “The Common Sense Group,” and it accused the National Trust of being [quote] ‘coloured by cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the ‘woke’ agenda.’ It was a very dramatic letter, full of this sort of colourful language, but it lacked one vital ingredient: ‘common sense.’ Because the direct financial relationship between, say, a National Trust property like Stowe House, in Buckinghamshire, and the Duke of Buckingham’s sugar plantation in Jamaica, is of course not a ‘culturally Marxist fact,’ nor even a ‘woke’ fact – it is simply an actual historical fact. And actual facts – even painful ones – are, to me, the very definition of common sense. They allow us to know the truth, so we can live in reality, rather than in delusion. They are the sense we hold in common. Anyway: I feel a similar desire to share a ‘common sense’ when I’m thinking of the planet as a whole. But I – like everybody when it comes to the climate – lie to myself all the time. As GK Chesterton put it: “Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.”
The truth is, if I stand here and rail against Tufton Street, but continue to walk around with a plastic bottle in my hand, then I have failed to do even the smallest thing a citizen is called upon to do, in a climate emergency. It’s easy to accuse a man like Craig Mackinlay of shamelessness, but aren’t we all of us a little shameless in our own ways? All in some form of denial. Though perhaps there is a difference between denying something yourself, and encouraging denial in others? For that is the job of the people who work here, in Tufton Street. Do they think of themselves as ‘climate deniers’? I doubt it. It’s a bit like when Craig signed that letter to The Telegraph: he wasn’t denying anything, really, he was only being pragmatic. The worldview of that letter was: what happened, happened. For God’s sake let’s not spoil a nice cream tea in a National Trust property by actually thinking about history. And I imagine Craig and most of the people who work in Tufton Street likewise do not think of themselves as climate deniers per se. I’d bet Craig simply considers himself a common-sense fiscal conservative. A man concerned for the health of the economy, who doesn’t see why he and his friends should lose a lot of money in the short term for the sake of a long-term future he won’t live to see anyway, because, at some point – like all of us human beings – Craig Mackinlay will one day be dead.
People tell themselves all kinds of things. Activists needn’t care or know about the sort of things people tell themselves: it’s an activist’s job to act. But novelists can’t help but wonder. We’re different in that way. Activists get very angry, for example, at deniers – deniers of history, of science – but I actually prefer deniers to the sort of people you find in Tufton Street, whom I would call pragmatists. Real denial has a strong Freudian aspect. It’s a kind of repressed repulsion. Those who deny the holocaust, for example, or who refuse to face the sheer scale of that system of racialised capital called slavery – all those people must surely at least possess, deep down, some real understanding of the horror, otherwise they would have no need of denial. They would simply embrace the murder and the profit, and consider both a job well done. And you do meet such people now and then – Nazis and assorted sociopaths – whose hatred is pure. Undiluted, undisguised.
I think a similar split exists within climate denial. You certainly do meet the purely sociopathic and ideological. The technocratic banking bros, who know climate change is real but feel confident it will be solved by market and tech – as wealth, in their minds, will always solve the problems that wealth creates – and who believe that anyone interfering in this process is, by definition, a resentful communist trying to tank the economy. Or those cheery real politik dudes who crunch the numbers and argue that climate change will create ‘only’ a twenty percent reduction in GDP anyway, most of which will be absorbed by Africa, that collection of ‘shithole countries’ the ex-American President spoke of so warmly. A few of these types work on Tufton Street, no doubt – but I don’t think they’re widespread in the general population. It’s my sense that most street-level climate denial is actually sincere. Because the truth really is too terrible to contemplate: many mornings I wake up in a state of denial myself. I understand why so many people would want to get out from under both the threat of extinction and the intolerable idea that we have fashioned this bleak future for ourselves, collectively, with our own grubby human hands, grasping our little plastic water bottles. Who wouldn’t want to deny that?
But here in Tufton Street, as I say, you don’t find a lot of sincere deniers nor too many hate-filled sociopaths. Tufton Street is the home of sensible, clear-eyed, common-sense fiscal conservatives. The kind of people with four kids in forty-grand-a-term schools, who hope to move from Islington up to Notting Hill, and have got used to a Caribbean break both in February and April – and perhaps also at Christmas – and who, in a few years, dream of seeing their name over the door in some wing of their old college, and even, who knows – one day – to own some kind of sailing yacht of the medium size. Not as large as billionaire dreams, these, but still far from the narrow economic vision of your common or garden MP, constrained as they are by a relatively piddling salary. Tufton Street people have bigger dreams. Somewhere between a banker’s dreams and Rishi Sunak’s, let’s say. And what is very inconvenient to their dreams is all this boring ‘climate hysteria.’ All these annoying lefty journalists banging on about sea levels. All these scientists repeating inconvenient facts. All these culturally Marxist actors and ‘woke’ writers speechifying as if they occupy some kind of moral high ground, and don’t ever get on a plane to Jamaica or buy a plastic water bottle. But most annoying and existentially threatening of all are all you young people in the streets, holding up melodramatic signs about your future and the end of the world. Because some of the men and women of Tufton Street have children of their own, and they really don’t want them doing the math, then side-eyeing their parents, as if they were the bad guys… One thing novelists know is that nobody really thinks of themselves as the bad guy – least of all the Pragmatist. He’s always just doing what anyone reasonable would do, if they were in his shoes. Merely trying to keep his family in the style to which they have grown accustomed. Only hoping to make a little hay while the sun shines. Over the years, such seemingly reasonable people have made fortunes for their families from forced labour, the indentured peasantry, iron and coal workers, sweatshop cotton, cobalt mined by children – and why should that gravy train stop now, for the residents of Tufton Street? Just as the young can hardly believe their youth must coincide with the threat of extinction, so the lobbyists of Tufton Street are deeply aggravated to discover their plans to double their portfolio threatened by a load of cultural Marxists moaning about the temperature and the seas and extreme weather events…
It’s hard enough to fight the kind of sincere denial that rises in so many hearts. Hard enough to combat ideologues and sociopaths. But what makes it all immeasurably harder is when a group of greedy, deceitful, contemptuous, cynical, fiscal conservatives with their eye on the main chance, decide to flood and manipulate a political system with lobbyist money, to secure their own livelihoods, in the full knowledge that they do so at the cost of the livelihoods – and actual lives – of millions of people.
Evil is not a word I use often – or lightly – but I believe the kind of pragmatism practised on this street falls within that category. No-one’s in denial on Tufton Street. Quite the opposite. They know the science is real. They know whose money they’re taking. They’re not lying to themselves. They’re lying to us. Via elected officials like Craig Mackinlay. They must be stopped. Thank You.
©Zadie Smith 2023
Zadie Smith is a writer.