Interview: Martin Durkin

ALEXANDROS STAVRAKAS

In March 2007, Channel 4 broadcast ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, a documentary produced by Martin Durkin, managing director of Wag TV. Martin Durkin, with a long history of producing controversial films about commonly held beliefs, has been listed in Broadcast magazine as one of the top ten executive producers in British TV and is on the special advisory committee of the World Congress of Science Producers. His documentaries have received numerous awards, such as Best Science Documentary of the Year by the British Medical Association for ‘Storm in a D-Cup’, which discredits the alleged harmful health implications of breast implants.

‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ questions the fundamental claims put forth by environmentalists who believe that global warming is attributed to human activity. The documentary’s central claim, substantiated by interviews with eminent scientists, researchers and activists (such as one of the co-founders of Greenpeace), is that, although the planet is certainly warming-up, there is no credible scientific data that can prove that this rise in temperature is a result of human activity. Even more, according to the documentary, there is mounting scientific evidence that CO2 is not a temperature driver, showing, then, that the entire man-made global warming campaign is based on flawed premises.

The documentary caused a wave of controversy and reaction both in the British media and in the scientific community. After months of ongoing debate, including a scientist’s claim that he was misrepresented and the subsequent acquittal of the film of the accusation, ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ has managed to pass most of the immense scrutiny it was subjected to with its credibility virtually unscathed. The documentary is shortlisted for Best Documentary award at the 2008 Broadcast Awards.

In one of his rare interviews, Martin Durkin speaks to Bedeutung’s Editor-in-Chief about environmentalism, the scientific community, and the current state of the political debate.

Alex Stavrakas: There is an almost religious element in environmentalism: the idea that humans were living peacefully in nature until they decided to break up this relationship for the sake of civilization, thus setting off their own downfall. Environmentalism invokes belief in the transcendental – nature. It stands for the primordial rather than the manmade, and it is, in that sense, pregnant with metaphysical concerns. Do you think that this is where its dynamic and huge popular success resides, or do you believe that it is actually a realistic anxiety?

Martin Durkin: I would tend to unpack that a bit. I think there is certainly a religious component in it, but I also think that if you look at paganism or neo-paganism, it’s quite a distinct philosophical/theological trend than, say, Judeo-Christianity. I consider the Greens to be conceptually very much at odds with Christianity. I remember Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope, talking about the dangers of neo-paganism, and I do think that there is something that jars there. I’ve noticed that environmental philosophers criticise Christianity an awful lot, and I think that’s because Christianity tends to put humans at the centre of things, whereas the neo-paganism of the environmental movement is rather anti-human in that regard. So, I’m not sure how useful the analogy between religion and environmentalism is. The analogy tends to be used by atheists – for them, everything that is religious is irrational and they regard environmentalism as irrational. I, too, think that environmentalism is irrational, but I also think that there are clear distinctions between the Judeo-Christian tradition and environmentalism.

A.S.: Is there a ’spiritual’ element in environmentalism in the sense that it unites people beyond their materialistic concerns; although it is presented as a materialistic concern, one that has directly to do with our material existence and our lives; is there, at the same time, a return to an all-encompassing identity which is the idea of ‘humanity’, the idea that we ultimately all are part of the same universe? The analogy may be a bit exaggerated – but does it resemble religion in the sense that both say ‘we were all living happily and peacefully in nature and now we decided to live in civilization and we ruined it all’.

M.D.: Well, as I said, I think that environmentalism is profoundly misanthropic, and in that sense it is different to established religions, because I don’t consider them to be misanthropic. I’m reminded of Hitler and Wagner, in their attempts to re-invent mythical Germany – their love for all that ‘Lord of the Rings’, Tolkien, mythical past stuff, mixing up with the fairies – that irrational, romantic trend in Western thought, from Rousseau through Nietzsche, through -I think- a certain trend in existentialism as well. I agree with you that there is a transcendental element; especially if you look at the way they list their concerns. The way you would think about environmentalists these days is as having just another ‘shopping list’ – they don’t like cars, they don’t like long-haul holidays, they don’t like supermarkets, they want to clean up the rivers, they like conserving animals – it’s a collection of things. But what is rarely thought about, is looking for what links all these together, because if you find someone who’s keen on one issue, he is almost guaranteed to agree with also all the other things. I think the interesting thing about global warming, as a theory, is that, although they didn’t realise it at first, it facilitates an apocalyptic scenario that ties everything together and gives it a moral imperative. So, it stopped being an incoherent bundle of prejudices and started having this greater rationale. Because, in fact, if you break them down, a lot of what they say doesn’t make very much sense – they are against landfill, but if you look at landfill, there isn’t a very big problem – you dig a hole in the ground, you put some rubbish in, you cover it up – it doesn’t create big problems. But, somehow, they need to make it into something grander than just a gripe. Looking back at what their philosophy is, I think there is something different to traditional religion; in fact, something which is at odds with it, because there is a kind of humanism; people who describe themselves as humanists regard themselves as being against Christianity and organized religion, but the Judeo-Christian tradition is actually very humanistic, putting humans at the centre of things. For example, in Africa, where the Greens will moan horribly that the blacks are having too many children, the Christians think that this is not a bad thing, and most Africans think it’s not a bad thing either. So I think there is a division there.

A.S.: You touched on two interesting subjects. A main aspect of current environmental hype is the idea of preserving the world as we know it. It seems that many environmental concerns are not about changing our practices, or even imagining an alternative to them but, rather, adjusting the consequences that they have. To take a simple example, carbon offsetting is not about altering our habits – going on holiday, or printing magazines, or driving cars – but about how we can make these habits less burdensome to the environment. In this sense, environmentalism is a ‘feel-good’ policy: it does not ask from people to question their practices, it offers them redemption – at a price. How do you relate to that?

M.D.: There are a few inter-related things there. I think that the great tragedy of the environmental movement is that it comes after the defeat of socialism, because it makes it very difficult for them to paint an alternative world – what would that world look like? Because, short of saying ‘it will be like the Middle Ages, only with a bit more technology’, it’s hard to say more. From my view, the fundamental basis of environmentalism is unhappiness with modernity, a fear of progress, fear of change. If you look historically into that, in Rousseau and other early writings, if you see the process of industrialisation, the breakdown of the ancient regime, you’ll realise that the people who are most fearful of change are the people who are going to be losing out from that change. If you are bourgeois and there is a bourgeois revolution you’re going to be very positive about it; if you’re an industrialist and everything’s industrialising, then that’s a very good thing for you; if you’re in the working class and you’re becoming richer and richer thanks to mass production, you’re obviously going to be less inclined to think badly of it. However, I think that certain sections of the middle class have lost out horribly with the advance of capitalism. A teacher or a doctor in England one hundred years ago would be highly regarded, they would be proper members of the middle class living in a reality that exhibits pronounced social distinctions. Now, we live in a very different world, a world where taxi drivers could earn more than teachers, where doctors might only earn as much as a plumber. There is a way in which being middle class is very much different – the middle class looks at costume dramas on the television and they see EM Forster unfolding before their eyes, they see the Agatha Christie books, they see the proper middle class people going with their leather suitcases on trips to Egypt, and they have an unconscious feeling of historical ennui. If you look at the royal family, they must yearn for the day when kings were kings – the aristocracy, the people in the Mayfair set have a certain nostalgia, and they haven’t won out by industrialisation – it’s the working classes and the real bourgeoisie who have won out by modernity, and I think there is a certain historic change which has reflections in culture. You can read a lot of the confusions of the environmentalist movement in Nietzsche, who protests against the masses, and protests against the tawdry vulgarity of democracy, and against the awfulness of mass production because it defiles his individual heroism. But nowhere in Nietzsche is there a passage ‘this is the kind of society that I would like to see’. The Nazis were in the same tradition of romantic irrationalism, but there was no proposed alternative. If you read Heidegger, it’s the awfulness of damming the Rhine: what a cruel, awful imposition on this great ancient mythical force, to put a hydroelectric dam in the middle if it! The Nazis would adore traditional peasant farming against capitalist agriculture, and hate the big Jewish industries and so on and so forth. At the same time though, when they went to war, they needed the big factories. The early attempts to return to peasant agriculture were soon abandoned when they realised that they needed to feed the troops. Likewise, you get this contradiction in modern environmentalism – people will regard technology as being a bit Frankensteinian, but, at the same time, they will have their sleek laptops, and if something goes wrong with them, they will avail themselves of the latest cancer drugs and everything else that science coming out of the same labs as GM came out of can offer. You can’t imagine that they would really want to live in Cuba. So, there is no genuine alternative, it’s just a horrible set of prejudices, and they offer a kind of redemption – but it’s a discontented redemption. As soon as you invent a scheme for carbon offsetting, they will attack it, they will proclaim ‘Ah, it’s been despoiled’. As soon as one of their solutions takes a tangible form, they will attack it on the basis that it’s been ‘hegemonised’ by the capitalist system. So, their discontent must find new areas. As soon as we start recycling, they will attack recycling because, they’ll claim, it’s not really good enough, or, it’s not doing the right thing. We know about the moral perspective which comes with environmentalism: you’re wicked for throwing a bottle out the window but there’s no mention of the other insidious things which are going on in society.

A.S.: I remember one of the co-founders of Greenpeace who stated in ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ that the environmental movement needs to be constantly confrontational – as soon as it wins on one front, another one will be invented just to keep things constantly ‘heated up’. Since you spoke of philosophy, I’d like to ask you: a philosopher once said that ‘the duty of philosophy is to show that what we perceive as a problem is a false problem. If what we perceive as a problem is a true problem, we don’t need philosophy – we need good science’. As philosophers discussing environmentalism, are we barking up the wrong tree? Should we leave it to science as the problem is a real one, or is the engagement itself an indication that the problem is a false problem?

M.D.: The difficulty is that science has lots of members who are themselves susceptible to the prejudices and the worldview of the age they live in – they are not above the prejudices of their time and their social class. The phenomenon that we have over global warming is that you have a group of scientists, who want to believe in global warming. The people I’m referring to are not relieved when you say ‘the evidence is not there for anthropogenic global warming’, they don’t reply ‘what a relief!’. Instead, they get cross with you. They don’t articulate this themselves, but they need global warming in order to tie everything together. You can see in their literature that they are, in fact, desperate to prove this to be true, and they get very irritated with those who point to the evidence -very good evidence as such- which suggests that it is not. They build models that, on many levels, do not correlate with observed data. And this is a huge problem within science, since there is an a priori desire in science for it to be true. Furthermore, on a more vulgar level, there is also a lot of money in this; there is now as much money being spent on global warming research as there is on cancer research and if someone would pull the plug on that, the consequences for a vast amount of people would be grave. Personally, I think that an even greater issue is the political/ideological aspect. Scientists tend to be employed in the public sector, they tend to be leftwing or mildly leftwing, and they share the prejudices of people in the media who are friendly to the idea of global warming. But the important question still hangs above: Is there a problem at all?

A.S.: So, scientific discourse is pre-determined, defined by historically, socially, politically, ideologically suggested concerns. Your claim seems to be that it is not independent at all from its cultural and social context.

M.D.: I’ve made many science documentaries which have championed science and reason against irrationalism and prejudice. I’ve made films about genetically modified food, proving that this is just a prejudice and that, rationally, we should be in favour of GM food. After all, plant breeding is all about mixing genes, and there’s no such thing as a banana gene or a tree gene, there are just different combinations of genes, and we’ve been mixing them ever since we started selecting food, since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. I’ve been fighting the battle for science and against irrationalism for some time. But this -global warming- has been a shock to me because, normally, I’m patted on the back for being so pro-science. Scientists love me, they love my films and, suddenly, I’ve stepped into this very difficult area where, as far as I see, I am led by the evidence and yet am attacked for it. A few years ago, I would have said that, besides the point that science is an intricate part of a particular historical moment and is, therefore, socially determined, there is a strong independent spine of science; the science that will make the bridge stand up or fall down. Talk won’t keep the bridge up, talk won’t cure cancer – there is the cold realism, the cold shower of the real world, which science has to deal with, and which doesn’t exist in sociology departments. But, the phenomenon of global warming is completely new to me. I’ve never witnessed anything like it in all the years of my work with science and scientists. Environmentalism has changed the nature of science in the Western world and I think that when we will be writing the history of contemporary thought this will be a turning point where we stopped regarding science as this cold, logical discourse which we could rely on to be above prejudices. Global warming has very worryingly revealed that science is, in fact, not independent from social prejudices or social views.

A.S.: Well, I’m not entirely sure about the novelty of this reproach to science: science has many times before fallen victim of social prejudices. Was science not, for example, in the past, employed and keen to ‘prove’ that the white race is genetically superior to other races? But, anyway, do you think that objectivity and truth is a value in itself, or do you think that even if the data is questionable, it is, sometimes, better to have people believing in something, it is more socially profitable to create an ideological coherence, even if it is based on shaky grounds, than to lack it altogether?

M.D.: Absolutely not. I think that’s a horrific prospect. I am aware that truth isn’t a solid, objective, static thing we can ever arrive at; that truth is, to a large extent, a vision, something that we must constantly search for and will only partially discover. But it’s, nevertheless, a strive which we must not give up – we must never catch ourselves abandoning the desire to get an insight into the workings of the world. I think being committed to finding truth is a difficult and uncomfortable enterprise if not for the fact that truth doesn’t always please us. It can sometimes be inconvenient and it can be a difficult thing to face up to or, even more, live up to. But it is the sincerity and decency of the strive itself that is at question here. The idea that it’s acceptable if we fudge it a bit because there is some perceived social good to be had from tampering with it, is a ghastly, corrupt idea.

A.S.: So, how would you describe your own research in terms of provocation? Do you think that if there were objective facts which would potentially make your claims weaker, you would nonetheless engage in a more polemic style, if only to get a reaction which would eventually lead to a debate?

M.D.: No, I have declined to do programmes, simply because I didn’t believe their fundamentals claims to be true. I’m a firm believer in only doing work on what I think is true. What is interesting about global warming -interesting in a dark, unpleasant sense- is that there is so much evidence which runs counter to perceived opinion. On breast implants, for example, there’s no solid evidence that breast implants cause the diseases many people think they do. That made it an interesting thing to make a film about. But I would not even dream of doing a film which would make claims of which I would not be convinced personally. I made ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ because I believe that there is overwhelmingly good evidence that suggests that human-led global warming is absolute rubbish. The interesting thing is that the weight of evidence is against CO2-led global warming. So, why on earth do we all think it’s true? And that brings in what we’re talking about – how can it be that in the modern age, which we perceive as the epitome of rationality, where we can get people to the moon and build enormously clever microchips, how can it be that something which isn’t true can get a grip, not only on the public imagination but also public policy and the scientific community? That was an extraordinary question.

A.S.: Is there an element of science, technological innovation and progress which makes them appear anti-human, in spite of all the good, positive steps they have offered towards making people’s lives better? In many respects we live in a better world now than people did one hundred years ago, and we have science to thank for that to a very large extent. People in the West live longer lives, in healthier conditions, are better nourished. Yet, to many people, science appears to be an impersonal, inhuman mechanistic enterprise. There is a profound contemporary trend to romanticize about the times when vegetables where seasonal, when commuting was done on foot or bicycle, when there were no plastic bags and supermarkets but only hand-woven baskets and local markets. Fine, but let’s not forget that these were also the times when the average life expectancy was 55 and women would, frequently, give birth at home.

M.D.: I consider people who hate science to also hate humans. Thanks to IKEA, people of low incomes who are setting up a flat can afford to put furniture in their flat. So I will disagree: people actually feel that technology is very human, science is very human. Science is curing us of diseases, it makes things more affordable for us, it makes it easier for people to go on holiday. I am confident that people have a very positive view of science. I think it facilitates a more democratic world. We are now more sensitive and generous than we have ever been in all of human history and I believe this to be because of the material progress we’ve made. These days, when nations go to war we can be horrified when people die thanks to having 42” televisions in our living room that show us what happens. I think technology is an enormously human thing. It is very misanthropic to hate science.

But, on your other point, I agree: you know, Greens, by and large, don’t live in the middle of the country and sow their own porridge – they live in urban areas and have central heating. Sometimes, it even gets farcical: Sienna Miller was saying recently that she was so concerned about the planet that, in order to do ‘her bit’, every time she makes a cup of tea, she only puts a cup of tea’s worth of water in the kettle. You know, we used to talk about world revolution, and now it comes down to Sienna Miller, who when is not in a limousine or flying to film festivals, only puts a cup of water in the kettle! And it really works on people. The reporter was taking it very seriously, saying ‘well done Sienna!’.

A.S.: To close, nine months after the documentary, where are we now in terms of the debate it sparked off?

M.D.: The controversy has waned, it’s now further away, and I don’t see any signs that anything has moved on. No channel is asking to make a follow up, so that we can explore this in more detail. I’m feeling very pessimistic about things. I think that a lot of very irrational laws will be passed. The politicians are, as always, in a difficult position; if you’re a politician and you think it’s all rubbish, do you stand up and say so? The media will murder you, and there’s lots of other important policies to think about – schools and hospitals. So there is, really, no advantage to a politician saying ‘this is junk science’, because, after all, the working class won’t thank you for it, the industrialists won’t thank you for it. In the end, the people you will offend are teachers and journalists and other media people, all these people who you don’t want to offend. So I don’t think there’s any political momentum in saying environmentalism is wrong – sadly.

  • About

    Alexandros Stavrakas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied politics, philosophy and economy, followed by graduate studies in philosophy at the LSE and anthropology at UCL. He has written articles, translated, lectured and worked as contributing editor. He is the Editor of Bedeutung Magazine.


    His interview with Martin Durkin appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.