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In 1660, Self-Denial Was All the Rage

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    Posted: 30 Aug 2023 at 12:18pm

In 1660, Self-Denial Was All the Rage to Stop Extreme Weather. Sounds Familiar?

In my endless quest to be open-minded and well-informed I turned to the Guardian today and landed on this story by it Environment Editor Damian Carrington with the apocalyptic headline ‘Dramatic climate action needed to curtail ‘crazy’ extreme weather‘. No great surprise. There’s a similar story every day.

That’s quite a title isn’t it? Nine words only, but he’s managed to jam in ‘dramatic’, ‘action’, ‘crazy’ and ‘extreme’. Perhaps he used to be on a sports newsdesk, the crucible of journalistic cliché-packed writing. But that’s nowhere near as impressive as the 15 uses of the word ‘said’, each time following an individual scientist or ‘scientists’.

‘Scientists have said.’ What sort of science is ‘scientists have said’? Lots of things have been said in human history and most of them arrant nonsense. Here’s one of the examples: “The ‘crazy’ extreme weather rampaging around the globe in 2023 will become the norm within a decade without dramatic climate action, the world’s leading climate scientists have said.”

What does that mean? Adjust the word order and it reads “leading scientists have said the ‘crazy’ extreme weather will become the norm within a decade”. In other words, these geniuses know the future, a preposterous conceit they share with untold numbers of soothsayers, religious fanatics, demagogues, and lunatics, and how to change it. All you have to come out with is ‘scientists have said’ and suddenly the piece is imbued with pseudo-credibility.

Read on and of course the only possible route to evading Armageddon is zero consumption of fossil fuels. Not one piece of evidence is cited in the whole article, as usual. Of course, the proponents will evade being proved wrong or right since even if we did stop using fossil fuels overnight we’ll have to wait 200-300 years before we’ll know; and even then cause and effect will be impossible to prove.

Let’s go back a few years to when there were ever so slightly fewer fossil fuels being used. John Evelyn (1620-1706) was a founding member of the Royal Society. He wrote a diary, little known today but filled with gems, such as these (I’ve modernised the spelling):

February 5th 1652: It continued so ill weather as no vessels put to sea.

June 25th 1652: There fell this 25th day (after a drought of near four months) so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man alive had seen the like in this age: the hail being in some places four and five inches about, broke all the glass about Lond: especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich, where Sir Thomas Stafford, Vice-Chamberlain to the Queen, affirmed some had the shape of crowns: others the Order of the Garter about them; but these were fancies: it was certainly a very prodigious Storme: …

At least Evelyn knew the shapes of the hailstones were just imaginary, but he was equally confident about who was to blame as we shall see.

March 7th 1658: This had been the severest winter, that man alive had known in England. The crows’ feet were frozen to their prey: islands of ice enclosed both fish and fowl frozen, and some persons in their boats.

June 2nd: An extraordinary storm of hail and rain, cold season as winter, wind northerly near six months.

Horror of horrors, the winter of 1661-2 was exceptionally warm! Obviously global warming started before any of us realised. Luckily, the Charles II’s Government had a knee-jerk magic response up its sleeve:

January 15th 1662: Was indicted a general fast through the whole nation, and now celebrated at London to avert God’s heavy judgement on this land, there having fallen so great rain without any frost or seasonable cold: and not only in England, but in Sweden and the most northern parts, it being here near as warm as at midsummer some years. The wind also against our fleet which lay at great expenses, for a gale to carry it to Portugal for the new Queen [Catherine of Braganza]; and also to land the garrison we were sending with the Earl of Peterborough at Tangier, now to be put into our hands, as part of the Queen’s portion [her dowry]. This solemn fast was held for the House of Commons, at St Margaret’s:  … The effect of this fast appeared, in an immediate change of wind, and season: so as our fleet set sail this very afternoon, having lain wind-bound a month.

Sounds familiar? All they had to do was go without food for a bit and bingo! Problems over. This self-denial brought a divine reward in God alleviating the vile and unseasonably warm weather. Sadly, the effects were short-lived. Evelyn was a very religious man. He knew where to point the finger. He thought Charles II’s Restoration Court, which came into being in 1660, was the epicentre of decadence:

February 17th 1662: this night, and the next day fell such a storm of hail, thunder and lightning, as never was seen the like in any man’s memory; especially the tempest of wind, being south-west, which subverted besides huge trees, many houses, innumerable chimneys, among other that of my parlour at Sayes Court [in Deptford], and made such havoc at land and sea, as several perished on both. Diverse lamentable fires were also kindled at this time: so exceedingly was God’s hand against this ungrateful, vicious nation, and court.

The point here of course is that any extreme weather, any perceived aberration from the norm, will do as evidence for the sins of man and which therefore requires self-flagellating, punitive, remedial action, together with the delusional belief that we have the power to change the climate through our actions. And it wasn’t only precarious winters:

June 12th 1681: my exceeding drowsiness hindered my attention, which I fear proceeded from eating too much, or the dryness of the season and heat, it still continuing so great a drought, as was never known in England, and was said to be universal.

June 19th: the dry weather had now withered everything, and threatened some universal dearth.

It didn’t get any better, even once Charles II was dead (he died in 1685):

July 11th 1689: about three in the afternoon, so great and unusual a storm of thunder, rain and wind suddenly fell, as had not been known in an age: many boats on the Thames were overwhelmed, and such was the impetuosity, as carried up in the waves in pillars and spouts, most dreadful to behold, rooting up trees, ruining some houses, and was indeed no other than a hurricane.

Things went from bad to worse:

January 11th 1690: There was this night, so extraordinary a storm of wind accompanied with snow and sharp weather, as had not been known the like, in almost the memory of any man living… What mischief it has done at sea, where many of our best ships are attending to convey the Queen of Spain, together with a thousand merchants laden for several ports abroad, I almost tremble to think of. This winter has been hitherto, extremely wet, warm and windy: such as went before the death of the usurper Cromwell, which was in a stormy day [September 3rd 1658]: the death of the Queen of Bohemia, and what this portends, time will discover. God Almighty avert the Judgements we deserve, if it be His blessed will.

Goodness me! Why it could be 2023, could it not. Despite there not being a diesel car in sight.

After another storm in November 1703, Evelyn, by then aged 83 could only ruminate in despair:

I am not able to describe, but submit to the Almighty pleasure of God, with acknowledgement of his justice for our national sins, and my own, who yet have not suffered as I deserved to: every moment, like Job’s messengers, brings the sad tidings of this universal judgement.

If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he’d spent too much time on the BBC website.

There is no question that a couple of episodes like the ones Evelyn describes could be effortlessly transported to modern times for rags like the Guardian and its tireless environment hacks to pounce on. I could have supplied here dozens and dozens of other examples just from his writings alone.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am all for cheaper, more efficient, less polluting ways of improving the way we live. I’ve got solar panels and batteries for crying out loud (monthly direct debit for electricity now £15, thank you very much and installation costs all paid off). But a panic-stricken religious crusade will get us nowhere apart from making a small number of people an astronomical amount of money.

What amazes me most of all is the sheer lack of personal awareness exhibited by so many climate scientists about how they present their competitive apocalypticism.

On a more serious note, this is what they can do to people’s minds. This tragic story from four years ago is about how climate anxiety became the tag for some women with postnatal depression to tag their despair to. Here’s one of them:

“A doctor wouldn’t be able to control the companies responsible for 70% of the world’s carbon emissions or put a stop to recreational flights,” she says. “Only this morning, I was crying about it. It’s like a grief process.”

Having a child has exacerbated Heather’s fears for the future. She says she only realised the impact of climate change after Jack’s birth.

“It was terrifying – for days, I couldn’t sleep. My appetite went. I cried loads. I felt really, really anxious and upset. I remember being really frantic and asking my husband, ‘did you know about this?’ I felt so guilty about having had Jack.”

And I’m not being glib. For personal family reasons I know how devastating PND can be. These women, however, are only the tip of the psychological damage being wrought on people almost everywhere.

Lionel Shriver wrote a brilliant piece in the Sunday Times the other day called ‘Blaming Climate Change for everything is lazy‘. In it, and she’s not even arguing against the idea that we are causing climate change, she says, “We’re contriving hugely consequential policies in a state of hysteria… wrong answers at scale could bring on catastrophe of a different kind”. Indeed.

If we rush in, in a state of hysteria, the next thing we’ll discover is that our ‘solutions’ either don’t work at all or make an unstable ever-changing world worse. That’s unlike Charles II’s fast which would only have made everyone famished for a day or two.

And finally, John Evelyn was ahead of his time. In 1661 he produced a tract called Fumifugium, all about getting rid of London’s “presumptuous smoke” with his own version of a Ulez. His solution, just like London’s expanded Ulez, was to move the sources of pollution somewhere else, in Evelyn’s case by relocating London’s filthy industries five to six miles downriver, though no-one ever took any notice.

He had another idea too, which was to demolish “poor and nasty cottages near the City” for being an eyesore opposite the palace at Whitehall, and turn the sites into gardens to improve the atmosphere. As for those whose homes and livelihoods would be ruined, he didn’t give them a thought. But he could afford not to, as he wandered past the mulberry tree in his celebrated gardens at Sayes Court in Deptford.

Do you remember the movie Three Days of the Condor (1975)? This is from near the end:

Higgins (CIA deputy director, New York): It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In 10 or 15 years – food or plutonium. And maybe even sooner. And what do you think the people are going to want us to do then?

Condor (Robert Redford): Ask them?

Higgins: Not now, then. Ask them when they’re running out. Ask them when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who’ve never known hunger start going hungry. You want to know something? They won’t want us to ask them. They’ll just want us to get it for them.

Guy de la Bédoyère is the editor of an edition of The Diary of John Evelyn (Boydell 1995), The Writings of John Evelyn (Boydell 1995), and The Correspondence of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (Boydell 1997).

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