The unselfish gene

Our politics are determined by our genes, apparently. There's no Liberal Democrat gene - apparently it's not quite that straightforward - but psychologists looking into this think that our politics strongly correlate to certain personality traits, and those, by and large, are genetically predetermined.

It's one of those things that, fundamentally, we already knew. But it's the key to something that's been worrying me for years and which the past couple of months of climate discussions have made viscerally clear: the idea of compromise and middle ground is really a bit of an illusion.

Progressives want one thing and conservatives want another, and conservatives (who, according to the aforementioned psychologists, are more likely to have a fear of death, tend to prefer simple paintings and songs, and know what they like) very often win. Liberal personalities are generally more open to new ideas - but this makes them doubt their own ground more. Conservatives don't bother with that doubt stuff, which must make life so much simpler.

Now, if I was going to choose the defining characteristics of many of the activists I know, I'd say a strong will and determination. In an odd way, they're a mixture of conservative and progressive; there is sometimes a tendency to intolerance and a lack of respect for other viewpoints that is troubling. But it's that certainty which keeps them going, which keeps them demanding planetary justice when the folks in power are not really listening.

Right there, however, is our problem. How can activists understand the fear and anxiety that most people - made, literally, of different genetic fabric - feel at the very idea of cutting back? Activists are the kind who can leave a bar of chocolate half-eaten on their desk for weeks. And, all too often, they don't comprehend that the type of wholesale change that makes an activist's heart sing makes most people very nervous.

At the moment, it must be said, even activists are having to pause for thought. After the failure of a plan two years in the making (go to Copenhagen, form a global climate action coalition, invade the summit, get the whole world to ditch carbon markets and be nicer to each other, too - not as easy as it sounds, I can tell you), there is a bit of a gulf where the next plan should be. The global accord fell on its face. Now the big countries are threatening to abandon the idea altogether and go for bilateral deals instead.

But where on earth does that leave the global climate action coalition? Should they all move to America and China and set up camp outside the presidential front doors? Should they all head for Evo Morales's People's Summit in Bolivia and turn the whole of South America into one big, breakaway climate continent? There's a surprising amount of dithering going on as everyone attempts to regroup.

But I'll tell you what. Give them all a couple of months.

Let them get a bit of sleep and pay off their Copenhagen phone bills. And I promise you, they'll be off again, calling meetings, blockading their nearest petrol station and demanding world peace before you know it. It's their genetic destiny.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war