A matter of security

Why is the MoD so seriously concerned about global warming? Josh Arnold-Forster on the social collap

The Ministry of Defence is not known for its concern for the environment. Nevertheless there is one group of people at the MoD very interested in climate change and, in particular, catastrophic climate change - namely the strategic planners.

They know that the armed forces can react and adapt very rapidly to limited changes in the strategic environment. What the forces cannot do is meet a fundamentally different kind of challenge from the one with which they are equipped to deal. In 1939, the British army was the wrong size, had the wrong equipment and, most dangerously, the wrong doctrine to meet the threat from Germany.

That is why the MoD's planners insist on trying to look ahead several decades. Of course, much of this futurology is speculative, subjective and all too frequently wrong. But one trend on which there is ever greater scientific certainty is the impact of climate change.

In the 2003 defence white paper the MoD argued: "Religious and ethnic tensions, environmental pressures and increased competition for limited natural resources may cause tensions and conflict - both within and between states. The UK may not remain immune from such developments."

More recently in an MoD discussion note, climate change was one of four themes identified as strategically important: "The combined effects of increased global human activity, economic output and population growth look likely to intensify pressure on the environment and food, water and energy resources. This trend will be exacerbated by urbanisation and the creation of 'mega-cities', while industrialisation and personal expectations in developing countries will strain all resources." In Darfur, environmental pressures (through lack of water) have already contributed to generating an internal conflict that is rapidly becoming regional. In Afghanistan, a recent six-year drought has helped to impoverish people, making young men more willing to accept cash inducements to join the Taliban and farmers more likely to grow opium.

These influences are small compared to what may be the start of far more disturbing changes. What happens if, or when, sea levels rise and force millions from their homes in Bangladesh, the Nile Delta and the coastal regions of China? What happens when floods, landslides and storms regularly leave millions unemployed and homeless?

Many in the MoD strongly believe that these are not just environmental or development issues, but vitally important security questions that need to be given far more serious consideration, both within government and by the public. Naturally, failed states and international terrorism are significant current threats to security, but that does not excuse us from focusing on future threats.

Rapid response

There are two ways in which the UK's armed forces will have to respond to challenges presented by climate change.

First is disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. In principle, civil organisations could play a bigger role in disaster relief. Sadly, so far none has been willing to stump up the very large amounts of cash required to gain the military's ability to provide rapid response, or operate in very difficult terrain.

The second and more difficult task that the armed forces may face is the potentially huge security challenge created by climate change. No one knows how this will manifest itself. As more and more people in Bangladesh seek sanctuary from rising sea levels, will the tensions created lead to a collapse of the state and war with India? Will poverty caused by growing water shortages in North Africa boost support for international terrorism? Will floods and environmental degradation in China lead to economic collapse and a rise in nationalism?

In an ideal world, the best and cheapest methods of dealing with these scenarios would be non-military. Appropriate diplomatic action and well-targeted humanitarian assistance can do much, and these need to be well funded. But we do not live in an ideal world, and the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office may fail to meet these challenges. One way or another, Britain's armed forces will become involved - in the best scenario as part of a UN peacekeeping force, but possibly having to take more drastic action to protect our security interests.

Climate change is already making the world more dangerous and no one knows how much more dangerous it will become. A Labour government which ignored this growing threat would be repeating the tragic mistake of George Lansbury in his opposition to rearmament in the 1930s.

Josh Arnold-Forster was special adviser to John Reid at the Ministry of Defence from 2005 to 2006

Countdown to climate disaster

8 out of 10 of the warmest years since records began in 1860 have occurred in the past decade
60,421km2 annual rate of decline of sea ice
43cm estimated maximum rise in sea level by the year 2100
100 million combined population of the 13 most populous coastal cities in the world
11.55pm time on the Doomsday Clock, now set closer to midnight as a result of global warming

Research by Mosarrof Hussain

Read more from this climate change special report

No time to lose by Tony McDermott
The world must urgently face up to the global violence and conflict that would result from rapid climate change, warns Tony McDermott, adviser to Al Gore

Yes, we can save the world . . . if we want to by Chris Luebkeman
Chris Luebkeman asks whether we are ready to change everything

The green rush by James Harding
Businesses are vying to save the planet, and getting rich. But does it matter, so long as they deliver the goods? By James Harding

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood