Thursday, 6 August 2009

a sort of osmosis

Richard Overy's new book The Morbid Age: Britain Between The Wars offers some interesting parallels to public attitudes today towards climate change.

Overy sees the specific mood of the interwar years as 'a presentiment of impending disaster'. This was keenly felt by an articulate minority of writers, activists and policy-makers, but the mood did not infect the wider culture. As Eric Hobsbawm, in his LRB review, puts it:

Gracie Fields, George Formby and Bud Flanagan did not live in the expectation of social collapse, nor did the West End theatre.

Hobsbawn's review suggests that certain ideas can spread by

a sort of osmosis whereby a few radically reduced and simplified concepts – ‘the survival of the fittest’, ‘capitalism’, ‘inferiority complex’, ‘the unconscious’ – somehow enter the public or private discourse as recognised brand names.

Today, those concepts might be 'climate change', 'sustainability' and 'low carbon economy'. But Hobsbawn concludes:

Only where public opinion spontaneously shared the fears and reactions of elite intellectuals can their writings serve as expressions of a general British mood.

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