By Dirk Campbell of TTL
Why don’t all of us act according to the facts? Not because we don’t have the information. It’s coming at us every day now from the media. Few people seriously doubt that we are facing a climate catastrophe that would make everyone’s life awful. Even the extremely rich are eventually vulnerable to plummeting property values, soaring food and commodity prices and a collapse in public order. Not the possible result of Brexit, but the certain result, according to the IPCC, of failing to limit average temperature rise to 1.5° by 2030.
There’s a story about Captain Cook reaching Australia in 1770. Having dropped anchor in Botany Bay, he observed some natives in boats by the shore. His ship was plainly visible to them but they took no notice of it. However, when he got into a longboat with a few men and began to row towards them, they responded immediately. His huge ship with its three masts and enormous sails was so far outside their experience that they simply couldn’t see it. But they could see the longboat. And there’s the story of the East Ender visiting London Zoo in 1836 for the first time. Seeing the newly-arrived giraffes, he declared: ‘There ain’t no such animal.’
We have a tendency to ignore, deny or misrepresent unfamiliar or alarming phenomena. That’s just how we are. But not quite all of us. A few people have a special gift and it’s called Asperger’s syndrome. Clinically this condition is described as ‘a pervasive developmental disorder’, ‘a form of social impairment’, ‘an inability to empathise normally, accompanied by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behaviour’ and ‘an intense preoccupation with a narrow subject.’
Some of the people in history who had Asperger’s syndrome:
One of the features of AS is single-minded honesty. Mozart was criticised by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II for writing ‘an awful lot of notes’, to which he replied, ‘Exactly as many as are necessary.’ Asperger people tell the truth as they see it without fear of censure, precisely because they lack the social skills.
Greta Thunberg is one of the most interesting people in the world today. In August 2018, aged 15, she decided to take every Friday off school to sit outside the Swedish Parliament. She wanted to draw attention to the global climate crisis which she had been taught about – in school – and about which, as far as she could see, nobody was doing anything. And draw attention she certainly did. She is now being asked to address meetings all over the world, which she will only do if her journeys contribute the minimum of CO2 emissions. She travels by public transport in Europe and crosses the Atlantic in a sailing boat. She’s one of the few people in the world currently acting according to the facts. She has Asperger’s syndrome.
Probably the child in Hans Andersen’s fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, who called out that the emperor was naked, had Asperger’s syndrome. She saw what everyone else could see but was too afraid to admit. Perhaps the reason that we don’t respond appropriately to the climate crisis, if we don’t, and most of us don’t, is that we are ‘neurotypical’. We tend to focus more on familiar personal and social concerns than with the evidence of approaching gargantuan disaster. There is a scene in Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece The Time Bandits in which a squabbling couple are crushed by an enormous giant obliviously stepping on them. Terry Jones’s film Eric the Viking contains a scene in which the king of a sinking island resolutely refuses to acknowledge reality even as the water closes over his head. Art predicting nature? The Time Bandits was made in 1981. Eric the Viking was made in 1989.
Why there are no politicians with Asperger’s syndrome
There is another condition involving lack of sensitivity to the effect of one’s own behaviour on others. But it is quite different from the social unconcern of those ‘on the spectrum’, as it’s called. The condition is known as psychopathy or sociopathy. Its many traits include cunning, manipulativeness and twisting the truth to serve the psychopath’s purposes — something the Asperger’s person is quite incapable of. Probably the ‘spectrum’ could be represented as a line with severe autism on the far left, a mindset in which personal interests are completely subordinated to perceived reality, and severe psychopathy on the far right, a mindset in which perceived reality is completely subordinated to personal interests. We’re all on this spectrum; most people are somewhere around the middle and the worst politicians are well to the right.
In our system of representative democracy, politicians of any stamp have to calculate the likely responses of the majority. They have to be effective communicators of a certain type, that is to say, orators who employ rhetorical devices to influence and sway opinion. Greta Thunberg is an effective communicator of a quite different type. She has no desire for power or personal advancement. She says exactly what she thinks, without fear or favour. She does not shrink from shaming the world’s high-ranking officials by telling them they are acting like spoiled, irresponsible children. She regards Asperger’s people as normal, because they look at the facts, examine the detail and act according to the conclusions, whereas most people don’t, and this she regards as abnormal. Consequently she gets noticed. And she’s very inspiring. For what is more important at the moment – to get along with people or to confront them with their denial?
The fact that she’s not doing this for money, power or prestige also makes her very convincing. She has a perfect command of the English language. She doesn’t speak unless there is a good reason to do so, and when she does she hits the nail on the head. She has not joined or started an organisation, she’s not beholden to anyone and she tells the high and mighty exactly what she thinks. She’s only sixteen years old.
My late wife Adrienne once told me I had Asperger’s syndrome, which made me sincerely worried, because I trusted her opinion on everything including climate change, on which she would speak out fearlessly. I immediately asked family and friends whether they thought she was right about me and they all said no. Of course few people would have the effrontery to say yes, unless they were also… but never mind. I now think that if I did have Asperger’s I should be very proud, because that would put me in the same category as Greta Thunberg. Well on that basis I probably don’t have Asperger’s, but Adrienne probably did.