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Pathfinders: Look down there, and tell me what you see...

Politics involves, among other things, the art of retrofitting analyses onto past events which were incomprehensible to most people at the time. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the iconic May ’68 student protests in Paris the media will be full of articles, potted histories, personal accounts and think-pieces, all turning over the events of that tempestuous period and asking where it all ended up and whether it really changed anything.

Is there any sense in which the world really is different now? Certainly there have been changes, the fall of the Berlin Wall being the most significant. But whereas politics has for the most part gone round in circles, science has leapt off the starting blocks and disappeared down the track. 1968, it is worth recalling, was before humans landed on the moon. It was before the first microprocessor, the first home computer or the first email. It predated superstring theory, buckyballs and nanotubes. It was before Hubble, or Mars landers or photographs of Jupiter, Saturn, and the outer planets. It was before biotech, stem cells or Dolly the sheep. It was from an era, incredibly, when we knew – knew – that whatever happened to the dinosaurs would never be discovered. It was before we ever suspected that all the humans on the planet are descended from one female in Africa. In 1968 lodging houses could still display signs reading ‘No Blacks, No Pets, No Irish’, as racism and sexism formed part of the cheap post-war furniture we sat on as we watched Till Death Us Do Part on black and white TVs, just before turning off the boring news reports about strikes, civil rights, and some vague ‘police action’ in a place called Vietnam.

What nobody could really have imagined in 1968 was that scientists might one day hold centre-stage in a political debate that would encompass the interests of the whole of humanity. The 1960’s was the decade of black emancipation, which black people achieved after a fashion, in that flagrant discrimination is now technically illegal. The 1970’s was given over to ‘women’s liberation’, as it was called, something which seemed like a good idea at the time but is arguably not much further forward than it was then. Class politics in the UK seemed to have a little spell in the sun during the 1980’s thanks to the Miners’ Strike and the Poll Tax hoo-ha, though this was short-lived. After that the Wall came down and with it the last Grand Illusion. Then the Greens came, briefly, to the fore in the public consciousness before it was realised that, worthy though they may be, they didn’t possess the collective political wit to punch their way out of an ozone bubble. From then on, and with all sectional interests apparently exhausted leaving some nihilistic post-modernist torpor, some people started listening to the scientists.

All except America, under Bush, to whom scientists were the very worst kind of extremists, the kind you just can’t negotiate with. Elsewhere, and with a decade of freakish droughts, heatwaves, cold snaps, tornadoes, floods and crop failures to reinforce a justifiably growing sense of alarm, the world’s captains of capitalism were forced reluctantly to dine at well-stocked table after table in order to put aside their nationalist differences and ask how in blazes they were going to continue to stay in power when climate change was going to cause anarchy and they were all going to be murdered in their beds by starving rioting populations.

Is it good that politicians are listening to scientists? Yes, because scientists are the only people who cannot plausibly be accused of a political agenda, and who therefore have no incentive to lie or distort facts. But politicians are not really listening to everything scientists say, only that portion of it that they can conveniently do something about. And scientists, of course, like charities, have not been accustomed to addressing questions they considered outside their scope, such as global inequality. But as the weight of evidence mounts, that is changing. Increasingly, some scientists are putting the words ‘carbon’ and ‘capitalism’ together, if the normally reliable New Scientist is anything to go by (April 19), and asking searching questions about the market’s ability to do anything in the face of its own blind refusal to face facts and change its behaviour. The facts of world hunger and preventable disease no longer seem outside the purview of scientific examination either, and although capitalism itself is not yet in the dock, its representative governments are increasingly subject to cross-examination by a body of academics and researchers who have the facts at their fingertips and a disinclination to be put off by rhetoric and flim-flam.

Of course, governments don’t listen to radicals. Even though Nicholas Stern, the World Bank’s former chief economist, calls global warming ‘the greatest market failure the world has ever seen’, it will be dismissed in the corridors of power as mere panic-mongering by a former minion hungry for publicity. But it doesn’t matter. Governments aren’t going to create change in any case. The people who really need to listen to scientists are the people. They need to realise that it is no longer a question of race politics, as it might have seemed on the day, in 1968, when they shot Martin Luther King. It’s not a question of women’s politics, as it might have seemed to some on the publication of The Female Eunuch in 1970. Today’s battle for the Democratic leadership and the presidency of the USA is, after all, between a rich black man and a rich white woman, and no voter with a modest grasp of realities expects either result to change capitalism in any important way. It’s no longer about sectional interests within a given socio-economic framework. Today, it is a question of survival, and the framework itself is being challenged. The real obstacle to change is what it has always been, the same obstacle which blocks any real progress on the impending food or water crisis, on the biofuels controversy, on carbon capping, on the rampant waste of resources, and on global warming. It is class ownership, and the fact that the owning class are raping and destroying the world is increasingly being brought to the headlines by scientists with no axe to grind and no political cards up their sleeve. Workers should have learned by now never to trust a politician. Quite right. But let’s hope people start taking more notice of the back-room boffins, because they are asking questions which, until now, only socialists – and a certain German economist – have ever asked. The progress of scientific thinking along the socialist path has been cautious, but it is built on solid empirical foundations which have come a long way in the last forty years. The case for abolishing capitalism, the socialist case, is increasingly being backed by conservative science as well. And we certainly didn’t see that coming in 1968.