The Fate of the Bees

As the climate-change clock ticks down one asks: why are we so blasé? Why are we not galvanised in the way of societies in wartime? How have we come to normalise the apocalypse? I approach this question via a genealogy that takes modern society to derive from the secular political thinking of the later 17th and early 18th centuries, rather than early modern notions of providence, patience and moral rigor. In Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, the state is seen to run on unimproved human nature. In his Fable of the Bees (1714; 1705), Mandeville states this in its baldest terms: “publicke benefits” are fuelled by “private vices”. Replace vice by virtue and the state dries up. The genius of this thinking is that we are saved even – especially – by our vices. What could go wrong? Climate change: suddenly we are returned to an uncannily early modern world of Old Testament absolutes, where the Flood is coming and God owes us nothing. More – much more – is required of us than the “private vice” machine is capable of supplying. I conclude by bringing my genealogy to an early modern reading of Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed: a Calvinistic take on climate change.

John Gillies (University of Essex)

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