The independent documentary film, the Age of Stupid, is about climate change and how our developed societies allowed the planet to be ruined in a period of collective stupidity. It follows a number of individuals in different parts of the world – USA, England, France, Nigeria and India – and shows their responses in intimate profiles. A narrator from the future reflects upon clear warning signs and contrasts these with the plausible deniability of the consequences of unbridled carbon fuel burning.

The film’s director, Franny Armstrong, has developed a reputation for her radical approach to political subject matter including the story of McLibel, the longest trial in British history which started when the fast food chain sued some leafletters. Her latest film does not disappoint in this respect. It raises awareness of a wide range of environmental issues and placing these in a personal context, the film is a powerful refresher on what is at stake.

Where the film fails to convince is in finding remedies. There is a presumption that a sustainable future will be low-carbon, with non-nuclear renewables making up the majority of power generation. We are shown beautiful vistas of the Alps as well as the rolling Cornish countryside. This is presumably before these areas are covered in windfarms and solar panels.

The reality is that too many countries want to bring their populations out of poverty before being prepared to compromise on economic growth. Furthermore, the richest country of all, and the most wasteful of energy, the USA, is never going to accept a reduction in living standards so that India and China can catch up. Carbon rationing will only become a political reality when people can see the effects directly for themselves. The problem is that by the time this point is reached, it is too late to save the world from runaway warming. The conventional economic mechanisms simply do not work to reverse the climate detriment.

Using up the earth’s resources is foolish given the rapid rise in the global population and the growth in consumption per head. This goes to demonstrate that mankind does have a collective suicide urge – which happens to be the subject of Armstrong’s university thesis when she studied zoology at UCL. Are we all to die like the doomed Easter Islanders?

I remain optimistic that a tradable personal carbon allowance can serve as the basis for a solution. Each person would receive say 1000 energy units a month (kilojewels?). They can use these all up on buying energy for themselves or they can sell them to someone else who places more value on them. Ultimately carbon is rationed but those who place more value per unit can trade with those who place less value to their mutual benefit. Maybe people are not so stupid after all.

Why would someone say the opposite of what they mean? The usual explanation is that irony creates an incongruity setting up mockery or humour. It seems a dangerous stratagem if it evinces puzzlement or incredulity in their listener. It can backfire embarrassingly. Yet it prevalent in all cultures to a greater or lesser degree.

The benefits associated with using verbal irony must be significant if they are to outweigh the social risks. Suppose there were a country whose history was characterised by colonial subjugation and famine. The people were powerless but had to find hope. They used the power of the word to achieve three things: transcendence, solidarity and humour.
Irony stresses the absurdity in the contradiction between substance and form. Whatever fate or man would throw at the benighted peasants, they could maintain their dignity. They embraced the world as it might be, not as it was. Their language was of transcendence not of supplication. Furthermore, they wanted to show solidarity with their fellow souls. Given that the overt expression of defiance could be detrimental, it was necessary to have a different way of interpreting language. The simplest code was to reverse the usual meaning . A shared awareness of this doublespeak provides an element of control over the situation and numerous opportunities for humour.

Verbal irony has developed to a refined level amongst the Irish who are famous for their wit and repartee. Irish authors from Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde have been masters of irony. Their irony is not just a literary device – it is an essential element to communication in their contemporary culture.
American culture has a more circumscribed role for irony given the need to find a common language for the waves of immigrants speaking different tongues. If verbal irony was ever widespread, it was doused by the dynamics of economic growth and social progress. Yet it is visible in creative media such as The Simpsons which comments brilliantly on the modern world whilst appearing to be a childrens’ cartoon. Where there is social or political stasis, irony will bloom. Why are three Russian policemen travelling in a car? One to read, one to write, and one to monitor the two intellectuals.