Worst of times

The Book of Revelations predicts the impending end of the world in natural catastrophes and political violence – and good riddance to us.  Today the same function is served by advocacy groups like Greenpeace, UN agencies, and the bureaucracies of wealthy countries.  The mass media impersonates a Legos version of St. John the Divine.

The Christian day of reckoning was about moral depravity, and so is our own.  In both cases, a sinful humanity brought about the disaster.  In both cases, we deserved it.  Of course, nothing has happened – yet – but any who question the certainty of impending doom is not merely wrong but evil:  in bed with the Beast or paid off by the oil cartels.

In the fullness of time, both claims can be falsified.  St. John was clearly the victim of a calculation error.  The world didn’t end in the first century AD.  Similarly, modern prophecies of the apocalypse, from the population bomb to the depletion of food and energy, have missed their mark.  Often the exact opposite future came to pass:  we face declining populations while food supplies have multiplied like loaves and fishes, for example.

No matter.  The chants of doom drone on, and few dare to contradict them – and those who do are cursed as depraved souls and condemned to the lake of fire.

Matt Ridley, author of this Slate article, considers himself a “rational optimist.”  That is the title of one of his books.  Ridley has waited for all the doomsday scenarios of his youth to play out, only to get, in many cases, a happy-face outcome instead.

I began to pay attention and a few years ago I started to research a book on the subject. I was astounded by what I discovered. Global per capita income, corrected for inflation, had trebled in my lifetime, life expectancy had increased by one third, child mortality had fallen by two-thirds, the population growth rate had halved. More people had got out of poverty than in all of human history before. When I was born, 36% of Americans had air conditioning. Today 79% of Americans below the poverty line had air conditioning. The emissions of pollutants from a car were down by 98%. The time you had to work on the average wage to buy an hour of artificial light to read by was down from 8 seconds to half a second.

Not only are human beings wealthier, they are also healthier, wiser, happier, more tolerant, less violent, more equal. Check it out – the data is clear. Yet if anything the pessimists had only grown more certain, shrill and apocalyptic. We were facing the `end of nature’, the `coming anarchy’, a `stolen future’, our `final century’ and a climate catastrophe. Why, I began to wonder did the failure of previous predictions have so little impact on this litany?

Part of the answer lies in sublimely successful persuasion by those who stand to benefit from doomsday.  In St. John’s day, it was the Christian church.  Today, it’s those pressure groups which squeeze donations from uneasy consciences, and those bureaucracies which bulk up their funding and authority by promising to regulate away our world-destroying depravity.  Such entrepeneurial spirit looks on opposing views not as an opportunity for discussion but as an attempt to depress their bank accounts.

Like others who have tried to draw attention to improving living standards – notably Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg – I am beginning to be subjected to a sustained campaign of vilification by the pessimists. They distort my argument, impugn my motives and attack me for saying things I never said. They say I think the world is perfect when I could not be clearer that I advocate progress precisely because we should be ambitious to put right so much that is still wrong. They say that I am a conservative, when it is the reactionary mistrust of change that I am attacking. They say that I am defending the rich, when it is the enrichment of the poor that I argue for. They say that I am complacent, when the opposite is true. I knew this would happen, and I take it as a back-handed compliment, but the ferocity is still startling. They are desperate to shut down the debate rather than have it.

But there is more.  The fact is that many of us are persuaded by these desperate people, and one has to wonder why.  The motives aren’t financial.  Something deeper is at play.

St. John the Divine lived in a time of wrenching change.  Rome – the Beast of Revelations – collided with Jerusalem, Greek flexibility threatened Jewish ethical commitments, tribal ways scattered and lost their force over a globalized empire.

The world as it existed seemed loathsome to St. John.  He countered with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, but the intensity of his revulsion matched that of his vision, and his famous book exudes a kind of bloodlust toward the existing order, a joy in the destruction of cities and the slaughter of populations.  The fusion of towering imagery and unquenchable anger lent a voice to others who felt troubled and marginalized by a fast-changing social environment.

Greenpeace and the IPCC have yet to propose a new heaven and a new earth – but, to compensate, they have overachieved on the nihilistic side of the equation.  They persuade because many of us feel our gains are ill gotten.  This is a rich man’s malady:   the people of Brazil and India, countries with more than their share of poverty, will have none of it.  But we who are comfortable and well-educated often feel consumed by guilt.

The world now moves at a speed beyond the reach of the moral imagination.  The ground melts beneath our feet, and we know but little of the processes which bring a stream of money and goods to our doorsteps.  If we have wealth, it must be plundered.  If we preserve our bodies, it must be at the cost of our true selves.

Some fear a day of judgment.  Others, sharing St. John’s apocalyptic anger, welcome a final verdict – and those inclined to look for signs will inevitably find them:  the melting of the ice caps, the loss of the rainforest, the “selection” of George W. Bush, the horror of 9/11, the financial crisis, the great recession.  Each portent turns the screw of pessimistic nihilism.  Clearly, the worst of times are at hand.

To the degree that doomsday anger and self-loathing are no longer the province of cranks and crazies but infect our articulate elites, American politics will be poisoned by a powerful stream of anti-democratic sentiment, inflaming the worst instincts of an illiberal age.  Radical pessimists have always craved a destroyer, a redeemer, an iron-fisted leader to purify our polluted blood.  Hitler and Osama Bin Laden fit the bill.

President Obama, thankfully, has disappointed on this score, but our doom-seekers will continue to wait for the One who embodies the answer to the question posed by Yeats, in the darkest moments of the last century:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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2 Responses to Worst of times

  1. Brutus says:

    The end of the world and the apocalypse are merely Christian metaphors for the destruction of human populations and human institutions. While the metaphors do not play out with the supernatural fireworks promised by prophecy, they certain play out in historical reality. Ask the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Maya, the Inca, and the American Indians. Indeed, there have been 23 major civilizations that have risen and fallen in recorded human history. Beyond that, the natural world has already suffered five major extinction events. You might be aware that the onset of the next one is right now.

    Our current civilization has succeeded in transforming or destroying and absorbing the remnants of all competing styles of social organization widespread enough to matter. It’s now a global civilization with many inputs, but the primary one is cheap energy, and it’s finite. Although lots of doomers have offered timelines and prophecies that time things wrong, the overarching story will be more like The Boy Who Cried Wolf than Chicken Little.

    You offer the cynic who seeks to profit from adversity (real or projected) and the misanthrope caught in a cycle of guilt as examples of motivations for pessimism. There is one other you might consider: truth seeking. Understanding the historical causes of the fall of civilizations and the faulty foundation of our own civilization make pessimism a simple extrapolation of facts on the ground. Timing is still up for grabs, but most trends indicate we’ve crested and already started the long descent downward.

    You’re right about one thing, though: the world now moves too quickly for us. In a typical human lifespan of (modestly) 40-60 years, the world we knew as children no longer exists as we enter middle age. That discontinuity is a radical development in human history. Human institutions and psychology are pretty adaptable, but it takes time to sort and makes sense of a world constantly in flux, and most of us don’t have a coherent view of our place in the world. We’re simply being swept along.

    • Well, St. John was predicting the demise of Rome in the first century AD. He was off by 400 years – if you count the Eastern Empire, by 1000 years. By then, the Church defined itself as “Roman.”

      If you are saying that “this too shall pass” is the only universally true statement, I agree but I don’t find it useful. Of course America and the West will pass away, and so will the earth, and the entire universe probably. The people I mentioned, however, made specific predictions which failed pretty egregiously. That’s the only way I know to truth in human affairs: after it’s already here. We can all guess the future, but none of us knows for certain.

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