One of the main points I was making in this recent post is that the shelf life of green catastrophism has expired. But environmentalists don’t want to hear this. Many have responded indignantly to the contrast I set up between what I call green traditionalists and green modernists. In the coming week, I’ll respond in full to the various critiques made on twitter and in the comment thread.
Meanwhile, let me direct your attention to this excellent essay in The Atlantic, called “The Perils of Apocalyptic Thinking.” It’s adapted from a new book just out: The Last Myth: What the rise of apocalyptic thinking tells us about America.
To some degree, the essay covers the same ground discussed here. But the authors of the Atlantic piece also make some trenchant observations on the apocalyptic climate change frame that activists are so fond of and which mainstream media dutifully echoes:
Talking about climate change or peak oil through the rhetoric of apocalypse may make for good television and attention-grabbing editorials, but such apocalyptic framing hasn’t mobilized the world into action. Most of us are familiar with the platitude “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In a similar way, our over-reliance on the apocalyptic storyline stands between us and our ability to properly assess the problems before us. Some see the looming crises of global warming and resource and energy depletion and conclude that inaction will bring about the end of civilization: only through a radical shift toward clean energy and conservation, those on the Left argue, can we continue the way of life that we have known. Those on the Right dismiss the apocalyptic threats altogether, because the proposed solutions to peak oil, global warming, and overpopulation conflict with core conservative beliefs about deregulation and the free-market economy, or with a religious worldview that believes humanity is not powerful enough to alter something as large as our climate. Still others dismiss the catalog of doom and gloom as mere apocalypticism itself. Surely, we convince ourselves, all the dire warnings about the effects of global warming aren’t that different from the world-ending expectations of the Rapturists?
These are the two sides that have come to characterize our cartoonish public debate on climate change. As the Atlantic authors note:
The result is that the energy we could expend addressing the problems before us is instead consumed by our efforts to either dismiss the threat of apocalypse or to prove it real. Ultimately, the question becomes not what to do about the threats before us but whether you believe in the threats before us.
By allowing the challenges of the 21st century to be hijacked by the apocalyptic storyline, we find ourselves awaiting a moment of clarity when the problems we must confront will become apparent to all — or when those challenges will magically disappear, like other failed prophecies about the end of the world. Yet the real challenges we must face are not future events that we imagine or dismiss through apocalyptic scenarios of collapse — they are existing trends.
Just a quick aside: How many of you think the “connect the dots” campaign is going to (finally) make the case for global warming’s catastrophic impacts?
Personally, I don’t think the climate doom drumbeat is going to move the needle on public opinion, beyond short, periodic blips, notwithstanding the latest poll results. There’s also the risk of this boomerang, according to the Atlantic authors:
The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction — or with the wrong course of action.
But hey, at least we can indulge these fantasies in the comfort of our bunkers.
If you’re not preparing for the end of the world, don’t worry, some of your neighbors are.
And teenagers today, well, they’re all over it.
So are millions of Christians, who don’t want to be Left Behind, when armageddon comes.
Those who see eco-decay and social mayhem resulting from unchecked capitalism are similarly fatalistic:
The race of doom is now between environmental collapse and global economic collapse. Which will get us first? Or will they get us at the same time?
Have I mentioned the Mayan calendar yet?
Yes, if you look around, dystopia and doomsday have combined to become a veritable cottage industry. In my new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I survey the apocalypse contagion that new movies and books are spreading across our doomed world.
UPDATE: Of course, it makes perfect sense that “doomsday dating” sites are proliferating in those bunkers.
Yet many people continue to be drawn to doomsday alerts. 2012 promises to be another banner year for failed end-of-world predictions. But instead of arbitrary biblical interpretations, attention will shift to a supposed Mayan prophecy. As Mathew Restall and Amara Solari wrote this past weekend in the Washington Post:
What makes 2012ology different is the starring role it gives to the ancient Maya. Among numerous native cultures in the Americas, the Maya seem to have captured the popular imagination. They are cast as a mysteriously wise civilization, one that disappeared into the tropical forests of Central America, taking with it a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light.
So the internet is rife with references to the Mayan Long Count calendar and Dec. 21, 2012 as the latest date of reckoning. As Stephanie Pappas reported in Live Science,
a number of predictions have attached themselves to Dec. 21, from the end of the world via collision with a rogue planet, to the ushering in of a new world era. But neither historians nor astronomers put much credence in these predictions.
Not that that matters much. In their WaPo essay, Restall and Solari ask:
If the evidence for Maya doomsday predictions is so flimsy “” if the impending Maya apocalypse is a mere myth “” then why are so many people so willing to believe it is true? Why do some seem to want Dec. 21 to be the long-awaited end of the world?
The authors, who teach history and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, suggest a few reasons:
One explanation is the persistent power of ancient wisdom. All societies are drawn to knowledge that seems time-worn, mysterious, coded “” and to the magic of its decoding. That is partly why “The Da Vinci Code” has sold 100 million copies, why people listened to Camping’s predictions about Judgment Day and even, in a sense, why billions are attracted to religion.
That is also why we are drawn to ancient civilizations whose knowledge has been buried “” literally “” for hundreds or thousands of years. A century ago, ancient Egypt was in the limelight, as archaeologists excavated the tombs of pharaohs. In recent decades, the Maya have taken a star turn, as more of their ancient cities in Mexico and Central America have been unearthed and their hieroglyphic texts deciphered.
Another explanation lies deep within our own Western civilization and religious traditions, which include teachings about the end of the world. In stark contrast to the Maya, medieval Europeans generated a vast body of literature and artwork predicting and describing the world’s end. Nobody questioned that it would come; the issue was how and when. Some were willing “” then, as now “” to stick their necks out and predict a specific day. When Joachim of Fiore insisted that 1260 would be the end, many thousands in Europe listened. They listened, too, across the English-speaking world when William Miller in Vermont picked 1843 (and then 1844) as our final year. Likewise, Camping generated huge publicity for his 2011 predictions. Apocalyptic imaginings and doomsday gullibility are woven into the very fabric of Western society.
A final explanation lies in the comfort of belief, in the security of taking a leap of faith. The great revolutions in science, industry and technology have profoundly transformed life on Earth. But science has not replaced religion. Instead, the two have developed a complicated relationship. Science is a religion; religion has become a science. Anxiety and skepticism abound. The more answers science offers, the more questions we have. Overwhelmed by the evidence for a phenomenon such as global warming, some choose to believe in it or not
This last graph I find especially interesting (though I suspect some readers of this blog will key in on the last line) and fodder for much debate, such as the part about science and religion having an uneasy, complicated relationship.
A similar exploration of our End Days attraction can be found in this excellent essay by Daniel Baird in the current issue of The Walrus. After taking stock of the various biblical, New Agey and ecological prophecies of doom, he writes:
The difficulty with prophecies “” whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books “” is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity.
I imagine that some will take offense at climate science being lumped in with the Mayan Calendar and the Bible. (The point Baird is making pertains not to the science, but the interpretations of it.) On what he concludes, however, there should be wide agreement:
The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance “” or ever.
A lament from Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh:
Work in environmental journalism for very long and you can eventually become inured to catastrophe. Every ecosystem is on the brink of collapse; every endangered species is just a few steps from extinction; every government decision to authorize an oil well or a coal mine is the one that will push carbon emissions over the edge. The language of environmentalism is the language of scarcity and loss, a constantly repeated message that we cannot continue living the way we are, or else. Sometimes the sheer, relentless doomsaying is enough to make you want to take a long, air-conditioned drive in a nice SUV.
Mike Tidwell, a journalist turned activist, has published a how-to-ride-out-the-climate apocalypse instructional in The Washington Post. Years ago, global warming had already put Tidwell on high alert. But events in the last year have elevated his personal threat level:
Now I’m changing my life again. Today, underneath the solar panels, there’s a new set of deadbolt locks on all my doors. There’s a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.
I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist.
Whatever you say, but it sure sounds like you’re drinking from the same punchbowl as these folks.
This might be true:
The United States continues to slumber while a catastrophe lies in wait. Increasing numbers of analysts and policymakers are warning of another super price spike for oil and the likelihood of “peak oil” more generally.
But I wish the author good luck with this:
It is time for public discussion of this issue to reach the same prominence as climate change. Indeed, many solutions to these “twin crises” are the same because reducing petroleum dependence will ameliorate peak oil and climate change.
One way to kickstart such a conversation on peak oil would be for President Obama to mention it tonight during his State of the Union Address.
You can stop laughing, now. Yeah, I know: that’s as likely as him delivering a 2 minute call-to-arms mini-speech on climate change. (But I still half-expect something on green jobs and energy security. Hey, the guy’s gotta throw a bone after throwing Browner out the door.)
And even then, the discussion would be over by Friday, supplanted by the start of week-long Super Bowl hype.
What might trigger a national conversation on peak oil? Well, everybody knows what that would be, right?
I love the title of this blog I just discovered:
Global Change Watch: Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization
Any guesses (from the doomsday-is-imminent crowd) as to which will upend life as we know it first: peak energy or climate change?
Quick, somebody buy Michael Tobis a new set of worry beads:
The evidence is piling up that our circumstances are beyond our cognitive or managerial abilities. I’m more scared of that than of hundred degree oceans right now. I think at the present rate we will not manage to maintain what we are pleased to call civilization long enough to get to 5xCO2. I suppose you could say that may be more good news than bad news; at least a few vertebrates will straggle through.
At his “present rate” of doomsday/media kvetching, I have to wonder how long Tobis can tolerate hearing himself say the same things, ad nauseum.
If you’re gonna be a doomer, this seems like the right attitude to take:
I begin the year convinced that our civilisation will collapse soon but at the same time enjoying the continuous Mozart on Radio 3, abandoning alcohol for the month with enthusiasm, and committing myself to three runs and 70 000 steps a week.
This mindset reminds me of a heroin addict I once knew who was also a health food nut and strict vegetarian. I once asked her why she was such a dietary stickler when she was poisoning herself with smack. “That’s even more the reason to pay attention to what I eat,” she said.