February 15, 2010

Apocalypse not now

The world is always ending and never will.

That is, until the sun goes nova, a black hole swallows up the Earth, or a nearby star collapses in a gamma ray event that turns us all into irradiated food. Since we can't prevent any of those things from happening, there's no point worrying about them (asteroids we can actually do something about).

But we love imagining that "it's all over (almost)," largely because Sunday School is boring. Plus that "love your neighbor" stuff isn't as much fun as hoping the son of a bitch fries when the big one hits. Thus every screaming headline is treated as evidence that the big, bad Damoclean Sword is about to go into free-fall.

Yet as Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond have pointed out, during the 20th century, even including WWII, a member of the human species had a lower chance of suffering a violent death than at any time else during recorded history. We mistake news of bad things with the incidence of bad things happening.

What we're mostly witnessing presently is the inevitable shifting of the momentum of history from one part of the globe to another. Having previously identified and invested ourselves with the ascension of the West, this decline arouses much angst. But in the long view, it's another day at the office.

The "West" is aging so fast (along with China, Japan, and most of the developed world) that any call to arms in order to usher in Armageddon would first send us scurrying for our walkers.

Doomsayers used to warn us that when the nuclear apocalypse came (assuming, improbably, that all those long-dormant missiles would obediently fire when the button was pressed), only the cockroaches would survive. Human beings are more resilient than cockroaches and thrive in far more extreme environments.

It's unfortunate that Chinese history during the Three Kingdoms period and Japanese history during the Warring States period isn't a regular part of the high school curriculum. It would impress upon students how resilient the human animal is under extreme duress.

During the Three Kingdoms period, attrition rates in many areas exceeded 50 percent of the entire population. That'd be like the population of the U.S. dropping from 300 million to 150 million in a single generation. Now China is our principal loan officer.

True, it took a few centuries, but it wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't even the end of Chinese civilization. The history books simply marked the beginning of a new dynasty.

These same historical periods saw great social change and advances in technology and culture (ditto the aftermath of the Black Death). Give the human race a challenge and after a bit of Darwinistic pruning it'll rise to it. This end-of-days stuff makes for entertaining movies. But in real life it's a cop-out.

It's hard to match the presumptuousness of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers selling the secret sauce to save our souls. Except that they're dim bulbs compared to to the blinding arrogance of the secular evangelists who claim they are going to save the whole bloody planet.

The new religion of catastrophic environmentalism has also embraced the apocalypse, along with the fundamentalist's fear of change. But just as much worse changes have happened to human civilization in the past, much worst changes have happened to the planet itself than we're capable of inflicting.

And will happen in the future, regardless of anything we do or don't do. Planetary catastrophic change—earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages, oceans rising and falling—is what the planet does normally. (The mean temperature of the North Slope of Alaska was once thirty degrees warmer than it is today.)

We've turned into roosters convinced the sun rises on our command. We're quite capable of fouling our own nests, but only in the sense that a horsefly fouls the windshield of a tractor-trailer cruising down the interstate. It's not like the tractor-trailer cares. A swish of the windshield wipers and its gone.

Let's keep in mind who's really in charge. There are more bacteria on earth—in mass and number—than all other living things combined. For that matter, there are more bacteria in the human gut than cells in the human body. The bacteria keep us around because we're convenient.

Our ultimate fate is to become compost. It is more comforting to believe that we're standing at the fulcrum of history, that like Archimedes we can move the Earth if given enough leverage (or "political activism"), rather than accommodating ourselves to whatever direction the Earth wishes to move in.

Except not that mundane, sausage-making politics. Or anything that requires any actual risk to life and limb. Just idealistically protest stuff and vilify those of different (political) faiths (the ones counting on you being "left behind"; it's apparently a very mutually-annihilating sentiment).

Merely declare your "awareness" of the situation and you are saved! (Wait, I forget, is that evangelicals or environmentalists?)

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world's problems can be solved through "awareness." Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it. This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.

Making every conflict, every frustrated objective, every twist and turn in the course of geological and human events, into a Manichean contest of wills buys into the same fanciful thinking as the conspiracy gnostics who insist they're the only ones who really know what's going on (and then can't shut up about it).

It's a trap that teenagers easily fall into, what with all their "goth" posturings and dour convictions that nobody (let alone their parents or teachers) has ever suffered as much as them in the whole history of the world.

But teenagers grow out of it. Adult, middle-class Americans indulging in non-fiction apocalyptic fantasies are like twelve-year-olds gathered around the campfire telling ghost stories and scaring themselves for the giggly thrill of it, knowing that in the morning they'll be driving home to the suburbs.

Related posts

The Second Coming went
Oh yeah, we're baaad
The world ends (and I feel fine)
Fukushima fallout

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
2/15/2010 9:32 PM   
Well written, Eugene. The narcissism of this generation of elites knows no bounds. To the prophets of environmental apocalypse I would add the preachers of economic doom, such as Paul Krugman, who wrings his hands in despair that no one understands what ails the economy and how government can fix it better than he.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
2/15/2010 9:34 PM   
And for Paul Krugman, only government can fix the problem. Individuals need not apply.

To the prophets of doom apocalypse is only useful if the solution empowers their favored institution.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
2/17/2010 7:28 PM   
On the more domestic home front, I had an experience with DOOMSDAYING today. In my folklore class, I talked about how all the fears of razor blades in candy and predators on the loose on Halloween have resulted in . . . very few incidents of surfacing razor blades and rampaging predators. But the BELIEF is so strong that your average parent will treat it as a truth, and the mother in our class did. ("A ha," I cried, "see the power of folklore!" but I really think it is the power of fear: we WANT to be afraid!!)

Okay: now I'm going to go on a total rant which is only tangentially related, but it has to do with politics!

One of the downsides of being an English instructor is that everyone assumes you're a liberal. Today, while I was in the English Adjunct's Office, some instructor came in, sat down, and opened a newspaper. He suddenly proclaimed, "They should just gather up all Republicans and move them down south and leave the Democrats up here in the north."

Nine times out of ten, I ignore political gambits or try to, but this appalled me. I snapped, "I'm a conservative libertarian, and I have lots of Republican friends and family members."

A few seconds later, he said weakly, "I have Republican friends too," and then, more weakly, "Well, the Republicans could stay up north."

"I don't make those kinds of distinctions," I said and went on correcting a student's essay; this is true, by the way: I don't care if the student is Republican or Democrat or Green; I just want her to stop using run-ons.

I didn't honestly expect to pulverize the guy so much, but it burns me that he didn't even think that I might be offended or disagree. His comment wasn't a deliberate attempt to get an argument going; in fact, he obviously didn't want to offend me (he wasn't like Toad); it just didn't occur to him that I wouldn't be all "Yeah, yeah, stupid conservatives, let's transport them all!" just because I was sitting in an English office.

It floors me how many times I walk into that office and people are standing there, going, "Can you believe that conservatives think Obama's popularity is plummeting!?" and I'm thinking, "Yahoo is saying that, you fools, and it's not exactly a bastion of conservatism." Not that I care about Obama's polls: I really despise pundit talk. It's like being in high school. It's like the two sides sit around waiting for the OTHER guy to trip or pick his nose or pronounce "Worcestershire" wrong or something.

Intellectually, I believe--in my heart of hearts--that you can find similar mindsets on both sides of the political fence. I truly believe this.

Experientially, I am continually amazed how so-called open-minded people can be so close-minded. Maybe that's the real issue: I don't mind close-minded people telling me they're close-minded. Or at least I mind them less than close-minded people telling me they are open-minded. I can still bear die-hard fundamentalists more than die-hard elites. But then I've had less exposure to die-hard fundamentalists.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
2/18/2010 8:33 AM   
George Will says it best in his latest column:

America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism.

# posted by Blogger Eugene
2/18/2010 9:41 AM   
Kate, you should gently point out that after the 2010 census, the Northeast will (again) lose seats in the House and the South and West will gain (Utah gets its long-deserved fourth district!). Encouraging such voluntary gerrymandering will only further weaken liberal influence (while making them all the more insufferable to be around).
# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
2/22/2010 12:27 AM   
This sounds like the people who thought humans couldn't make species go extinct. Humans too puny, Earth too big, God's creations too much part of the world. In reality, of course, we can send most species extinct with frightening ease. And we nearly destroyed the planet's ozone layer by accident.

It's certainly true that there's overblown hysteria about the problems we face. But that doesn't mean the problems aren't real. I'm not sure what your practical point is. We shouldn't worry about mass extinctions because of bacteria, or because biodiversity recovers in a mere 10-20 million years? We shouldn't worry about droughts and millions or billions of people starving, because of bacteria, or because China recovered over the next few centuries after its die-off? (As opposed to the Anasazi, who didn't.)

We're probably, not going to make the Earth barren of life, or incapable of supporting human life, by accident, no. (We probably could if we tried.) We're certainly capable of altering major cycles of the planet though, including ones that our agricultural civilization has adapted to. And some of us would like our civilization to not be massively disrupted by fouling our nest, rather than throwing up our hands in some odd god's-eye-view fatalism.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
2/22/2010 6:22 AM   

The fundamental concept that goes unappreciated by alarmists is that the ecology humans prefer is also one the benefits the animal kingdom. This means that as human development advances across the terrain it leaves in its wake a cleaner environment and a habitat very hospitable to furry rodents and their predators. Where I live in the "urban sprawl" of the nations capital I see more deer, fox, rabbit and groundhog then I ever recall seeing as a kid. And the birds are just as pretty and plentiful as ever.

You are correct that mankind has the power to cause significant environmental damage. Yet given a choice humans do not want to harm the environment. So when the fanatics claim that disrupting the habitat of the desert snail will precede ecological collapse the rational person is able to look at the big picture and realize things are not as bad as the headlines suggest.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
2/22/2010 2:24 PM   
As I said, we are perfectly capable of fouling our own nests. Now, I fancy myself a pragmatic libertarian at heart, and so fear that the tragedy of the commons will be the usual product of well-meaning collective action, and believe that the most good comes from acting in our own self-interests.

Overfishing the oceans is bad for us as a species. Polluting the water and air is bad for us as a species. Building cities in flood plains and then feverishly building levees to redirect the natural flow of rivers tends not to work to our--or nature's--advantage in the long run (and wastes tax dollars besides).

But sans a belief in creationism--that gods or divine forces created the world homo sapiens specifically with a purposeful objective in mind--the environmental arguments get morally murky when trying to articulate an ethical duty to the planet beyond our own well being.

Postmodern thought is largely governed (paradoxically) by the ideological flotsam and jetsam of fundamentalist creationism and Marxism, to the extent that (to cite one example) the great majority of Republicans who claim to be capitalists, and Democrats who claim to "believe" in evolution, aren't and don't.

The former can't stop believing the ship of state will founder without them at the helm. The latter can't give up the tautology of the weak anthropic principle--that we are the end of creation, standing apart from it, destined to deliver our judgments upon it. The environment is the latest portfolio in the "white man's burden."

More accurately stated, the anthropic principle holds that universe "exists" only because we evolved to observe it. Simply put, if we hadn't evolved in the first place, we wouldn't be around to fret about what was happening to the environment.

Part of this is a quirk of human nature. The same way the slaughter of the Three Kingdoms period is a history lesson, while recent battles on much smaller scales are tragedies, that 90 percent of all life on the planet has been wiped out repeatedly is a fascinating geological and biological fact, not a great moral failing.

What privileges the dodo over other, primordial victims of a mass extinction? That human beings caused it. And that we generally feel bad about it.

This is a remarkable assumption of moral responsibility for a bunch of evolved apes. Returning to my initial point, evolutionary psychologists would say we act morally because it's in our genetic self-interest. But I would also emphasize that the making of value judgments is the unique invention of our species.

Preserving it thus becomes primary means of preserving society itself, and the preservation of everything that matters--from the rule of law to the environment--flows from it. Not the other way around.

And yet our ability to create moral frameworks and act according to them--in this case, to care more about some plants and animals than others, and about them more than bacteria--does not actually make us--or them--intrinsically worth more to the impersonal cosmos.

The things that are important to us are important primarily because of their importance in the here and now. Not because their importance will be eternally self-evident.
# posted by Blogger Joe
2/22/2010 3:45 PM   
And we nearly destroyed the planet's ozone layer by accident.

Just thought I'd point out that that's not true. Putting aside the entire hysteria that the ozone was going to be entirely destroyed, the entire nonsense was based on a series of small observations with no historical context. More problematic is that things got better a little too fast for CFCs to be the cause. But, that doesn't serve the narrative so we go on pretending that we saved the earth.

As Gene says, being good to the environment generally makes sense--who wants to breath air full of coal dust, for example. However the conceit that man is causing all sorts of extinctions is really silly; super-volcanoes have done a much better job as has animals simply hunting other animals to extinction. (And this doesn't even get into the so-the-hell-what argument. If all species that ever lived, lived today, it would be bedlam.)
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
2/23/2010 2:47 PM   
On a sort of a tangent, I discuss anthropomorphizing Mother Nature (specifically, dogs) in my latest post.