Saturday, April 22, 2006

Self-Loathing for Dummies, or, Who are we to judge the animals?

It seems that the modern Green movement has raised self-loathing to a level only dreamt about by Medieval flagellants. Or so one would gather from the litany of woes flowing out from the high priests of the movement, as documented by Frank Furedi:

Discussions about the future increasingly tend to focus on whether humans will survive. According to green author and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, 'before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be kept in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable' (1).

More and more books predict there will be an unavoidable global catastrophe; there is James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, and Eugene Linden's The Winds of Change: Weather and the Destruction of Civilisations. Kunstler's book warns that 'this is a much darker time than 1938, the eve of World War II' (2). In the media there are alarming stories about a mass 'die-off' in the near future and of cities engulfed by rising oceans as a consequence of climate change.

Today we don't just have Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but an entire cavalry regiment of doom-mongers. It is like a secular version of St John's Revelations, except it is even worse - apparently there is no future for humanity after this predicted apocalypse. Instead of being redeemed, human beings will, it seems, disappear without a trace.

Anxieties about human survival are as old as human history itself. Through catastrophes such as the Deluge or Sodom and Gomorrah, the religious imagination fantasised about the end of the world. More recently, apocalyptic ideas once rooted in magic and theology have been recast as allegedly scientific statements about human destructiveness and irresponsibility. Elbowing aside the mystical St John, Lovelock poses as a prophet-scientist when he states: 'I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news….' (3) Today, the future of the Earth is said to be jeopardised by human consumption, technological development or by 'man playing God'. And instead of original sin leading to the Fall of Man, we fear the degradation of Nature by an apparently malevolent human species.

All of today's various doomsday scenarios - whether it's the millennium bug, oil depletion, global warming, avian flu or the destruction of biodiversity - emphasise human culpability. Their premise is that the human species is essentially destructive and morally bankrupt. 'With breathtaking insolence', warns Lovelock in his book The Revenge of Gaia, 'humans have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them'.

You know we've reached a new low when people won't even stand up for their own species. The reasoning behind Lovelock and Diamond's theories are specious in the extreme, so you have to wonder whether these obviously intelligent people are beholden to a bizarre theology of nature worship that they can't even bring themselves to admit to. At least Biblical theology places Man above the animals and plants. Gaia worship seems to invert the hierarchy. Fragile species rank higher on the list precisely because of their helplesness and lack of sentient will.

Sometimes I wonder if this "God-shaped hole in the soul" is true. These Green loonies seem to have some need to prostrate themselves before an anthropomorphized Nature. I don't get it. The only organism in Nature that cares about Nature is Man. There is no sacred Order of Species, no natural law that says a species, once it comes into existence, is destined to exist for eternity by command of Mother Gaia. Just the opposite is the case. Nature, to the extent that you can say it cares, cares only about what is adaptable enough to survive. A species will get a far more sympathetic hearing in the court of Man than it will ever get in the court of Nature.

No matter what impact we have on this planet, we will survive for quite a long time to come. And Nature would have it no other way.


Blogger Oroborous said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised if billions died of disaster, disease, or acts of warfare during the 21st century, but neither civilization nor humanity itself is at all threatened.

Predicting widespread cataclysm due to running out of something essential is moronacy of the highest order.
Just completely ignorant.

April 22, 2006 9:07 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Let's see. There are 6.5 billion people alive today. A majority will die of old age sometime this century.

So yes, billions of people will die this century.

April 22, 2006 10:17 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

To label people like Lovelock 'intelligent' is beside the point. They are not arriving at their conclusions based on intelligent thought.

This is just the spiritual misery that people like Orrin want us to embrace in more fashionable garb.

Because it is so widespread, in time and locale, this pessimism does indicate an odd feature that must either be innate in human brains or, if not quite that, then extremely widespread culturally.

Perhaps pessimism is an adaptive response. Subsistence farmers, usually described by city boys as optimists, are the greatest pessimists of all, and we all receive 100 generations of that from our mothers.

April 22, 2006 11:36 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

I'd really like Lovelock to set an example and go live up a tree for the rest of his days.

April 23, 2006 8:38 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

M. Ali;

People like Lovelock want everyone else to die off to preserve Nature for themselves.

I have to say I am reminded of Cthulhu worship, where Cthulhu's promise is that if you worship him, he'll eat you last.

April 23, 2006 10:47 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Lovelock is easy to explain: he wants to sell his books.

The interesting question, which Harry hints at, is why so many people are so keen to lap up doom-mongering.

Doom comes in all flavours, and everyone has his favourite.

If it's not environmental disaster, it's the collapse of religion, or the rise of the Muslims, or the ageing population, or the Chinese.

Fearing the worst is probably a useful survival trait.

April 24, 2006 2:30 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I have three words: Club of Rome.

April 24, 2006 7:17 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think some people fear the worst because they can't deal with the ambiguity of not knowing what the future holds. Plus there's a little bit of Old Testament prophet in each of us. We're just so sinful, we have to have our comeuppance sooner or later. The idea that we can stumble along from generation to generation, getting along by the skin of our teeth , just doesn't sit right with them. But there's a tenet of complexity theory that says complex systems evolve along the border between order and chaos. Humanity is such a complex system, probably the most complex on this planet. Living on the edge of chaos is our natural state. Nothing to see here, move along.

I also think that the doomsayers are passing an aesthetic judgment on humankind. I think there's a little hopefulness in their despair, a desire to see civilization wiped out, or brought low. The green aesthete has that in common with the religious and political utopians. Whether it's Marx, or Lovelock, or the religious snobs in the Crunchy Conservative movement, the one class of people that they all revile is the Bourgeoisie. Those individualists who pursue wealth and happiness, and making an unholy mess of the neat, tidy, symmetrical hierarchies that they would have people live under. These people love Man in the aggregate, in the ideal community, but hate him in his individual being, with his material and wordly desires.

Any person that can compare humankind to a virus isn't far removed from Robespierre or Mao.

April 24, 2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You're right of course about the quest for certainty. Some religions, Islam comes to mind, do not provide as much as others. Christianity is entirely given to reassurance. Inshallah is not part of the NT.

I can get that far. What I don't get is when people who put their money on a certain kind of assurance provider that fizzles every time keep covering that bet.

Is this like betting 33 on the roulette wheel on the theory that it's got to come up someday and maybe it will come up just before you check out?

Iowa farmers plant whole fields of corn. Subsistence farmers jumble up seeds from all sorts of crops together, and plant some corn here, some over there, some pumpkins here, some over there to reduce uncertainty -- surely some part of the field will escape insects, storm, etc. to leave enough to eke by till next season.

That doesn't work all the time, and it guarantees you'll never make a crop of 175 bu/acre.

I don't know whether that makes us inherently good risk assessors or bad risk assessors.

What some of us were able to do was change the rules so you don't have to face that dilemma. The greens, Christians and all the throwbacks just hate that.

April 25, 2006 11:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

There is a lot more to this than just wanting to sell books. Skipper's Club of Rome allusion is bang on, and there are lots of others he could add. Gentlemen, welcome to mankind's timeless, hard-wired self-loathing side.

My 12 year old son has been challenging me of late on global warming, about which he is being indoctrinated at school, and I've responded with the kids' version of typical Brosjudd arguments and references. Like any healthy 12 year old, he didn't give an inch and insisted I was crazy, so you can imagine how wondrously proud I was when I heard he actually took his teacher on in front of the class, trying to repeat all my arguments. Apparently the teacher responded with a few "flat-earth" mockings and suggested he talk to "any scientist". I thought that was a little over the top and so reprinted some recent articles like this about the growing scepticism and passed them on to the teacher with a "smile so bland", as Gilbert and Sullivan would say.

My wife teaches there so I'm privy to the reaction. They are calling in a speaker from the Sierra Club to educate the kids and check these subversive Burnets. Ah well, the world will undoubtedly unfold as it should, however what strikes me is how the news that global warming may be nowhere near the threat many thought is widely received as bad, nay tragic, news. No doubt the way the local vicar first reacted to Darwin. These are just ordinary teachers, not activists or suthors, and they are completely thrown and palpably upset by the news that we ain't all going to drown or fry.

I could taunt you chaps about reaping the fruits of all those years of attacking institutional religion and leaving the religious impulse to be sublimated in much crazier and more dangerous ways, but I won't. But I do think it is worth a moment's thought that we here, in all our debates over evolution/science/morality, etc., tend to represent the classically pre-modern vs. the modernism of scientific rationalism. We are both guilty of ignoring the postmodern revolt as just being too wacky to take seriously or worry about--surely it will die out soon. Maybe. Maybe not.

April 26, 2006 3:07 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter is on to something when he says that, like it or not, the religious impulse is a nearly universal fact of human life, and that some ways of channeling the unavoidable are better than others.

No doubt, and I, for one, would welcome some resurgence of Christianity if one of the impacts would be the disappearance of Scientology. Not so much that it is particularly objectionable, but seeing the back of the TomKat saga would be worth nearly any sacrifice.

However, Peter, how is hysterical apocalyptic environmentalism any worse, or particularly different, than, say, the Left Behind series?

April 26, 2006 4:38 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


I wasn't aware there is real concern the left might re-take control of the U.S. Government and resume their pacifist, statist, Euro-multilateral ways because so many Americans are upset the Republicans aren't taking the Rapture seriously enough.

April 26, 2006 5:38 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I wasn't talking about realistic concern.

Rather, the whole theme of the Left Behind Series is apocalyptic in ways that environmentalists can only dream about.

Both predict extremely widespread suffering in the not too distant future. At that level, both groups are distinct, but not different.

Now all we have to to is figure out why they are paying their bills and mowing their lawns.

April 26, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The Sierra Club is going to have to do quite some ways before it does as much damage as religion.

And if enviro-wacko-ism is just a po-mo substitute for classical religion, the better course would be to go on to something else, not back to something that worked so badly the first time around.

April 26, 2006 11:53 AM  

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