Pascal Bruckner writes at City Journal Apocalyptic Daze. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Secular elites prophesy a doomsday without redemption.
My point is not to minimize the dangers that we face. Rather, it is to understand why apocalyptic fear has gripped so many of our leaders, scientists, and intellectuals, who insist on reasoning and arguing as though they were following the scripts of mediocre Hollywood disaster movies.
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, a paradigm shift in our thinking took place: we decided that the era of revolutions was over and that the era of catastrophes had begun. The former had involved expectation, the hope that the human race would proceed toward some goal. But once the end of history was announced, the Communist enemy vanquished, and, more recently, the War on Terror all but won, the idea of progress lay moribund. What replaced the world’s human future was the future of the world as a material entity. The long list of emblematic victims—Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples—was likewise replaced, little by little, with the Planet, the new paragon of all misery.
No longer were we summoned to participate in a particular community; rather, we were invited to identify ourselves with the spatial vessel that carried us, groaning.
How did this change happen? Over the last half-century, leftist intellectuals have identified two great scapegoats for the world’s woes. First, Marxism designated capitalism as responsible for human misery. Second, “Third World” ideology, disappointed by the bourgeois indulgences of the working class, targeted the West, supposedly the inventor of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. The guilty party that environmentalism now accuses—mankind itself, in its will to dominate the planet—is essentially a composite of the previous two, a capitalism invented by a West that oppresses peoples and destroys the earth. Indeed, environmentalism sees itself as the fulfillment of all earlier critiques. “There are only two solutions,” Bolivian president Evo Morales declared in 2009. “Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies.”
So the planet has become the new proletariat that must be saved from exploitation
—if necessary, by reducing the number of human beings,
as oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said in 1991.
One could go on citing such quotations forever, given the spread of the cliché-ridden apocalyptic literature. Environmentalism has become a global ideology that covers all of existence—not merely modes of production but ways of life as well. We rediscover in it the whole range of Marxist rhetoric, now applied to the environment: ubiquitous scientism, horrifying visions of reality, even admonitions to the guilty parties who misunderstand those who wish them well. Authors, journalists, politicians, and scientists compete in the portrayal of abomination and claim for themselves a hyper-lucidity: they alone see clearly while others vegetate in the darkness.
The fear that these intellectuals spread is like a gluttonous enzyme that swallows up an anxiety, feeds on it, and then leaves it behind for new ones. When the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down after the enormous earthquake in Japan in March 2011, it only confirmed a feeling of anxiety that was already there, looking for some content. In six months, some new concern will grip us: a pandemic, bird flu, the food supply, melting ice caps, cell-phone radiation.
The fear also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the press reporting, as though it were a surprising finding, that young people are haunted by the very concerns about global warming that the press continually instills in them. As in an echo chamber, opinion polls reflect the views promulgated by the media. We are inoculated against anxiety by the repetition of the same themes, which become a narcotic we can’t do without.
Atime-honored strategy of cataclysmic discourse, whether performed by preachers or by propagandists, is the retroactive correction. This technique consists of accumulating a staggering amount of horrifying news and then—at the end—tempering it with a slim ray of hope. First you break down all resistance; then you offer an escape route to your stunned audience. And so the advertising copy for the Al Gore–starring documentary An Inconvenient Truth reads: “Humanity is sitting on a time bomb. If the vast majority of the world’s scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet’s climate system into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced—a catastrophe of our own making.”
Now here are the means that the former vice president, like most environmentalists, proposes to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions: using low-energy lightbulbs; driving less; checking your tire pressure; recycling; rejecting unnecessary packaging; adjusting your thermostat; planting a tree; and turning off electrical appliances. Since we find ourselves at a loss before planetary threats, we will convert our powerlessness into propitiatory gestures, which will give us the illusion of action. First the ideology of catastrophe terrorizes us; then it appeases us by proposing the little rituals of a post-technological animism.
But let’s be clear: a cosmic calamity is not averted
by checking tire pressure or sorting garbage.
Another contradiction inherent in apocalyptic discourse is that, though it tries desperately to awaken us, to convince us of planetary chaos, it eventually deadens us, making our eventual disappearance part of our everyday routine. At first, yes, the kinds of doom that we hear about—the acidification of the oceans, the pollution of our air—charge our calm existence with a strange excitement. The enemy is among us, and he waits for our slightest lapses, all the more insidious because he is invisible. If the function of ancient rites was to purge a community’s violence on a sacrificial victim, the function of our contemporary rites is—at first—to dramatize the status quo and to exalt us through proximity to cataclysm.
But the certainty of the prophecies makes this effect short-lived. The language of fear does not include the word “maybe.” It tells us, rather, that the horror is inevitable. Resistant to all doubt, it is satisfied to mark the stages of degradation. This is another paradox of fear: it is ultimately reassuring. At least we know where we are heading—toward the worst.
One consequence of this certainty is that we begin to suspect that the numberless Cassandras who prophesy all around us do not intend to warn us so much as to condemn us.
In a secular society, a prophet has no function other than indignation. So it happens that he becomes intoxicated with his own words and claims a legitimacy with no basis, calling down the destruction that he pretends to warn against. You’ll get what you’ve got coming!—that is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy. It is a short distance from lucidity to bitterness, from prediction to anathema.
What is surprising is that the mood of catastrophe prevails especially in the West, as if it were particular to privileged peoples. Despite the economic crises of the last few years, people live better in Europe and the United States than anywhere else, which is why migrants the world over want to come to those places. Yet never have we been so inclined to condemn our societies.
Perhaps the new Green puritanism is nothing but the reaction of a West deprived of its supreme competence, the last avatar of an unhappy neocolonialism that preaches to other cultures a wisdom that it has never practiced. For the last 20 years, non-European peoples have become masters of their own futures and have stopped regarding us as infallible models. They are likely to receive our professions of environmentalist faith with polite indifference. Billions of people look to economic growth, with all the pollution that accompanies it, to improve their condition. Who are we to refuse it to them?
Environmental worry is universal; the sickness of the end of the world is purely Western.
To counter this pessimism, we might list the good news of the last 20 years: democracy is making slow progress; more than a billion people have escaped absolute poverty; life expectancy has increased in most countries; war is becoming rarer; many serious illnesses have been eradicated. But it would do little good. Our perception is inversely proportional to reality.
The Christian apocalypse saw itself as a hopeful revelation of the coming of God’s kingdom. Today’s has nothing to offer. There is no promise of redemption; the only hope is that those human beings who repent of their errors may escape the chaos, as in Cormac McCarthy’s fine novel The Road.
How can we be surprised, then, that so many bright minds have become delirious
and that so many strange predictions flourish?
Background see post Progressively Scaring the World