Deep in the Bible Belt, folks know the comfort of the coming Apocalypse. Most have enough sense not to try to predict its exact date, but just about everyone can appreciate its appeal. The End of Days is an escapist/revenge fantasy in which all those fools who doubted us will weep amid a variety of sadistic torments, while we enjoy an everlasting snow day.
In this age of equality, why should liberals miss out on the apocalyptic fun? Turns out there’s a long secular history of apocalyptic thinking, and it has produced policies just as toxic as anything dreamed up by fundamentalists. Going all the way back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th Century, people have been warning that our prosperity will be our undoing, and that capitalism and growth will leave the world a scorched, lifeless heap. They’re still wrong.
Now the normally rational Tom Friedman is ringing that bell in a New York Times piece. He is embracing the work of doomsayer Paul Gilding, and announcing that “The Earth is Full.” Friedman and Gilding are a little late to this party. Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich predicted population doomsday almost half a century ago.
So how are those predictions turning out?
Human populations, which the Malthusians in every age predict will overwhelm us any day now, have not only failed to do so, but also they seem to be approaching a peak of around nine billion perhaps later this century. One of China’s worst-looming problems amid a galaxy of looming problems is a potentially catastrophic population decline. Everywhere in the world where free markets and economic vitality have triumphed, population growth is slowing, and in some cases beginning to reverse.
The Malthusians have been consistently wrong for more than 200 years – a worse record than Harold Camping, but we just can’t stop ourselves from buying what the doomsayers of every persuasion are selling. The population/environmentally-driven end of the world narrative fills the same psychological void for the left that religious fundamentalists address with their ever-imminent Apocalypse. They even use similar language and imagery. There’s a perverse voice inside that us that craves The End, regardless of our religion or politics. We’ll create that narrative out of whatever spare parts we have to work with.
Civilization always feels fragile and unnatural, doomed to collapse. Yet, on it goes. Challenges like terrorism, global warming, and water scarcity come up, but solutions are always found somewhere between the panicked alarmists and the militant deniers. It is innovation that makes us human, and it is innovation that keeps us alive.
We are some very clever monkeys. It would be a mistake to bet against us.
Well, there HAVE been resource crises, so I think that gives the Malthusians more wins than Camping.
We are smart little monkeys in many ways, but we are also greedy shortsighted little monkeys in many other ways. To depend on our record of never having wiped ourselves out yet is a fallacy, it only takes one wrong move in that bet to permanently end the streak.
Are the Malthusians right? Maybe not on the food supply issues, but other scarce resources will be a problem. At that point, though, it seems weird to even consider them Malthusians, since he was so specifically targeted. Still, I wish we had more people worried and looking into whether we’re on the road to ruin and fewer people bundling financial instruments and cheering for dot-com IPOs.
Either way, I think Chris’ take is an interesting one. Of course, the doomsayers on the left use more science to make their predictions than the right, but they have always been wrong about the end.
You are right, however, about resource crises. I think we will see more of them in the twenty-first century.
At the end of the day, the demise of the human species will most likely perish from an exogenous shock like an asteroid hitting the earth than from anything else.
Of course, the Italian rhetorician Giambattista Vico’s theory of history suggests we’re simply going through stages: http://scotterb.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/corso-e-ricorso/
A fascinating article…