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.