I suppose that more or less everybody must know by now that it was Judgment Day yesterday.
Even Czech physicist Lubos Motl gave it a mention. And also Rush Limbaugh, who said that the prediction reminded him of global warming, and that Michael Crichton had said environmentalism was a religion. I dug out Chrichton’s essay (yet again).
Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism.
Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.
There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.
Personally, I think it’s more than just a persistent myth. I think you just have to read a bit of recent history:
The 18th century Enlightenment and the 19th century Industrial Revolution were a time of boundless optimism. Everything was getting better. Utopia was just round the corner.
Then came the 20th century, and two World Wars, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Soviet gulags. What could have been more crushing of any optimism? Each one of them was separately and singularly awful. It was the train wreck of a civilisation. What good was science and industry, if all it was used to do was to produce new ways for humans to murder each other?
I grew up in the immediate aftermath of WW2, and lived on a diet of war comics. The question us kids were asking back then was when WW3 would start. Because it was going to start sooner or later, obviously. Only we knew that when it did it wouldn’t be WW1-style trench warfare, or WW2-style air and tank battles, but would all be over in a few hours of Mutual Assured Destruction, as the atom bombs rained down, flattening everything, and killing everybody.
One day at school, when I was aged 12 or so, the brightest boy in the class – the top of the form, and the only boy who read newspapers – told me, very worriedly, that we were on the brink of WW3. It was all something to do with Cuba. I thought about it for a minute or two, and couldn’t think of anything I could do about it, and so went outside and carried on playing football.
At the same school, there was a strange event one day. The older boys first spent a few hours building a log cabin. Us younger kids wondered what they were up to. We soon found out, when they started hunting down every single one of us younger kids, and carrying us very seriously and gently to the cabin, and pushing us inside through a tiny opening in its side. When they’d caught us all (and they caught every single one of us), they just left us there, and we eventually broke out. Years later I realised what they’d been doing. They’d built a gas chamber. They’d wanted to see whether you really could capture everybody, and stick them inside one. And they’d found out that you could.
Apart from all the war comics, there was also a steady diet of science fiction, much of which dwelt on the coming nuclear holocaust. Books like Neville Shute’s On The Beach, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, and Francis G Rayer’s Tomorrow Sometimes Comes. Using these books, you got an idea of what life would be like after a nuclear war: the ruined cities, the wastelands, the looters, the warlords. I got to be interested in learning survival skills – how to live off the land, eating snails and insects, lighting fires with flints, etc. -, because these were the skills I’d need in that world.
None of these dark premonitions were taught or encouraged by our parents or teachers. There weren’t any air raid drills or classes. We kids had worked it out for ourselves. And we couldn’t figure out why the adults hadn’t worked it out too. Perhaps it was because they didn’t read the same books or comics that we did, and didn’t spend their afternoons building gas chambers. They were the people who had actually lived through these wars, but somehow they hadn’t drawn the obvious conclusion – which was that we were all doomed. Probably they just wanted to forget about it, and enjoy themselves.
Aged 10 or 12, I spent many hours and days writing, and copiously illustrating, a series of books about a long series of wars between a bunch of cats and a bunch of giant mice. The wars started with bows and arrows, and continued with cannons and bombs, and then advanced on to aircraft and tanks and battleships. I was about to embark on an account of the latest of these wars, when I realised that their next war was going to be fought with nuclear weapons. It was all that was left. It was the next logical step in their arms race. And at the same time, I began to wonder why the hell they were fighting these wars. There wasn’t any obvious reason for them. It was just what animals did.
Or at least, that was the message I got from all the pop-Darwinian descriptions of the process of evolution that I read in books, or saw acted out by plasticine movie monsters. It was one long war. And if ever a tyrannosaurus encountered a brontosaurus or something, it would attack on sight. Just like cats and mice. Or velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
People often think of the Sixties as a time of exuberance and optimism. But that wasn’t my experience of it. It was, if anything, a time when people who were already deeply pessimistic about their future became even more pessimistic. Because if things weren’t bad enough already, they were now finding out that the world human population was exploding, and soon there’d be nothing to eat, as set out in Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb. And we were using up all the oil and coal and gas., as set out in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. And we were polluting the planet’s atmosphere and seas, and poisoning ourselves. All of which bad news was usually read about while listening to super-grim blues music by 10 Years After or Fleetwood Mac or Traffic, if you could still hear anything through the haze of cannabis smoke. If there was any hope anywhere, it was usually to be found in some Indian guru who’d teach you to chant and meditate or something. Or maybe it could be found in desperate couplings. Or both.
In such circumstances, you don’t actually need a religion that tells you that judgment day is coming next Wednesday. It’s surplus to requirement. You know it all anyway. In fact you know much better than any priest or preacher how the world will end. No, the dead won’t rise from their graves, and Jesus descend from the sky. Instead there will be fire from the sky, and everyone will get vaporised or buried, and if you do manage to dig yourself out you’ll find nothing but starvation and wastelands and smoke and ash.
I think it’s enormously under-estimated just how bleak and pessimistic a view the post-war generation had of life. They saw themselves as the battered survivors of two world wars, of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the gulags, and who were now bracing themselves for the next onslaught of nuclear bombs, starvation, torture, shortages, pollution, and terminal poverty, as all humanity returned to a Stone Age it should perhaps never have left. And, in a very vivid sense, they had indeed lived through it: they’d seen the newsreel footage of the trenches and the bombings and the emaciated corpses and the mushroom clouds. If their pessimism was under-estimated, it was probably because it was their parents who were still producing the newspapers and TV programmes, and who were writing history. And their parents were relentlessly and stupidly upbeat about everything.
These days, of course, that traumatised post-war generation is in command. They’re now the ones that write the newpapers and produce the TV news. And they still see looming damnation and extinction on every side. If a climate scientist like James Hansen – who belongs to the post-war generation – regards coal trains as no different from death trains to Auschwitz, it really says much more about him than it does about the real world. It shows through what desperately pessimistic spectacles he still sees the world, that he regards himself as trying to halt death trains. Yet he’s very far from alone. And such people feel morally impelled to try to stop it from happening. And they now teach their children about it, and about the threat of nuclear war, and resource depletion, and global warming, and tobacco smoke, and all the other countless threats to continuing human survival.
Yet modern kids have grown up in a world that is largely at peace, and in which food and fuel and transport and medicine and information are superabundant. But they’re being taught by their parents and their teachers that it’s an extremely dangerous world, fraught with risks, and teetering on the brink of destruction. They must think their parents are all mad. Just like us kids 50 years ago thought that our parents were mad. But for the exact opposite reason.
I think that, personally, I began to slowly escape from the relentless pessimism of the age when I began to notice that judgment day seemed to be getting steadily deferred. Sometime in the 1970s, the threat of nuclear war seemed to lift, perhaps with the establishment of hot lines and nuclear test ban treaties. The end, when it came – as inevitably it still would -, was instead going to be in 10 or 20 years time when the food and the oil ran out. These days, the end is about 50 years away, when global warming boils the earth, and the sea levels rise to flood cities. At this rate, by the end of the century, the Final End will have been deferred 500 years or more.
After a while, I simply ceased to believe any of it. Not the threat of nuclear war. Nor the threat of Peak Oil. Nor the threat of global warming. Nor tobacco smoke. Nor alcohol. Nor anything else. I slowly lost my dismal new religion much like I slowly lost my earlier Christian one. It simply didn’t square with reality.
But plenty of people haven’t managed to break free of that profound post-war pessimism. They still see themselves as living on the eve of judgment day. Even if it was yesterday. And even if nothing happened.
And nothing did happen.