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The Pleasures of Extinction

One of the wry pleasures that’s repeatedly come my way since the beginning of this blog seven years ago is that of watching a good many of my predictions come true in short order. Now it’s true that I’ve also made a certain number of failed predictions over that time.  Back in 2007 and 2008, for instance, I insisted that the US government wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to cover its ballooning budget deficits by spinning the printing presses; some idiocies, I thought, were too extreme even for the inmates of the current American political class.  As th Fed proceeds merrily through yet another round of quantitative easing, that assumption has proved to be rather too naive.

Even so, my batting average so far has been pretty respectable. In the early days of this blog, for example, Daniel Yergin was insisting at the top of his lungs that the price of oil would settle down shortly to a long-term plateau of $38 a barrel, while fans of a dozen different alternative technologies were claiming just as stridently that if the price of oil ever got to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel, the technology they favored would be profitable enough to sweep all before it. There were very few of us back then who predicted that oil would go quite a bit past $60 a barrel and stay there, and even fewer who pointed out that abundant cheap fossil fuel energy made alternatives look much more viable than they were. These days, with oil wobbling around $100 a barrel and most of the alternatives still wholly dependent on government subsidies, that turned out to be tolerably prescient.

Over the last few weeks, another of my predictions has turned out spot on the money. A little less than six months ago, as New Age bookstores around the world were quietly emptying entire bookshelves dedicated to December 21, 2012 and putting 50%-off stickers on the contents, I noted in a blog post here that it wouldn’t be long before people who were looking for an excuse to put off doing anything about the crisis of industrial society would have a replacement for 2012.

Well, it’s here. The latest apocalyptic fad is near-term human extinction, or NTE for short: the claim that humanity, along with most other life on Earth, will inevitably be extinct by 2030 at the latest.

It’s probably necessary to say up front that humanity will certainly go extinct eventually—no species lasts forever—and there’s always the chance that it could happen in short order; a stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily. Still, there’s a great difference between claiming that human extinction is possible and insisting that it’s certainly going to happen in the next seventeen years, especially when the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.

There’s a tolerably long history to such claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were people on the far end of the environmental movement who insisted that humanity would certainly be extinct before the year 2000, and the same prediction has been repeated with different dates and justifications ever since. Those of my readers who remember the Solar Temple mass suicides of 1994 and 1995 may recall that the collective suicide note left behind by the members of that ill-fated order made exactly that claim:  Earth would be uninhabitable by the year 2000, Solar Temple founder Luc Jouret insisted, and so the initiates of the Solar Temple were getting out while the getting was good.

In the early days of the peak oil movement, similarly, the same insistence on imminent extinction popped up tolerably often. I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that this was largely a product of an odd and very American habit I’ve termed "apocalypse machismo."  One consequence of America’s pervasive anti-intellectualism, with its frankly weird equation of manhood with chest-thumping brainlessness, is that many male American intellectuals end up burdened by doubts about their own masculinity, and some of them respond by trying to talk as tough as possible; intellectual women in this male-dominated culture find they often have to copy that same habit, sometimes to even greater extremes, in order to get taken seriously at all.  This has been a major factor all through America’s recent history; the neoconservative movement, packed as it was with academic intellectuals whose obsession with proving their own virility on a global stage drove them into one foreign policy fiasco after another, makes as good a poster child as any.

In the same way, we had a lot of apocalypse machismo in the early peak oil movement.  In the first few years of this blog, for that matter, I could count on fielding (and deleting) a comment every month or two from somebody who wanted to talk about the new scenario for imminent human extinction he’d just worked up. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown fielded a bumper crop of the same thing; those of my readers who doubt this are invited to go digging back through the archives of any unmoderated peak oil forum, where they’ll find, in the days and weeks immediately following each of these disasters, colorful if implausible scenarios predicting the imminent demise of all life on earth presented as sober fact.

No doubt there’s at least some of that at work in the sudden surge of interest in near-term human extinction, but I question whether it’s the main driving force this time around. There are at least two other factors that are likely to be involved, and one of them unfolds directly from the points made in the last few posts in the current sequence.

The shape of time sketched out by Augustine of Hippo in the pages of The City of God, and adopted thereafter by most of the western world until the rise of the later mythology of perpetual progress, allows a range of variations. Even within the mainstream of western Christianity, the options extend over a much broader landscape than most of my readers may realize, and the versions of the Augustinian mythos found outside the Christian mainstream are even more diverse.  In his useful 1998 book Millennium Rage, sociologist Philip Lamy argued that most beliefs about the future in today’s America are "fractured apocalypses," in which the events foretold in the Book of Revelation are pulled out of context and rearranged in response to contemporary social trends.

His insight can be applied a good deal more generally: the whole Augustinian story has been subjected to similar treatment. Eden, the Fall, the vale of tears, the righteous remnant, the redeeming revelation, the rising struggle between good and evil, the final catastrophe and the return to paradise thereafter—you’ll find these, or most of these, in a great many current belief systems, but the order and relative importance of each element may vary, and it’s far from uncommon for one or two of the classic themes of the story to be stretched nearly out of recognition, or deleted entirely.

One detail that often comes in for serious reworking in modern social movements is the final step, the one in which the elect are welcomed back into paradise while everyone else is herded into the lake of fire to be punished for all eternity.  The habit of morphological thinking discussed earlier in this sequence of posts is of crucial importance here: take a close look at the development over time of social movements that embrace the Augustinian narrative, and the historical shifts in that last part of the story have a fascinating message to communicate.

The wave of Christian fundamentalism that’s currently breaking and flowing back out to sea makes a good case in point. Back in the days of the Jesus People and the Good News Bible, when that wave first began building, its rhetoric was triumphant: the whole nation was turning to Christ, the rest of the world would surely follow, and the imminent Second Coming would see everyone but a few stubborn sinners rushing forward joyfully to embrace God’s infinite love. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the proportion between the saved and the damned shifted significantly closer to the sort of thing you’d hear in an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, but the saved were still utterly convinced of their own salvation:  those were the days when "In Case Of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unoccupied" bumper stickers sprouted on the rear ends of cars all over America.

You won’t see too many of those bumper stickers these days. Just as the optimistic faith that a new generation could win the world for Christ gave way gradually to the far more pessimistic vision of a world mired in wickedness from which the elect would shortly be teleported to safety—beamed up by St. Scotty, as the joke had it, to the bridge of the USS Enterchrist—so the serene confidence on the part of believers that they would be numbered among the elect has been replaced, in these latter days of the movement, by an increasingly pervasive sense of sin and unworthiness. Too many dates for the Rapture have come and gone, too many once-respected preachers have been caught with their pants around their ankles in one sense or another, and the well-founded suspicion that the Republican party is using the evangelical churches every bit as cynically and shamelessly as the Democratic party is using the environmental movement has got to weigh on a lot of once-hopeful minds. 

Christian theology places hard limits on just how far the exclusion from future blessedness can extend, as there has to be "a great multitude, which no man could number" (Revelations 7:9) of the saved gathered around the throne of God when the boom comes down. Outside Christianity, the same process routinely goes much further. A good example is the New Age movement, which emerged out of a variety of older fringe spiritualities right around the same time that the current round of Christian fundamentalism got going in America. The early days of the New Age movement were pervaded by the same optimistic sense that a new and more enlightened epoch was about to dawn, and everyone—even, or especially, those who made fun of the movement’s pretensions—would soon fall in line.

As the movement matured and the New Age stubbornly refused to arrive, in turn, the same mood shift that affected fundamentalism had a comparable impact; New Age teachers began to talk more about the ascension of enlightened individuals into higher planes of being, the activities of evil powers who were maintaining the illusion of a world of limits, and the imminence of a world-cleansing cataclysm that would finally get around to ushering in the New Age. By the time the hoopla began building over 2012, finally, the prophecies trotted out in advance of that much-ballyhooed nonevent ranged all over the map; there were still optimists of the old school, who insisted that a great shift in consciousness would make everyone get around to agreeing with them; there were many more who expected mass death to leave the world purified for the usual minority of the elect; and there were no small number who were retailing scenarios in which the entire human race would be exterminated.

This is a familiar rhythm in the history of American popular spirituality.  At regular intervals, some movement that’s existed out on the fringes for decades suddenly gets a mass following, turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and has thirty to forty years of popularity before it returns to the fringes. Some traditions repeat the process; Christian fundamentalism has had two periods of pop stardom—once between the Roaring Nineties and the Great Depression, and then again from the late 1970s to the present—and a strong case could be made that the New Age movement is a rehash of the vogue for occultism that was so huge a part of American pop culture between 1890 and 1929. Other movements fill the void when the ones just named head for the fringes; from the 1930s to the 1970s, liberal Christian churches were a dominant force in American religion, and there’s some reason to think that the pendulum is headed the same way again as fundamentalism sunsets out a second time.

If human beings were rational actors, as economists like to imagine, they wouldn’t respond to the disconfirmation of their beliefs by postulating world-wrecking catastrophes. Here as elsewhere, though, the fond fantasies of economists stand up poorly as models for predicting events in the real world. If you haven’t had the experience of devoting decades of your life to a failed belief system, dear reader, try to put yourself into such a person’s shoes.  It would take a degree of equanimity rare even among saints to look back on such an experience without harvesting a bumper crop of resentment, grief and guilt—and if fantasies of apocalyptic destruction play any role at all in your belief system, one way to deal with those difficult emotions in their first and rawest forms is to pour them into a belief in some cataclysm big enough to punish the world and everyone in it for their failure to live up to your hopes.

The environmental movement is not a religion, but its course in America in recent decades followed the pattern I’ve just outlined. Like fundamentalism and the New Age movement, it came in from the fringe in the 1970s with the same sense of imminent triumph that guided the other movements I’ve named. Its transformation from a charismatic movement of outsiders to a set of bureaucratic institutions closely intertwined with the existing order of society followed the same trajectory as fundamentalist churches, and its sense of triumphant expectancy faded out at roughly the same pace, replaced by the same struggle against evil that brought fundamentalist Christians into their devil’s pact with the GOP and inspired New Age believers to embrace conspiracy theories and the paranoid fantasies of David Icke.

At this point, roughly in parallel with fundamentalism and the New Age, the environmental movement is having to come face to face with the total failure of its hopes. Back in the heady days of its early successes, the vision that guided it saw environmental protection as the next step forward in the same trajectory of social progress that included the civil rights movement and second wave feminism; it was in this spirit, for example, that environmental lawyers proposed that trees be given legal standing. The hope all along was that industrial civilization could achieve a permanent peace with the world of nature and continue up the infinite road of progress without leaving a scorched and looted planet in its wake.

That hope is dead. If there was ever a chance to achieve it, it went whistling down the wind decades ago, and at this point the jaws of resource depletion and environmental degradation are tightening around the collective throat of the world’s industrial societies, in exactly the fashion predicted in detail forty years ago in the pages of The Limits to Growth. Even if the green technologies promoted by an increasingly frantic minority of environmentalists could support something like today’s rates of energy use, which they can’t, we can no longer afford the sort of massive buildout of those technologies that would be necessary to supplant even a significant part of our current fossil fuel consumption. If what’s left of the environmental movement managed to overcome its own internal dysfunctions and the formidable opposition of its foes, and became a mass movement again, the most it could accomplish at this point would be the protection of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems as industrial society stumbles down the first bitter steps of the long descent into the deindustrial future.

That’s still a goal worth achieving, but it’s not the goal to which the environmental mainstream committed itself when it embraced a role among the socially acceptable institutions of American public life, with the perks and salaries that this status involves.  This explains, I suggest, the way that certain mainstream environmentalists have turned to proselytizing for nuclear power and other frankly ecocidal technologies, under the curious delusion that "possibly a little better than the worst" somehow amounts to "good."  The desperation in such rhetoric is palpable, and signals the end of the road—an end that, in this case as in the others I’ve cited, involves a good many fantasies of total destruction.

Still, there’s another factor here, and it unfolds from one of the least creditable aspects of the way that the environmental movement has evolved over time. It has become increasingly clear that the perks, the salaries, and the comfortable middle class lifestyles embraced so enthusiastically by so many people in the movement are themselves part of the problem. I was intrigued to read earlier this month a thoughtful essay by leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson arguing, in terms that will sound very familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, that the failure of climate change activism to make any headway in changing people’s behavior may have more than a little to do with the fact that the people who are urging such changes aren’t making them themselves.

I have no reason to think that Anderson reads my blog or, for that matter, knows me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox, but then you don’t need to wear an archdruid’s funny hat to notice that people these days are acutely sensitive to signs of hypocrisy, or to grasp that even the most vital changes aren’t going to happen if even the people who are most aware of their importance aren’t willing to start making them in their own lives.  For reasons a post last year discussed at some length, those who have built their lives on the fantasy that it’s possible to have their planet and eat it too are not going to find such reflections welcome, or even bearable.

Fantasies of imminent human extinction are one comforting if futile response to this ugly predicament. If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option. If I’m right, the pleasures of believing in near-term human extinction are likely to appeal to a very large and well-heeled audience in the years immediately ahead, and those of my readers interested in cashing in on the next 2012-style bonanza should probably take note.

Times Square apocalypse image credit: Vladimir Manyhin

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