Fighting Declinist despair and apocalyptic nihilism
“The idea of decline (that things are getting worse, that life is declining toward some great collapse and ending) is the most dominant and influential theme in (society) today”, Historian Arthur Herman in ‘The Idea of Decline in Western History’. World surveys in recent years have affirmed this widespread pessimism in varied countries that the future will get worse and there might be an end to civilization and even life itself. Declinism is a modern version of primitive apocalyptic mythology.
Stephen Hawking fell for this Chicken Little myth in the final two years of his life, offering his own prophesies of the end-of-days and setting dates just like apocalyptic prophets have done across history. He initially announced the end in a thousand or so years (caused by AI or aliens), then finally settled on the end of days in just 100 years, caused by environmental catastrophe. 100 years reserved enough time for him to vacate the planet and avoid the embarrassment that all apocalyptics eventually face. Smart man. Apocalyptic prophesying has a 100% failure rate.
Add here that many believe that humanity, as essentially corrupt and bad-to-the-bone (i.e. the anti-human myth of “inherited sinful nature”), is the cause of the imagined worsening trajectory of life. People believe that we deserve some horrible future outcome as punishment for our “sins” of corrupting nature by developing industrial civilization, and for our greed- i.e. for enjoying the good life too much. The Japanese lady (post-2011 tsunami) summarized this outlook, affirming the common belief that harmful things from nature are expressions of punitive forces/deities. She asked, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”
Contrary to Declinism ideology, amassed evidence has consistently shown improvement, not degeneration or decline, on all the main features of life. Our creation of industrial civilization has enabled us to create the wealth that enables us to, not only immensely improve the human condition, but to also better care for the natural world. We have done well as Julian Simon said, proving ourselves “to be more creators than destroyers”. For detail on the improving trajectory of life see Simon’s Ultimate Resource, Greg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth, Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist, Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom, Desrocher and Szurmak’s Population Bombed, Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World, among others. See also the ‘Ecological Kuznets Curve’ research, or ‘Environmental Transition’ research (Google Indur Goklany on this).
The result of embracing Declinism has been widespread fear of some horrific collapse of life, often environmental collapse scenarios, and the outcome of such alarm is the incited urgency to “save the world”, to purge the world of some imagined threat to life. Today alarmists have isolated the threat as the “curse of fossil fuels” that are the main engine of industrial society, lasering in on the CO2 byproduct.
Note the profound distortion of basic reality here- that the basic food of all life is now widely viewed as a pollutant and poison that threatens life. Also note that there is no “climate emergency”. This quote from a recent GWPF newsletter, “Only last week, a declaration by more than 700 scientists and researchers was presented in the European Parliament, showing that global warming is happening, but is far more gradual and far less detrimental to the wellbeing of people and societies than activists have been claiming.” Further, few point out the many beneficial outcomes of more CO2 and warmer temperatures (i.e. increased plant growth and crop production, expanded habitats, less mortality from cold… overall, more of “life flourishing”).
Further, few point out the many beneficial outcomes of more atmospheric CO2 and warmer average temperatures (see, for example, Patrick Moore’s “Celebrating CO2” on Youtube).
Apocalyptic has always been a dangerous idea- “the most violent and destructive idea in history” (Arthur Mendel in Vision and Violence). The danger is that of populations being frightened into self-fulfilling prophesy outcomes. As Julian Simon warned, environmental alarmism creates fatalism and resignation in populations. Worse still, alarmed populations will embrace salvation schemes that involve the “coercive purging” of some threat to life that the apocalyptic prophets have advocated against (i.e. “save the world from the threat of CO2”). This has already led to outbreaks of the totalitarian impulse- i.e. projects to criminalize the skeptics of alarmist ideology (e.g. Obama’s AG, Loretta Lynch trying to criminalize skeptical science), and to silence contrary evidence (see the Climategate emails- https://principia-scientific.org/climate-science-proves-scams-dont-die-from-exposure/). These fear-driven projects have been a direct assault on freedom and democracy.
The most dangerous outcome yet of alarmism is the insane push to “decarbonise” societies and the economic collapse that this threatens.
It is an irrational ‘denial’ of good science to claim that CO2 is the dominant variable that influences climate change. CO2, making up 0.04% of the atmosphere, plays a small role but that tiny influence is repeatedly overwhelmed by other natural factors that influence climate change. See, for example, the role of the cosmic ray/sun/cloud interaction on climate in Henrik Svensmark’s ‘The Chilling Stars’. Point? You cannot coercively push public policies to “decarbonise” entire societies, and consequently threaten widespread economic collapse, based on the complex and still unsettled climate science that does not affirm your beliefs or ideology. The harmful outcomes of such policies- i.e. rising energy costs that impact the poorest people, increased death rates from fuel poverty- are already being felt in countries like Germany, England, and even the US (see Global Warming Policy Forum reports).
Declinism is just another Johnny-come-lately version of the same old, same old apocalyptic mythology, one of the earliest and most pathological of all human myths. The earliest versions were expressed in the Sumerian Flood myth, and Egyptian myths of The Destruction of Mankind and Return to Chaos. Zoroaster later embraced apocalyptic in his formal religion that shaped the subsequent Hebrew/Jewish, Christian, and Muslim versions of apocalyptic religion. Apocalyptic decline was also embraced by Hinduism (i.e. great historical cycles of rise and then decline toward disastrous ending) and Buddhism (i.e. the belief that the human life-span was decreasing over time- see Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas).
We- humanity- have had a hard time letting go of this pathology of apocalyptic, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It continues to dominate public story-telling in movies, TV, and literature.
This nihilistic idea of apocalyptic is based on the core theological pathology of God as ultimate punisher and destroyer. The latest fad versions of this retributive and apocalyptic deity myth include vengeful Gaia, angry Planet, pissed Mother Earth, retributive Universe, and payback karma. All versions of punitive, destroying Forces/deity at the core of reality and life. These later versions are part of the modern “secularization of primitive mythology” (i.e. giving ancient ideas/themes new “secular” or ideological expression) that has occurred over the past few centuries. Joseph Campbell was right that the same mythical ideas are repeated all across history and across all the cultures of the world.
I would argue that science by itself won’t correct the problem of Declinism. You also have to go to the root ideas in human meta-narratives and deal with the theological pathology at the core of our great belief systems/religious traditions if you want to thoroughly correct the problem of bad ideas that still dominate the wider public consciousness. This is necessary to fully and properly deal with the primal human impulse for meaning. And of course, science is also vital to the project of transforming public consciousness.
This site probes the root ideas behind things like apocalyptic Declinism and offers alternatives to affirm hope, alternatives that are based on our contemporary understanding of reality and life. Read the rest of the opening comment here