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October 12th 2009 print

Merv Bendle

The wisdom of skepticism

Why should the people of the world, whose lives will be utterly transformed by the draconian actions proposed by the global warming fanatics, meekly accept their fate?

Eco-apocalypticism: global warming & the historical case for skepticism 

The accelerating moral panic about alleged global warming and its projected catastrophic effects is a fundamentally religious phenomenon. Despite its pretensions, it is not primarily about science. Rather, it represents the emergence of a new religious movement (an NRM, or what used to be called a ‘cult’). This new form of eco-fundamentalism is characterized by a widely excessive faith in science, a hatred and despair at Humanity, an intolerance of opposition or even skepticism, and a near hysterical form of secular Apocalypticism.

Apocalypticism is the dogmatically held belief that the world and/or all human civilization will shortly come to a catastrophic end. Apocalypticism was initially a religious phenomenon and has had a firm grip on the culture of the West for some 2500 years, reaching fever-pitch on many occasions, including in the 20th century, which was one of the most Apocalyptically-obsessed periods in history. Moreover, it was in that century that Apocalypticism took on a secular guise, “evoking world destruction and transformation through ecological disaster … and technological breakdown”, with both religious and secular versions “converging upon the belief that the accepted texture of reality is about to undergo a staggering transformation, in which long-established institutions and ways of life will be destroyed” (Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, 1992, p.336).

The reality of Apocalypticism as a major cultural force throughout history should make all sensible people pause and carefully examine any suggestions that the world is facing extinction or a cataclysmic global upheaval. At the very least they should be skeptical. However, such reflection and skepticism is difficult or even dangerous, because intolerance of all dissent and doubt is a core characteristic of Apocalyptic systems of thought, and Apocalypticists are always eager to punish those who question their prophesies. This is particularly the case with global warming fanatics (for that is what they are, if they are not simply political, academic, or corporate opportunists).

The religious nature of global warming hysteria becomes immediately obvious once research is undertaken into the history of similar NRMs and the many apocalyptic panics they have spawned over the past two millennia. And it is largely for this reason that the proponents of global warming insist that only ‘scientific’ contributions can be permitted and that any discussion that is allowed about their claims must take place within the very tightly regulated constraints of a highly specialized scientific field they themselves define and zealously control.

Such fanatics know that once debate escapes these arbitrary constraints and their claims and prognostications are placed in an historical context the public will suspect that what they are confronted with are not the objective findings of disinterested scientific inquiry, but rather an eco-apocalyptic jeremiad, and that this is directed not primarily at ‘safe-guarding’ the environment, but at effectively shutting down modern technological civilization.

With an appropriate historical perspective the public would recognize the close ideological affinity between the prognostications of the global warming fanatics and such eco-extremists as the Deep Ecology movement, which advocates a 90% decrease in the human population of the world; and The Earth Liberation Front and Earth First! eco-terrorist organizations, which both advocate economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare in a fight to the death with modern society.

We could attend carefully to the elitist machinations of the Club of Rome, including its declaration that:

Humans need a common motivation … either a real one or else one invented for the purpose. … In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill. All these dangers are caused by human intervention [so] the real enemy then, is humanity itself. (Alexander King & Bertrand Schneider. The First Global Revolution, 1993. p. 115.)

We would also see exposed the links of the global warming agenda to the world-wide Gaia Movement, which is a New Age cult named after the Greek goddess of the earth, and dedicated to the theories of the radical environmentalist James Lovelock, whose ‘Gaia theory’, posits that the earth is a superorganism, indeed, ‘the largest known living creature’, with its own nervous system, which demands reverence and severely punishes (indeed, makes extinct) those species that threaten its survival, i.e., humanity.

We could reflect upon the popular hysteria and moral panics that surrounded such best-selling books as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) which insisted that the ‘population explosion’ would lead to hundreds of millions of people starving to death in the 1970s and 1980s; Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which predicted Armageddon would happen in the 1980s, bringing global destruction; Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle; Nature, Man, and Technology (1971), which blamed capitalism for impending environmental catastrophe and insisted that only global eco-socialism could save the world; Lefton S Stavrianos’s The Promise of the Coming Dark Age (1976), which suggested that environmental stability required the onset of a new ‘dark age’ to sweep away the destructive elements of modern society; and Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982) which depicted the annihilation of most life on earth in a nuclear war, leaving only “a republic of insects and grass”.

We could recall also the 1987 on-air declaration of Oprah Winfrey that “research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years – believe me!” (Simon Pearson, The End of the World: From Revelation to Eco-Disaster, 2006, p.276). And of course we could remember the Y2K computer scare, with predictions that aircraft would drop out of the sky and society generally seize up at a tick past midnight on New Years Eve, 1999.  

We could also better understand the massive success of recent best-selling novels like the 16 volume Left Behind (1995-2007) series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, which depicts the end of the world from a Christian Dispensationalist perspective; and, of course, even the plot of the Harry Potter series is based on a non-Christian form of Apocalypticism. Also, we could comprehend the delirious reception of Alan Weisman’s non-fiction celebration of The World Without Us (2007), which depicts in excruciating detail what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared. As The Guardian’s review (3/5/2008) exalted, people “learn during the course of this book, to feel good about the disappearance of humanity from the Earth ". We could try to explain why such intellectuals, enjoying the highest standards of living in history, nevertheless think that “there is something about a description of our own extinction that pulls at the heart”, and muse about “what is it that is so seductive about the idea of complete human extermination?”

The seductive and massively influential power of Apocalypticism in Western history has been made clear by many recent studies of the phenomenon. Consequently, if the present rigidly one-sided global warming imbroglio were to be transformed into a genuine debate and properly broadened out, it would involve close study and reflection upon this scholarship. This would involve such works as Frederic J Baumgartner’s Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (1999); Eugen Weber’s Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages (1999); David S Katz and Richard H Popkin’s Messianic Revolution (1998); Richard Abanes’ End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon (1998); Thomas Robbins and Susan J Palmer (eds.) Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements (1997) ; and Jonathon Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World (2006).  Such books are just the tip of a mountain of research that has explored the major role played by Apocalypticism throughout history and the emergence of eco-apocalypticism in the 20th century.

Given that we know a great deal about traditional Apocalypticism and the emerging eco-apocalypticism, how is it possible that the clearly apocalyptic claims of the global warming lobby have been declared ‘off limits’ to comprehensive historical and critical analysis? Why should the people of the world, whose lives will be utterly transformed by the draconian actions proposed by the global warming fanatics, meekly accept their fate? Why should global warming dogma be treated as a sacrosanct and incontrovertible ‘science’ that stands outside history and culture, and is beyond question? Who or what grants it such status?

In fact, the global warming lobby grants this status to itself and it precisely this self-elevation of its ‘science’ and its agenda for massive global social change to the status of a sacred Truth that betrays the fundamentally cultish nature of this new eco-apocalypticism that seeks to remake the world. It is well past time it was knocked off its perch, and hopefully Australia has some politicians with the courage to do the job.

Mervyn F. Bendle  is a senior lecturer in History & Communications at James Cook University