There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen. To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 8, 1816
My name is Aynsley, and I’m an apocaholic. A recovering one, I hope, but the appeal of the idea that an apocalypse is looming, and that the chosen few will survive in some unchanging utopia, has a deep cultural hold on most of us. In my own case, it was encouraged by some childhood exposure to the Book of Revelation, but then developed further after rejecting religion by the siren call of the neo-Malthusianism of the Club of Rome, and the usual adolescent flirtation with Marxism. Emphasising the softer 1844 manuscripts over Das Kapital, of course—this was the era of the New Left, after all.
Marx is generally considered to have been hostile to environmentalism because of his attack on Thomas Malthus and his Principle of Population, but Marx’s beef was that the social organisation of scarcity under capitalism meant that the axe of subsistence fell disproportionately upon the necks of the poor. I even wrote my first academic publication arguing that a Marxist environmentalism was possible. And I also engaged in some praxis, writing a feature on the Values Party, the world’s first neo-Malthusian political party, for the student newspaper at the University of Otago, Critic. Having thus helped establish the branch in Dunedin, I then stood as a candidate for it in the 1972 general election.
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But my academic studies began to break these naive tendencies down, and I began to understand the deeper cultural attraction of these three belief systems. The catalyst was the minor I took in Anthropology, which brought me into contact with millenarian movements, studying texts such as Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound. Millenarianism as a belief system incorporates a prophesied apocalypse which sweeps away the present order with all its hurt and imperfections and gives way to an unchanging utopia that lasts for a thousand years, meant to signify eternity.
There are numerous relatively benign Christian sects in the millenarian tradition, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and Plymouth Brethren, and some stranger and more dangerous offshoots (one might say “wackos”, to strike a bad pun) such as Branch Davidians. It is not exclusively a Christian phenomenon, being found also in Judaism and Buddhism, for example, but it often followed the introduction of Christian thought to societies that previously lacked a linear sense of history. Besides cargo cults in Papua New Guinea, the Taiping and Boxer rebellions in China are examples of millenarianism after Western (read Christian) contact.
The Reverend Thomas Malthus is perhaps the most influential apocalyptic thinker. In his 1798 paper “An Essay on the Principle of Population” he suggested that, while population increased geometrically, agricultural production could only be increased arithmetically, so starvation was the inevitable result. Malthus preached moral restraint as a preventive measure, of course, but he also represented scientific excellence, being a Fellow of the Royal Society. He did not take into account human ingenuity, such as the invention of the steam engine that revolutionised agricultural production and averted famine, which failed to dissuade alarmists such as Paul Ehrlich with The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome with its Limits to Growth from preaching essentially the same apocalyptic message, the latter aided by considerable computing power.
Neo-Malthusianism led to “Lifeboat Ethics”, where the prescription was that those unfortunate enough not to already be in the development “lifeboat” should be sacrificed lest they swamp the boat. Marx would have disapproved.
Millenarian movements often end badly. Jeffrey Herf described National Socialism as “reactionary modernism” in his 1984 book of that name, capturing both its enthusiasm for modern technology and its rejection of the Enlightenment and the values and institutions of liberal democracy. But it was also clearly millenarian, with its promise of a Thousand-Year Reich, and arising as it did from the social uncertainty of great social upheaval.
David Bryn, in his essay “The Victory of the Proletariat is Inevitable: The Millenarian Nature of Marxism”, shows how, despite his professed atheist beliefs, Marx was influenced by Christian scripture, especially the Book of Revelation. Marx’s metaphysics saw the world as a titanic struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that would end in the triumph of the righteous, “leading to future paradise when humanity returns to its pristine state”. While Marx claimed he used the science of dialectics to predict the course of humanity, Bryn argued Marx’s real source was Scripture, and that millenarianism was popular among German intellectuals in the nineteenth century.
From the same cultural milieu came concerns over “sustainability”, which has come recently to dominate environmental thought, especially since the Brundtland Report in 1987. Robert G. Lee has shown how this concept began with the idea of “sustained yield” in “scientific” forestry in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Lee noted that it came not just as a response to the decline in German forests, but as a response to the uncertainty and social instability which wracked Germany at that time (and which were responsible at least in part for the decline in German forests). It was an instrument of a strong state for ordering social and economic conditions which stood as a “necessary” counterweight to emergent laissez-faire capitalism.
The 1990s saw a steady stream of academic analyses of environmentalism in millenarian terms. For example, Lawrence Buell, in 1995, analysed “environmental apocalypticism”, while Jimmy Killingsworth and Jacqueline Palmer (in 1996) and Martha Lee (in 1997) described the millenarian aspects of the contemporary environment movement. Kathleen Stewart and Susan Harding (in 1999) saw environmental concerns as but one of a number of fin de siècle concerns:
During the 1990s, apocalypticism, and, somewhat less flamboyantly, its millennialist twin, have become a constant and unavoidable presence in everyday life. Idioms of risk, trauma, threat, catastrophe, conspiracy, victimization, surveillance; social, moral, and environmental degradation; recovery, redemption, the New Age, and the New World Order permeate the airways.
Aside from the appeal of the “end of the millennium” as a stimulus for general fin de siècle concerns (best exemplified by the Y2K bug), these critical analyses were assisted by a growing divergence between the environmental movement and environmental science. Ecological scientists speak of “climaxes, optima, balance, harmony, equilibria, and stability”, and Philip Stott noted that this belief has persisted despite cogent criticism of the idea of stability as the norm in ecology from about 1910. He argues that the language which depicts fire, drought, seasonality and cold as “ecological stresses” is possible only if we maintain a misplaced norm of stability.
Ecological science has largely left behind the stability meme, but it persists among environmentalists, encouraged by popularisers such as David Suzuki whose use of terminology such as “sacred balance” elevate it to quasi-religious status. Value-laden terms are to be found throughout ecological science. Matthew Chew and Manfred Laubichler, writing in Science, noted that the discipline has been replete with value-laden terms such as “alien”, “colonise”, “community”, “competition”, “contest”, “disturbance”, “efficiency”, “enemy”, “invasive”, “native”, “stability” and “territory”. The very word ecology emerged from the same context as Marxism and sustained yield, being termed by Ernst Haeckel in Germany in 1866. Haeckel espoused some rather unpleasant racist views that resonate with these words.
The meme of “Nature’s delicate balance” was overtaken in ecological science around 1990 by one based on change and perturbation, but this has not inhibited the environmental movement from claiming that everything from rainforests to coral reefs is on the cusp of some “tipping point” that will lead inevitably to collapse—thanks, naturally, to human actions.
Why, then, are there few recent analyses of environmentalism as apocalypticism?
If the use of the “stability then collapse” meme has diminished in ecological science, it is flourishing in climate science. The scientist who initially led the climate science panel for the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, shows apocalypticism is alive there. Deeply religious, raised by Baptist parents who attended a Plymouth Brethren church, Houghton warned in an interview published in the Sunday Telegraph in September 1995 that God may induce man to mend his ways with a disaster: “God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters. Human sin may be involved; the effect will be the same.” He added, “If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.” It is difficult to believe he did not bring this apocalyptic weltanschauung to his interpretation of the evidence of climate science, much of which was, to employ a pun on one of Karl Popper’s book titles, mostly conjecture with little refutation.
Popper, of course, set the standard for judging science on the falsifiability of its predictions—suggesting we should ascribe greater reliance on those predictions that have withstood repeated attempts at falsification. Climate change policy is based upon predictions (really “projections’) that have not fared too well thus far. Indeed, while they were the results of complex (and expensive) computer models, they have not performed as well as more simple calculations.
For example, in 1990 Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz provided an alternative to the IPCC computer-generated outlook of a warming of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees by 2100 in its First Assessment Report. They took the range of the temperature increase in the twentieth century as 0.3 to 0.6 degrees, and assumed that all this was due to a roughly 50 per cent increase in greenhouse gases from pre-industrial levels. They then assumed a further 50 per cent increase over pre-industrial levels over the next century and predicted an increase of 0.6 to 1.2 degrees, or a range of 0.8 to 1.2 degrees assuming a correction for a lag in warming not yet observed due to heat in the oceans. They then added a margin of 0.4 degrees either way to allow for natural climate variability, to give range of 0.4 to 1.8 degrees. So the upper limit of their prediction was 0.16 degrees per decade (1.8 degrees over eleven decades).
This estimate has proven far more accurate than those generated by any of the expensive computer models informing the IPCC over the almost thirty years since (thirty years being regarded as long enough to judge climate rather than weather). The latest data from satellite readings kept by UAH since 1979 (truly global in coverage, and not subjected to homogenisation) show that the linear warming trend since January 1979 is 0.13 degrees per decade (0.11 degrees per decade over the global-averaged oceans, and 0.18 degrees per decade over global-averaged land). In comparison, the projections from the Global Circulation Models have been little more accurate than the forecasts the ancient seers made using the entrails of chickens—though substantially more expensive.
What, then, are we to make of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion and the child activist Greta Thunberg, who have succeeded in convincing some local governments and even some national legislatures to declare that we are in the midst of a “climate emergency”?
By all indicators, this is false. Deaths from extreme weather events have declined in both absolute and population-adjusted terms over the past century. The most recent Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC (which I know from personal involvement is not shy at stating alarmism), could find no increase in extreme weather events over the previous thirty years. Global life expectancy and wealth have increased to previously unknown levels. And yet apocalypticism is rife. And it is not just climate science that is afflicted despite lacking a scientific basis.
“The Science” does not support such pessimism, but that does not matter to millenarians. Psychologist Leon Festinger termed the defensive psychology that explains away inconvenient truths “cognitive dissonance”. He developed (with colleagues) this concept initially in 1956 in an earlier study of the state of denial found in millenarian movements when their prophecies failed to materialise, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.
Festinger and his co-authors noted that, when confronted by disconfirming evidence of the forecast apocalypse, group members adhered to the looming apocalypse even more strongly and began proselytising with even greater fervour, rather than discarding their discredited beliefs. The dissonance between the forecast and the reality (of which the adherents were aware) had to be dealt with, and increased proselytising reduced their cognitive dissonance by generating the belief that others also accepted their beliefs.
Rationalisations and reinterpretations could explain away the failure of the forecast events to materialise, while the failure to occur could also be attributed to the success of the chosen believers in proselytising about it, and convincing others to engage in rightful conduct. When dissonance was present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person would avoid situations and information that would be likely to increase the dissonance. Dissonance reduction could be achieved by changing cognition, by changing actions, or by selectively acquiring new information or opinions.
It has not just been activists exhibiting such behaviour, but climate scientists avoiding debate with dissenters, and preventing disconfirming scientific information seeing the light of day in journals and IPCC reports. In one example in the Climategate emails Michael Mann promised, “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow—even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” And, of course, epithets such as “denier” (a deliberate attempt to liken dissenters to Holocaust deniers) and claims of corruption by fossil fuel interests are standard defence mechanisms.
The vigorous proselytising and claims of climate emergency by Extinction Rebellion should therefore be seen as indications that they are experiencing dissonance, precisely because there is a gulf between the more dire predictions and observational science. At least one of Extinction Rebellion’s founders is a Marxist, and so has some prior involvement with millenarian thought, and it should also come as no surprise that one of those in the background who helped facilitate the Greta Thunberg phenomenon is Anders Wijkman, vice-president of the Club of Rome.
It is now fifty years since the computer-generated apocalypticism of the Club of Rome, but its influence lingers on, making a reprise in the computer-generated doom of climate change, where computer scenarios of future emissions drive climate models, tuned in part to temperature readings from buckets of ocean water, taken as a proxy for air temperatures (and adjusted for the shift from canvas buckets to steel buckets). The results of those climate models then drive species-area models to predict mass species extermination.
At least we hear less these days of “peak oil”, now that the technological revolution of fracking to recover oil and gas from tight geological formations has made the US a net energy exporter. Concern over resource depletion ignores resource substitution, of course. As former Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani famously said in 1973, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” Nevertheless, the peak oil alarm has its believers, and also exhibits symptoms of millenarianism.
There are believers in this alarm in Australia, the most notable perhaps Dr Michael Lardelli.Described as a “peak oil” activist, Dr Lardelli is a geneticist at University of Adelaide, whose expertise is in the genetics of zebra fish. Internationally, the leading figure is perhaps Richard Heinberg, who holds an MA in Leadership and who taught at the New College of California (NCC), a small San Francisco liberal arts college founded in 1971.
Operations at NCC mostly ceased as of January 2008. The college somewhat foolishly launched a three-year master’s program called Activism and Social Change in 2003, and by 2007, the newly trained protesters set out to help topple the university administration. Student evaluations gave NCC an overall rating of D(2), but that was inflated by the A– students awarded it for being in San Francisco. Remarkably, 0 per cent of students stated they would choose to return to NCC, whereas 100 per cent would not.
But if Heinberg’s apparent lack of qualifications to declaim on peak oil were not enough, his millenarian beliefs are stunning. Before he wrote his peak oil jeremiads (The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World), Heinberg expressed his desire for a cleansing apocalypse that would allow a return to a lost golden (and more primitive) age in: Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989), Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony (1993) and A New Covenant with Nature: Notes on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of Culture (1996). He developed a New Age myth of creation and “die off” resulting in a world of sustainable villages and tribes, long before he heard of peak oil. He simply co-opted this and modified his myth to peak oil.
The ABC’s Lateline Business interviewed Heinberg in May 2008, with host Tony Jones introducing him as “one of the world’s leading experts on the phenomenon of peak oil”. Heinberg predicted that “we could, in fact, see prices considerably above $200 a barrel within the next two or three years”. In fact, prices dropped and are now around half what they were when Heinberg spoke (in both real and nominal terms).
Heinberg opposes policies to remedy global warming because, reminiscent of Sir John Houghton, he sees catastrophe as the only way to force people to live sustainably. In his Closing Address to the First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions in 2004 he stated:
I don’t think collapse, in this instance, would necessarily be such a bad thing. As [anthropologist Joseph] Tainter points out, collapse really just means a return to the normal pattern of human life—life, that is, in tribes or villages … Perhaps peak oil at last provides the word “sustainability” with teeth … However, at this point in history, as industrial civilization crumbles, lifeboats are needed—survivable local communities capable of weathering the storms of war, ecological collapse, and economic calamity.
Heinberg relishes the prospect of “The Die-off”, or what others call “The Pruning”, “The Purification”, or “The Cleansing”. In about as pure a millenarian statement as one is likely to encounter, he stated, “The traumas of industrial civilization’s collapse are in the past; that’s history now. It’s a new day.”
California, and particularly the San Francisco region, seems to attract enthusiasts for apocalypse. Steven Gelber and Martin Cook’s Saving the Earth: The History of a Middle-Class Millenarian Movement (1990) covers a group based at Stanford University that seems to have specialised in changing its name—from National Service to National Voluntary Service, to National Initiative and to Creative Initiative Foundation when Gelber and Cook studied it. It was later Beyond War and Foundation for Global Community. It sold its assets in 2006 and gave all its funds to a range of groups focused on sustainability and peace. Unsurprisingly, Stanford lepidopterist and apocalyptic Paul Ehrlich was among those it invited to present lectures.
Millenarian movements can be powerful in seizing whole societies, but they rarely end well. Hitler’s National Socialism is, perhaps, the most notable example. It embodied public health and environmental policies, including campaigns against smoking, that were extremely progressive for their time. As Robert Proctor points out in his wonderful book The Nazi War on Cancer (1980), Herman Goering enforced anti-vivisection laws, and there was an organic garden at Dachau. All millenarian environmentalists are ultimately forced to choose between “eco-fascism” and a more humane, socialist ecocentrism, and most have chosen the latter—most notably Die Grünen, who had to weed out neo-Nazi elements at an early stage.
This is not to say that reaching the “sustainable” utopia necessarily entails darker strands of thought, but it is necessary that the concept should not be regarded as something to be pursued without critical reflection, as many businesses, government agencies and even universities have done. It is also necessary to note that it is not something that “The Science” requires us to do. Demands that we follow the dictates of “The Science” are usually best regarded as attempts by scientists to usurp power, and it is worth noting that, rather than ecological science speaking truth to power, society does quite a bit of dictating to ecological science. As noted above, ecological science is infused with value-laden terms, and especially worth noting is that ecological science and climate science have the notion of “tipping points”, usually invoked on the basis of speculative computer models rather than on actual science (although model results are increasingly counted as “evidence” by some). A “tipping point” presages collapse and doom, never a brighter future.
It seems we have become more tolerant of apocalypticism, if not somewhat addicted to it. Apocaholics abound. In the recent demonstrations drawing attention to the supposed “climate emergency”, one protester carried a sign reading, “The End of the World is Nigh”. There was no hint of irony in this or of any awareness of historical perspective, that such signs were the stock of cartoonists everywhere, usually carried by a bearded old man.
Peak oil alarm might have peaked, but we seem to be at peak stupid. Academics in the UK recently demanded “a series of new programs, fellowships, sabbaticals and voluntary placements to help the critical efforts needed to save all life on our planet”. Others have demanded (in a letter to the journal Science no less) that climate scientists should be “allowed to cry” to help deal with the “grief” of documenting environmental decline—not the continuing deaths of mostly women and children from indoor air pollution or those dying through lack of decent drinking water and sanitation, but the supposed mass extinction and climate change. They pleaded, “To understand and find solutions for our increasingly damaged natural ecosystems, environmental scientists must be allowed to cry and be supported as they move forward.”
This is beyond parody. Predictably, they cited a paper co-authored by Paul Ehrlich as the evidence for this extinction crisis. It is worth noting that this too is based upon mathematical models (the species-area model) because the World Conservation Union estimated in 2006 that there had been only “more than 800” plant and animal extinctions since 1500 when accurate historical and scientific records began. There is no empirical evidence to support a claimed “mass extinction” and few grounds for believing that such a thing will occur in the near future (outside computer models employing the species-area model, driven by modelled habitat changes in response to modelled climate projections, driven by emissions scenarios). Again, the entrails of chickens would be less complicated and less costly.
Despite the scientism that lies behind it, little has changed over two centuries in the apocalypticism that we witness today. As then, it arises out of rapid social and cultural change coupled with the appeal of a worldview that presents itself as coherent and is laden with drama and urgency. We can take some comfort from the fact that the panicked pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion signal a desperation that they know their forecasts of doom are under empirical challenge.
We could do no better in the face of these apocaholics than to note the response of Thomas Babington Macaulay to Thomas Malthus in 1830:
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason … On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
Apocalypticism, sadly, is more addictive than optimism.
Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Tasmania. He is the author of Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science and Negotiating Climate Change. He was an Expert Reviewer on risk for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report and a member of the Joint Academies Committee on Sustainability.