When I was living in the Soviet Union I did not believe the state’s newspapers when they told me Americans were thirsting to conquer the USSR. I did not believe Khrushchev when he said it was the Americans who triggered the Cuban missile crisis. No, I thought, if they are telling me the Americans are to blame then it must have been the Kremlin’s doing because lies were our leaders’ stock in trade. I did not believe Pravda when it said the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich was a legitimate blow against the oppressors of Palestine, which I knew didn’t exist. I did not believe them when I was told Israeli commandos who rescued the Entebbe hostages were instruments of a Zionist plot to take over the world. Most of all I did not believe that the Western proletariat was groaning in poverty beneath the chains of capitalist bloodsuckers, whereas the Soviet workers lived and worked in freedom and prosperity. That one was a no-brainer. I could look out the window and see it wasn’t true.
The commissars of approved thought were such clumsy liars I did not believe them, even when their claims might indeed have been true. The reason was simple: they were way overdrawn on credibility and I was not going to advance them any more of my trust.
Then I came to the West and found more lies, but of a different sort. I was told civilization would end soon, that it would be destroyed by DDT, by resources exhaustion and famine, by global cooling or global warming (depending on which way the research grants were blowing). If those perils were not enough, well there was always the Y2k bug to knock planes out of the sky, Ebola to make my eyes bleed, swine flu, bird flu, the imminent extinctions of bees and frogs … the list of threats never stops growing, in case you haven’t noticed.
I was busy building a new life for myself and my family in Australia and didn’t follow the purported experts’ debates about how much time we had left before all the food and oil was gone and the world population could no longer be sustained. According to the Club of Rome it was just a question of time, but my anxieties were banished by delicious apples and oranges and all the other foods of which there was no sign of shortage. We were told that humanity was on the road to ruin unless we all agreed to be a bit less picky about preserving our freedoms — freedoms, for example, like the right to decide with my wife how many children we would have, rather than allow the state to set the number for us and for our own good, as they were doing in China. I’d grown up in the Soviet Union, remember, and was therefore an expert in recognising lies.
While the prophets of doom told their fanciful tales to gullible reporters, I thought instead of how the public can be led to believe pretty much anything if enough effort is being put into the marketing of the idea. The food, oil and coal scares still flare up from time to time but have mostly fizzled out, leaving behind no trace of substance other than the buzz word “sustainable”. But what does it mean? Different things, apparently, to different people. South Australia’s leaders think it means embracing “renewables” and plunging the state into blackouts and penury, pursuing that policy even as the economic base wilts beneath the weight of factory closures and electricity that is just too expensive to use.
In 1975, a nine-paragraph squib of a story beneath the byline of a man called Peter Gwynne, then the science editor of Newsweek, started a new scare — global cooling. The story was not a long-lived, but it was enough to capture the public’s imagination. Then the fearful spectre switched to global warming, which has been paying its leading advocates’ mortages ever since. Cooling or warming, I wasn’t worried, not at all. My early Soviet training in spotting lies and scare campaigns once again stood me in good stead. I happily ignored all the anguished cries of impending perdition, not believing a word of it.
These days, I’m still finding catastrophic chimeras to dismiss. I don’t spare a thought for the “sinking” islands of the Pacific, for example, because they aren’t sinking. Let Age readers and ABC aficionados fret about that; like my former Soviet fellow citizens, they need something to fear in order to feel simultaneously virtuous, put-upon and, well, emotionally complete. Each to his own, I guess.
Does this little story have a moral? Well, there is my observation that G_d must love suckers because he made so many of them. Let them continue to enjoy the perverse pleasure they take in dark prognostications, which actually does the rest of us a favour: while they focus on the confected threat du jour, they are not causing trouble on other fronts. Take away their climate-change obsession and they will soon be saying the world will end unless the consumption of sugar, alcohol, red meat or whatever is limited by government decree.
But an observation is not a moral in and of itself. So, if there is a moral to my ramble, let me state it thus: yes, it’s sad that so many simpletons heed the warnings of those with deep financial interests in filling their heads with terrifying nonsense, but it is even more sad that those accomplished manipulators of the public mind are mostly funded by the taxes of the very same people they mislead.
Without begrudging the credulous the perverse joy of their perpetual pessimism, let us also call on our elected representatives to make the fearful fund their own alarums. Meanwhile, enjoy life and rejoice in the next big meal — the same big meal the alarmists of a several scares ago insisted would soon be no more.
Michael Galak came to Australia with his family from the Soviet Union.