The the-End-is-Nigh Genre

by | Jan 13, 2012

In a moment of boredom, I watched a few minutes of this Channel 4 documentary on the Mayan prophecy that the world will end this year.

Prophecies of doom and destruction crop up in all cultures and at all times throughout history, with dire predictions about the end of the world, and even the end of time itself.

But one prophecy stands out from the rest and seems to be gaining more and more credibility: a belief that cataclysmic or transformative events would occur in 2012, pinpointed thousands of years ago in Central America by the Maya.

Film-maker Paul Murton explores what has become known as the ‘2012 phenomenon’, travelling to the United States and the rainforests of Guatemala to find out if there is a future after all.

It’s pretty silly stuff. But a couple of interesting things emerged. First, it turns out that the descendent of the Mayans aren’t all that bothered about the prediction, and the end-of-the-world phenomenon seems to be much more located in the West. Second, a woman who runs a company specialising in providing equipment and training necessary to survive the coming apocalypse said that she didn’t want to sound like a religious fundamentalist.

Of course not, she just wanted to make some money. She was referring of course to the ‘End Time’ and ‘Rapture’ movements, in which the Earth will be cleansed of all the nasty people, etc. Unless they’ve bought survival bunkers, of course.

War and conflict was pretty high up on the list of things being discussed. Apparently, war is a sign that The End is upon us. But according to this book (which I’ve just added to my optimists-vs-pessimist-reading list),

the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.

I’m not sure about the cog-sci approach to these questions, but I’m looking forward to reading the book, nonetheless. What needs explaining, then, if Pinker is right that the world is a less violent place than it has been, is why does everybody think it’s all going to hell in a handcart?

The other theme of the Channel 4 documentary was, inevitably, ecological catastrophe. The film itself is unremarkable for its comments. It merely demonstrates the ubiquity of doom in today’s culture. It’s funny how secular liberals have developed their own Rapture movement. I came across a series of online films that reflect precisely that tendency. According to the Youtube channel,

Peak Moment is a biweekly series about resilient, locally reliant living for these challenging times. Programs feature host Janaia Donaldson’s conversations and tours with guests responding to accelerating energy and resource decline, climate chaos, and economic uncertainty.

You can find out what to eat, it seems…

And how to get around town…

And find out how big a house you deserve…

You see, doom has become the measure of all things for some people. It informs their choices about their lives, jobs, relationships, children… Everything. It’s all answered by the doctrine of doom.

I don’t think the claims made by Janaia Donaldson and her associates are worth debunking. They are as absurd as they are unpopular. Few are going to be convinced in the mainstream. There are some fairly extreme cases of environmentalism, but they’re generally completely alienated, rather than influential. What is interesting, however, is to see just how internalised the idea of doom has become for some people — how central it is to their outlook.

Back to the Mayans. If they really were so good at telling the future, it wouldn’t be 2012 they were worried about.


  1. Anteros

    Interesting post.
    I tend to see the same thing – the internalisation of doom. I have an irritating habit with my friends (who are almost all middle class and employed) of responding to their ‘dooming’ about the economy [or anything, actually] by reminding them that ‘if the recession continues for another couple of years, we’ll all be only three times as rich as our grandparents’

    On a vaguely similar note, there was a discussion on another blog – collide-a-scape, I think – about how people of 500 years ago would view our world. There were all the sensible ideas, and then the thought [which I’ll claim] that the people would be utterly amazed to see the riches, the health, the food, the choices, the freedom, and yet still see people distraught by the ‘way we’re heading’ or the number of polar bears or the fact that [according to Michael ‘Doomer’ Tobis] “biomes are struggling everywhere. I assume the people would see the doomers as having some terrible mental disease.

    Which, in fact they might indeed have.

    In response to your question following thoughts on Pinker’s new book. I remember reading “The progress paradox: how life gets better while people feel worse. by Gregg Easterbrook. Sadly, I don’t remember being too impressed, although the title promised much….

  2. Black Briton

    I have just bought this book with the hope that it is good enough reduce my brother and sister’s pessimism: If it’s not the climate, the it’s the economy or the Russians or the BNP or something else… but always something!

  3. Chris T

    It’s not even a Mayan prophecy; it’s just the end of the current Long Count cycle. Since (for them) it was several centuries into the future, they didn’t bother going any further.

    In short, lots of people are idiots.

  4. Garry

    Thanks for posting The Vegetarian Myth video above. However, it’s an odd one in your Doomer lineup because the interviewee Lierre Keith is actually the nutritional equivalent of a climate skeptic. Her point of view – one which I wholeheartedly agree with and embrace – is that vegetarianism is a blight on human health and the state of global nutrition. There is ample and mounting evidence that 20th-century nutritional dogma (e.g., the “Food Pyramid,” “Vegetarianism is noble,” high fructose corn syrup) is in fact the cause of the Western diseases of obesity, diabetes, and stroke. There is a lively and active crop of serious blogs about these matters, and more and more credible literature about how to solve them (at least on an individual dietary basis). Lierre Keith seems to a bit on the edge of that growing nutritional skeptic community because she promotes and advocates social actions which might be more familiar to leftists than to others, who simply want to solve nutritional and health problems. In any case I don’t consider her to be an hysterical Doomer of the kind that we normally see on the left.

  5. Mooloo

    You should read Pinker. The fact that violence is falling is old news, and nothing of any surprise to anyone who has read any substantial ancient and medieval history (except, I suppose, those that read history teologically or theologically).

    His argument that genocide is not a new feature of human life is much more interesting – and certain to enrage a substantial number of people.

    Much more interesting is his discussion of how people come to believe in doomsday scenarios and are motivated to act against their individual best interests in favour of Utopian beliefs. He quite rightly points out is the believers of this world who have killed by the millions, not the sceptics.

  6. Peter S

    When someone makes a claim that the End-of-the-World-is-Nigh, it’s useful to note that there are two objects involved in her project.

    Here, the first is the ‘climate’… which is contained within – and is the focal point of – the claimant’s fantasy. The second is the fantasy itself… which is contained within – and is the focal point of – the claimant.

    The notable ambivalence the person has towards the prospect of an ‘ending’ suggests a confusion of the two objects which preoccupy her.

    If an excess of climate results in the loss of a usable planet, an excess of fantasy may result in the loss of a usable mind. Like runaway warming – runaway daydreaming becomes an incontinence which is both scary and debilitating (it may lead to a person living in a shed, eating rabbit food and restricting her own mobility, for example).

    If the person’s demand is for an ending to the excess in order to Save-the-World, it may be worth asking which world she is trying to save – her outer one, or her inner?

  7. Alex Cull

    The Lierre Keith interview is fascinating, and I would tend to agree with Garry that strictly from the point of view of nutrition, the varied “paleolithic” diet she endorses is more sensible than veganism (although not without controversy itself.)

    What strikes me, though, is the fact that she might have switched from vegan to paleo but her core mindset does not appear to have changed. It’s like someone who has always been convinced deep down that humans are sinful and God is the answer, but has transitioned from Christianity to Islam, or vice-versa, with that core conviction remaining.

    She became a vegan at 16:

    I was someone who, even at that age, was impassioned about, you know, saving the planet, and all these political concerns about oppression. It all comes together when you learn about veganism, because you can stop oppressing animals and stop polluting the Earth, and you can feed hungry people, and there’s this whole – it makes a total picture. You get this complete plan, if you just eat this way.

    But then she became convinced that veganism was not the answer, and wrote her book The Vegetarian Myth.

    We’re at the cliff. The human race is at the cliff. And that’s probably the main reason that I wrote that book, because the people who care the most are the environmentalists. And even of them, I would say that the most impassioned people are probably the vegans. And the values are not the problem – so justice, sustainability, compassion. We have the right values, and we’ve got the passion to institute them. But this vegetarian, vegan diet is – we’ve been pointing in the wrong direction for 30 years. And I want people to understand the real damage that’s been done to this planet, and what it’s going to take to really repair it. Because we are going to have to give up agriculture if this planet has any hope.

    So the planet still needs saving. However, the answer then was to eat vegan food and the answer now is to give up agriculture.

    In 2010 Lierre Keith was speaking at a San Francisco book fair, when three masked people ran up to her and hurled cream pies into her face, presumably “impassioned” vegans protesting at her advocacy of meat-eating. An echo of the 2001 Lynas/Lomborg encounter, perhaps, but this was nastier – the pies were laced with cayenne pepper. What I think that incident highlights is the darker side of some of those who preach “justice, sustainability, compassion” – and also the dangers of apostasy.

  8. Lewis Deane

    Sometimes I feel, if only the world was as dangerous and violent and unsafe as heretofore! So tame! But only in that insouscience could we indulge in the anxieties we do! An old story – only the rich need psychiatrists because only the rich can afford their neuroses!

  9. Mooloo

    because the people who care the most are the environmentalists and We have the right values

    They really are full of themselves aren’t they?

    Have they never opened a history book and seen the results of people who are convinced of their own probity and the wickedness of others?

  10. geoffchambers

    Reading Alex’s transcript of the Lierre Keith interview (I just can’t face watching the original) convinces me that PeterS is right, and that the only sensible approach to these people is via psychiatry. But Mooloo is clearly right about their ignorance of history (and more widely, their sheer ignorance about thier fellow-human beings) and Lewis Deane is right about their amazing cognitive dissonance with respect to the dangerousness of the modern world, and Anteros is right about the economics, and ….
    The question becomes, how did it happen that these people were ever taken seriously? I’ve dabbled with batty fringe ideas in my time, but I knew they were fringe ideas, and was happy to drop them when the fringe was clearly seen to be unravelling. I wonder how I would have felt if the government had passed laws, based on UN and EU directives, decreeing that major policy decisions should be based on Amerindian lifestyles, or the principles of anarchism or Zen Buddhism?

  11. Anteros

    Peter S –

    A very engaging thought.

    Lewis Deane – I have two copies of a book called ‘The Complete Plain Words’. You are welcome to one of them. Otherwise, like I do for the catastrophological doomians I study in Armaggedonology, I suggest some psychiatry.

    Though just writing less bollocks would be cheaper.

  12. Lewis Deane

    Not to make ‘historical’ causation an ‘occult’ and tautological explanation! Far from it – a shorthand for not spelling out my own version of ‘history’! But, let us say, I don’t think a previous attempt, that this was all down to ‘European Nihilism’, can be adequate. This, a subject I thought longest and hardest about, and, in the end, I’m lost as to an explanation, as you are or seem to be, Geoff. But I think the clue is somewhere in our, post 400 AD, self destructive selves. O well!
    What, Anteros, I don’t understand? What did I say that you, obviously, misunderstood? My ‘irony’ escapes poeple, probably.
    Probably you thought I said “Geoff doesn’t think” when, in fact, I said “Geoff doesn’t forget to think” unlike my ‘rhetoric’ tried to assume? Or what?
    Anteros, I’ll lend you ‘The Complete Plain Words’ so that, maybe, it will teach you to read before writing! After all, the etiquette of ‘Prose and Poems’ is who I am! Thanks for spoiling my day!
    Chalk on the pavement
    Water is a sore destroyer
    Whatever trace people leave
    The city will illuminate
    The very same world
    Even on the last day
    The pavement will be laid
    Sorrow or joy do not counter
    What is permanent
    This the same rain
    That rained before

    Choose merely now, then,
    Forget our yesterday,
    The darling face, the nay
    Against belief, remember
    The street must return
    Shouts that defy or plead
    And you, before you sleep,
    Must try to make room
    For tomorrow
    By listening to this rain,

  13. Robert of Ottawa

    Being a student of humanity, there appears to be three views of humanity covered by this post:

    1: Humanity is bad because we lived in an envirotopia (Eden) and discovered FIRE, and then we lost longevity and innocence.
    2: Humanity is bad but can be saved by the “Messiah”
    3: Humanity is bad but can be improved and perfected by governmental control of peoples’ lives.

    We have here three classic philosphies:

    1: Biblical Adam & Eve.
    2. Youthful idealism
    3. Platonic guardianship

    How about the fourth possibility, that things are getting better !!! I know, an unusual argument … but suppose it be true…

  14. Anteros

    Robert –

    But surely things can’t be getting better because humanity is evil, selfish, wasteful and stupid. And we know for sure that humanity is all those things…….er……. because if you squint really hard you can see that things are, sort of ‘much worse’. I mean things like all the biomes ‘really struggling’ and species being ‘stressed’ and fragile ecosystems being ‘damaged’…..

    The fact that we can get 1300% more ridiculously nutritious food for an hours labour than we could do 150 years ago [if we’re so inclined] indubitably proves, somehow, that we’re heading for a fall – for our greediness?

    Amidst the pseudo Nietzschian “I am so this, that and the a-hole”, Lewis Deane does refer to something pertinent – the fact that the absence of daily struggles is not a unsullied blessing. The Chinese proverb has it – “When no food on the table, only one problem; when food on the table, many problems”.

    I don’t know whether we particularly live in an age of superstition of whether something changed in the Western psyche when the wall came down in ’89 [the precise start of the AGW belief system] but it does seem to be true that in times of struggle people concern themselves with the needs of today, and when there is widespread peace and prosperity [like now, whatever the newcasts say] we peer into the dark of the future, let our imaginations run wild, and end up running around like headless chickens shouting “Catastrophe is upon us! We’re doomed!”.

  15. Alex Cull

    Thanks to Ben, I’ve now become addicted to Peak Moments – they’re fascinating windows into the minds of people who live in a dimension very similar to (but not quite coincidental with) this one. In addition to the renegade vegan, the “undriving” enthusiasts and the lady who lives in a wooden box, there’s the psychologist who hoarded salad dressing when she heard about Peak Oil, the historian who is dedicated to the “sacred demise” of industrial civilisation, and the people who compost their own “humanure”. All 215 (!) videos can be found here:

    @Robert of Ottawa, @Anteros and re things getting better, there’s a thread running through most (maybe all) of the Peak Moments interviews, that the world is on the cusp of great destruction/transformation. Evangelical Christians would call something like this the “Great Tribulation”, I think. Those who have actively prepared for this time, i.e., who are engaging in permaculture, community vegetable gardens and so forth, will emerge relatively unscathed but the rest of us will be the “left behind” folks, exposed to all the hardships, resource wars and the usual Armageddon type events, that are just around the corner (presumably until those of us still left alive repent, start our own organic gardens and are thus redeemed.)

    Here’s an interview, for instance, with the publisher and editor of YES! Magazine, who believe that we are now suddenly “living in a transformational time”, where “things change rapidly” (as if the last 100 years was some sort of rather dull, uneventful epoch where nothing much of note happened), and here we have some good examples of the world-on-the-cusp-of-great-destruction/transformation thinking, where the emerging and residual bad stuff (corporations, hydro-fracking, consumerism, Wal-Mart) is balanced against the emerging good stuff (urban fish farms, localism, positive psychology, “no impact” living).

    The fact that there are people in the world now being fed who would have starved in previous centuries, and people surviving natural calamities now who would have been wiped from the map in pre-industrial times, does not feature in their world view.

    Among the Peak Moment people, I would argue that there is a vision of things getting better, but only along certain paths, and when certain specific philosophies and practices are espoused and others are rejected. There is a clear demarcation in their minds between what will be redemptive and what will not. A good summary, I think, of what this vision might (and might not) include is here:

    This may be a little unkind, but the majority of people, in the videos I’ve seen so far, appear to be predominantly white, middle-class folks of a certain age, who have grown up with certain expectations and are now starting to grapple with changes in their own lives that seem to be mirrored in outside events – economic crises, the climate scare, peak whatever and so on. It’s as if they have begun to discover (or re-discover?) for themselves the post-war counterculture and the Age of Aquarius.

  16. Alex Cull

    @Geoff: “I wonder how I would have felt if the government had passed laws, based on UN and EU directives, decreeing that major policy decisions should be based on Amerindian lifestyles, or the principles of anarchism or Zen Buddhism?”

    In fact this kind of decree actually happened in Bolivia, and as a consequence, Aymara/Quechua religious beliefs could have become part of an international agreement last month at Durban. The draft text of the UNFCCC’s “Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action Under the Convention” at COP17 mentions, for example, something called “The recognition and defence of the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony between humanity and nature” (you will probably recall this was lampooned by Lord Monckton, in his inimitable manner, at the time.)

    Where did this come from? It originated from something called the the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth:

    The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, had of course as its name says, as one of its main objectives, the implementation of the Rights of Mother Earth. The conference itself prepared a proposal for the Universal Declaration, and the issue was talked about in the General Assembly of the UN. Still there is a long long way to go before the world will recognise and respect the Rights of Mother Earth, as well as Harmony with Nature.

    Mother Earth’s Rights are disrespected in uncountable ways, but the damage climate Change is doing is probable the major expression of the need for this Universal Declaration. Therefore, within the UNFCCC, Bolivia has been calling for the defence of the Rights of Mother Earth:

    74. Ensure respect for the intrinsic laws of nature.
    75. The recognition and defence of the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony between humanity and nature, and that their will be no commodification of the functions of nature, therefore no carbon market will be developed with that purpose.

    Where, when and how did the PWCCC (or shouldn’t that be WPCCC?) occur? From the Wiki article, readers might be forgiven for assuming this to have been some sort of spontaneous global gathering of like-minded people, but somehow I don’t think it would have happened without the presence of Evo Morales:'s_Conference_on_Climate_Change

    The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was a global gathering of civil society and governments hosted by the government of Bolivia in Tiquipaya, just outside the city of Cochabamba from April 19-22, 2010. The event was attended by around 30,000 people from over 100 countries, and the proceedings were transmitted live online by OneClimate and the Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA)

    But where in this PWCCC event did the line about Mother Earth come from? I think it would have originated from Working Group 7 (Indigenous Peoples) at the conference:

    To confront climate change, humanity must reconnect with its origins. There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous peoples throughout the world, distributed in perhaps 5,000 communities scattered across more than 70 countries, all of which have maintained different ways of life in harmony with nature.

    The only way we can contribute to the future of humanity and our planet is through recuperating our origins, strengthening our cultural practices and our forms of collective organization for the sustainable use and management of natural resources, guaranteeing the rights of Indigenous peoples, and promoting traditional knowledge and notions about living in harmony with Mother Earth.

    And who were the members of Working Group 7? I haven’t had much success tracking them down, but probably here’s one of them – the Bolivian activist Peregrina Kusse Viza, interviewed on Democracy Now! and talking about her beliefs:

    In ancient times, or when I was very young, there was still a lot of respect for Mother Earth. When we started, or before the sowing season, first of all, we respected the Mother Earth with a waxt’a. That could be an offering of a llama or a lamb, or something had to be offered. Then, when you start irrigating the crops, when you start using the water, then, first of all, once again, we had to bless the earth. So, once again, we offered a llama. And after that, we started working on the lands. And then we started harvesting beans, onions, all types of vegetables.

    But now things have changed:

    There is no longer the same respect we had before. People, they have forgotten about Mother Earth. They have forgotten about Pachamama and forgotten about respect for the water. And now people – people, they want money. We want to earn money, and we want to have a lot of money. Before, things were very different. That was not so.

    Those transnational companies, with the smoke, they are contaminating the earth and the Pachamama. There’s holes in the sky, and that is not OK. There’s a lot of damage. So, therefore, all of us, we have to reach an agreement, an agreement to protect the Pachamama, because, otherwise, we will be – goodbye, we will be gone.

    So there we are. I wonder, if there had been a legally binding international agreement at Durban, and if they had kept those “Mother Earth” clauses in the final draft, making a symbolic waxt’a to Pachamama might well have since become a mandate for governments the world over.

  17. geoffchambers

    Thanks Alex for that information. Not so long ago this stuff about sacrificing llamas would have been angrily decried as insulting mystical neo-colonial nonsense. (Actually, there was a llama grazing on waste land near us the other day. And on Christmas day I spotted a couple of emus in a back garden In Hertfordshire . What’s going on?)
    Apologies to Lierre Keith for being rude about her without having bothered to listen to what she has to say, which is in fact very interesting. Here’s a Green ready to change her mind 180°, even if it took bone disease to do it.
    The idea of 250 interviews like that is disturbing though. Are there really 250 new ways of flagellating yourself which haven’t already been thought of?

  18. Ben Pile

    I don’t think you need to apologise to Keith: she’s an end-time fanatic, whether or not she gets it right on a few nutritional points.

  19. geoffchambers

    I think she’s more than “right on a few nutritional points”. She provides a convincing, well-argued critique of monoculture and the destruction of third-world economies caused by the dumping of surplus western grain.
    Of course, she lards her discourse with comments like “biotic cleansing” … “agriculture is a wound” … “we’ve trashed the planet” .. “the human race is at the cliff” etc. And she caps her story with the argument that returning the corn belt to grassland would be a great way to sequester carbon. (Well, she’s got a book to sell, and she knows what her potential readers want to hear).
    On solutions, she makes one very sensible point: that population is not a problem if women learn to read and write; and one which I find particularly sinister, when she says we could engineer a soft landing (i.e. eliminate intensive agriculture wthout provoking mass starvation) “if we could get all the institutions which rule the planet on board”. No question of a mass movement engineering democratic change, then. As with climate change, it’s to be a small number of activists going right to the top, or rather deep behind the scenes.
    Her well-argued change of heart recalls Monbiot and Lynas on nuclear power. I believe environmentalists can and will change anything and everything in their belief system except global warming. Climate science is where Mayan-type prophesy meets irrefutable mathematics, vouched for by the world’s scientific élite. Without it, Greens are back to the boring business of saving the whale or keeping footpaths open. With it, they can rule the world, or at least the bits where they plant their windmills and solar panels

  20. Mooloo

    I believe environmentalists can and will change anything and everything in their belief system except global warming.

    Some environmentalists have never bought into global warming, and certainly not as an imminent danger. (Facts may also prove rather inconvenient: unless it starts warming fast really soon the scare stories are going to look pretty stupid.)

    I suspect genetic modification is the ne plus ultra of greens. It is, unlike carbon dioxide, very definitely humans playing with nature.

    That and eating dolphins. If you ever want to get a green to go away when pestering you, then suggest farming dolphins for food. You may as well suggest murdering babies.

  21. geoffchambers

    No doubt Greens care more about dolphins and genetically modified crops than they do about the earth’s energy balance. This is the moral high ground where they operate best. But they need global warming to provide the scientific justification for overhauling the world’s economy.
    People like dolphins and cows mooing in grassy fields. But they like economic growth more. Expect Monbiot and Lynas to throw the dolphins overboard and embrace genetically modified crops if they have to, just as they’ve embraced nuclear energy. But they will never let go of global warming. Without it, environmentalism has only aesthetic and moral appeal, and all those green who’ve tasted power won’t go back to being a kind of Amnesty International for dolphins.

  22. Ben Pile

    Environmentalists, broadly speaking are capable of being entirely promiscuous with their scare stories. I think population-environmentalism is likely to end up the favourite for institutional environmentalists, as it speaks so directly to their desire for control. There’s also the possibility that the more ‘meta-environmental’ issues (i.e. nebulous, entirely abstract, hard to objectively define and measure will dominate, e.g. ‘sustainability’ and ‘biodiversity’.

  23. geoffchambers

    Promiscuous in the sense of going from one to another as the mood takes them? Perhaps. But there’s a logical structure to environmentalism of which most environmentalists are probably quite unconscious. Starting with a vague worry about the planet and our (very fleeting) presence on it, they adopt the beliefs and the supposed solutions that calm those worries. Saving the whale or cutting out CFCs can be done at little cost to the rest of the world, and provokes an enormous positive return in terms of public esteem. Decarbonising is more troublesome, but the stakes are immeasurably higher – billions in profits, redistribution by stealth to the third world, and a whole new academic field to cultivate. Those whose livelihoods depend on environmental worries won’t let go of it.
    Biodiversity is I think a real problem which deserves to be treated dispassionately. (Ms Keith is good on that). Sustainability is a pseudo-concept which is emerging as the philosophical underpinning of the whole movement.
    Here’s nice comment on sustainability whch my daughter sent me:

  24. Alex Cull

    Re CAGW vs other environmental concerns, Luboš Motl has just blogged about the upcoming Rio +20 Earth Summit, linking to two recent Reuters stories which are indeed downplaying climate change. In one of the Reuters articles, Brazilian delegate Andre Correa do Lago “said that climate change was too sensitive an issue for many countries, while sustainable development was something everybody could get behind.”

    Here’s Luboš Motl’s take on sustainability:

    There’s nothing wrong about the requirements for life on Earth or human civilization to be sustainable. But what’s being deliberately hidden in this ideology is that these things are pretty much tautologically guaranteed. In particular, sustainable development doesn’t require us to leave the exponentially growing train of coal or oil consumption in 2012. And not even in 50 years. All the arguments claiming that we have to do so are wrong or completely non-existent.

    When it comes to energy, fossil fuels remain the most acceptable solution which is cheap and has other advantages. Because of various “conceptual” findings when it comes to new types of fossil fuels, I extended my estimate of the time scale at which the growth of fossil fuels will continue from 100 to 200 years. In the future, the estimate may be raised again – by me or anyone else who looks at these issues rationally.

    Which reminds me of a recent Channel 4 news item on Underground Coal Gasification, which is the practice of burning coal underground, a process which appears set to become revolutionised by the same techniques of horizontal drilling (keyhole surgery on Gaia, as it were) that have transformed the gas industry in the US.

    C4 News video link:
    Transcript of same:

    There’s no shortage of irony to be found in the discussion which follows Sarah Smith’s report. The clear winner of the debate, in my opinion, is Prof. Paul Younger, who is director of Newcastle University’s Institute for Research on Sustainability. His findings are that not only does UGC promise a very abundant, domestic supply of “syngas” which can be used to generate electricity and also as a feedstock for plastics, he also claims it can “make carbon capture and storage not only economic but up to 2000 times easier to do, in terms of the energy needed to do it”.

    Sustainable, low-carbon (or zero or even minus-carbon?) energy generation and industrial production – using coal. It’s a real-world approximation of Solitaire Townsend’s “carbon fairy”, is it not?

    But I’m not entirely sure it’s the kind of sustainable development everyone at the Rio +20 Earth Summit will want to hear about.

  25. Craig Loehle

    My belief is that when people are separated from nature and from physical labor, they become phobic and view the world as fragile. If you have tried to farm, you see that weeds are far from fragile and will overrun your garden. If you spend time in the woods you see the power of nature and how it is not interested in our fantasies. Most of all, when you make things you appreciate how things come to be. Extreme environmentalists who say we should “return to the land” or shut down all power plants or ban capitalism are almost universally employed (if at all) in some sort of educational, arts, or foundation field where reality is conceptual and symbolism is more important than accomplishments. In the conceptual world you are judged based on your tribal membership. But real reality is not conceptual and there are consequences for all actions. People living in the real real world know that there is always a way to make things better, faster, cheaper because that is how they get paid.

  26. Craig Loehle

    The concept of sustainability sounds all warm and fuzzy when used by blue-jeaned iphone users in the US but it is also used to try to thwart development in the third world. Solar rice cookers are sustainable but building an electricity power station is not, so environmentalists have begun opposing them (recently in South Africa and Pakistan that I’ve seen). Likewise, what Africa needs is roads so commerce can grow, but development agencies don’t build them (not sustainable).
    High intensity agriculture is what has allowed the US to return so much land to forest and wilderness. without it, subsistence farming would take up every acre (and would still fall short). The idea that we can make a soft landing in a sustainable world without agriculture is pure fantasy.

  27. Max Wilbert

    It sounds like many of the commentators need a crash course in contemporary ecology. If they were to study the scientific data, they would soon conclude that:

    – Species are being driven extinct at between 100-1000x faster than the background rate
    – 98% of global old growth forests have been cut down
    – 99% of native prairies have been plowed for agriculture or otherwise destroyed
    – Climate change is causing freak weather across the globe, killing tens of thousands and climate is on a pace to create numerous uninhabitable dust-bowls by mid-century. AKA, say goodbye to the Mediterranean basin, the American SW, etc etc.
    – 90% of the large fish in the oceans have been killed
    – Humans appropriate 40% of the Net Primary Productivity of the planet

    This list could go on and on. At what point does this become ecocide? At what point is fighting back with it?

    I say, organize and resist:

  28. Mooloo

    Obvious troll is obvious.

    I say cease and desist:

  29. geoffchambers

    The appearance of Max Wilbert of Deep Green Resistance (comment 24 above) is probably my fault. I alerted Lierre Keith to the existence of this thread, thinking she might be interested in a discussion with people who, while disagreeing with her, find her views interesting (I certainly do).
    Deep Green Resistance exists to change the world, but also to sell a book, one of whose authors is Lierre Keith.

    Sorry about that. Looks like Ben is right. With some people, no discussion is possible.

  30. Alex Cull

    A footnote to Max Wilbert’s comment – Deep Green activist Derrick Jensen is also in the Peak Moment videos (Moment No. 200: “How the West Has Won”):

    Which really should be watched, to compare and contrast to the chirpier, more upbeat messages of the Transition Movement people. To get a flavour, here’s a quote from his book The Culture of Make Believe :

    The activities of our economic and social system are killing the planet. Even if we confine ourselves merely to humans, these activities are causing an unprecedented privation, as hundreds of millions of people – and today more than yesterday, with probably more tomorrow – go their entire lives with never enough to eat. Yet curiously, none of this seems to stir us to significant action. And when someone does too stridently point out these obvious injustices, the response by the mass of the people seems so often to be… a figurative if not physical blow to the gut, leading inevitably to a destruction of our common future.

    And here’s an article by Derrick (from his book Endgame, which I think provides plenty of useful insight into his philosophy:

    The various stances taken by the DGR’ers (Lierre Keith’s “we are going to have to give up agriculture”, Derrick Jensen’s “despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation”) would seem to put strict limits on how widely their ideas are generally welcomed. “We’re losing badly, on every front.” … “Things will not be okay.” … “… most people don’t care”. A mindset which, in my view, probably helps to turn these into self-fulfilling prophecies.

  31. Lewis Deane

    Half my comments, Ben, are frozen in your perpetual ‘moderation’. For someone admired for his attention to detail this is quite irritating. Of course, I know you hate multiple posts and I fail (but try!) to discipline myself in that direction. But either delete or except? So here is the gist of my comments:

    As to the substantive question: Why do these people exhibit this particular intellectual behaviour? I think, first, we have to leave that up to history, I mean in it’s deepest sense. I keep coming back to the haunting quote “I’m a sleepwalker through history” (ie, “I’m an idiot”). But, also, I think people make prostitutional ‘bets’ with their own reason: That ‘this’ side is winning and it’s better to ‘be’ on this ‘side’. As you perhaps know, Geoff, the ‘individual’, enlightened or vicious, and the ‘crowd’, the ‘herd’, are very much historical phenomena. The whole interest, in the ‘game’, is surely, rather, how this will turn out? Hence, our fascination (apart from being ‘existentially’ somewhat important!)

    Ben, you say

    They are as absurd as they are unpopular

    But I wonder, unpopular with whom? The question is always what people who have power think. The paradigm is that the ‘populace’ is ‘irrational’ but don’t we have continual ‘evidence’ that those who ‘rule’ are the really ‘irrational’ ones? For bleeders sake, one only has to look at their alleged ‘steerage’ of the economy! Moonbat, mad, quite clearly insane and self defeating. Isn’t the definition of someone who is ‘mentally unwell’ that they harm themselves, first, and, of course, as a necessary consequence, others. Of course, there is the possibility that I, and many others, are the mad ones!

  32. Ben Pile

    Lewis, I combined your many comments here into one.

  33. Lewis Deane

    OK, Ben, but you, probably quite rightly, elided some. And this was a conversation that I wanted to be part of. Yes, I should have been more ‘civilized’ but didn’t I try to be? Now, the ‘conversation’ is over!

    • Ben Pile

      I have checked, and I have not ‘elided’ any. Just post sensibly. It’s not hard; you just have to have a cup of tea or go for a quick walk before pressing ‘submit’.

  34. Lewis Deane

    And, please, Ben, get rid of those comments ‘awaiting moderation’. The essence has already been excerpted, surely! Thanks.

    • Ben Pile

      Only you can see the ‘awaiting moderation’ notice, Lewis.

      Let them serve as a reminder to think about what you want to say, before filling the site up with thoughts as they occur to you — some of which are worth reading.

  35. geoffchambers

    Lewis Deane #32
    I agree with you (I think) that “the ‘individual’, enlightened or vicious, and the ‘crowd’, the ‘herd’, are very much historical phenomena. The whole interest, in the ‘game’, is surely, rather, how this will turn out?” though I’m not sure why you address this thought to me.
    Yes, the whole interest is in how this will turn out. I see two points of view expressed on sceptical blogs which I find simplistic and perhaps dangerously mistaken. One is that reason will necessarily prevail. It’s normal that the engineers and scientists who comment at, say, Bishop Hill, take this point of view, since their life experience tells them that the technical project based on bad science never gets off the ground, the company with a faulty product goes bust, etc. In other words, science is self-correcting. But here it’s not a single company or a school of academic thought involved, but Western society as a whole. By the time we discover the science was wrong, the world will have changed out of recognition. It takes decades for a political party or a university department to change direction.
    The second mistake is to think this is a purely political phenomenon (the watermelon theory) and that as soon as environmentalists are exposed as closet socialists out to dominate the world, sensible citizens will vote in parties who will put a stop to their conspiracy.
    Both of these points of view fail to take into account the compexity of our society, which is why I think the social sciences, with all their limitations, are where we should look for enlightenment.
    You mention the ‘crowd’, the ‘herd’. I’ve been reading Canetti’s “Crowds and Power”, which explores the origins of modern mass phenomena in the behaviour and organisation of our primitive ancestors, using ethnological material and a good dose of psychoanalytical insight. This kind of rather abstract sociological reflection is not going to provide an answer to the pressing question of, for instance, how to get the sceptical argument heard in the media, but it may provide some insight into what’s going on – more than is provided by yet another opinion poll or critique of the pig-headedness of our media and politicians.

  36. Lewis Deane

    OK. Point taken. I know your fair, Ben. Thanks (and I’m sorry, of course!).

  37. Lewis Deane

    Geoff, you mention Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ and I sought of ‘swoon’ in recollection of what, when I was younger, I enjoyed reading. But, in terms of your sociology, and I know it has been very fashionable, and for far to long, to say of ‘sociology’ that it is a non-‘science’, which, by definition is true, since it can not be ‘science’ but rather philosophy, can I suggest the better text is Lewis Mumfords ‘City in History’. A much longer view and, therefore, I think, a better one. His theses is, in essence, cities are the real engines of ‘civilization’ but cities originate in a very brutal act of violence. To gather not the ‘herd’, but the individual, the ‘farmer’ and to force him and her into urbanization. That was the ‘original’ horror that our atavistic selves still can not help recalling. However, because violence begins our civilization, it does not mean it should end with it. And being ‘unsubtle’, as you rightly suggest, is a kind of violence!

  38. Lewis Deane

    And, of course, goeffchambers, I take wholly on-board your contrast between, if I can put it this way, the uber ‘rational’ and the irrational. What disturbs, I’m sure this is true with you, as much as it is with me, is the, often, infantile nature of these conversations. I try to hide, I try to ‘disappear’, when anything like ‘politics’ comes along. For

    The ass comes along
    Beautiful and strong.

    But this subject, I can’t help it, draws my attention. And yet I must be dragged down in the nonsense of other peoples unsense. My immediate wish, to tell you the truth, is violent. But, then, in recollection, and knowing history, I know that I am being just superficial,. These things will pass. Time will tell, is telling.

  39. Peter S

    Saying ‘the-end-is-nigh’ may be a round-about way of telling us that ‘life is not worth living (or getting on with)’. Hurrying an ending whilst indefinitely deferring a beginning is the only option left to someone whose refusal to live life is based on a belief that doing so is to invite certain disaster.

    This belief, of course, underpins AGW theory – and one its most infamous refusals (to get on with life as a scientist) was issued by Phil Jones in response to David Holland’s request for data –

    “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

    If Holland’s request invited certain disaster for Jones, we might wonder what it looked like? Finding ‘something wrong’ with the data would likely undermine any conclusions he based on it – and expose them instead as mere beliefs. Jones could just as well be telling Holland that he hasn’t spent 25 years convincing himself that life is not worth living only for someone to find that it might be. Facing this option, after a huge investment in getting rid if it, would indeed represent a disaster of sorts.

    In trying to negotiate a mutually beneficial exchange with Jones (the data, in exchange for a useful evaluation of its quality), Holland is inviting the very human interaction which makes a life worth living (or its ending undesired). Jones’ response suggests he sees no value at all in negotiation and no benefit in exchange… instead, the only ‘aim’ he can discern is the persecution of himself. Linking freely negotiated exchange with felt-persecution is a theme we see time and again in climate science. Michael Mann’s many dealings with the press all plough the same furrow… the large-scale negotiation and exchange which supplies the raw fuel we need for living life and the large-scale persecution Mann fantasises himself as the target of are all, in his mind, located in the same evil source.

    It seems that climate science needs to believe as much in its own persecution as it does in a hostile climate (if either are absent, they are quickly conjured up). Of course, anyone convinced that life isn’t worth participating in, or that the-end-is-nigh, would find these two imagined tormentors useful in avoiding self-disillusionment.

  40. geoffchambers

    Alex: “Sometimes I’m reminded of a minimalist performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth I saw once that had just four actors”.
    You were lucky. I once saw a performance of ”The Tempest” with three actors and a chorus of six bald counter tenors. In the open air. And it was raining.
    The reason they have to persuade the rest of us to board the merry-go-round is to give the impression of popular support. Without it, they are a minority pressure group, prophets crying in the wilderness, and the enemy would be, not the GWPF and other puppets of Big Oil, but the whole human race. What makes the global warming religion unique is that we’ve gone from John the Baptist to the Treaty of Constantine and back again in twenty years.
    Remaining on the subject of religion, à propos of PeterS’s insightful comment:
    In the film “the Saragossa Manuscript” there’s a marvellous scene where we see the Marquis of Pena Flor mounting the church steps on his knees, dressed in sackcloth and flagellating himself. He explains that he’s renounced his life of dissipation, since he’s heard a voice of a dead friend announcing that Hell exists and that our sins will be punished. An hour further on in the film, The Marquis is informed that the voice from the Other Side was a mistake, whereupon he drops his whip, takes off his sackcloth, and returns home to resume his life of debauchery.
    What makes the scene so funny is that no-one in real life would react like that. We crave forgiveness for our sins, but the message that we haven’t been sinning at all is most unwelcome. The Marquis would likely reply, like Phil Jones: “Why should I believe you? I’ve got 25 years of debauchery invested in this act of atonement. Kindly hand me my whip and let me get on with my flagellation”.



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