William Grassie: Engaged Contemplations

Apocalypse Not

Wired Magazine's September cover story, "Apocalypse Not: Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry About End Times," is an informative contrarian perspective on religion and especially eco-millennialism. Matt Ridley analyzes "the four horsemen" of environmentalists — Chemicals, Disease, People, Resources — and analyzes how frequently predictions made over the last 50 years have been mistaken. He ends with a plea for a moderate middle view on the climate change debate:

"So, should we worry or not about the warming climate? It is far too binary a question. The lessons of failed past predictions of ecological apocalypse is not that nothing was happening but that the middle-ground possibilities were too frequently excluded from consideration..."

Ridley then outlines in several paragraphs what he means by the middle-ground possibilities in the climate change debate, concluding:

"Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios." 

The other side of the apocalyptic imagination is the utopic vision. Ridley's modest utopia is the complex distributed system of humanity evolving and innovating, filtered through the eyes of a Libertarian-leaning, Rational Optimist writing, English aristocrat. His implied apocalypse would be the reign of eco-romantics, government regulators, and religious fanatics, who would then strangle the very innovation and growth needed to realize his modest utopia.

Elsewhere I have written about the role of apocalyptic and utopic imagination in social movements, including the millennialism of the Singularity movement.

Like Ridley, I find the mass fears and popular mythologies unhelpful and dangerous. I do think, however, that it is a useful exercise to contemplate, and to some extent also prepare for the "worst-case scenarios." If we take the perspective of Big History, then humanity and its progeny will encounter multiple evolutionary bottlenecks at some point in the geological time-scale of our future. And we cannot know in advance whether such events will happen next week or in thousands of years. Our species, more so than any other large mammal, is well positioned to survive these future catastrophies, but they could mean in the short-term a tremendous devolution in the our global civilization.

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