The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse

In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins sings a vexed song to Colonel Pickering about why can’t a woman be more like a man. I proceed no further on this line lest I be accused of sexism. But I have often wondered why there aren’t more people like the ones I know who are sceptical of the approaching climatic Apocalypse. I know quite a few of them quite well. They seem sane to me, often quite witty, well educated and well read, generally optimistic about life, keen to discuss and debate, and always interested in argument and evidence. Why aren’t we all like that?

I have been asking questions like this for a decade at least. Australia is a much better society, in every way I can think of, than was the case in the 1950s. We have achieved a great deal, and while there are always problems, and always will be, we have shown a commendable capacity to tackle and solve them over time. Yet there is a pervading sense of gloom and doom. In the last little while I have been coming across clues to the answer.

The first clue comes in the book whose title is also the title for this essay. Pascal Bruckner is a French philosopher who writes in a familiar French intellectual style, discursive, highly theoretical, and rather data-free. He is noted both for this book, whose subtitle is Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, and for another, The Tyranny of Guilt, which I have not read. His thesis seems to be, to quote from a review I have read, that environmentalists are prone to pessimistic misanthropy. Some can even be paraphrased — or indeed quoted — as thinking all would be well if Homo sapiens became extinct overnight.

Bruckner is eminently quotable himself, but if I do too much of it there won’t be any essay left. The key message I gained from the beginning of the book is the role of ‘fear’ in our contemporary discourse, the media and serious writing. This fear of the future, of science and of technology, reflects a time when humanity, and especially Western humanity, has taken a sudden dislike to itself. We are exasperated by our own proliferation, and  can no longer stand ourselves… Rejecting both capitalism and socialism ecologism has come to power nowhere… and has never shed blood, at least not up to now. But it has won the battle of ideas…. it is triumphant by capillary action, at the UN, in governments, in schools. It has become the dominant temper of the dawn of the twenty-first century. It excels more in preventing than in proposing….It is the power that always denies. And much more in this vein.

One tiny bit more: Fear has the power to mobilize people, to get them to overcome their divisions by proposing an object of collective repulsion, designating a scapegoat that binds them together and leads them to put their fates in the hands of a third party… anxiety has been elevated to the status of a political virtue, whereas joy is seen as a sign of unawareness. So much of it rings true to me. Bruckner says that Ecologism, the sole truly original force of the past half-century, has challenged the goals of progress and raised the question of its limits. 

I began writing for newspapers in the second half of the 1960s. The temper of that time was much more optimistic, despite the war in Vietnam and the divisions with Australian society that it caused. We were building things, opening mines, enlarging the higher education system, building a film industry, developing the arts, widening the society to include indigenous people and immigrants. The ‘temper’ of the times, to use Bruckner’s word was positive and forward-looking.

How different it is today. Everything is a worry, according to our local newspaper. Setting aside politics, where the paper tries to be evenhanded, and the World, where just about everything is bad by definition, it invited us to worry about income slide, the use of a closed school site for housing, bad behaviour by a diplomat, accidental death, murder, drugs, industrial strife, robbery and even the unsafeness of online voting. Only two items  could be classed as positive. One told us that when a large site for IKEA is finished, the completion will be good for everyone not just those who want to shop there; and there are new media possibilities for people who want to skip ads. It’s hard to be inspired about the future when this is your daily diet of news.

I don’t think today has been at all special. What else is there to report on? Whatever any government wants to do will be seen by others as wrong-headed, even pernicious. There are no new dams, colleges of advanced education, or universities. There is a new hospital coming, but all we hear about hospitals is bad, so even before a brick has been laid there are already criticisms that it is the wrong idea, or in the wrong place, or will be a waste of money.

One major change since the 1950s has been the creation of a national media system, so that no matter where you go in Australia you can see the same programs and read the same newspapers. This has led too, I think, to the development of  a dominant Australian ‘world-view’, which is everywhere in the media. To depart from it is to invite exclusion from discussion. This is plain enough in the area of ‘climate change’, but it is also obvious, at least to me, in the areas of rational discussion of indigenous affairs on the part of anyone who is not indigenous, and in discussion about anything to do with Islam. You can call it ‘political correctness’, but to me it is unthinking conformism, enhanced by ‘fear’.

A second major change is the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the Great Enemy. I agree with Bruckner that ‘ecologism’ has taken over from international communism, and in effect has renewed the charge that ‘capitalism’ is the real enemy, and that those who live off it, which is the Western world, are responsible for everything that is bad. It’s nutty stuff, but it’s there all the time, like a miasma around us.

It doesn’t matter what the facts are. On the evidence I saw, domestic violence is becoming less prevalent, but that doesn’t stop us from becoming fearful, and thereby making it appear worse than it is. It doesn’t matter that there has been no significant warming for the best part of two decades, because warming might return any moment, and we would all face the Apocalypse. It doesn’t matter that the arid world is greening slightly because of greater CO2, because we know that CO2 is dangerous. When you’re in the grip of ‘fear’, facts don’t really matter.

And that is why I wonder why there are so many who feel that way, and why there aren’t more who feel, as I do, that the world is doing well, and that the rational, Western, secular approach to problem-solving actually works. We do need political leaders who can inspire us not only with what we have achieved, but of what we might achieve if we got rid of this enervating fear of the future.

[Another take on this fear can be read on Pointman’s website, which I have referred to before. He begins, in explaining why he despises the Green mentality, It’s about fear, paralysing self-doubt and above all, inward-looking.]


Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • alan moran says:

    Brilliant piece. It goes to the heart of a political malaise we now face – adverted to today both by John Brogden and, oddly enough, Mark Latham. Both point to the fact that political parties in Qld and Vic (and possibly NSW) have won by focussing on opposing initiatives – a road and electricity privatisation – that all reputable analysts consider to be major income enhancing reforms. It begs the wider issue of what can be done to save democracy

    • Alan Gould says:

      From your recollection of the ’60’s I think you neglect the Fear of Nuclear Destruction, which was certainly of Armageddon proportions, both in Britain where we schoolboys talked of the 4-minute warning, and when I arrived here in ’66, the land featured in Nevil Shute’s hugely popular novel, ‘On The Beach’ where, as i recall it, Melbourne was the last habitable corner of a planet taken over by radioactive spread.
      My view is that the modern phase of Armageddon dates from precisely this Drang about Atomic War, itself perhaps fuelled by memories of the WW2 saturation-bombing campaigns, and it ws an easy morph from this destruction by aerial bombardment and radiation to destruction by insidious poisoning of the means of life – particularly when fair evidence could be adduced from the cadmiums and other poisons that were sometimes released into river and air.
      As to your sane folk who sustain irrational fears, my view of the psyche is that it is like an iceberg, nine-tenths submerged. Quite a large portion of what forms our attitudes is hidden, works by transference, and is often unknown to the conscious mind. What was at stake in the Nuclear anxiety, and persists into the Ecology anxiety, is the destruction of home by powers beyond individual or even national control. Like you, I think I have identified this Fear and disarmed it, largely by an understanding of the sheer scale in time by which the planet’s processes fluctuate. But it is difficult arguing a person out of a fear if he/she is unaware of its root or even its existence…as it would have been arguing a community from their fear of the witch in the village being the cause of the blighted apples or the deaths of babies.
      I suspect the Armageddon factor has been with us since the first thunderstorm was heard, and that it was linked even then to our sense of having been somehow unworthy.
      Interesting specimen, the human. We should bottle him/her.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Nice comment. I’ve referred to the nuclear holocaust fear many times, and could have mentioned it in the piece. Just didn’t.

      • pjb253 says:

        Is this just failure to develop the Logical-Mathematical Intelligence of Howard Gardner’s Frames of the Mind. Perhaps a bit of Intra-Personal Intelligence might help also.

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        Hi Alan
        Very sound comment. Such deep-rooted fear that has been tapped so effectively by the “deep ecologists”.
        I was recalling an interview I heard sometime in the last twelve months: Margaret Throsby had as guest Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb, published 1968). Margaret conducts very insightful and kind interviews, and draws out the positives in her subjects better than any interviewers I know. However, she did ask him the most pertinent question about how he stood now concerning his major dire predictions in that book, predictions that have turned out to be utterly wrong.
        Now I think we all make mistakes. When we find we have, we need to be prepared to admit so, at least to ourselves, learn from it, and move on. Ehrlich would not on that program admit that he had been so totally wrong – he just skirted the question. I was disgusted, and turned the radio off.
        Such a refusal to admit a major error that has had enormous and damaging effects on human progress over the last forty seven years, places Ehrlich open to the charge of belonging to a long line of charlatans. It is not hard to imagine that posterity will include many of those deep ecologists in such a list, people who have flannel-mouthed their way into prominence and influence, by tapping into those deep-rooted and unconscious fears.
        They will go to their graves, pleading not only innocence and rectitude, but continuing to claim that what they have said will eventually be proven true. I’m not waiting for posterity to make a judgment – I haven’t sufficient time, nor patience, and the cost of their lies is too great.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks, Alan. I think we have a nested set of problems, but I’m not sure which nest fits into which other one!

  • David says:

    I do “feel” as you do
    “.. that the world is doing well, and that the rational, Western, secular approach to problem-solving actually works.”
    I also believe that
    ” [w]e do need political leaders who can inspire us not only with what we have achieved, but of what we might achieve if we got rid of this enervating fear of the future.”

    And this is I believe the Western secular approach to problem solving guided by political leaders who can inspire, will enable us to manage the pending challenge of AGW.

    • David says:

      Missing a “why”. As in

      And this is why I believe the Western …..

      • Don Aitkin says:

        I agree. If there really is a challenge from AGW, then our system will enable us to deal with it. At the moment, our system is saying ‘Well, maybe, but maybe not’, rather than ‘Crikey! We must act now!’

        • David says:

          All nations that embrace the Western secular approach have in fact moved beyond a “[w]ell, maybe, but maybe not” outlook to embrace some form of action on climate change.

    • dlb says:

      “Political leaders inspiring us to manage the pending challenge of AGW.”
      Huh? I can’t see any challenge, let alone a problem.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    I think you have nailed it Don, but I don’t know what we can do about it other than restore balance to education, press reports, news broadcasts etc that concentrate on all that is wrong (or even just imperfect) and largely ignore the fact that, as you say, Oz is in very good shape, better than ever.

    This is the best time ever to be an Australian – great health care, good education, endless electronic gadgets, amazing communications, cheap travel etc – but I suspect this is taken for granted by the majority and not appreciated for the wonderful achievement it is. I don’t know how we can restore the required balance to news and attitudes, but I do believe the ever increasing restrictions on free speech are hindering the necessary debates to get things moving.

  • margaret says:

    Why aren’t we all like that? It’s possibly because we aren’t all as able to absorb and appreciate these facts, not having the same level of intelligence, education, rationality and status as those of your ilk.

    I note the language that has crept into everyday reporting has changed with the change in government and something I read and hear more frequently is the word taxpayers. The word is used in the context of ‘the importance of the taxpayer’s money not being wasted’. It’s very divisive and twists people’s perceptions of others and touches the good old hip-pocket nerve.

    Yes, we may all be so much better off than we were several generations ago in a materialistic sense, (except of course for the homeless), but we are not kinder, we are not more generous, we are not more philanthropic and we are not spending nearly enough on infrastructure, public education and health care to ensure that not just the silvertails enjoy the fruits of the lucky country.
    The western world is too self-congratulatory as a branch of humanity and AGW is the both the least of our worries and the worst of them. The very fact that we can spend so much time arguing about its catastrophic results or its non-existence depending on which side you are on shows that something is fundamentally warped.

    • dlb says:

      Margaret, agree that material wellbeing is not the be all and end all.
      But how do we make people kinder, become more generous, and to value education for its own sake not just a path to a well paid job?
      In the past The Church used to encourage people down this path of social and personal enlightenment, but we now have a largely secular society. Is legislation and laws the way to go? Should the government be lecturing us on our moral duties? I suppose it is already happening now with antidiscrimination laws. How far should the government step into our lives? Should they limit the obscene amounts of wealth some have?They may have our best interests in mind, but they often get things wrong. Is there a more grass roots alternative?

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I agree with you on the change in the usage of words. Airlines now refer to customers rather than passengers, doctors to clients rather than patients, and yes, citizens are now commonly referred to as taxpayers — indeed even non-citizens are taxpayers, unavoidably, given GST.

      But on what basis do you assert that we are not more generous or more philanthropic than past generations? Arguably we are more generous and more philanthropic than past generations, if only because we have more to give away. The Gittens/Tiffen book showed Australia almost to lead the world in voluntary activity. More people go through to higher education, complete high school and win technical diplomas than was true at any other time in our history. And while we could be spending more on infrastructure, that has to be true of any time.

      With all respect, can it be that you are mixing up what you would like to see happen and what actually happens, relative to the past?

      • Margaret says:

        With equal respect, no. I’m just tired of being told how great everything is now by people who live in a bubble.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Margaret, you haven’t answered my question. On what evidence is your assertion based? When were we more generous and more philanthropic than we are now? How do you know? The tsunami a few years ago prompted the largest amount given to the Red Cross in its history. The evidence I provided in my book (What was it all for? The reshaping of Australia) suggests that we are indeed a generous and philanthropic lot. And since we are, in term of GDP per capita, between three and four times wealthier than we were in the 1950s, there is a lot more to give. The poor are wealthier than their counterparts were in the 1950s.

          I agree that getting wealthier doesn’t necessarily make us kinder, but there is no basis of which i am aware to suggest that it has made us nastier.

          What bubble do you think I live in? Doing comparisons over time on what evidence we have has been part of my work as a social scientist since 1959.

          • margaret says:

            Okay, a break in the traffic. It was Dick Smith I think, recently saying the rich don’t give enough. I was listening to the radio. So maybe I should revise what I said. If we are more philanthropic than in the past it’s both because the avenues after a major disaster enable this and that it’s the average Australian not the richest who is the most philanthropic and generous.
            Also I didn’t say that you live in a bubble (although you may) – I rather meant the politicians and those who ‘lead’ us – politicians live in their own (electoral) bubbles for sure – e.g. Joel Fitzgibbon a couple of years ago saying that one could be on a quarter of a million dollars per annum and still be struggling – (apropos of taxing the superannuation earnings of the wealthy).
            This is the second time that I have worn your vexation Professor (referencing My Fair Lady here), a year or so ago I made a comment (now forgotten) to another commenter that you took to be about you. It was not and I was then at pains to explain – but I’m done with that, it’s pointless.

      • Margaret says:

        Don, several commenters don’t get their questions answered, some have been waiting months – at the moment I am doing the voluntary work that many grandparents enjoy during school holidays, looking after the children who will carry us forward into the unknown, hopefully, that is, full of hope for a future that the skeptics believe is unthreatened.

  • David says:

    A whole lot of men in their 70’s pining for their youth. You
    all need to get a grip.

  • dlb says:

    As well as the fear of the future, we also seem to be caught up in a culture of idealism. Many social movements and parties such as The Greens seem to be searching for some sort of social and environmental utopia. The trouble is the glass is always half empty for these people and their supporters in the media (hello ABC).

  • […] an hour or two of my sending out my essay on ‘fear’ and its implications I was receiving email about it. One of the first to comment to me was a retired Canadian […]

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