Commentary Magazine

Doomsday Fears & Modern Life

The kind of apocalyptic thinking to which Samuel McCracken (p. 61) directs his acerbic attention is, as apocalyptic thinking goes, a relatively mild and optimistic variety. All the writers he talks about envision a future which will be utterly different in every respect from the world of the present, but they do not foresee the end of the world itself or the final destruction of the human race. It is, so to speak, a social and not a natural apocalypse they prophesy. Society as we know it will come to an end but society of a sort, perhaps even a superior sort, there will be. The human species will change, perhaps so radically as to become different in kind from ourselves, subject to none of the laws by which we and all our ancestors were bound, but for Mr. McCracken’s apocalypticists the change is more likely to be for the better than for the worse. Better or worse, life in any event there will be.

For another strain of apocalyptic thinking which has been gathering force and influence in the last few years, however, the human species has reached a point at which it is about to destroy itself altogether and quite possibly the entire planet as well. The contemporary avatar of this ancient expectation of an imminent End of Days was given a powerful stimulus by the invention of nuclear weapons, and if not for one of the most curious and least remarked developments of the curious age in which we live, it might well have gone on indefinitely looking to the mushroom cloud for the perverse comfort a great anxiety always finds in the thought that its fears are real. The curious development was that everyone suddenly stopped believing in the possibility of a major nuclear war.

When exactly this astonishing change occurred, or why it should have occurred at all, would be very hard to say; conceivably it was an effect of the Cuban missile crisis. But whatever the reasons may be, there is no question that very few people still seriously fear the eruption of a major nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union or for that matter between the United States and China—the kind of war that used to be associated with visions of the end of the world and that was so recently considered by so many to be a virtual inevitability. It is true that the idea of a limited nuclear war between Israel and Egypt or even between the Soviet Union and China still seems plausible, but such a war, whether rightly or wrongly, is no longer commonly imagined to spell the end of the world.

The fascinating consequence is that we rarely find any great emphasis being put on nuclear war nowadays by the catastrophist schools of apocalyptic thought. They mention it, of course, they trot it out and bow to it and pay it their obeisance. But they do so in a spirit of perfunctory piety which perfectly expresses their recognition that it has all at once become a doddering presence in the contemporary imagination, that it has lost its power to convince. For the moment at least, that power has passed to pollution. Technology is destroying ecology and will end by destroying us all: so, stated in the most general terms, runs the formula which in not much more than a year or two has won a most amazing degree of uncritical acceptance in every circle and on every side.

Thus ideas which only yesterday would have been dismissed as crackpot are today given a respectful hearing. There is, for example, the theory that thermal pollution is melting the polar ice cap by slow but inexorable degrees, so that the end of the world will come by flood (in direct contravention of the Biblical promise expressed in the symbol of the rainbow). Or, on the contrary, we are told that the rays of the sun are being effectively blocked by the pollution of the air, so that the end of the world will come by frost. More plausibly E. J. Mishan, a catastrophist who has nothing whatever of the crackpot in him, warns of “the chances of extinction of our species from uncontrolled epidemics caused by the deadlier viruses that have evolved in response to widespread application of new ‘miracle’ drugs, or from some ecological calamity caused by our inadvertent destruction of those forms of animal and insect life that once preyed on the pests that consumed men’s harvests.”1



Professor Mishan, unlike some others among us of an apocalyptic bent of mind, is well aware that “the belief that the end of the world was drawing nigh has been widely held at different times in human history.” But he will allow no consolation to be gained from this, for the “doomsday fears of yesterday had no rational basis” while “those of today have plenty.” This seems to me an amazingly arrogant statement, especially coming from a writer who professes in other contexts to have so little faith in the superiority of the modern understanding of the mysteries of life on this planet to the wisdoms of “yesterday.” The truth is that the doomsday fears of today have as much or as little rational basis as doomsday fears ever did, if by “rational” we mean subject to scientific proof. No proof exists that the end of the world is at hand. We do not even have persuasive evidence pointing to that conclusion. All we have, exactly as the men of “yesterday” did, are warnings and exhortations to the effect that we are doomed unless we repent and change our ways and return to the proper path. That such warnings and exhortations are often voiced by professional scientists and couched in the language of science does not in the least endow them with the authority of tested scientific statements. When they speak of these matters, the scientists in question are speaking not as scientists but as moralists and ideologues, and no one ought to be fooled.

But if there is no rational basis for the apocalypticism of Mishan and others, neither is Sir Peter Medawar right on the other side in asserting that “the deterioration of the environment produced by technology is a technological problem for which technology has found, is finding, and will continue to find solutions.” Even setting aside the interesting theoretical question of how a problem which is by definition a consequence of the growth of technology can be solved by the further growth of technology, one must still reject the notion—so characteristic of a certain type of liberal mentality—that anything can be had for nothing provided the right formula or gimmick or gadget can be found. Surely where the benefits of technology are concerned, as with human affairs in all of their many modalities, there will always be a price to pay, and the price will always be high, and justly high in the case of technology considering what it can buy. The air of industrial societies will never be as sweet as the air of a mountain retreat; cities will never afford the “margin, space, ease and openness” for which critics like Mishan so eloquently yearn, however lacking in eloquence and however philistine the spirit in which they speak of the gains in freedom of every kind—from want, from disease, from tribal coercion, from claustrophobia—that are purchased, most willingly and eagerly by most people the minute they are given the chance, through the sacrifice of other undoubted goods to the gods of advanced modernity.



In saying that there will always be a price for technology, and that the price will always be high, I do not by any means wish to suggest that it cannot be lowered to some extent or that technology itself cannot be employed to that end. For it is undoubtedly true that some of the dangerous and unpleasant consequences of technology can be softened or even eliminated by technological means. Ways can be found of producing energy that are less damaging to the environment than traditional methods have been (though there is always the likelihood that these new methods will take their toll of different features of the environment than present methods do). Factories and automobiles and airplanes can in fact be equipped with devices—technological devices—that cut down on the volume of noxious material they pour into the atmosphere; streams and rivers already polluted can in fact be cleaned up and the air can be cleaned up too (though there is always the likelihood that all this can only be accomplished at the expense of other social and even ecological goods). Nevertheless, as much of this kind of thing as can be done should be done, just as at an earlier stage of industrial development certain necessary measures were taken in the field of sanitation and in the field of public health.

It is precisely here that the damaging effects of the apocalyptic perspective make themselves most vividly felt. On the issue of the environment, as on so many other issues, the prophets of doom are often excused or even praised on the ground that they “wake people up” to the existence of a problem and therefore contribute to the mobilization of the political will necessary to work toward solutions. My own observation is that, on the contrary, prophesies of doom are more likely to put people to sleep than to wake them up: why bother striving if the end is in sight? And when it is not serving to induce apathy, the apocalyptic perspective is serving to prepare for and justify the institution of extraordinary measures of political control. For to announce the apocalypse is, at bottom, to declare a state of emergency, and the suspension of normal liberties is one of the first things that happens when a state of emergency is declared. On this account alone, if for no other reason, any alarmist or catastrophist view of any public problem—especially one so fundamental as the survival of the species itself—ought to be received with the greatest skepticism, and the heaviest burden of proof put on anyone who wishes to persuade us that we are doomed unless we radically change our ways. In the face of the clear eagerness of the vast majority of people—not just in the Western countries, but everywhere, all over the world—to acquire or hold on to the benefits of life in an advanced industrial society, and in the face of their obvious willingness to pay even an exorbitant price, only the most extreme measures of political, social, and moral coercion could accomplish the kind of reversal of the forces of technological growth which the apocalyptic critics tell us is our only alternative to doom.



For myself I believe in the existence of a third alternative which is to accept modern society, with its imperatives of restless growth, as a viable human possibility superior to some the world has seen and inferior to others but in any case a viable possibility and a natural one: a poor thing, perhaps, but our own. It is the way into which we were born and the way in which we are going to die, and it is the way in which, between those two points, we have to make a life. To make a life is to strike a continuing series of bargains—with nature, with the past, with the future—and to make a good life is to make the soundest and fairest bargains we can. This is not what the apocalyptic perspective asks us or encourages us to do, but it is the best we can do and it probably is all we should ever even try.




1 “Making the Future Safe for Mankind,” The Public Interest, Summer 1971.

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