The Apocalyptic Mind
Robert Skidelsky
Project Syndicate | Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It was only to be expected that former US Vice President Al Gore would give this month’s Burmese cyclone an apocalyptic twist. “Last year,” he said, “a catastrophic storm hit Bangladesh. The year before, the strongest cyclone in more than 50 years hit China....We’re seeing the consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continual global warming.”
Surprisingly, Gore did not include the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed 225,000 lives. His not so subliminal message was that these natural catastrophes foreshadow the end of the world.
Apocalyptic beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition. They express the yearning for heaven on earth, when evil is destroyed and the good are saved.
In their classical religious form, such beliefs rely on signs and omens, like earthquakes and sunspots, which can be interpreted, by reference to biblical passages, as portending a great cataclysm and cleansing. Thus, apocalyptic moments are products of a sense of crisis: they can be triggered by wars and natural disasters.
Classical apocalyptic thinking is certainly alive and well, especially in America, where it feeds on Protestant fundamentalism, and is mass marketed with all the resources of modern media. Circles close to the Bush administration, it is rumored, take current distempers like terrorism as confirmation of biblical prophecies.
In secularized, pseudo-scientific form, apocalyptic thinking has also been at the core of revolutionary politics. In his latest book, Black Mass , the philosopher John Gray discusses how political doctrines like Marxism colonized the apocalyptic vision in prophesying the destruction of capitalism as the prelude to the socialist utopia. But political messianism was an offshoot of nineteenth-century optimism. With the collapse of optimism, contemporary apocalyptic belief lays more stress on catastrophe and less on utopia.
For example, in his book Flat Earth News , the investigative journalist Nick Davies reminds us of the millennium bug panic. Newspapers everywhere carried stories predicting that computer systems would crash on January 1, 2000, causing much of the world to shut down. The subtext was familiar: those who live by technology will die by it.
Misreporting of science is now so routine that we hardly notice it. Much more serious is when science itself becomes infected by the apocalyptic spirit. Faith-based science seems a contradiction in terms, because the scientific worldview emerged as a challenge to religious superstition. But important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically.
This brings us back to Al Gore and climate change. There is no doubt that the earth became warmer over the twentieth century (by about 0.7 degrees Celsius), which most climate scientists attribute largely to human carbon dioxide emissions. If nothing is done to restrict such emissions, global temperature will rise 1.8-4 degrees over the next century. At some “tipping point,” the world will be subject to floods and pestilence in classic apocalyptic fashion.
This is the second doomsday scenario of recent decades, the first being the Club of Rome’s prediction in 1972 that the world would soon run out of natural resources. Both are “scientific,” but their structure is the same as that of the Biblical story of the Flood: human wickedness (in today’s case, unbridled materialism) triggers the disastrous sequence, which it may already be too late to avert. Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation, and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe.
Scientists argue that the media and politicians are responsible for exaggerating their findings as promises of salvation or warnings of retribution. But scientists themselves are partly responsible, because they have hardened uncertainties into probabilities, treated disputable propositions as matters of fact, and attacked dissent as heresy.
Scientists are notoriously loath to jettison conclusions reached by approved scientific methods, however faulty. But their intolerance of dissent is hugely magnified when they see themselves as captains in the salvationist army, dedicated to purging the world of evil habits.
Today it is the West that foists an apocalyptic imagination on the rest of the world. Perhaps we should be looking to China and India for answers about how to address environmental damage, instead of using climate change as a pretext to deprive them of what we already have. How do the Chinese feel about their newfound materialism? Do they have an intellectual structure with which to make sense of it?
The best antidote to the doom merchants is skepticism. We must be willing to take uncertainty seriously. Climate change is a fact. But apocalyptic thinking distorts the scientific debate and makes it harder to explain the causes and consequences of this fact, which in turn makes it harder to know how to deal with it.
The danger is that we become so infected with the apocalyptic virus that we end up creating a real catastrophe – the meltdown of our economies and lifestyles – in order to avoid an imaginary one. In short, while a religious attitude of mind deserves the highest respect, we should resist the re-conquest by religion of matters that should be the concern of science.