Posted 30 December 2007 - 01:02 AM
We have the Mayan calendar, peak oil (and its many ramifications), climate change, threat of terrorism (related to WWIII), nukes, unintentional creation of a super-bacteria because of over usage of triclosan etc., super volcanoes (Yellowstone), hurricane season, the rapture, methane deposits burping causing massive destabilization and possible extinction of humans, bird flu (and other such diseases, viruses), economic meltdown etc.
I wonder what is the motivation behind the propagation of these apocalyptic predictions and why do people get so attached to believing in horrible things instead of being optimistic? I know in the peak oil camp there's plenty of people who wish the economy would crumble overnight and America will experience an absolute social and infrastructural breakdown.
Why is there such an emotional backlash when someone who believes in said apocalyptic theory gets met with an honest opinion that dispels their belief?
Such predictions have been made far far back with each culture's own prophet of doom.
Posted 30 December 2007 - 01:22 AM
Posted 30 December 2007 - 06:54 AM
It's hard to say without indulging in armchair psychoanalysis, i guess. As you say, some people are probably disillusioned with their current circumstances and hope that something will be along to sweep everything away, but others have good reason (or say they have) to suppose that we have major problems - for example, peak oil. PoL may have hit on a good answer: that we are increasingly alienated in the modern world and find it hard to reach any kind of bedrock upon which to ground our experience of life, hence the appeal of apocalyptic cults. It might be interesting to correlate the prevalence of "doomsday beliefs" with the breakdown of family or social structures.
Posted 30 December 2007 - 09:48 AM
The thing about peak oil, mind you I might be wrong, is that I think it has basis in fact but it's also interwoven into this apocalyptic fabric. It's a case where the interpretation is far more horrific than the text, which could have been interpreted in other ways: as a logistical issue, rather than a social/moral issue. The whole issue is put in a bad light: rather than, how can we support all these people with a drastic decline in the production of oil? the answer is presumed and claim is rather made, there's no way we can support all these people with a drastic decline in oil. Do you guys see the difference?
There's one commonality in every apocalyptic scenario, no matter how varied and regardless if it is justified religiously or scientifically, and that's the perception that the event is fated to occur. Just looking at the facts, there's nothing that involves necessity or fate with regard to how the world will react to depleting oil production, that's rather something that is added in the interpretation of the events. Hubbert's peak oil curve, is a case in point of this, it's an apocalyptic interpretation of the facts; certainly, proper scientific method should know better than to place time as the independent variable here. The 1973 oil crisis, itself, changed the timing of the peak of the curve to be many years later than it would have. This isn't possible if time truly was the independent variable. So the graph is misleading from a scientific perspective, but it is truly fitting for the apocalyptic scenario that disaster is impending on the horizon.
To be scientific, the graph would have to put oil consumption as the independent variable, and looking at both axis would reveal that the theory is as much or even more of an economic theory as a geological one. Indeed, our actions hereonin will have a direct shaping influence on the form and peak of the curve. And it's not like we're blind, we really should take a careful look at what effect, if any, standard market signaling will have on oil consumption, the true x-axis that we should be paying attention to. And in saying this, I'm not to be included among the laissez-faire faithful, but just expressing what I think ought to be an uncontroverted fact, that we don't need to educate everyone about Hubbert's theory in order for them to make changes, but just that price changes in themselves may give them much of the information that they need. When prices go up, people necessarily buy less: this is just economic fact. And many of the changes that could have been made before as a luxury become economic necessities as far as transportation, heating, lighting, and so forth are concerned. Again, this is just one picture of what may happen, I don't harbor any delusions on my ability to predict human actions. Maybe the crystal balls will instead be proved right and there will be doom and gloom for all of us.
But again, what concerns me most are the interpretations, not the facts. To deal at all soundly with the vast logistical issue we really require a sound mind. And the world population, especially the developed world, are easy kindling for the apocalyptic meme which implies, ultimately, giving up. If the peak oil prophets really are serious about their predictions, then they should know that there should be no distinction at all made between the realists of the issue and those who are trying to find ways to make things better. The latter aren't the ones in denial with their head in the sand trying to avoid view of what is happening around them. They just know that prophecy will only go so far.
Posted 30 December 2007 - 03:14 PM
I'll have more to say later, but I would just encourage anyone to who wants to focus on the topic of peak oil, as opposed to apocalyptic memes in general, to post in the new peak oil thread, just to keep things from getting mixed up.
Posted 30 December 2007 - 03:34 PM
As I was reading his column, I began sarcastically to supply a “predicted scenario that has so far failed to manifest itself” that Pat curiously ignored: the return of Christ to earth, now some 2,000 years overdue, if you take literally certain passages in the Bible in which Christ promised to return in the lifetime of those then living. I found this oversight ironic but not particularly surprising (Buchanan, of course, is a Catholic of a fundamentalist bent).
But one serious thing to draw from this is that not all apocalyptic memes are actually apocalyptic: the rapture, for instance, or the return of Christ, could be seen as a good thing, at least for believers. The real meme, I suspect, is one of historical disjuncture; that something great and awe-inspiring, whether actually good or bad, is bound to happen sooner or later: such attitudes commonly pervade our daily lives, in that many of us expect a dramatic change of life that will shake up our (frequently) humdrum or painful circumstances and just change everything. These hopes are almost invariably disappointed, but I sense that this sort of personal anticipation manifests itself as “the apocalyptic meme” writ large: our personal hopes/fears/anticipations projected onto the screen of the entire world.
In this sort of thing is a strain of utopianism. And utopianism has long been a strain in all human societies; the utopianism of the 20th century brought us the dystopias of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. In the 21st century, utopianism has brought us the debacle of Iraq. Utopianism also manifests itself in the desire among Islamic fundamentalists for a worldwide caliphate. And more: it can be argued (and has been argued persuasively) that all these utopian (debacles) are offspring of the Enlightenment.
So there are a lot of complex and intertwined ideas here, it seems to me, but maybe in asking ourselves about concrete apocalyptic memes, we can wonder: is there better reason (for example) to believe in the apocalyptic meme of global warming than to believe in, say, the apocalyptic meme of the 2012 Mayan calendar “end of world” prediction? And if so, why, and what differentiates the two predictions?
Posted 30 December 2007 - 04:57 PM
I've been pondering this topic for a while myself. The conclusion I've hit upon, driven largely by my attraction to apocalyptic themes, is that these sorts of ideas represent a simplification of morality, an increase in the contrast across the spectrum of moral choices and expectations. When I imagine, for instance, the world of Danny Boyles' 28 Days Later, I think of an impending freedom from the expectations society, and me as an agent, have of my life and its results. This can extend to more localized apocalypses (using the word loosely): it's not uncommon for the near-term-terminally-ill to leave the cages of these expectations, and live however they might want to to satisfy particularly personal and selfish whims. At least, they're represented as such in the popular culture.
I've caught myself daydreaming about developing cancer, because that would shift the priority I give to some things and simplify the choices I make and the manner in which I make them. A zombie-infested world is a world in which I make decisions with my personal physical safety and that if my loved ones prioritized higher than I might need to now, as there is less immediate danger posed in zombie-free Ohio. So, I worry more about how my decisions affect my career track, my mortgage, my credit score, and my retirement, none of which provide any sort of personal, visceral fulfillment.
That is, disasters at least temporarily reduce the domain of a decision to the less abstract, and more psychologically accessible elements of our world. This would make this apocalypse/disaster fetish not dissimilar to a nostalgia for purportedly simpler eras, when life was less complicated, and a Coke and a smile might suffice to change the world.
Posted 31 December 2007 - 02:03 AM
Great point, PoL. And I think it fits with what David said about historical disjuncture and people wanting a dramatic change. Those waiting for the Rapture, or to win the lottery, are giving up too. They’re expecting an apocalyptic end to their daily struggle, but in what they think would be a good way.
Posted 31 December 2007 - 02:14 AM
I think there is real psychological truth in this and it explains the impression, for instance, that some of those concerned about peak oil give, that they really want it to happen. With all respect to Jim Kunstler (whom we interviewed here), I detect a strong note of this nostalgia for a (purportedly) simpler time in his own voluminous writings on peak oil and economic meltdown. I don't think it's an accident that as anarchitectural/aesthetic critic, he abhors modernism and favors preservation of the architecture of the ("simpler") past.
Posted 31 December 2007 - 02:18 AM
The impression I have is that Apocalypse and Utopia are two sides of the same coin. Either may be desirable if one's current state is somehow untenable or unbearable.
Posted 03 January 2008 - 06:09 PM
Posted 11 January 2008 - 11:58 PM
Posted 12 January 2008 - 06:07 AM
If i were to put on my armchair psychologist hat now and try to see what might draw people to these stories, i can see a few possible patterns emerge. The classical apocalypse is always a form of retribution or revenge against the society its set in. Usually this is because the majority of people are behaving in an immoral fashion and thus should be punished, with the faithful being rescued in the process. Yet, no matter through what religion/belief system the doomsayer operates in, the fact remains that the doomsayer is wishing death and damnation to the bulk of humanity, even if they don't realise it. As a consequence, its easy to conclude that the average doomsayer is quite unhappy. Maybe its because the moral precepts that they follow are not followed by other people with no apparent consequence, so the doomsayer concocts an end-state that justifies the lack of current-state consequences, and as an added bonus, justifies and strengthens the doomsayers own belief system in the process. Another possibility is simply that the doomsayer is awaiting his or her own death, and wants that death to be as spectacular as possible, and what more spectacular way to die is there than to say "I told you so!!" to the unbelievers as God takes you into his arms, before smiting everyone else? For that brief moment, your entire life, all your actions, everything would be immediately validated, thus bringing the ultimate release.
Modern apocalyptic scenarios are a bit different i believe. All of the modern apocalyptic scenarios have one thing in common - a threat to the modern way of living. Usually the outcome seems to be a return to a more primitive lifestyle, although the Hollywood versions tend to end with the status quo being restored or annihilation. In my opinion, muraii seems to be on the money about the ideas behind these scenarios, except that i would add that someone who fervently believes in these scenarios are also probably unhappy with either how their life is, or the way society has evolved.
P.S. Great post, qualia. Things and their hold on us all may well be worth exploring in a new thread.
* the labels classical and modern simply denote roughly when these scenarios started coming into play. There's plenty of people out there today who still believe in a classical scenario.
Posted 12 January 2008 - 11:38 PM
Or has the human condition always carried similar frequencies of choices; and have all of these choices always felt just as heavy?
As I mentioned, I can identify with fantasizing about a resetting of "the world" (obviously, "the world" is not Earth, but our selfish metaphor) such that there can't be anything wrong with staying home with my family and working for subsistence and little more. No career for which to prepare, no education in the ways of empty excesses and an obesity of information, but mere survival and subsistence. Or something like that. Something not whiling the weeks away in the ways we while them away. This desperation to find life seems to make some want to sacrifice a big life they can't manage for a smaller one they can.
Is this a necessary condition? Is there any purpose to one choice over the other, any story arc worth working towards at the expense of others? This is tangential, now (though "tangential" denotes at least a tenuous connection), so I may start another thread; but I'm curious what it is that drives any of us to stick around.
Posted 15 January 2008 - 01:44 PM
Posted 17 January 2008 - 08:59 PM
Let’s take religion. Any religion, if it is to survive, requires adherants. The question is: how do religions acquire adherants? I’ll use Christianity as an example. First, the idea of a hell is created by that religion. The idea of a hell or eternal damnation is basically a scare story and the purpose is to frighten people. The scare story spreads and more and more people come to believe in a hell and more and more people become desperately frightened. But how can ordinary people deal with this fear? Who is going to save them from this ghastly fate? This is where religion steps in. It offers to save people from eternal damnation. Any person frightened enough by the threat of eternal damnation is, naturally, going to jump at this offer to be saved - in much the same way as a drowning person will grasp a lifeline or swim towards a liferaft. Of course, there is a catch. In order to be saved, one has to become a believer in the religion offering to do the ‘saving’. Thus the religion gains another adherent. It continues to gain adherents as long as it peddles the scare story of a hell.
In fact, I’ve seen this in action. I’ve watched my fair share of horror films and read many a Denis Wheatley horror story when I was younger. Often the stories involve demonic possession, the Exorcist being a good example. The tension and fear build up as the story progresses and then suddenly a priest, or some other authority figure, appears wielding a bible. The priest is going to save us from the devil! I for one used to feel an immense sense of relief when this happened. What is interesting and significant is the sense of relief I experienced. That is the sense of relief one is intended to feel when the man with the bible appears. That is, in fact, the sense of relief that religions intend one to experience when they offer to save one from eternal damnation!
I’ve used religion as an example of how this psychological technique works but the same technique was used during the years of the Cold War when the ‘threat’ – from a western perspective - was the Soviet Union and communism. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, Terrorism fills the vacuum. The same technique is used by drugs companies to sell their drugs. In a commercial world such as that in which drugs companies operate, it is in their interests to generate or exaggerate a threat of disease which their drugs will then save us from.
So, in general, the technique is to first spread some scare stories, get people well and trully frightened by generating fear and paranoia, and then offer to save them from this threat by offering them religion or democracy or drugs etc., etc.. They’ll be eating out of your hand before you know it!
As to why the predictions are apocalyptic? One reason is that the in order to generate fear and paranoia, the story has to be sufficiently scary, so it needs to verge on the apocalyptic. Also, we live in a commercial world. It is therefore highly competitive. Scary stories, as any newspaper will tell you, sell. The scarier the better. The ‘apocalyptic’ nature of the stories is also, I suggest, largely down to competition.
As to the question about why people get so attached to believing horrible things, the reason, I suggest, is this: as I suggested earlier, spreading fear and paranoia is a way of gaining converts to a religious or political belief system or for commercial gain. If the population at large suffers from paranoia (and depression) then being ‘attached to believing in horrible things’ may well be a symptom of such psychological conditions.
Posted 18 January 2008 - 08:41 PM
I think there's something a bit more fundamental to the types of institutions or social movements you're talking about. They are formed around an underlying need to understand, to develop models for interpretation. This modeling is the construction of metaphors using known building blocks, i.e. ideas of accepted validity, into simulacra of the phenomena under inquiry. We can't help but to understand the unknown in terms of and by approximation to the known.
Considering early human intelligence, these models consisted of anthropomorphizing metaphors. They attempted to describe phenomena in terms of agents with which they were familiar, and thus various cultures cast the wind and seasons and death and happiness as mere yet exceptional creatures of the world, replete with dramatic biographies. I can't help but think that religion (and theology) today has grown little from these sorts of perspectives; not that the content is necessarily suspect, but that it's trapped in the clothes of gods and so less useful than it might otherwise be.
Removed of negative connotations, the sense of incompleteness of these metaphors, no matter how complex and well-considered, appears a limitation of any modeling endeavor. Translation between languages is often messy and fallible, and in some cases there is no good approximation of an idiomatic feature of one language in another. You might say this about cultures as well, e.g. the Cold War was a partially product (in simple terms) of one country's aggregate misunderstanding of the nature of another, and the bureaucratic exploitation thereof. So it is with human understanding of other creatures; I have long thought that the fear of snakes or spiders or maggots derives not from any intrinsic villainy, but from the fact that their motivations are often inscrutible. Throw extraterrestrials into the mix, too; once you've grappled with their mannerisms, Gacy and Mulder's boogeymen become merely violent (whatever their reasons).
I wouldn't confuse the underlying structure of these metaphorical modeling systems, as surely Greek mythology is as much a modeling system as is quantum chromodynamics, albeit likely of lesser accuracy, with their historical abuse. I'd be surprised to hear of such an endeavor having always remained pure of execution, and without any disingenuous or malevolent practitioners.
In the context of these apocalyptic memes, and of model building, I wonder: how do they fit? Is it a necessary feature of "the world" or "reality" that we discern some end to it, available in our lifetime? Is it that, without this, we are more directly faced with how insignificant we probably are, as individuals and as a species?
Posted 18 January 2008 - 08:58 PM
The bar's set pretty high, for which I'm thankful.
Hmm. Not dissimilar to the model-building stuff I was spouting, i.e. we approximate an understanding of existence by assuming, among other things, this "choice" as a feature. As an approximation, it works pretty well, just as billiard balls are natural and useful approximations of molecules; but on closer scrutiny, we're pretty satisfied the latter breaks down--does the former?
To steal this for my own purposes, that is, our social acts are constrained to fit our models, the "meaning" we've described for existence and its parts, maybe?
Maybe we, at varying frequencies, tire of these approximations, many of which we know we take far more seriously than they deserve; and yet we're still frightened in leaving them. To wit: I am recently divorced, from a relationship that included children; and I immediately entered another relationship that included yet more children. In pondering what are the "right" ways to handle inevitable conflicts, I had to stop my reductive reasoning at the point that all the relationships became meaningless. In doing so, have I chosen ignorance over enlightenment? I don't know. This is actually a large part of why I joined the Academy here.
Posted 18 January 2008 - 09:37 PM
In a kind of Darwinistic masturbation, it can be gratifying to fantasize about the end of world while at the same time, believing you will be prepared while the more ignorant gene pool won't be, and thus you will come out the stronger being who survived while everyone else was swept away into oblivion.
Exciting yes? I think this is also a big part of the reason people have dubbed apocalyptic fantasies "doomer porn".
Posted 21 January 2008 - 06:45 PM
With respect to your response to my post, I find your understanding of the Cold War situation to be somewhat naïve. We are in a world ruled by power, a competitive world, an empire building world. Might is right. It has become unfashionable to shed blood but empires can be built and people conquered just as effectively using economic means. The Cold War was simply a power struggle between two animals neither of which could tolerate a competitor in their worlds. The West won and continues its efforts concentrating now on the lesser fry. However it may couch it, mealy-mouthed, sugar coated, paternalism, it all amounts to the same thing. The West is out to conquer. It is the sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Posted 21 January 2008 - 06:48 PM
As a doom merchant myself, I can assure you that your description is very wide of the mark but actually you display precisely the characteristics that have caused me to despair of our future. Your fantasies reveal you to have bought into the idea of competition. One of the fallacies that rules our world is that competition breeds excellence. This is totally wrong. The truth is, in fact, quite the opposite. Also, the current justification for this is that science has proved that the natural world is based on competition. Another fallacy.
It is the defining characteristic of competitive systems that they lead to monoculture. It is the defining characteristic of cooperative systems that they lead to diversity.
It is a remarkable difference between human culture and the natural world that human culture is becoming increasingly monocultural (democracy and the free market economy), while the natural world is, and always has been, increasing in diversity (there are more different species living in different environments now than in any previous age). In face of this stark and huge divergence, how scientists can draw any parallels between our culture and the natural world is beyond me.
So, we are heading for a monoculture, a state known to be extremely vulnerable and susceptible to disease. Also, I will not spell it out, but if you were to think about it, free of the platitudes and falsehoods you have been bombarded with since birth (such as I have pointed out above) you will come to understand how and why competition debases, rather than breeds excellence.
Posted 21 January 2008 - 10:54 PM
Posted 22 January 2008 - 06:11 PM
It really is very simple. Two thousand years ago there was a diversity of cultures on the various continents, their diversity maintained by isolation. For example, there is a very great difference between Australian Aboriginal culture and the Romans and between the latter and the Chinese. Today, China is very speadily adopting western culture on a competitive basis…….and that goes for everywhere and everyone in the world as well. At a personal level it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to walk off the plane and know which part of the world I am in. As the cliché goes, there’s a Mcdonald’s in every city.
Posted 24 January 2008 - 02:45 AM
Well, what if "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" memes are propagating because there are good grounds to believe that some of them might come true?
The world "as people have known it" has ended many times and in many places, for many people. The 20th century alone had several such occurrences, like the Holocaust, which certainly spelled the end of life as they knew it for so much of Europe's Jewish population.
To me, the triple and interlocked threats of overpopulation, energy resource deplation and global warming could well have catastrophic consequences, rendering speculation about the psychological motivation of those sounding the alarm largely irrelevant.
Posted 26 January 2008 - 01:04 AM
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