In 2008, let us challenge the Politics of Apocalypse
In the past year, the threat of doom – from weather, terror or disease – became an everyday, even banal issue. It’s time to inject a dose of humanism into public debate.
From global warming to obesity, bird flu to terrorism: 2007 was the year when the threat of an apocalypse became an everyday, even banal public issue. It was a year of ceaseless alarmist warnings about an ever-expanding number of calamities facing the planet.
Either directly or indirectly, this year virtually every significant problem was linked to the frenzied crusade to halt global warming. As I write this end-of-year piece, I hear that Paul McCartney wants everyone to give up eating meat and go vegetarian, because apparently that’s the single best way to combat climate change.
Political speeches and public pronouncements are increasingly peppered with health warnings and sermon-style advice. In 2007, calls for restraint, austerity, asceticism and less frantic consumerism have gained a cultural force that is unprecedented in modern times. Goodness and moral virtue are the defining features of the carbon-free or at least carbon-lite life that we are all meant to aspire to. Is it any surprise that there is now a serious discussion about imposing a ‘carbon tax’ on families who have more than two children?
Probably the single most significant event of 2007 was the publication in February of the Fourth Assessment Report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). From an historical perspective, the most important thing about this event was not anything that the report contained, but rather the impact it had on public life.
The Western media and many policymakers embraced the pronouncements of the IPCC as if this body was a divine oracle. The IPCC’s report was represented as the final Word on the future of humanity – and now, any doubt expressed on the issue of climate change is looked upon as an act of bad faith or ‘denial’. ‘The debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’, warned David Miliband, then UK environment secretary.
The fear market in apocalyptic scenarios continued to flourish in 2007. Almost every week we were told that ‘the situation’ is far worse than we originally thought. So-called scientific reports insist that soon global warming will trigger a huge extinction of plants and animals, giving rise to a situation where the fate of humanity itself will be threatened. After returning from a trip to the Antarctic, Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, reported that the ice shelves have already started to break up. ‘These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie’, he said, before adding that ‘they are even more terrifying, because they are real’.
Public figures appear to have lost the capacity to reassure or lead people. Instead, they frequently opt for evoking frightening futuristic scenarios where the line between fiction and reality become unclear. In every respect, the sensibility that underpins public debate today can be described as a ‘crisis of nerve’. This crisis over the future coexists with a powerful sense of disorientation about the status and worth of the human species itself. Increasingly, humanity is represented as the biggest problem on the planet, rather than as the harbinger of a better future.
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In response to the growing influence of misanthropy, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Peace Day on 1 January 2008, felt the need to remind his audience that ‘respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man’. That the Pope felt it was necessary to remind people of the unique status of the human species is telling indeed; it shows that we really do live in an era when most leaders find it difficult to believe in anything other than a scary future, and where it takes a Pope to remind them that humans are actually quite special.
One consequence of Western societies’ obsessive preoccupation with the apocalypse-to-come is that less and less creative energy is devoted to confronting the all too important problems that exist in the here and now. Take the global credit crunch unleashed by the sub-prime home loan crisis this year for instance.
In terms of its material impact, this was arguably the most significant event of the year. After more than a decade of economic stability, the world economy faces the threat of a major recession with important implications for people’s lives. This threat may not make an exciting plot for a sci-fi movie, but it has a direct bearing on the quality of life of millions of people. It also raises important questions about an economic system that is so heavily reliant on using fictitious capital to reproduce itself. Unfortunately, however, today’s future-frightened public debate about economics seems more interested in finding ways to transform capitalism into a carbon-free, green-leaning system than in discussing the steps we need to take to minimise the destructive impact of a global recession on people’s lives and aspirations.
Events over the past 12 months suggest that what we think and how we think influences how we experience our reality. Compared with the past, people living in most parts of the world today experience less pain, debilitating disease and death than ever before. We are far better placed to deal with the outbreak of new diseases or unexpected weather incidents than we were even 20 or 30 years ago. And yet we continually fear the worst.
Worst-case thinking, the principal legacy of 2007, will most likely thrive in the years ahead. That is unless we can rediscover a sense of purpose in what it means to be human.
Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.