The Prophets of Doom
The end is nigh! It is quite fascinating that prophecies of imminent worldwide doom enjoy such enduring popularity. Predictions of global apocalypse have been highly fashionable throughout history. As an added bonus, the caste of professional doomsayers was often able to make quite a good living from predicting that humanity’s downfall was just around the corner.
Repent, ye sinners!
Photo via thecargoculte.com / Author unknown
The oldest known prediction of the end of the world is recorded on Assyrian tablets dating from the 28th century BC (more likely they are actually Akkadian or Sumerian, given the date and have been wrongly attributed). Followers of Zoroastrianism (a religion founded in 700 BC) published the following not entirely unreasonable forecast, aside perhaps from the part about the ‘sinners and the pious’: They claimed that the end of the world will happen when a comet, called Gochihr, strikes the earth. It will cause all the world’s metals to melt and will burn up the world. At the same time, sinners and the pious will pass through this river of molten metal. Sinners will have their sins burnt away and the pious will feel like they’re “passing through warm milk.” (in chapter 30 of the ‘Bundashin’).
In 634 BC, the downfall of Rome was widely expected. This forecast was based on the myth that 12 eagles had revealed a mystical number to Romulus, which represented the lifetime of Rome. A number of early Romans hypothesized that each eagle represented 10 years.
In 389 BC, undeterred by Rome’s failure to fall 250 years earlier, the prediction of doom was revised. The mystical number revealed to Romulus was now held to represent the number of days in a year, so the destruction of Rome was rescheduled for 389 BC. Once again, nothing happened.
In AD 66-70, Simon bar Giora of the ascetic Essene sect announced that the Jewish revolt against the Romans was the ‘final end time battle’. The ‘redemption of Zion’ was allegedly at hand. The world unexpectedly kept turning from AD 71 onward.
In AD 365, Bishop Hilarius of Poitier, a.k.a. ‘Malleus Arianorum’ (the ‘Hammer of the Arians’) or ‘Athanasius of the West’, announced that the world would end that very year. Funny enough, his name actually stems from the Latin word for ‘cheerful’ (the English word ‘hilarity’ is from the same etymological root). Even though Augustine of Hippo called him “the illustrious doctor of churches”, his end time prediction somehow didn’t pan out.
In AD 375 to AD 400, Bishop Martin of Tours (a.k.a. Sanctus Martinus Turonensis) had an epiphany. He reckoned that Hilarius was only slightly off with his prediction. It was clear to him that the world was undoubtedly set to end before AD 400. According to Martin’s biographer Sulpicius Severus, a group of pagans proposed to fell a sacred fir tree, if only Martin would agree to stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. In spite of his uncanny ability to avoid getting hit by falling trees, the world still failed to end at the appointed date.
The second and third century Christian saints Hippolytus of Rome and Irenaeus as well as the Christian traveler and historian Sextus Julius Africanus all predicted the apocalypse would take place in AD 500. Jesus would return and the rapture would play out as described in the Book of Revelations. At least one of the predictions was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark. What could possibly go wrong?
On April 6, AD 793, the Spanish monk Beatus of Liebana rescheduled the second coming of Christ and the end of the world to that very day in front of a fascinated crowd. It is not known what he had to say for himself on April 7, 793.
AD 800 was an alternative doomsday date from the pen of the above mentioned Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, revised from the original date of AD 500. Sextus was a busy man with respect to dating important events. He had also calculated the date of creation to within one decade, asserting it had taken place in 5500 BC.
Saint Gregory, a bishop of Tours like Martin 400 years before him, and reportedly a dedicated fighter against heresy, calculated a date for the end of the world very close to Sextus’ alternative date. According to Gregory, the world would end ‘any day’ between AD 799 and AD 806.
When the world miraculously continued to exist after AD 806, the heretical Christian prophetess Thiota told everybody that St. Gregory had only slightly miscalculated. The world would actually end in AD 848. This time for sure. She was eventually forced to confess that she had only made up her predictions at the urging of a priest in order to make money – one of the very few instances of a failed doomsayer being held responsible for arrant forecasts and making money from them.
In AD 992 to 995, Good Friday coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation. This event was held to be certain to bring forth the Antichrist, and hence the end of the world. The Antichrist seems to have had better things to do at the time, as he failed to put in an appearance.
January 1, AD 1000. An important round number date that simply could not fail to attract a great many predictions of doom. Pope Sylvester II announced that the ‘Millennium Apocalypse’ would finally strike at the end of the Christian millennium. Numerous clerics agreed with him, and riots occurred across Europe, as time preferences soared. Pilgrims headed en masse to Jerusalem to experience the end times at what seemed to them the most appropriate place. We hope they enjoyed their vacation.
Accordingly, January 2, AD 1000 was a huge letdown for many. Imagine not having cut wood for the winter, or having eaten all your stored food in expectation of the end. It was quickly theorized that the end would not come 1,000 years after the birth of Jesus, but rather 1,000 years after his death. The apocalypse hence was rescheduled once again, for AD 1033.
Cistercian abbot and English Cardinal John of Toledo had another go at it, predicting the world would end in AD 1186. A man not only of faith, but also of science, he judged an imminent alignment of several planets would bring about the end. Somehow though the undoubtedly fascinating spectacle of a number of inanimate rocks orbiting the sun finding themselves aligned had no ill effects on the world.
Italian mystic Joachim de Fiore predicted that the 1,000 year long reign of Christ would begin ‘sometime between AD 1200 and AD 1260’. This prediction had the great advantage of lacking precision. Around the same time, pope Innocent III predicted that the world would end in AD 1284, precisely 666 years after the rise of Islam.
Faced with the failure of his prediction that the world would end in AD 1260 at the latest, the followers of Joachim de Fiore rescheduled the event to AD 1290. When this didn’t pan out either, they rescheduled it again, this time to AD 1335.
When the black plague spread across Europe in AD 1346 to 1351, a veritable boom in end times prediction was set into motion. When nothing of the sort happened, Franciscan alchemist Jean de Roquetaillade, the inventor of ‘aqua vita’, a ‘panacea for all disease’ (a.k.a., snake oil), prophesied the Antichrist would drop in around AD 1366, and the Millennium would begin shortly thereafter, in AD 1368 or 1370. The astrologer and alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova offered a better date for the end of the world when nothing happened in AD 1370: AD 1378.
Alchemist and astrologer Arnaldus de Villa Nova, as depicted in a 15th century Nuremberg woodcut.
Image via argimosco.blogspot.com
It goes on in this vein through the centuries – but at no time has there been a boom in end-of-the-world predictions comparable to the one that started in the 17th century and is ongoing to this day (in fact, the predictions have become ever more numerous since then, with the 20th and the beginning 21st century clearly representing high points so far).
Modern Doomsday Memes
One feature of the more recent doomsday predictions is that they are no longer almost exclusively based on religious prophecies such as the second coming of Christ. Scientific (and often pseudo-scientific) doomsday predictions have become just as popular, if not more so. Many predictions seemed to make sense at the time they were uttered, such as the famous cold war ‘Doomsday Clock’ that purported to show how close to annihilation by nuclear war humanity was coming, or growing fears in the mid 1970s that a new ice age was dawning after the climate had cooled for more than three decades, or various gloomy forecasts based on alleged resource scarcity and overpopulation. The latter have enjoyed a boom ever since their father Thomas Malthus forecast the end of humanity by famine and disease once the size of the population increased beyond the capacity for agriculture to provide a sufficient amount of food. When Malthus published his essay on population in 1798, fewer than a billion people lived on earth. He thought the catastrophe was imminent (natch). Consider though that wheat yields have risen threefold since the 1950s alone, to name just one example of progress in agriculture.
The Malthusian resource scarcity and overpopulation memes always tend to enjoy growing popularity when nominal commodity prices rise strongly due to the lagged effect of monetary inflation. The predictions of modern-day Malthusians such as the ‘Club of Rome’ and Paul Ehrlich were extremely popular in the 1970s, when commodity prices soared after Nixon’s gold default. However, the gold default was just a trigger event: the money supply had been inflated greatly for several decades already. It is no coincidence that Paul Ehrlich and numerous resource scarcity memes (such as peak oil) have regained a great deal of popularity in the 2000ds, another decade experiencing sharply rising nominal commodity prices.
The doomsday scenarios are all based on the view that the economy and humanity are static. No change is assumed, except of course change for the worse. Resources are ‘finite’ as is often pointed out, but it is rarely pointed out that they are also extremely plentiful relative to the size of the global population (even today!) and that technological progress and capital accumulation make the extraction of resources that were previously out of reach more economical over time. Often a lack of understanding of resource economics is in evidence: for instance, it makes no economic sense for a mining company or an oil extraction company to ascertain the size of its reserves beyond a certain time horizon. That would simply be wasteful. This is why it often happens that a mine that had an ‘estimated mine life of ten years’ 20 years ago is still producing today and still has a ’10 year mine life’ ahead of it. Not only have more reserves been proved up as time has passed, but extractive technology has advanced as well, and these advances are often incorporated by means of new capital investment, thus making resource extraction that was uneconomical 20 years ago viable today.
Lastly, it makes no sense whatsoever not to extract resources based on the idea that they are ‘finite’. Resources left in the ground cannot possibly help anyone; they cannot improve our lives and well-being, only extracted ones can do that. There is no possible limit to economic growth due to natural resource scarcity. It is human ingenuity and entrepreneurship that are the main drivers of economic growth. The less restrained they are be regulation, taxation and the extension of anti-competitive privileges to favored groups, the more growth there will be. Advances in materials research and development have e.g. led to the creation of countless materials from elements (such as carbon) that are anything but scarce. There are a few cases of resource depletion that are indeed worrisome, but these concern mostly theoretically renewable resources. A prime example is fish. The problem in this case is the complete absence of private property rights – thus fish stocks have been subject to what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a resource no-one owns is plundered by all and sundry without regard for the future. Such utter disregard for the future is not a characteristic of the market economy.
Predictions of Ecological Doom: Are Things Really Getting Worse?
In the 1970s, the ecological movement took shape. By the time, the nominally capitalist countries had long abandoned what had been a relatively unhampered market economy for the alleged blessings of the ‘mixed economy’, i.e., an economy that has a great many socialistic characteristics (using J.H. de Soto’s wider definition of socialism as any state interference with the free exercise of entrepreneurship). When socialism increasingly takes over, long evolved customary law and respect for the law degenerate, as every nook and cranny of life becomes subject to endless commands and prohibitions handed down by a social engineering entity that is unable to even engage in economic calculation. As property rights are no longer properly respected or enforced, countless ‘tragedy of the commons’ type problems (similar to the depletion of fish discussed above) rear their head, of which environmental pollution is one.
It is no coincidence that the fully socialist countries of the former Eastern Bloc produced what can only be called unmitigated ecological catastrophes. Socialism is a blight that destroys not only all vestiges of a rational economy, it also makes short shrift of the environment.
In the hampered market economies of the West, it was possible to greatly reduce the harm that had been done to the environment in the decades after the 1970s. Anyone who was around at the time and can remember the problems with smog and polluted rivers and lakes knows what an enormous improvement has occurred. The short version is: the developed world first got rich, and when it was rich enough, it successfully tackled the environmental issues that had developed.
However, as Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore (who actually has a Ph.D. in ecology) frequently pointed out, once all the great problems were successfully overcome, the movement began to ‘adopt extremist positions’ and was ‘hijacked by political and social issues’. You won’t be surprised to learn that Moore also believes global warming alarmism to be utterly misguided and actually doubts that there is a case to be made that global warming periods are man-made instead of representing natural phenomena.
It continues to amaze us how many people hold fast to the idea of ‘catastrophic climate change’ in light of the ever longer list of failed predictions that is piling up. It should be added here that while no-one can rule out that at least one prediction of the ‘AGW’ camp will actually come true one day, it sure hasn’t happened yet (we are specifically referring to all the things that were supposed to have occurred by now). It is a bit like Joachim de Fiore’s followers shouting ‘just you wait’! The drowning islands are growing bigger (from Tuvalu to Kiribati), no climate refugees have shown up anywhere yet, and to the great frustration of scientists who fear the Pacific Decadal Oscillation may be about to sweep away their reputations, there has been zero global warming in 17 years, 8 months and counting.
One would normally expect that those who were previously alarmed at the prospect of a climate catastrophe would be elated by this news. After all, as 100ds of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty to something approaching middle class status in countries like China and India, a lot of CO2 was produced. And yet, the warming seems to have stopped, so it won’t be necessary to relegate the developing world to poverty in order to avert a global catastrophe. Good news, right?
Mass Hysteria and ‘Uncivilization’ – Insane British Eco Death Cult
Wrong. They mostly sound as though they could imagine nothing worse than some catastrophe not occurring. In fact, what originally appeared as though it were based on science, is increasingly adopting the characteristics of a religious cult. The less warming the satellites actually measure, the shriller the hysterics seemingly become.
Consider this recent article in the NYT: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It…and He Feels Fine”, which recounts the latest exploits of what can only be called a complete eco-nutcase, British ‘activist’ and author Paul Kingsnorth. If you can stomach it, we encourage you to read the comments section. After slogging through about half of it (there are more than 500 comments in total) we found a just 11 comments we could essentially agree with. The rest made us wonder if the NYT is read by brain amputees, even though they all sound remarkably erudite when they ‘agree wholeheartedly’ with Kingsnorth’s totally unhinged hysterics while adding their own two cents as to why we are facing an ‘imminent and inevitable’ environmental apocalypse.
Looking at the evidence, mankind has never had it better: people have never lived longer, there is more wealth than ever, and even the relatively poor in Western societies enjoy amenities a king couldn’t dream of a century or two ago. The environment has hugely improved compared to just a few decades ago. It is not only remarkable that these people absolutely insist in the face of all this evidence that everything is getting worse. There is another aspect to this that strikes us far more troubling (after all, there is nothing we can do about the people’s gullibility. Even the primitive Nigerian ‘419’ email scam regularly manages to ensnare academics). A few excerpts from the article with our comments interspersed follow below:
“He wears rimless glasses and a silver stud in his ear, and he talks with great ardor, often apologizing for having said too much or for having said it too strongly.
On this occasion, Kingsnorth was silent. It was the final night of Uncivilization, an outdoor festival run by the Dark Mountain Project, a loose network of ecologically minded artists and writers, and he was standing with several dozen others waiting for the festival’s midnight ritual to begin.”
Actually, the name of the festival already says it all: “Uncivilization” – they regard civilization and progress as enemies that need to be rubbed out (or rather, that they believe will inevitably be rubbed out anyway). It is a hearkening back to the nutty ‘noble savage’ ideas propagated by some people during the Enlightenment, when it was held that living at the mercy of nature in the state of savages in the jungle was somehow preferable over being able to get good medical care or having any of the other blessings of civilization at one’s disposal. More from the article:
“If you ask a representative of the Sierra Club to describe his organization, he will say that it promotes responsible use of the earth’s resources. When you ask Kingsnorth about Dark Mountain, he speaks of mourning, grief and despair. We are living, he says, through the “age of ecocide,” and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face.
Kingsnorth himself arrived at this point about six years ago, after nearly two decades of devoted activism.
Everywhere Kingsnorth traveled, he saw the forces of development, conglomeration and privatization flattening the country. By the time he published his findings, he was in little mood to celebrate.
At the same time, he felt his longstanding faith in environmental activism draining away. “I had a lot of friends who were writing about climate change and doing a lot of good work on it,” he told me during a break from his festival duties. “I was just listening and looking at the facts and thinking: Wow, we are really screwed here. We are not going to stop this from happening.”
The facts were indeed increasingly daunting. The first decade of the 21st century was shaping up to be the hottest in recorded history. In 2007, the Arctic sea ice shrank to a level not seen in centuries. That same year, the NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has been ringing the climate alarm since the 1980s, announced that in order to elude the most devastating consequences, we’d need to maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level of 350 parts per million. But we’d already surpassed 380, and the figure was rising. (It has since reached 400 p.p.m.) Animal and plant species, meanwhile, were dying out at a spectacular rate. Scientists were beginning to warn that human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — was driving the planet toward a “mass extinction” event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.”
So development and privatization – in a word capitalism – are ‘flattening the country’. This anti-capitalist bias suffuses the entire ideology, just as Patrick Moore has long ago pointed out. Moore once accused his former fellow-travelers as having become a club of ‘authoritarian leftists’, a kind of rest home for ex-communists after their sugar daddy in Moscow expired.
The list of so-called ‘daunting facts’ is one we have been hearing about every decade since the 1980s. You’d think our ‘global extinction event’ should have arrived by now. As soon as one makes the effort of looking at the actual data without bias, one realizes it is a whole lot of hooey. James Hansen, who is mentioned here by name, is not only a major climate alarmist, he is also the author of predictions that are so wrong it isn’t funny. Why he is invoked as some sort of ‘authority’ instead of being challenged on his dismal predictive record is truly beyond us. We are not making this up – below are Hansen’s 1988 temperature predictions corresponding to various CO2 levels compared to the subsequent reality – and note, the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere actually went higher than his highest assumption, as he probably couldn’t imagine the rise of China in 1988. Anyway, if he reviewed the data and his predictions honestly, he would have to admit that he was wrong and perhaps try to find out why (after all, he is a scientist, isn’t he?). Instead we are getting apodictic pronouncements of an ‘unavoidable catastrophe’ of which there is not a shred of proof.
With respect to ‘responsible use of the earth’s resources’, we are not sure what that is even supposed to mean. What exactly is ‘irresponsible’ about our current resource use? Are we supposed to let resources lie fallow? See further above why this makes no sense whatsoever.
More from the NYT article:
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
This is of course utter bollocks, as they would say in the UK. Everything has gotten worse? Where? The opposite is true. In the developed world we have much cleaner air and water than decades ago, and there is little reason to doubt that developing nations like China will go through the same growth followed by clean-up process. In the meantime, 100ds of millions have been lifted out of poverty and have finally escaped what once essentially amounted to barely subsisting in a hand-to-mouth existence. How is that worse?
Luckily, Kingsnorth has given up ‘activism’ and ‘trying to save the earth’ (thank God for small favors) – however, the creed he preaches reveals that what really seems to bug him are capitalism, civilization and progress. They have continued and against all the doomster predictions we have been hearing for decades, no ecological catastrophe has occurred. We obviously can’t have that:
“Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever.”
Actually, we feel pretty sure by now that he is not terribly interested in ‘civilization prevailing’. As to his ‘indignations’, since the environment has actually by and large gotten better instead of worse over the past 40 years, all that is ultimately left is that he is hates industrial capitalism. Considering that we have moved away so far away from the ideal of free market capitalism that it seems to make far more sense at this juncture to fear for the future of capitalism and free markets rather than that of the environment, this is quite ironic.
At least he is right about one thing: humans ‘cannot stop climate change’ – but that is mainly because the climate is changing naturally, and there is very little we can possibly do about it. It would of course be erroneous to assert that human activity has zero influence on the climate, but compared to natural drivers it is likely vanishingly small.
Kingsnorth and other ‘collapsitarian’ cranks at the ‘Uncivilization’ festival.
Photo credit: Bridget McKenzie
As one perceptive reader who apparently still calls a functioning brain his own commented at the NYT:
“Peppered throughout this hysterical account are key phrases such as this about the Charnel House for Roadkill, “Haunting music was piped in from an iPod.” Ah, yes, in the “uncivilization” iPod’s will grow on trees. Which will also produce paper plates naturally. Just you wait and see.”
Not to forget, they will charge their i-pod and i-phone batteries with electricity that comes from a plug in the wall. Who needs ‘industrial capitalism’?
Kingsnorth and his fellow travelers join a long list of doomsayers that have popped up throughout human history. Whether they were Assyrians scratching their apocalyptic forecasts on stone tablets in 2,800 BC or the doomsters of more recent vintage, what unites them all is that they have been wrong for so long it is downright comical. Contrary to Kingsnorth’s assertion that ‘collapse is unavoidable’, much actually points to things getting better. Especially the anthropogenic global warming theory seems more than ripe for what should be considered a welcome opportunity for revision in light of the data.
If Kingsnorth’s movement grows, it will certainly be testament to the persistence of human gullibility, but one good thing would come of it: we would no longer be regaled as much with demands for ‘immediate action’, which usually involve ever more taxes and regulations. Had the body politic not been as inert as it evidently is, politicians might have listened to the climatologist consensus in 1975 and ordered the covering of the Arctic and Antarctic with soot so as to stop ‘catastrophic cooling’. Now that would definitely have pi**ed off the polar bears. Aren’t you glad we and the bears dodged that bullet?
We are of course not saying that one should not care about the environment, but if there is anything worth worrying about at the current juncture, it is indeed whether we will be able to preserve what is left of free market capitalism in light of an ever more intrusive interventionist State.
Money printing by central banks is a far greater menace to our well-being than global warming could ever be. In fact, the latter would likely prove beneficial: history shows that civilization has always flowered in warm periods and come under pressure in cold ones (common sense is all that is required to see why that is so). By contrast, money printing and socialism have always brought a great deal of misery sooner or later.
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