Thursday, May 22, 2008

Apocalypse Now

Robert Skidelsky writes an "interesting" article on the relationship between science, religion and apocalyptic predictions. Economists also have a reputation for looking rather on the dismal side and this blog is no exception.

It is therefore interesting explore the psychology behind these apocalyptic tenancies.

We have covered this before 1 or 2 years ago but economists can rarely have enough doom and gloom. When this is added to a heady mix of religion and US fundamentalism a blog post is unavoidable.

He does make some reasonable points weighted towards a "climate change skeptic" stance but the fundamental flaw with his argument is that his reasoning the entire US should be buying into Al Gore's story. So why is the US the country that is the most violently skeptical?

Before one takes this article to be a rather extreme rant it is worth remembering that Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

What this says about the House of Lords is an entirely different political hot potato.

The apocalypse is the scientist’s fundamentalism [Taipei Times]

It was only to be expected that former US vice president Al Gore would give this month’s cyclone in Myanmar 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 the US, 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.


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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.

1 comment:

Brendan said...

Excellent.