End of the World — or Decline of the West?
The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Three
Modern societies have been dealing with environmental problems since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that so many people began to see pollution and rising population as signs that human civilization was fundamentally unsustainable.
In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Shortly after Ehrlich predicted that, between 1980 and 1989, food shortages would cause 4 billion people to starve to death — 65 million of them in the United States.
Ehrlich’s pessimistic book was followed by a raft of similar predictions. The Club of Rome not long after would publish The Limits to Growth, which claimed its computer models proved the world would soon run out of resources. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly in the 80s argued that the world must forsake further economic growth so as to not exceed the Earth’s environmental carrying capacity. In 2009, a prestigious group of natural scientists argued in the journal Nature for the existence of nine biophysical planetary boundaries, including for things like fertilizer and land use, beyond which human societies risked catastrophe.
In his sizzling new polemic against apocalyptic environmentalism, The Fantacisim of the Apocalypse, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner reminds us that, stripped of scientific trappings, our modern tales of environmental catastrophe are identical in structure to the Christian story of apocalypse. “I am trying through ecology to heal the wound that was opened by humanity’s split with nature thousands of years ago,” the seminal environmental thinker Murray Bookchin wrote in 1974. It is a story of our fall from grace in Genesis leading to the end of the world in Revelations.
Bruckner has long been a darling of the French media and avant-garde. His prior book, The Paradox of Love, was a critically acclaimed best seller, and was published in English earlier this year. But Bruckner’s Apocalypse inspired Le Monde to dedicate four full newspaper pages to denouncing him as a kind of reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Bruckner is an environmentally minded liberal who accepts that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed. What Bruckner is after in Apocalypse is the religiosity that has become mixed up with legitimate environmental issues, like climate change, turning them into Biblical fables, rather than problems to be solved.
Bruckner argues that there are “two ecologies: one rational, the other nonsensical; one that broadens our outlook while the other narrows it; one democratic, the other totalitarian.” The first views environmental problems as side effects of development that are solvable through human ingenuity. The second views them as signs that human civilization, based on its attempts to control nature, is fundamentally unsustainable.
More psychologist than political scientist, Bruckner sees a kind of self-aggrandizement at the bottom of both post-colonialism and environmentalism. The guilt Europe expresses for its colonialism, Bruckner argued in an earlier book, is a way for it to assert its continuing hegemony in the face of declining influence. That is, Africa is failing not because of bad leaders, geography, culture or internal political dynamics but rather because the West remains so powerful.
Bruckner is after bigger prey than apocalyptic environmentalism per se. In this book and his books on love, happiness and colonialism, he is out to understand the contemporary Western mind. When he writes, “The prevailing anxiety is at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West: a reflection of its psychic fatigue,” he is describing problems that only afflict those of us at the very top of the global economic heap.
Global warming allows the West in general — and Europe in particular — to put itself back in the center of history at the very moment it is moving to the margins. Writes Bruckner, “What a relief to know that we are not living in a little province of time but in the historic moment when time itself is going to be engulfed! What presumption, and what naïveté, to believe that we are at the pinnacle of history!”
Apocalyptic environmentalism is not simply old Christian wine in new bottles, but rather a uniquely narcissistic variant of it. What makes us special, we Western greens tell ourselves, is not simply that we love and understand nature better, but that our generation has the power to save it. The Greatest Generation got to defeat fascism and Communism while in the post-Cold War era, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials get to defeat an “adversary that is dispersed to the four corners of the earth and that can have all sorts of faces.”
There is thus, in the fanaticism of the apocalypse, equal parts misanthropy and narcissism, self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. “Behind their lamentations,” Bruckner writes sardonically, “the catastrophists are bursting with self-importance.”
In the end, it matters not a whit what we say; the world ignores our cautions. The United States and Europe rose to wealth and power by industrializing agriculture, burning fossil fuels and manufacturing for export. Now, as China, India and Brazil get rich the same way, the West stands in judgment, “The prophet is not a great soul who admonishes us,” writes Bruckner, “but a petty fellow who wishes us many misfortunes if we have the gall not to listen to him.”
The remedy to such nihilism, Bruckner argues, is the celebration of abundance, resilience and life itself. Bruckner demands that we not project our neuroses upon China, India and Brazil, but instead embrace their emergence as modern, powerful nations. Perhaps we have some wisdom to offer. But some humility is probably in order as well.
Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced streilizations and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.
If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”
Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle.
THE GREAT PROGRESSIVE REVERSAL
Photo Credit: John Martin, "Angry God"