By John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association
My adult son, who is a wise, reflective, intelligent and well-read man, recently shared with me his view of the world in a few decades. It was apocalyptic: dead oceans, cities run by criminal gangs… you get the idea. (He was trying to persuade me to retire early and enjoy life while I can).
Admittedly, there is reasonable evidence for his forecast. I happen to take a less pessimistic view. He and I don’t disagree much on facts, but rather on how we project them into the future.
I’m also more historically conscious: I’m more aware that it is not, and has never been, unusual to forecast that we are all doomed.
Doomsday predictions have been with us since ancient times. They are doubly useful. They employ fear to recruit believers into whatever religion we’re evangelizing. And they provide the satisfying glow of knowing what a terrible end awaits those who won’t join us and how they’ll realize, when that end comes, that we were right and they were wrong.
There is always evidence that can be pressed readily into service. Religious cultists generally point to society’s (always apparent) corruption and moral decline. Thomas Malthus noted the unrestrained fertility of the poor. Marx and the communist ideologues saw the clear drawbacks of industrial society, and predicted that capitalism would inevitably falter and collapse. 1960’s environmentalists overextended Rachel Carson’s solid, ground-breaking work on the effects of pesticides. The 1970’s resource-exhaustion panickers distorted the Limits to Growth report; they took commodity price spikes as proof that the world was running out of natural resources.
There’s a bit of moral superiority at work. Those who see the light, who invest in the new religion, are the wise and good. Those who don’t agree wholeheartedly with them are mentally and morally deficient. If they can’t be beaten in argument, at least they’ll see the error of their ways on judgment day.
These features have carried through from the ancient religious doomsday cults, to socialist ideologies, to present visions of Our Renewable Energy Future. The old system is doomed. The crash will come in our lifetimes (otherwise, why convert?). To save yourself and prosper in these dark times, you must commit to the new religion.
Belief in society’s moral decay gradually fused with belief in capitalism’s self-destruction, which apparently now has become belief in our biosphere’s demise. Indeed, the three have gotten quite muddled: consumerism is portrayed as a kind of moral and spiritual decay, which has been foisted on humanity by corporations. The system we’ve built is now destroying not just our souls, but itself and Mother Nature too.
I realized this when listening to my son talk about the future: Our Renewable Energy Future is somehow mixed up with Original Sin, the population bomb, and the inevitable crash of the capitalist system. It’s repeatedly characterized as “inevitable,” the speed of its arrival is overestimated, and of course we can’t rely on failing corporate structures (or cities) to implement it. Somehow we’re all going to achieve it in small cooperative teams in the countryside.
There’s a lot of baggage here. But my son and I acknowledged it and got beyond it. And we continue to have the reasonable discussion we both want. It can be done.